What’s Wrong with the Catholic Bishops?
Two recent statements, one by a Bishops’ committee, the other by an individual bishop, raise serious questions about the competence and integrity of U.S. Catholic leadership. The first deals with religious freedom and the Constitution, the second with the upcoming election.
One of the beauties of the American experiment in democracy is the freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment. No freedom, however, can exist unbridled. There are limits. The question will always be whether the common good outweighs the actions of any specific religion. It is part of the price we pay for freedom, democracy and diversity. The alternative is the failed experiences of Christendom and other religiously controlled governments.
In the United States today, as in times past, there are those who would seek—contrary to the Constitution—to severely restrict religious liberty and ban all religious reference from public life. However, the April 12, 2012 statement issued by the Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty is both alarmist and disingenuous. The government is not engaged in an anti-Catholic war.
In sum, the committee’s statement is less than defensible. In part, it is dishonest. The selective quote from Pope Benedict XVI implies that the Department of Health and Human Services requires religious organizations, such as hospitals, to participate in intrinsically evil practices. Such language is extreme and misleading. Whatever the Church’s teaching on contraception, it is not an intrinsically evil act.
A careful reading of the ad hoc committee’s statement exposes a thinly veiled intrusion into partisan politics. It is, in reality, an attempt to arouse fear in Catholic citizens and direct their vote toward Republican candidates. As such, the bishops come close to violating IRS regulations. They do not quite cross the line. However, perhaps because the bishops mask their true intent, they dance so close to the edge as to lose their balance. Collectively, the U.S. Bishops are writing and speaking their way into irrelevance.
The heart of the Gospel, and the message that drove the teachings and actions of Jesus, was and must be non-partisan. It also must be rooted in authentic and compelling theology. The committee’s statement is neither. Would that they engaged solid theological principles and applied them equally to both political parties!
That would be something worth reading and listening to!
First of all, Rome is the eternal city. Originally, this was not a reference to the Church. The phrase is a secular one reflecting Rome's ancient history, and its rise as a great empire that, for nearly a thousand years, extended its reach and exerted its power throughout the Western world. There is, however, another way of understanding the phrase "eternal city" and this one is church-specific. I suppose it is pure poetry that Rome should be the center of power and authority in the Catholic Church, for there is no organization in the world that moves slower than the Vatican. It could be argued that a stopped clock moves more quickly.
Second, for many years the rest of the world has recognized and embraced the effectiveness of condoms in reducing the transmission of AIDS. The Pope's statement simply indicates that the slow-moving Catholic Church has finally caught up. Of course, it is also possible that Pope Benedict is redressing the embarrassment of his 2009 statement that rather than preventing the spread of HIV, the distribution of condoms "increases the problem". Regardless, this change in Catholic Church teaching acknowledges that the use of condoms plays a role in eliminating the spread of HIV (and, consequently, other sexually transmitted diseases).
Third, while this modified position on condoms applies to anyone who is infected with HIV, it in no way changes the Church's fundamental opposition to artificial means of birth control. For example, under this new teaching, a husband or wife who is infected with HIV can make use of condoms to prevent spreading the disease to his/her partner, but not to avoid getting pregnant. Apparently, the sound of splitting hairs is just as loud whether or not you are in the forest. After all, even the Church believes in regulating birth, and some of the reasons for choosing contraception are as profound as those for combatting AIDS.
Therefore, in examining the pros of the Pope's new condemn teaching, we should dismiss outright the question of contraception since this new position does not affect that Church teaching. It does not need to anyway, for it is a non-starter. The teaching itself is irrelevant, and this is not an attempt to be insolent. Rather, it is a recognition that the vast majority of Catholics do not adhere to the prohibition against contraception. While It might be difficult for traditionalists to comprehend, there is a foundational principle in Canon Law that no law can take effect unless and until it is accepted by the faithful at large. Although this is a legal precept, the principle applies equally to moral teaching. If the majority of the Church does not accept a teaching, then the teaching holds no sway. A continued harping on contraception by the Pope, or anyone else for that matter, is merely an exercise in futility.
