"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Bringing back heresy

Last week, Bishop Robert Vasa of Portland, Oregon (left) wrote a hard-hitting pastoral letter suggesting that the "pro-choice" position on abortion is actually heretical for Catholics. I agree entirely; even if you don't, the letter is well worth reading in full. All the same his position faces several difficulties, none of which I anticipate the American bishops’ lifting a finger to address.

The first is that of the use of the term ‘heresy’. Bishop Vasa is clearly aware how hard it is today to use that word and be heard. Exploiting the past sins of the Church, Enlightenment propaganda filtered through the secular media has virtually guaranteed that nobody can be convicted of heresy either personally or juridically. That is because using the term—even and especially in a conceptually correct way—convicts the user, not the object, in the audience’s mind. Hell’s “Philological Arm,” to use CS Lewis’ marvelous if dated phrase, has done its work well in this respect. Given such a rhetorical handicap, the Church has her work cut out for her if she wishes to regain control of the pertinent vocabulary.

The second problem, however, is that the will to do the needed work is largely absent in the hierarchy. Until Rome calls off the Truce of 1968, which has removed any price tag for dissent from Church teaching on birth control, the bishops will not feel free either individually or collectively to excommunicate those who are delicately termed “dissenters” from irreformable Catholic teachings on any subject pertaining to faith and morals. That is exactly what allows the present disorder and confusion in the Catholic Church today to persist.

A third problem is technical and awaits resolution of the other two. Bishop Vasa implies that the “pro-choice” position is heretical, and a case can certainly be made for that. But there exists no historical or canonical precedent for using the term ‘heresy’ for obstinate error about moral precepts as distinct from articles of faith in the traditional sense. Since the kind and scope of moral dissensus we see today did not exist in the Church until Vatican II, people have rarely if ever been formally excommunicated just for such dissent. That is why, on the specific question of abortion, the Church prefers to rely on Pius IX’s prescription of excommunication latae sententiae for procured abortion, which requires no formal juridical action against individuals, rather than excommunication ferendae sententiae, which does. But people by and large just don’t get the message that way. Until some other way is found and actually prescribed by Rome, bishops such as Vasa can fulminate all they like without really accomplishing anything.

Underlying all the above difficulties is confusion about the Catholic teaching on the “primacy of conscience.” Cardinal Pell in Sydney has recently had to face a formal complaint to Rome from prominent Catholic heret…I mean dissenters about his insistence on the clergy’s upholding controversial Church teachings. The complaint was that Pell himself is being heretical by denying the primacy of conscience as set forth in Dignitatis Humanae and the CCC. Pell has rightly reacted to that by calling it “a bit of a hoot.” But the dissenters are only invoking an interpretation that has not been directly rebutted in any authoritative document.

They take the doctrine of the primacy of conscience to mean that dissent from Church teaching on virtually any subject is a right that Catholics may exercise while remaining in full communion with the Church. That is nonsense, of course, as Ad Tuendam Fidem and then-Cardinal Ratzinger's Doctrinal Commentary thereon make plain. While it is true that one is obligated to follow even a mistaken conscience, the fact remains that a Catholic conscience is formed well only in conformity with the irreformable teaching of the Church on matters of faith and morals. So if somebody believes, in conscience, that the Church is mistaken on some important point of faith or morals, the only honest path for them is to refrain from the Eucharist or even leave the Church until such time as they are able to render the necessary assent. But that is lost on progs. And until the hierarchy from Rome on down brings it home to them, nothing will change as it ought.

I keep hoping that B16 will do just that, but I must say my optimism is waning. He seems to have other fish to fry. I'm not sure whether that's strategic or just temperamental. We'll just have to wait and see.
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