Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Is a Catholic at Liberty to Selectively Choose Which Catholic Dogmas He Will Abide By?


The late Fr. John A. Hardon, S. J., was one of the leading catechists in the world and one of the most respected Catholic priests; advisor to Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, and catechist of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity (I have a Tribute Page about him now, and I knew him personally), used to frequently say: "to doubt even one received dogma of the Catholic Church is to lose the supernatural virtue of faith."

He was referring primarily to Catholics, who are bound to accept all the Church's teachings, as a matter of routine obedience and intellectual honesty. With non-Catholics, there is always the matter of how much they know, or don't know, about Church teaching, which reduces culpability significantly. Obviously there are many people who couldn't care less what the Catholic Church teaches. But a Catholic who professes to be obedient (verbally, or indirectly, by membership) to that authority is in a different category.

Many Catholics, unfortunately, adopt a mentality of "pick-and-choose," with regards to what Catholic teachings they will accept or reject. But Catholics are obliged (by definition) to accept all dogmatic pronouncements of the Church and the entire ordinary magisterium, with not only external but also internal assent. This itself is dogmatic teaching. Whoever denies this, becomes, ipso facto, a "liberal Catholic." That is the inexorable consequence of taking such a position within the Catholic dogmatic framework. Granted, we all learn more and more as we go along, but in any event, this is the Catholic position. The following authoritative citations will make this abundantly clear:

Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, n.25):
In matters of faith and morals ... religious submission of will and mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking "ex cathedra." That is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known chiefly either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.
The U.S. Bishop's Committee: critical statement on the two-volume work entitled Catholicism by Fr. Richard McBrien, who at the time was head of the department of theology at Notre Dame University:
In addition to those doctrines which have been taught by the Magisterium of the Church in the extraordinary way of infallible definitions, the ordinary teaching of the Pope and the Bishops in union with him preserves many revealed truths which have never been solemnly defined, but which, nevertheless, are infallibly true and definable. These are truths which cannot be rejected or neglected without injury to the integrity of the Catholic faith, because they are either explicitly contained in Holy Scripture, or, although only implicit in Sacred Scripture, they have been taught universally and continually, are professed in the liturgy, and are believed and witnessed by the faithful as divinely revealed.
Pope John Paul II in his talk to the Bishops in Los Angeles in 1987:
It is sometimes reported that a large number of Catholics today do not adhere to the teaching of the Catholic Church on a number of questions, . . . It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the magisterium is totally compatible with being a "good Catholic," and poses no obstacle to the reception of the Sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching of the Bishops in the United States and elsewhere.
The First Vatican Council (1870) defined the gift of faith:
Faith is a supernatural virtue whereby, under the inspiration and assistance of grace, we believe those things revealed by God to be true, not because the intrinsic evidence of those things has been perceived by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself revealing who can neither deceive nor be deceived.

All those things are to be believed, on divine and catholic faith, which are contained in the written and unwritten word of God, and which are proposed by the Church as divinely revealed, whether this is accomplished through her solemn pronouncements (ex cathedra definitions), or through her ordinary and universal teaching power.
[Encyclicals, decrees of Sacred Congregations, etc.]

[Note that no distinction is made between "solemn pronouncements" and "ordinary universal teaching power" of the Church, nor is one categorized as infallible and the other non-infallible]

Pope Leo XIII expressed the same idea in his Encyclical on the Unity of the Church:
If it be certain that something be revealed by God, and this is not believed, then nothing whatever is believed by divine faith . . . He who dissents even in one point from divinely revealed truths absolutely rejects all faith, since he thereby refuses to honor God as the supreme truth.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman:
This is what faith was in the time of the Apostles, as no one can deny; and what it was then, it must be now, else it ceases to be the same thing . . . Men were told to submit their reason to a living authority. Moreover, whatever an Apostle said, his converts were bound to believe; when they entered the Church, they entered it in order to learn. The Church was their teacher; they did not come to argue, to examine, to pick and choose, but to accept whatever was put before them. No one doubts, no one can doubt this, of those primitive times. A Christian was bound to take without doubting all that the Apostles declared to be revealed; if the Apostles spoke, he had to yield an internal assent of his mind; it would not be enough to keep silence, it would not be enough not to oppose: it was not allowable to credit in a measure; it was not allowable to doubt. No; if a convert had his own private thoughts of what was said, and only kept them to himself; if he made some secret opposition to the teaching, if he waited for further proof before he believed it, this would be a proof that he did not think the Apostles were sent from God to reveal His will; it would be a proof that he did not in any true sense believe at all. Immediate, implicit submission of the mind was, in the lifetime of the Apostles, the only, the necessary token of faith; then there was no room whatever for what is now called private judgment.