Underlying the new teaching on condoms is a reaffirmation of this principle. The vast majority of people, Catholics included, have not accepted the Church's prohibition on the use of condoms. Instead, they have witnessed the effectiveness of condoms in the fight against AIDS and the spread of HIV. Until now the Church's resistance has rested in part, on its opposition to homosexual activity. With this new position, the Church admits the findings of the scientific world and places the future of the human race above a questionable stance on homosexuality. And since condoms are used the world over, the Pope is simply bringing the Church's teaching into harmony with reality.
This teaching also represents an assent to the work of theologians. For the sake of argument, only, let us grant the Church's teaching on both contraception and homosexuality. At long last Pope Benedict has admitted what theologians have been saying for years, namely, that the use of condoms to prevent the spread of a deadly disease is a lesser evil than either artificial birth control or homosexual acts. Remarkable, and rather naive, is the way that Benedict uses intentionality. If a person infected with HIV uses a condom to reduce the risk of transmitting the disease, this is an acceptable moral choice. The deeper reality, of course, is that people in the Church have been using condoms both to combat AIDS and to prevent conception. An insightful interpretation of Benedict's new teaching is that it endorses the first use and implicitly acknowledges the second.
Another, and I'm quite certain unintended, pro of this new teaching is that Benedict has loosed the bonds that for decades have twisted moral theology into a game of mental and verbal gymnastics. Church teaching has long held that it is never permissible to do evil in order to achieve good, so theologians developed the highly creative concept known as "double effect". A classic example is abortion. According to Catholic teaching, one cannot kill a fetus in order to save the life of the mother, because one cannot directly choose evil to accomplish good. However, if doctors were to remove a cancerous uterus from a pregnant woman, that would be acceptable, since the resulting abortion would not be intended. It would be a byproduct of a therapeutic surgery to remove the cancer.
This is more than just academic. As absurd as it sounds, and is, last May, Bishop Olmstead of Phoenix, AZ, confirmed the excommunication of Sr. Margaret McBride who had approved an abortion for a woman 11 weeks pregnant. The abortion was necessary to save the life of the mother. Unlike the therapeutic abortion mentioned above, this one did not involve a life-saving surgery other than the abortion itself. Rather, the doctors believed that neither the mother nor the child would survive the pregnancy. Sr. McBride made a morally correct choice in spite of what ultra-conservative Catholics might think. Her situation gave organizations like "The American Catholic" a raison d'etre. They are, however, wrong.
The absurdity of allowing two lives to end by doing nothing almost speaks for itself. Bishop Olmstead's position was "the end does not justify the means". Perhaps, perhaps not. Choosing not to act in this case seems more like moral cowardice. Claiming to stand on principle is sometimes just a cover for cowering beneath a blanket.
As I said, Benedict almost certainly did not intend to open these floodgates, but if the Church takes its own teaching about sex (both heterosexuality and homosexuality) seriously, then the Pope has admitted that a person can choose evil to accomplish a greater good. Clearly, there is a difference in degree between sexual activity and abortion, but on the simplest of plains, evil is evil. Mind you, I do not grant the Church's position on either contraception or homosexuality and do not see evil in either one. I am merely trying to demonstrate that the position taken by Benedict is not consistent with the idea that one cannot choose evil to achieve good. Perhaps we are witnessing seismic and cosmic changes after all.
As for the cons, well come to think of it, there aren't any--unless you subscribe to "The American Catholic" or belong to some other ultra-conservative band. Even then, the consistent conservative position has generally been to bow to authority and accept whatever the Pope says. Needless to say, it is more than a little ironic to watch these same conservative Catholics reject any teaching they consider too liberal--and they will almost certainly object to this new condom teaching. It is not truth that they cling to so tenaciously. It is their narrow perspective of what truth is.
The real world test, however, will come not in the local dioceses and parishes, but in the supermarket. How quickly will marketing executives capitalize and re-brand their products? The next time you're out shopping, don't be surprised to see newly packaged condoms sporting the slogan: "Vatican seal of approval"!
