The Emptiness and Deceit of Cave-in “Catholicism”

“The Bishops speak for the Catholic and apostolic faith, and those who hold that faith gather around them. Others disperse.” — Francis Cardinal George (Feb. 14, 2012)

It is no surprise that dissenting, protesting Catholics—those I’ve lately been calling “cave-in Catholics”, in homage to Cardinal Dolan’s retort to the weak-kneed editors of America magazine—thumb their noses at papal speeches, conciliar texts, and formal, Magisterial teaching. What is somewhat curious is how they try to justify their disdain for popes, bishops and the dread “Vatican” by simply saying, “After all, very few Catholics in the U.S. pay attention to Church teaching anymore. See this poll! Watch this interview! Check out these stats!”

What is far more curious is how these cave-in Catholics—having indeed caved-in to the dominant beliefs about contraception, abortion, cohabitation, homosexuality, and so forth—think this “argument” is both pure genius and completely unassailable. But such Catholics are not, when all is said and done, truthful with the facts, willing to face the truth, or interested in seeing how truth, facts, and the Catholic faith are not only compatible, but are competely and fully compatible.

Let’s take a couple of examples, both courtesy of the Pompous Journal for Advanced and Agitated Bashing of Catholicism, more circumspectly known as The New York Times. Last month, a Notre Dame professor of philosophy, Gary Gutting, wrote an essay, “Birth Control, Bishops and Religious Authority” (Feb. 15, 2012). Gutting begins by saying that what interests him “as a philosopher — and a Catholic — is that virtually all parties to this often acrimonious debate have assumed that the bishops are right about this, that birth control is contrary to ‘the teachings of the Catholic Church.’ The only issue is how, if at all, the government should ‘respect’ this teaching.”

He then takes a clever but misleading tack:

As critics repeatedly point out, 98 percent of sexually active American Catholic women practice birth control, and 78 percent of Catholics think a “good Catholic” can reject the bishops’ teaching on birth control.  The response from the church, however, has been that, regardless of what the majority of Catholics do and think, the church’s teaching is that birth control is morally wrong.  The church, in the inevitable phrase, “is not a democracy.”   What the church teaches is what the bishops (and, ultimately, the pope, as head of the bishops) say it does.

But is this true?  The answer requires some thought about the nature and basis of religious authority.  Ultimately the claim is that this authority derives from God.  But since we live in a human world in which God does not directly speak to us, we need to ask, Who decides that God has given, say, the Catholic bishops his authority?

This is, as I say, clever, and is so on a couple of counts. It begins by playing the “democracy” card (to be pushed further a bit later), which is always a sure way to get on the good side of most Americans. After all, what right do those people (the popes, bishops, etc.) have to tell you and me what to think, how to act, what to believe?

Gutting then insinuates that what the pope and bishops of today are teaching adds up to little more than personal opinions based in narrow-minded, self-serving subjectivity, as if the pope—without precedence, good reason, or theological justification—mindlessly drones, “Contraception bad. Abortion bad. Barney bad.” This naturally leads to an appeal based in the “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual” school of arrested development so in vogue today. The pope is presented as an aloof and arrogant authority who claims that he alone is the mouthpiece for God. The reader, of course, is supposed to dutifully nod and say, “Golly, that’s seems unfair. No one has dibs on God. Pass me the Cheetos.”

And then Gutting gets to the gut of his argument:

It makes no sense to say that the bishops themselves can decide this, that we should accept their religious authority because they say God has given it to them.  If this were so, anyone proclaiming himself a religious authority would have to be recognized as one.  From where, then, in our democratic, secular society does such recognition properly come?  It could, in principle, come from some other authority, like the secular government.  But we have long given up the idea (“cujus regio, ejus religio”) that our government can legitimately designate the religious authority in its domain.  But if the government cannot determine religious authority, surely no lesser secular power could.  Theological experts could tell us what the bishops have taught over the centuries, but this does not tell us whether these teachings have divine authority.

In our democratic society the ultimate arbiter of religious authority is the conscience of the individual believer. It follows that there is no alternative to accepting the members of a religious group as themselves the only legitimate source of the decision to accept their leaders as authorized by God.  They may be wrong, but their judgment is answerable to no one but God.  In this sense, even the Catholic Church is a democracy.

Much, much, much could be said, but a couple of things stand out to me. First, the failure to honestly note, even in passing, the fact that the Catholic Church makes her unique claims to truth based on a specific, historic, and lived understanding of the person of Jesus Christ, his teachings, his death and Resurrection—and his establishment of a Church. By keeping it hazy and detached—”because they say God has given it to them”—Gutting dances around the elephant in the room, which is the person of Jesus Christ. Who does Gutting, a Catholic, say Jesus is? Because, ultimately, Catholics are not answering to the pope or the bishops, but to the man who chose the Apostles, who gave the Great Commission, who said, “I am the Way, the Life, and the Truth”, and who chose Peter and the other Apostles to lead the Church. In other words, it’s not that a bishop or pope simply says, “Hey, God told me that I’m in charge”; rather, there is a historical record to be dealt with, and it is a historical record that cannot be dismissed with a materialist swipe of the irritated hand.