No one could say: "I will choose my religion for myself; I will believe this, I will not believe that; I will pledge myself to nothing; I will believe just as long as I please, and no longer; what I believe today I will reject tomorrow, if I choose. I will believe what the Apostles have as yet said, but I will not believe what they shall say in time to come." No; either the Apostles were from God, or they were not; if they were, everything that they preached was to be believed by their hearers; if they were not, there was nothing for their hearers to believe. To believe a little, to believe more or less, was impossible; it contradicted the very notion of believing: if one part was to be believed, every part was to be believed; it was an absurdity to believe one thing and not another; for the word of the Apostles, which made the one true, made the other true too; they were nothing in themselves, they were all things, they were an infallible authority, as coming from God. The world had either to become Christian, or to let it alone; there was no room for private tastes and fancies, no room for private judgment.

["Faith and Private Judgment," from Discourses to Mixed Congregations, 1849]
St. Thomas Aquinas:
If, of those things taught by the Church (as divinely revealed), one holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as an infallible guide, but to his own will. [Such a one may accept other teachings of the Church, but he does so not out of divine faith, but] only by a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will.

(Summa Theologica, II II,5,3)
It requires faith to believe (from God). I think - ethically speaking - that people should remain in a group where their own belief is not contrary to the dogmas (if not positively asserted or required). That's what I would do, at any rate, and I was always consistent with this "policy" throughout my evangelical years.

As an evangelical Protestant, I used to call myself a Bapticostal. Luther was my hero and I started at a Lutheran church (though I only went to Bible studies). I attended messianic Jewish congregations, then Assemblies of God (but never became a member), then a non-denominational Jesus Freak-type church with a minimalistic creed. I was Wesleyan / Arminian yet virtually all of my favorite scholars were Calvinists. I toyed with a few Baptist churches but never joined, for various reasons (one required re-baptism, which disgusted me as un-ecumenical in the extreme). I considered myself a charismatic (still do), but didn't and don't believe tongues were necessary (and didn't have that gift myself, per the Bible). Etc., etc.

When I converted, I accepted the whole ball of wax, in faith (but without any significant remaining disagreements at all). I soon proceeded to start studying in depth, and defending Catholic beliefs (having already been a Protestant apologist for nine years). That endeavor has served to strengthen my faith and "certainty" ever since - not at all weakening it. This is one of the blessings of apologetics.

Of course I don't deny that there are a variety of reasons why people choose to be in whatever group they are in (one must consider whether they are justified reasons). I would say there is a great distinction between staying somewhere where you may not fully understand or even agree with a doctrine or two (which are not absolutely required - even if they are creedally required), but are willing to admit your own lack of knowledge, compared to outright dissenting against a doctrine (particularly defined dogma), as a self-professed Catholic is doing if he denies, say, papal infallibility. 


In the case of a convert, they shouldn't move into the new place if they don't yet fully agree with it (or, as a Catholic, are unwilling to submit their judgment to the Church). This is part of the "game" of more traditionalist versions of Christianity: one submits to a body of received doctrines, rather than making up an amalgamated personal version of Christianity, as I used to do.

No one ever said this sort of thing was necessarily easy to live by, either, but the principle of abiding by the creeds and beliefs of one's own group seems straightforward enough to me. Separating love and correctness isn't very biblical either, where obviously both things are imperative and not to be pitted against each other. Paul is equally vehement about correct, received doctrine, and love (1 Corinthians 13). We are not to choose one over the other.

