Church leaders' condescension an affront to Catholic laity's intelligence

Editor's note: Kelly Stewart is a new NCR Today blogger. Read more about her.

Reading " 'Sensus Fidei' in the Life of the Church" prompted me to revisit Rebecca Solnit's "Men Explain Things to Me." Solnit's 2008 essay is something of an Internet classic, famous largely for the feminist portmanteau, "mansplaining," that it inspired: "Men explain things to me, and other women," she writes, "whether or not they know what they're talking about."

As a Catholic feminist and appreciator of puns, I've long aspired to coin a term for the distinctly Catholic form of mansplaining to which I am so frequently subjected. (Ex cathedrasplaining? I tried.)

Several times in divinity school, I heard conservative Catholic students (often men) complain that their liberal Catholic professors (often women) didn't really grasp church teaching. It would be easy to dismiss that sort of thing as so much sophomoric hot air except that it followed such a specific pattern.

Similarly, more than a few classmates responded to my support for birth control by patiently explaining that sex has both a unitive and a procreative end, that opposition to "artificial" contraception is part of historic Christianity, and that countless married couples credit natural family planning with fostering communication and strengthening their relationships.

From our sister publication: A Place to Call Home, a new series focusing on women religious helping people who are homeless. Read more

At first, I was, bless my heart, puzzled that someone would assume I hadn't heard any of this before. Wasn't I Catholic? Wasn't I a student of theology and ethics? Wouldn't anyone, then, take for granted that I'd read and understood the most basic Catholic arguments against birth control?

But defenders of sexual and reproductive orthodoxy seem to assume, again and again, that feminists, LGBT people, progressives, and many mainstream Catholics disagree with official teaching because they don't know what they're talking about. This assumption grounds the central argument of "Sensus Fidei":

"Problems arise when the majority of the faithful remain indifferent to doctrinal or moral decisions taken by the magisterium or when they positively reject them. This lack of reception may indicate a weakness or a lack of faith on the part of the people of God, caused by an insufficiently critical embrace of contemporary culture. But in some cases it may indicate that certain decisions have been taken by those in authority without due consideration of the experience and the sensus fidei of the faithful, or without sufficient consultation of the faithful by the magisterium." (Paragraph 123)

So if most laypeople reject official teaching on a given issue, it must be because they don't understand it. If they don't understand it, it must be because of weak faith, cultural brainwashing, or poor catechesis. Indeed, as Ken Briggs observes, "The idea that intelligent, well schooled Catholics maturely and soundly examine the church's logic and find it to be mistaken and/or contrary to their faith experience never enters the picture."

Flannery O'Connor rightly described smugness as "the Great Catholic Sin," but the problem with "Sensus Fidei" and arguments like it runs deeper than good old-fashioned condescension. The authors aren't just suggesting that most laypeople are insufficiently intelligent, holy or educated to interpret their own moral lives. They've also leveled the charge of ignorance in such a way that, short of reversing their position, dissenting voices have no way to defend themselves. After all, the proof of our failure to understand church teaching is our failure to embrace it. Only by agreeing can we demonstrate our faith, virtue and understanding.

This makes the last line of the above block quote seem particularly strange: "But in some cases it may indicate that certain decisions have been taken by those in authority without due consideration of the experience and the sensus fidei of the faithful, or without sufficient consultation of the faithful by the magisterium."

If disagreement disqualifies us from contributing to the discussion -- if our beliefs and experiences are considered relevant only to the extent that they support what the magisterium already teaches -- then what shall we make of the importance attributed to "due consideration" and "sufficient consultation of the faithful"?

"Consideration" and "consultation," it seems, are useful insofar as they help institutional church leaders more effectively explain our lives to us. Listening to laypeople isn't about learning anything substantively new, then. It's about learning how to talk differently about the same teachings. A way for church leaders to repackage widely rejected ideas and go on explaining gender to women, homosexuality to gays and lesbians, and marriage to married couples -- whether or not they know what they're talking about.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here