I’ve been having a daydream about calling The Washington Post and complaining about how the Catholic Church expects Catholics to actually believe Catholic teaching. One version goes like so:
Me: Hello! I’m a Catholic who feels led by the Holy Spirit to reject certain teachings of Church leaders.
WaPo: Oh, really? Cool—er, I mean, how interesting. Are you opposed to the Church’s rigid stance against reproductive justice? Its bigoted refusal to give women positions of power? Its mindless rejection of contraception and complete disregard for women’s health issues?
Me: Oh, no. Nothing silly like that. No, I’m good with all of that stuff. Actually, I’m talking about the Church’s emphasis on helping the poor, acting charitably toward my neighbors, supporting the disadvantaged and downtrodden, taking care of orphans, and so forth. Boring. Can’t be bothered. And it’s so old-fashioned, don’t you think? Oh—and I’m also fed up with the Church’s teaching about respecting governmental authority, being a good citizen, and doing all I can for the common good. And I’m—
WaPo: Uh. One second. Huh. Aaaah, are you serious?
Me: What? Really? Are you doubting my ability to feel the Holy Spirit prompting me in this way? Are you calling into question my sacred and infallible conscience? Because my conscience is clear about these things.
WaPo: Well…um…that’s a bit different than what we’re used to, uh, hearing. Ahem. We’re all for helping the poor. And—
Me: But I saw your article about the Sunday School teachers in the Diocese of Arlington who have resigned because they won’t sign a Profession of Faith, and I thought my situation was rather similar. But I’m sensing that you have some sort of litmus test of your own for what is moral and right. Does this mean that you believe we should help the poor, treat others well, and obey the law?
WaPo: Sure. Of course. That’s just part of being an adult and a citizen of the United States. Everyone has certain responsibilities as well as rights. So I—
Me: Unless they are Catholics?
WaPo: What do you mean?
Me: Your article, “Arlington Diocese parishioners question need for fidelity oath” (July 11, 2012), made it sound as though Catholics should have the right to reject various Church teachings while also having the right to teach Church teachings in parishes. Where is the responsibility in that? Your reporter, for example, wrote: “But for some, particularly more liberal Catholics, the oaths are an alarming effort to stamp out debate in the church at a time when it is bleeding members and clergy in the West.” Yet it’s not as if Church teachings about ordination, contraception, and other matters of faith and morals have been top secret over the centuries. I assume you’ve heard of the CCC?
WaPo: Uh, sure I have. Isn’t that the abbreviation for “Customized, Cafeteria Catholiciism”?
Me: Good one! [Fake laughter] By the way, I want you to know that everything I said about rejecting Church teaching about the poor and needy was just talk—I don’t actually give assent to any of it. But I figured you wouldn’t be bothered by me giving lip service to something I don’t actually believe since a July 12th post on your blog stated, “The oath goes beyond requiring Catholic religious educators, who are church volunteers, to teach official church doctrine; it requires them to affirm that they believe it.”
WaPo: But that’s misleading! You sai—
Me: I merely took the position advocated by your blogger: I said something but without actually believing it. Complain to her, not to me.
Alas, it’s merely a dream. However, on the plus side, the newspaper did post a piece, “On Catholic oath of fidelity”, by a seminarian, Bill Erwin. He makes several good points, including this:
Secondly, contrary to popular desire, the church is not a democracy. Its members profess the faith given to us by Jesus Christ; they don’t create the faith … Ultimately, I think we need to realize that what this comes down to is a classic case of don’t shoot the messenger. Bishop Loverde didn’t invent the teachings of the cChurch, Jesus did, and as bishop he is simply asking us to be honest in passing along those teachings when we call ourselves Catholic catechists.
The Washington Post, in the two articles I’ve linked to above, refer to “Vatican teaching” and “the teachings of church leaders.” While those terms aren’t incorrect, per se, they muddy the waters (especially without proper historical and theological context), giving the impression that the Pope and other bishops are able to make things up on the fly and pull new teachings out of thin air at the drop of a mitre. It’s not as if Bishop Smith teaches that abortion is a grave sin and Bishop Jones teaches that abortion is sometimes necessary and even good; rather, the Church holds that abortion is an evil and a serious sin, and Bishops Jones and Smith have a duty to uphold and express that teaching.
The Church has been given a “sacred deposit” of faith (the depositum fidei) by the apostles, which is contained in Scripture and Tradition (CCC, par 84). This body of teaching and tradition contains the Word of God, as Dei Verbum states succinctly: “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church” (par. 10). And that is why Bishop Loverde, in the Profession of Faith issued within his diocese, has catechists and teachers vow to “believe everything contained in the Word of God”. The vow, in other words, is made ultimately to Jesus Christ and his Body, the Church.
The Magisterium, the teaching office of the Church, indeed has authority, but it is not authoritarian in defining, defending, and articulating the doctrine of the Church; rather, it is a servant to the Word of God:
“The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. (888-892, 2032-2040)
“Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.” (CCC, pars. 85-86)
In a certain sense, the situation in the Diocese of Arlington should be a non-story: the head of an institution has required that those articulating the principles and beliefs of that institution do so accurately and faithfully. If the head of the Democratic Party asked that all Democrats profess their support for abortion, euthanasia, and free condoms, I doubt the WaPo would bother to write anything critical about it. But in a society in which, increasingly, politics are religion and religion is simply a matter of “private opinion”, it is to be expected. This is especially the case when certain secular sacred cows are being told they have no business grazing in the fields of the Lord. And when people have bought into a hyper-individualism that misconstrues the meaning of “conscience” and chafes at the life-affirming truths of Catholic moral teaching, well, conflicts are sure to follow.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note a couple of good pieces about this little kerfuffle, both posted on the Get Religon blog. Terry Mattingly writes:
Let’s start with three basic observations, after mulling over the contents of this story:
(1) It appears that liberal Catholics listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Conservative Catholics prefer, for some reason, to listen to fallible men called “bishops.”
(2) The Post seems to love, love, love believers whose approach to doctrine and church history mirrors that of the modernized Episcopal Church, especially when those people are billed as reformers in the Roman Catholic Church.
(3) Based on years of reading Post coverage of the many doctrinal battles between liberal and conservative Episcopalians, it appears that it absolutely crucial for conservative Episcopalians to obey their liberal bishops (and everyone heads to secular courts if they cannot work things out), but it isn’t terribly important for liberal Catholics to obey their conservative bishops, even when those bishops are acting in obedience to that Bishop of Rome guy.
Also see Mollie Hemingway’s post, “The scandal of Catholic professions of faith”.
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