I was born and raised in a Catholic family and I have spent most of my adult life preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. So I approach this question with a bias in favor of religion, specifically Christianity. Still, other religions and even non-believers make essential contributions to the traditional understanding of God. Ironically, agnosticism, in particular, has the ability to both challenge and strengthen traditional religion. While there may be any number of reasons for a person to choose agnosticism, I would like to look at two. I believe that understanding these is essential to appreciating the insight agnostics bring to a discussion of God.
In a previous post on 03-Sep-2010, entitled "Multi-Universes and God" I took issue with a position physicist Stephen Hawking posits in his new book, "The Grand Design". As noted in the post, he argues for spontaneous creation based on gravity and in the process dismisses the need for a creator. My response suggested that while possibly negating certain concepts of God, Hawking's argument does not negate the need for the Bible's "creator" God. After all, the Bible is a book of faith. As such, it tells us that God created the world, but leaves open to scientists to determine the actual process of creation. That having been said, I can appreciate the developments within physics and other disciplines that lead many scientists to conclude that there is not or may not be a God. I can also appreciate the observations they bring to a discussion of God, that actually deepen faith. And since science and religion are not in competition with each another, I believe that the paradoxes will ultimately be resolved, but the dialogue must continue, for there is much that science and religion can teach each other. However...
There is another source of agnosticism that, while easier to comprehend, is more difficult to engage. The difficulty in addressing this particular agnosticism is that it is rooted in religion itself. More precisely, it is rooted in the way that religion is often presented. Indeed, there is a strong Christian component at work here and it is counter-productive. For the very people who want Jesus to be the center of life are the ones who are relegating Christianity to the periphery and, potentially, obscurity.
Every generation needs to find relevance. We look for it in work, in politics, in social structures and in religion. It is what we seek in our personal and inter-personal lives. But the Christian religion, despite its foundations, is failing on this front. Church authorities in various denominations proclaim the faith in such a way that it is anything but relevant. When a religion adheres to ancient belief systems without trying to bring them into harmony with the modern world, that religion has no claim on the mind or heart. This leaves thinking believers floundering about in a vain search for meaning within their religious traditions. When they don't find it, what options remain?
In Catholicism, the great 20th century movement to update the Church known as the Second Vatican Council is on the verge of being consigned to the dustbin of history. Vatican II accomplished exactly what it set out to achieve: a renewal through which the Church could read the signs of the times and merge the faith of our fathers with the reality of modern life. The Council began its changes by issuing new translations of the prayers for the Mass and the sacraments--changes that both God and humans could understand. Following that, Vatican II developed religious practices and teachings that discerned the divine presence in the secular. The Council outlined the role of religion in one of its seminal documents, "The Church in the Modern World". Slightly more than forty years later comes Benedict XVI. On the heels of John Paul II, he is attempting to roll back Vatican II's changes and direction, apparently oblivious to the fact that he cannot also roll back society or the world. By divorcing the divine from the secular, the Catholic Church actually give voice to agnosticism.
Besides disassociating itself from the secular, there are other ways in which the Church is sinking into irrelevance. These include its worship. Like the Second Vatican Council itself, the changes begin with prayer. Every element of a living faith is first of all based on the ability to communicate with the divine. When people in the pews are unable to speak in natural cadence, forced instead to use stilted formulations, God becomes distant and unreachable, not imminent and approachable. Never mind that these translations are supposed to be closer to the original Latin. There is a reason Latin is a dead language. This is not a hopeful or effective way to communicate with or relate to God. History will not look favorably on English-speaking bishops who surrendered the beauty of their language to the authoritarianism of Rome.
Perhaps because God is becoming more distant in the pews, there is now a renewed interest in demonic possession. More than 100 bishops and priests attended a conference on exorcism in Baltimore this past weekend. The organizer, Bishop Thomas Paprocki is a reasonable man, sounding neither hysterical nor hyperbolic when speaking of possession and exorcism. He organized the conference so that dioceses around the nation could be prepared, and he emphasized that an essential element of that preparedness is being able to distinguish between mental illness and demonic possession of God's people. Yes, you read that correctly and it is just as bizarre as it sounds--demonic possession of God's people.
