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

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The good old days are back...sort of

The blogger "I'd Rather Not Say," a conservative Episcopalian and now a history professor, has offered a superb critique of the new resolution passed by the Episcopal House of Bishops in response to the challenge issued some months ago in Dar es Salaam by their peers. In response to that same resolution, one prominent blogger of views similar to IRNS' has decided to swim the Tiber—a move I was subtly and not-so-subtly urging on IRNS almost thirty-five years ago, when we were roommates at Columbia and the issue for Episcopalians was whether or not to ordain women. And yet, aside from the bad liturgy still characteristic of many Catholic dioceses, I have noticed that what prevents many disaffected Episcopalians from swimming the Tiber is that the Catholic Church just isn't as tough on heretics as she was before Vatican II. So much internal infidelity is permitted de facto that the Barque of Peter seems too leaky to risk leaping aboard. Well, I have good news and bad news for such people.

The good news is that Catholic bishops are still capable of excommunicating people for heresy. This past week, one of them did just that; the good old days are sort of back. Apparently, a half-dozen nuns in Arkansas had got the idea that another nun was, if not the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, at least the mouthpiece of God. Whatever. I haven't analyzed their beliefs further and am not terribly interested in doing so. The point is that, in an act unprecedented for the Diocese of Little Rock, the bishop excommunicated the nuns who believed such nonsense. I'm delighted to hear that people can still be excommunicated for heresy—if indeed heresy, as opposed to mere lunacy, is really the problem in this case. That should be good news to prospective converts who fear that what the world regards as the bad old days weren't quite as bad as the present. There's not only precedent but hope for disciplining many of those Catholics who will not listen to the Church about matters very much within her purview.

But the bad news is the disproportion between the official reaction to this minor, tightly confined heresy and the persistence of inaction on the far more serious and pervasive heresies which afflict, even define, AmChurch. The way the Church in this country operates today, almost any adult Catholic can disbelieve this or that irreformable doctrine of the Church and not be called on it. For instance, the majority of Catholic couples of childbearing age contracept and are not questioned about it, even in the confessional—if they bother to show up there. They neither believe nor care about the Church's teaching that contraception is "intrinsically evil," which is right there in the CCC and has remained constant, in substance, for as long as there have been records on the subject. But in most cases, their pastors will not take them to task for that. If they themselves believe the relevant teaching at all, the poor fellows are too cowed to make an issue of it. The same goes for many other issues. I've met many Catholics who do not believe this-or-that defined dogma, either because nobody has ever taught it to them or, just as often, because their pastors don't think it really matters what any given parishioner actually believes, so long as they're a decent sort who goes to church and contributes. Most Catholics think similarly. But that is a grave error.

For one thing, it was one factor facilitating the sex-abuse scandal in the clergy. Ever since I was old enough to understand the word 'celibacy', I've learned over and over that most Catholics have absolutely no idea what the spiritual rationale for the celibacy of priests and religous is. Needless to say, few priests bother explaining it to them. To many laity, celibacy is a cruel, unnatural requirement imposed on the Church's lifers for essentially financial and political reasons. My own mother's view of the matter was, I came to learn, quite common: they cannot see how a man with a healthy masculine sexuality, who is not quite ready for Social Security, would willingly embrace celibacy for the love of Christ; conversely, it is thought that if a man does embrace celibacy so as to become a priest or religious, there must be something wrong with him. Is it then any surprise that, for decades, the proportion of men entering the seminary with some-or-other serious psychosexual issue was so disturbingly high? If the general expectation is that psychosexually normal and healthy men shouldn't and won't be priests, then what we'll get are a lot of priests who aren't psychosexually normal and healthy. It only makes sense. And we've seen one of the results.

But that is only a temporary problem; the trends I've been seeing are quite positive. The bigger and longer-term problem is that Catholics are no longer required, de facto, to believe like Catholics. If you're an adult who wants to become a Catholic, you have to go through a process culminating in a profession of faith in all that the Catholic Church "professes and teaches." And rightly so. But if you're a cradle Catholic, confirmed as a child or adolescent, it is presumed that you've already gone through such a process successfully; from that, it is concluded that people don't need an orthodoxy check beyond recitation of the Creed at Sunday Mass. And so the clergy don't, generally speaking, ask adult "cradles" what they believe. But far too often, the presumption is patently false. Most adult cradles were never formed in adult faith; they did and said what they had to so as to get confirmed, and that was it; anything beyond that is, or would be, strictly self-motivated. The result, for the most part, is either that nothing much is done or that what is done is bad. I think the clergy know that—the way one knows that what's likely to turn up if one hoists a boulder in the forest will not be altogether pleasant. And so, with a few worthy exceptions, the boulder is left alone.

Beyond lay ignorance, there's the problem of well-educated priests, nuns, and theologians who quite openly reject Church teaching on key points but are not disciplined for it. Sure, a few are; on occasion, a theologian will lose his mandatum to teach in a Catholic institution. Perhaps many pay a price in less public ways. But excommunications are rare, and open heretics are still allowed to speak and teach heresy freely in Catholic settings. That allows, even encourages, the laity to think that doctrine, not just theology, is a matter of opinion. And—so the thinking goes—since everybody is allowed an opinion, what does it matter what one's opinion is?

As I've implied in the past, I believe this phenomenon to be single worst avoidable problem facing the Church in the Western world today. But again, there is hope. If a bishop can excommunicate a handful of fruitcakes and avoid the pillory, then perhaps the bishops can steel themselves to pick up the much bigger boulder and do something with what they find underneath. They might begin by wiping the dust off their own plan.
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