Secondly, Gutting assumes that enlightened 21st-century men and women have somehow (it’s a miracle!) arrived at a point in history in which the “conscience of the individual believer” has emerged from the primordial sludge of the pre-Vatican II world as the ultimate arbiter of religious authority—and, I think it is safe to say, of truth (or, more likely, “truth”). This, again, is quite appealing. In fact, such is the lingo of cave-in Catholics, whose worship of “conscience” is usually a thinly veiled way of saying, “I’m gonna do whatever the h-e-doubletoothpicks I want to do. Because [insert pious smirk] my conscience tells me I must.”

One problem is that if every man and his conscience is the final arbiter of truth, it follows that there is nothing greater than man and there is no absolute truth (as it is relative to each man), and thus nothing to be firmly believed, save the belief that I am the Omega, even if I am unsure about the Alpha. And, of course, it really means, if we’re honest, that God doesn’t really exist or matter. Which explains why Gutting’s ecclesiology is so lacking: there is no need for a community—certainly not a supernaturally founded and sustained household of God—if each of us is an end in ourself. Besides, if Gutting wants to assert, as he apparently does, that every man’s conscience is precious and above suspicion, on what basis does he chastise the conscientious stances of popes, bishops, and Catholics loyal to the Magisterim? Isn’t there a double standard at play here? That’s a rhetorical question, of course, as progressives of every stripe must rely on double standards in order to level charges of X, Y, and Z at orthodox beliefs while never putting their assumptions and beliefs under the same microscope.

But Gutting don’t trod that logical path; he prefers to take the self-declared autonomy of the authoritative individual (who is authoritative because he wills it be so, having no higher authority to appeal to) and make it the basis of a new and sparkling democratic Church:

The bishops and the minority of Catholics who support their full authority have tried to marginalize Catholics who do not accept the bishops as absolute arbiters of doctrine.  They speak of “cafeteria Catholics” or merely “cultural Catholics,” and imply that the only “real Catholics” are those who accept their teachings entirely.  But this marginalization begs the question I’m raising about the proper source of the judgment that the bishops have divine authority.  Since, as I’ve argued, members of the church are themselves this source, it is not for the bishops but for the faithful to decide the nature and extent of episcopal authority.  The bishops truly are, as they so often say, “servants of the servants of the Lord.”

This is a version of a very faulty understanding of the sensus fidei (sense of the faithful), in part because it wrongly cites a democratic impulse as the true measure of authentic Catholic teaching. But where does the notion of sensus fidei come from? From the Magisterium and the Tradition of the entire Church (not just those specially, self-anointed Catholics who reject teachings they don’t like). It’s as if a group of ten NBA players went to David Stern and said, “We believe that shots beyond the three-point arch should be worth four points, dunks should be awarded cash bonuses, and players should not have to listen to coaches and owners.” Not only would the commissioner chuckle and dismiss them, the rest of the players would spurn them as well. Basketball has rules and a tradition, and they are not changed based on whims and the consciences of individual players.

In addition, Gutting’s loose pitch for anarchy knowingly (and necessarily, based as it is on a rejection of outside authority) pits the episcopacy against the laity, as if there is a natural and necessary conflict between the two. But there is not. Again, the problem is a warped and entirely horizontal, political understanding of the Church. Compare it to what Lumen Gentium states about

The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” (8*) they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God. Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life. (par 12)

Gutting’s version of Catholicism is not concerned with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, but with the “my one and only autonomous conscience”, without interest in a conscience that is rightly formed, reasonable, educated in truth by the Word of God, and “guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church” (see CCC, 1783-5). That is especially evident in his conclusion:

The bishops’ claim to authority in this matter has been undermined because Catholics have decisively rejected it. The immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church.  Pope Paul VI meant his 1968 encyclical, “Humanae Vitae,” to settle the issue in the manner of the famous tag, “Roma locuta est, causa finita est.”  In fact the issue has been settled by the voice of the Catholic people.