R. Scott Appleby, a highly respected scholar at Notre Dame suggested that the action of the bishops makes perfect sense. By emphasizing that the Church deals with the supernatural, he said: "It's a strategy for saying we are not the Federal Reserve and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons." It is not clear if that is his own perspective or if he is simply observing the actions of the bishops. In either case, it is hardly convincing, and more than just a little embarrassing.
Fr. Richard Vega of Los Angeles, President of the National Federation of Priests' Councils suggested that there might be a rise of exorcism requests in the United States due to the migration of Catholics from Africa and South America--people, he says, who are more in touch with the supernatural. Correct me if I'm wrong, but if people who are more in touch with the supernatural need all this exorcism, then either their concept of the supernatural is seriously defective and tends toward magic, or the Church's concept of the supernatural neglects and minimizes God's love and care for his own people. It is fairly easy to see how this kind of nonsense might lead one to the conclusion that there is no God.
For myself, I still believe in Jesus. But I suggest that all believers speak about agnostics with more respect. After all, we might be the reason they don't believe.
As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to visit England in September, the Catholic Women's Ordination Movement is preparing to put up posters calling on the Pope to "Ordain Women Now." In response, Fr. Stephen Wang, Dean of Studies at Allen Hall Seminary in Westminster, has responded to the campaign with an attempt to defend the Catholic Church's position. Not surprisingly, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales has distributed Fr. Wang's statement, clearly making it their own. Wang's statement is a retread of Papal teaching that is made no more persuasive simply by its repetition. Both the historical, and, even more so, the theological arguments are deficient.
One of the core teachings of Christianity is that Jesus is fully God and fully human. At the same time Jesus is the individuated Second Person of the Trinity. Jesus is one person with two natures--what theologians refer to as the hypostatic union. No one can argue that in his humanity Jesus was born, lived and died as a male human being. It seems, though, that the Catholic Church's position on women's ordination plays a little loose with the divinity of Jesus and the fact that God transcends sexual identity.
The term "Christ" is most accurately applied to Jesus after his death and resurrection, for it was not until some time after his earthly existence that Jesus' followers came to recognize him as the savior. It took many years of a living faith and theological debate for the Christian Church to settle upon belief in the hypostatic union, as ultimately defined the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
The argument advanced by Fr. Wang, that women cannot stand in the place of Jesus who was a man, may appear appealing at first. However, a priest does not so much stand in the place of the human Jesus, as he (or she?) stands in the place of the resurrected Christ. In theory, at least, the priesthood does not exist for its own sake or that of the individual priest. The Catholic Church has long referred to the priest as an "alter Christus", another Christ, not an "alter Jesus". Therein lies the crux of the ordination problem.
We believe that Jesus is both God and Man, and, although I despise the triteness and superficiality of the WWJD ("What would Jesus do?") campaign, we do look to the earthly ministry of Jesus for examples of how we, both men and women, should live with and respond to one another. On the other hand, it is not the earthly Jesus, but rather the risen Christ who lives among us. It is the risen Christ whom we receive in the Eucharist. And it is the risen Christ whom the priest represents in ministry.
St. Paul guides our understanding and helps to ground the argument in favor of women priests in his Letter to the Galatians. In chapter 3 he states definitively, "For all of you who were baptized into Christ Jesus have clothed yourselves in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." This term is applied to Jesus only after his resurrection, and it is this oneness in Christ Jesus that should be reflected in the priesthood.
The determining identity of the priest is not a sexual one. Women can, and do, represent Christ by virtue of their baptism. To deny them the opportunity to serve the Church as priests can only be seen as a form of bias and discrimination. In those churches that do ordain women, the people properly respond to them as representing the risen Christ among them. Although some may disagree with me, it sounds as if that persistent ringing in the background is the Holy Spirit calling women to the priesthood. Maybe it is time for the Catholic Church to answer!