If a person, e.g., believed that the bishop of Rome was the "first among equals" among other bishops, he could become Orthodox or a High Church Anglican. Many persons in both camps believe this, and it is perfectly permissible. In fact, in John Meyendorff's book The Primacy of Peter, which many Orthodox consider the best Orthodox book on the subject, several contributors took this position. It is not unknown at all in Orthodoxy. People may struggle in their beliefs, but that doesn't relinquish them from the duty of honesty, according to what they do know, and obedience. They can struggle and be obedient at the same time, rather than adding disobedience to their transgressions in areas of objectively mortal sin, such as (for a Catholic) contraception.

Doctrinally and morally, we believe that the Catholic Church is protected by the Holy Spirit and granted the gift of infallibility. And it is to be obeyed in its teachings. I suspect that not many of the 70% who contracept in the Catholic Church would cease simply after being told what the Church taught about it, and that they were bound to obey it. A small percentage would change, but the great bulk would continue right on with the rhetoric about "the Church has nothing to do with what I do in my bedroom," blah blah blah.

The issues, therefore, run far deeper than merely lack of knowledge, above all on sexual issues, which is why they just happen to be (just a mere coincidence) the issues which are most controversial. The will is also involved, and willingness or unwillingness to abide by teachings which may not be simple to follow. It is a matter of being honest with oneself, not a perfect church of do-goody-good pure white saints. We all need to learn what our own Church teaches (spend a night away from the TV and read the Catechism or something), and to strive to be consistent and honest.

And of course stating such things in the current relativist-saturated cultural milieu is considered "controversial," "harsh," and "intolerant." It is often assumed that those who believe this must be harsh and intolerant and lacking charity in how we might approach a person in such a situation. It is time to vigorously counter the prevalent subtle implication that simply holding a viewpoint (in this case, the Catholic one) makes one such an uncharitable, sort of bigoted, almost "puritanical" person. Quite the contrary, it is loving to pass on to people moral and theological truth, particularly if they say they wish to obey all that the Church teaches, and to be instructed where they might not be fully informed.

One person on a bulletin board replied that we all habitually break commandments. I replied:

There is a clear ethical distinction between the following two scenarios:
1) Person A commits a sin, realizes it is against the Church's teaching, confesses to God or to a priest (if it was mortal), picks himself up, and tries to do better with God's grace and assistance. He probably will fall again many times (like all of us), but he knows Church teaching and what is right and wrong, and makes it right through confession and resolve to improve himself (slowly, over time) by grace.

2) Person B knows the Church teaching against, say, contraception, yet practices it anyway. Rather than repent of it, he tells himself that the Church is wrong on this matter, and that his sexual behavior is none of its business. Upon being told by a priest that it is a mortal sin, and that he must stop, he gets angry and says it is "intolerant!" of someone to be so presumptuous as to his spiritual state, and that he is still "growing spiritually," so that God will tell him in the future if he is to stop, not a bunch of old celibate men in Rome. Or they produce the foolish, wrongheaded argument (spoon-fed to them by the liberal dissidents) that they are not absolutely bound to obey any teaching that is not proclaimed ex cathedra, at the highest levels of authority in the Church.
If, on the other hand, a person is truly ignorant, that is their fault for not seeking to learn about the teachings of the Church they attend (they might know all about the stock market or the NBA standings or auto mechanics or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, or any number of things, but they can't seem to ever make time to learn any theology or Catholic doctrine, for some odd reason). So they're at fault, but not culpable for contracepting (at least not in the sense of mortal sin), if they are truly or invincibly ignorant. Upon being informed, if they are a Catholic, they then, of course, become responsible for following the teaching.
I am not "showing anyone the door" in asserting these things. I was responding to a simple question on a Catholic bulletin board, which asked: "why does someone who contracepts [underlying assumption: who knows it is against Church teaching] stay in the Church?" It is a fair question, and it deserves a non-hostile, thoughtful response. It is not improper to state that a person who thought contraception was fine, ought to be Orthodox or Anglican. Why is it so often considered "intolerant" to make such a point? I don't get it at all. Oftentimes, those who object to this reasoning assume that the main problem is ignorance; I think just the opposite on the sexual matters. So, say that such a person is shown again and again that he is dissenting from Church teaching, but to no avail. Now what do we do? Ignorance is no longer the issue.