Strange, isn’t it, how the pope and the bishops supposedly cannot speak for the Church, but that Professor Gutting of South Bend, Indiana, somehow can! The good professor would do well to read some of a book recently published by one of his colleagues: The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Harvard, 2012), by Dr. Brad S. Gregory. The book is lengthy and its arguments involved, but in an early chapter, “Relativizing Doctrines”, Gregory makes this pointed observation about the “historical trajectory” from 16th-century Protestantism to the present day, which has led to “the relativization of religious truth claims in general”:

In the same cultural milieu, many Western Catholics have especially since the Second Vatican Council deliberately eschewed some of the truth claims of their own church’s magisterium, including most fundamentally its claims of authority … Instead, taking ecclesiastical aggiornamento to imply a sanction of modern individual autonomy, Catholics who have made this move have made themselves their own de facto authorities about doctrinal and moral truth claims—which is what John Henry Newman criticized in the nineteenth century as “the right of private judgment.” These Catholic departures from the magisterium’s truth claims blend seamlessly into the wider culture, because the political and legal protection of religious belief afforded by modern Western states is the institutional incubator of contemporary hyperpluralism … The pullulating pluralism reinforces the relativizing impression that all religion can only be a matter of individual, subjective, and irrational personal preference, a theater of Feuerbachian and Freudian projection, despite the fact that many religious believers continue to regard their respective beliefs as true. (p 111)

Gregory later states that we in the West now live “in the Kingdom of Whatever”, in which for “a great many people, subjective, individual preferences seem to be the extent of any foundation for answers to the Life Questions amid our hyperpluralism.”

And a great, so to speak, example of that relativistic, subjective hyperpluralism is found in the second New York Times piece, “Many Kinds of Catholics”, by Frank Bruni (March 19, 2012), which lacks the pseudo-sophistication of Gutting’s piece, but makes up for it in direct insolence. For example:

American Catholics have been merrily ignoring the church’s official position on contraception for many years, often with the blessing of lower-level clerics. When my mother dutifully mentioned her I.U.D. during confession back in the 1970s, the parish priest told her that she really needn’t apologize or bring it up again. Which was a good thing, since she had no intention of doing away with it. Four kids were joy and aggravation enough.

Despite church condemnation of abortion and same-sex marriage, American Catholics’ views on both don’t diverge that much from those of Americans in general. These Catholics look to the church not for exacting rules, but for a locus for their spirituality, with rituals and an iconography that feel familiar and thus comfortable. In matters religious, as in “The Wizard of Oz,” there’s no place like home, and Catholicism is as much ethnicity as dogma: something in the blood, and something in the bones.

The Catholic hierarchy, meanwhile, keeps giving American Catholics fresh reasons for rebellion.

Because we all know that the statements and blessings of “lower-level clerics” should always take precedence over the teachings of the Church, articulated and expressed by popes, bishops, and faithful lower-level clerics. The surprise isn’t that there are Catholics, even priests, who deny Church teaching; the surprise is that we are expected to take such denial as a sign of vibrant, rich, meaningful Catholicism, as if the greatest virtue ever demonstrated by a Catholic is to knowingly reject Catholic teaching and real virtue!

For Bruni, being Catholic is about a feeling, a vague sense of comfort, and “something in the bones”—perhaps because so little is evidenced in the brain or the soul. His scowling, defiant piece is a perfect example of what Gregory means when he writes “The pullulating pluralism reinforces the relativizing impression that all religion can only be a matter of individual, subjective, and irrational personal preference…” It isn’t just a failure of faith; it is a complete failure to believe that truth can be known, found, grasped, considered, held, contemplated, loved, and lived. In the words of Abp. Fulton Sheen:

Minds no longer object to the Church, because of the way they think, but because of the way they live. They no have difficulty with the Creed, but with her Commandments; they remain outside her saving waters, not because they cannot accept the doctrine of Three Persons in One God, but because they cannot accept the moral of two persons in one flesh; not because Infallibility is too complex, but because the veto on Birth Control is too hard; not because the Eucharist is too sublime, but because Penance is too exacting. Briefly, the heresy of our day is not the heresy of thought; it is the heresy of action.

Finally, if I can foist one more great and timeless quote on you, consider what St. Vincent of Lérins wrote back in the fifth century:

This being the case, he is the true and genuine Catholic who loves the truth of God, who loves the Church, who loves the Body of Christ, who esteems divine religion and the Catholic Faith above every thing, above the authority, above the regard, above the genius, above the eloquence, above the philosophy, of every man whatsoever; who sets light by all of these, and continuing steadfast and established in the faith, resolves that he will believe that, and that only, which he is sure the Catholic Church has held universally and from ancient time; but that whatsoever new and unheard-of doctrine he shall find to have been furtively introduced by some one or another, besides that of all, or contrary to that of all the saints, this, he will understand, does not pertain to religion, but is permitted as a trial, (Commonitorium, 20)

(Author’s note: Minor edits were made to this post at 9:30 pm Eastern on March 21, 2012.) 


What Is the Magisterium? | Thomas Storck
Authority and Dissent in the Catholic Church | Dr. William E. May
The Truth About Conscience | John F. Kippley
The Failure of Liberal Catholicism (Pt 1) | Dr. James Hitchcock
The Failure of Liberal Catholicism (Pt 2) | Dr. James Hitchcock

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.