Friday, March 20, 2015

Ask Tony: Am I really Catholic if I can't accept some Church teachings?

Lisa Miller tried to answer this question last September in her "OMG!" column in Crux. Just based on this one column, I can't say anything about Miller's orthodoxy. But considering that Crux also published Margery Eagen's doctrinally-illiterate rant against Pope Francis this last January, I'm beginning to wonder whether the Crux editors are merely indiscriminate in their writer selections or actively dissident in their  ecclesial adherence.

[UPDATE: Crux just published an op-ed by John L. Allen, Jr., in which the latter continually refers to the schismatic Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) as though they were representative of traditionalists. This pretty much confirms Crux's leftward bias, though I'm disappointed in Allen, who ought to know better. (But then, didn't he coin the term "Taliban Catholic"?)]

Miller never really answers the question as asked. At first, it looks like she's on the side of the angels, when she admits that "'conscience' is the tool people use to justify departures from orthodoxy." As I've argued elsewhere, the individual conscience isn't infallible. But she quickly varies from the straight and narrow:

There are women who, in good conscience [??], have taken priestly ordination vows and consider themselves Catholic; and (many more) people who’ve had abortions or supported the right to abortion who do as well. These self-defined Catholics defy official teaching and risk excommunication [in the case of a procured abortion, the excommunication is latae sententiae, i.e., automatically incurred by the offense (CIC 1398)]; yet on some level, the choice to be Catholic remains a deeply personal (and private) one.

Which is all simply a warm-up to her own thesis: "To what extent must the hierarchy heed the consciences of the faithful? ... My unordained advice ... is this:  Hold onto your Catholicism — as well as your conscience — and perhaps your leaders will follow you there." Miller's answer, underneath all the window dressing, is: "You're Catholic if you think you are."

It's bad advice, and a bad definition. If you don't believe what the Church believes, then why would you think you're Catholic? If the Church doesn't teach authoritatively on matters of faith and morals, then why do you need the hierarchy's blessing for anything? Why not just go to some church where they already agree with you?

But if the Church does teach authoritatively, then why don't you try to change?

In my June 1, 2014 post on The Other Blog, "'Mere Catholicism' vs. Real Catholicism™," I made two points that bear repeating here: 1) Catholic bloggers don't have the authority to label others as heretics or schismatics. "We explain to persuade, not to judge." 2) Catholic bloggers don't individually partake of the Church's magisterial infallibility. Look to the column on the right-hand side of this page, wherein I have posted a disclaimer and a meme. We all screw things up occasionally. Bloggers' errors and differences of interpretation sometimes make for tedious Net-wide dogpiles.

Having said that, though, there is a difference between mere error and dissent.

When Pope Francis said, in America magazine, "The faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief," he was articulating nothing new; this article of the Faith is known as the sensus fidelium, or the "sense of the faithful". From the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras. 91 – 93:

All the faithful share in understanding and handing on revealed truth. They have received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, who instructs them (cf. 1 John 2:20,27) and guides them into all truth (cf. John 16:13).
"The whole body of the faithful ... cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals." (Lumen Gentium 12; cf. St. Augustine, On the Predestination of Saints 14:27)
"By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (Magisterium), ... receives ... the faith, once for all delivered to the saints ... the People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life." (LG 12; cf. Jude 3) [Bold type mine.—ASL]

Note, however, that Francis says "the faithful considered as a whole", and the Catechism says, "the whole body of the faithful". In other words, the sensus fidelium isn't reached by polling only American Catholics, or even only First Worlders, and seeing what a majority of them believe. In fact, it doesn't consist just of people who are alive today, but rather comprises the whole communion of saints (cf. CCC 954 – 959); indeed, the Catechism quotes the sixth-century bishop St. Nicetas of Remesiana: "What is the Church if not the assembly of all the saints?" It's in this embrace of past and present that we find the common root of democracy and tradition:

Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 53)

The sensus fidelium isn't a theological "right of majority rule". Rather, as the bold type emphasizes above, it presupposes the complete unity of belief expressed by the word communion, the "single religious feeling, single unity of discipline, and single bond of hope" written of by Tertullian in his Apology (op. cit., 39). For this reason, a person who dissents from any dogma, whether one of faith or of morals, doesn't simply "risk" excommunication — s/he is out of communion, ex communione, by that very fact. All the bishop does is recognize publicly what has already taken place in the dissenter's heart and mind.

In the Encyclical "Mystici Corporis," Pius XII declared: "Only those are to be accounted really members of the Church who have been regenerated in the waters of Baptism and profess the true faith, and have not cut themselves off from the structure of the Body [of Christ] by their own unhappy act or been severed therefrom, for very grave crimes, by the legitimate authority." (Denzinger 2286)
According to this declaration three conditions are to be demanded for membership of the Church: a) The valid reception of the Sacrament of Baptism. b) The profession of the true Faith. c) Participation in the Communion of the Church. By fulfillment of these three conditions one subjects oneself to the threefold office of the Church, the sacerdotal office (Baptism), the teaching office (Confession of Faith), and the pastoral office (obedience to the Church authority). [Ott, L. (1952). Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Tr. Bastible, J. Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books and Publishers; p. 309.]

In sum, full membership belongs to those validly baptized who hold the Faith in communion with the Holy See and the bishops, and strive to live according to the dogmas, doctrines and precepts of the Church. As Ven. Pius XII’s predecessor Benedict XV said, 'There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim 'Christian is my name and Catholic my surname,' only let him endeavour to be in reality what he calls himself." (Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum 24)

As I said before, it's not my or any other blogger's job to kick dissenting Catholics to the curb. But it's also a failure of both truth and charity to advise people to continue their dissent in the hope that one day the bad ol' hierarchy will "get with the times".

If you don't believe what the Catholic Church teaches concerning faith and morals, you do yourself an injustice by remaining a member; in fact, so long as you do dissent, you're halfway out the door already. Every time you participate in the Eucharist while you dissent, you're lying to yourself, to the entire Church (past and present), and to God. Lisa Miller tells us that "the bishops have appeared to be a my-way-or-the-highway kind of crew;" but isn't that equally true — if not more so — of dissenters? When you insist that the Church change to accomodate your conscience, aren't you saying to the Church, "My way or the highway"?

If, however, you believe the Catholic Church is the original church founded by Christ, endowed with and guided by the Holy Spirit, and is "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15), then you owe it to yourself to try to find a way to "think with the Church", to understand why the Church teaches what she does so you can accept her teachings. Or, rather, reverse the process: Saint Augustine advised, "Do you wish to understand? Believe." (Tractate on the Gospel of John, 29:6) Saint Anselm of Canterbury built upon this to say, "I do not seek to understand so I may believe, but I believe so I may understand." (Proslogion 1)

In sum, if you don't accept everything the Church teaches, then the question isn't whether you're really Catholic so much as it's why you consider yourself "Catholic" to begin with. Catholicism isn't an ethnic group, to which you belong simply by being born to certain kinds of parents; it's a religion, with specific beliefs that distinguish it from every other religious society. It isn't yours, to re-shape or redefine to suit your self-image or your politics; you take it as it is, uncomfortable dogmas and all, or you find somethng more fashionable, something that flatters you more.

Endeavor to be in reality what you call yourself. Or call yourself something else.