We (Catholic apologists) are not "orthodoxy cops" and make no claim to be. Neither I nor any other apologist has any power or authority (as a "cop" has) to "kick anyone out" of the Church. I certainly have no such desire. But we have a calling to communicate and defend what Church teaching is, and to object to those who wrongly claim it teaches something it does not teach. There is a problem of disobedience to Church teaching. There are all sorts of factors involved, as with any human being and situation (which would bring in the pastoral element). That doesn't mean that a particular behavior is not objectively inconsistent or disobedient. Subjective elements are a whole 'nother ball of wax.

There is a place for gentleness and diplomacy and ecumenism and pastoral guidance, but there is also a place for vigorous defense and rebuke and logical analysis, and calling a spade a spade, sin-wise, or in the sense of ethical inconsistency. The pope (who is quite ecumenical, gentle, and diplomatic), lays down the law, too, as that is part of his role as Teacher. Yet he is regarded by thousands of liberal dissidents as the most intolerant, old-fashioned, regressive, backward, "repressed," judgmental old fuddy-dud there is. They hate when he makes an absolute statement about some moral tenet (one they are fond of: like women priests, or contraception, or married priests). So he takes his lumps, too. It can't be otherwise, when one takes a stand for Christian truth.

One doesn't have to be Mr. Spock or Albert Einstein to understand the following proposition:

"The Catholic Church teaches that x is wrong, that it is a mortal sin, and that to engage in it is always wrong."
They simply obey the Church they claim to be a part of or not. They may not fully understand the rationale (who can understand all that the Church teaches?), or background, or subtleties in the authority of the ordinary magisterium vs. an Ecumenical Council and suchlike, but they obey (just like they would obey, e.g., their boss, or traffic laws, or the IRS).

The question isn't one of intelligence, but of simple honesty, obedience, and consistency. I don't think most cases of contracepting Catholics are due to sheer ignorance. They are either dissenting against the teaching itself or against the authority and jurisdiction of the Church, and that is a far more serious offense, where it is sometimes appropriate to deal with it sternly (in love) in the proper circumstances. If those who are promulgating Church teaching in effect allow persons to continue in what is objectively mortal sin (and therefore damaging to their soul), this is not "loving" at all. Analysis of an ethical question is different from a pastoral approach. They're simply two different things.

We can talk about being tolerant and gentle and longsuffering and "pastoral" all day long and I have no problem at all with those things. They're lovely, praiseworthy attributes, and I constantly strive to be them myself (often failing). But we mustn't neglect to see that tolerated dissent and disobedience is at the very root of the modernist / liberal problem in the Church.

Of course, the individual is, in almost all cases, not consciously dissenting in some grand conspiratorial sense, but nevertheless they are operating on the same (objective) principle which has decimated much of the Church on a sub-institutional level. We mustn't allow that to continue unchecked out of a false notion of "tolerance." That helps neither the Church nor the individual. In the matter of contraception, in particular it is scandalously wrong to "tolerate" it, as many forms of the Pill are known to be abortifacients.

What are we supposed to do: allow a couple (to use another example of a mortal sin) to cohabitate and fornicate, rather than speak the truth in love, for fear of "alienating" them from remaining in the Church, and growth in the faith? This is moral nonsense, and it is not loving. Gentleness, concern, compassion, understanding of human foibles and weaknesses, sure (who would deny that?), but if we make this some sort of norm of how to deal with sin, to the exclusion of rebuke and clear moral teachings, the orthodox Catholic cannot agree.

One can wonder why people live with, and how they explain to themselves glaring inconsistencies and what I would call essentially "intellectual dishonesty" (whether conscious or not) without having a sinful, Pharisaical judgmental disposition, supposedly evidenced beyond a doubt by virtue of his asking of "hard" questions.

As for "real Catholics," etc. Well, there are orthodox Catholics, and there are heterodox ones, and all sorts of degrees in-between. We all know that; no sense pretending this isn't the case. But again, that doesn't mean we approach people like a bull in a China shop. Perhaps too often - sadly - this is the case with apologists (and we are learning everyday how to better do our task), but the seeming absolute equation between stating moral absolutes and an alleged unsavory attitude is what is so objectionable.

Nor is the orthodox Catholic approach foreign to the biblical record. We can go to John 6, and observe the refusal of disciples to accept Jesus' eucharistic teaching. That's the only example we have of Jesus' disciples forsaking Him, and it was precisely on a point of doctrine, requiring faith. His word wasn't sufficient for them; likewise, the "word" of the Church He established isn't good enough for dissenters today.

In His discourse recorded in John 6, Jesus "laid down the law," over and over, more emphatically each time (so dogmatic, He was!!!), knowing that it was either not understood or willfully rebelled against. He didn't tell them to "get out," true, but He sure made no attempt to "water down" or make more palatable or presentable His teaching. And He made no attempt at all to stop them from leaving, by saying some fashionable, "tolerant" line like, "look, guys, I know this is new and difficult teaching and that you are still wet behind the ears as disciples; just hang around a bit, okay, so you can grow in the faith, and better understand it in due course." Not at all.

He asks in John 6:61-62 ("aware that his disciples were complaining" - also v. 61 - NRSV), "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" In other words, He "upped the ante." He didn't make it easier on them, but much harder, so that they had to believe in faith merely on His word, understanding little. That would analogous, I think, to telling someone today:
"Does the prohibition of contraception offend you? Then what if you were to learn of the Co-Redeemer role of Mary my mother?"
In other words, He appealed to another difficult, little-understood teaching or event in order to challenge their faith all the more, rather than "go down to their level." Disciples were largely ignorant (and sinful) then; they are today, as well. Nothing has changed in that regard.

So the dissenters who lacked faith and obedience left. Jesus simply turned to the twelve and asked, "Do you also wish to go away?" (6:67). The Catholic is to obey the Church, whether he fully understands every jot and tittle or not. A convert doesn't have to join up in the first place. There are plenty of Christian groups which allow contraception or disbelief in papal supremacy. The very notion that one must understand something totally in order to submit or obey is Protestant to the core: private judgment. This is a fundamental matter of what it means to be a Catholic; what it entails.

So what should an orthodox Catholic say to a couple who came in as converts, but were contracepting? If we tell them it is wrong, then we get the usual complaints of "intolerance" and judgmentalism." If we don't, that is possibly (depending on circumstance) "enabling" of their sin (like the toleration of an alcoholic's habit), and not loving at all. It is our duty to explain to them what the Church teaches, if we are in a position to be teaching them in the first place, as prospective or new converts. I don't see how this is arguable.

There simply aren't that many valid excuses, in the final analysis, for the massive theological ignorance we see, in the age of literacy, the Internet, even now, national Catholic TV. We can't just be passive to the ignorance, as if it is impossible to overcome; we need to get people off their butts. People manage somehow to learn about all sorts of other things they are interested in, be it health or sex or the latest movie star scandal. The Church has been guilty at large of lousy catechesis in the last generation. But individuals share their part of the blame, too.

I have taken the position never to assert that those whom I classify as "liberal" Catholics are not Catholics. I do maintain, on the other hand, that one is not a "consistent" (or, orthodox) Catholic if they dissent on a, b, or c. I don't see that that is some terrible sin. It is simply stating the obvious. If I disbelieve in the Trinity or Jesus' bodily Resurrection, I am not a "real" Catholic, by doctrinal standards; by the Creed recited every Sunday at Mass. Likewise, if I deny the validity of Protestant baptism, or the pontificate of John Paul II. This isn't rocket science, I don't think.


Uploaded (revised version) on 7 April 2001. Terminology revised on 8 August 2013.


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