Don't Agree With the Church? We Can Set You Straight

by Ken Briggs

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If you're a Catholic who disagrees with something your church teaches, you're invited by the hierarchy to examine what's wrong with you.

Either it's assumed you failed to grasp the teaching partly or mostly because the teacher did a poor job getting it across. Or you had been sold a bill of goods by popular culture that rejected what the church had to say on various moral subjects.

That's the nub of the argument that's been used in recent decades to explain how growing numbers of Catholics say they oppose the well-known laundry list of church's doctrine regarding artificial birth control, divorce and remarriage, abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women. As surveys particularly in Europe and the United States showed higher levels of dissent, the Vatican and bishops in affected countries used such reasons to soften the blow. Their message has been that these wayward Catholics weren't at fault: they were victims of misunderstanding or confusion. "Confusion" became the key term.

That campaign lay relatively dormant for a while but last week it was revived by a lofty sounding group called the International Theological Commission (no names of members were given, perhaps because nobody had properly instructed them in effective public relations). In their report on what Catholics actually believe ("sensus fidelium" or "sense of the faithful"). In effect, they did a replay of what might be called "patronizing palaver."

The common implication of this initiative is that lay people who don't accept church teaching haven't heard it right (bad teacher syndrome) or have let their guard down by falling for moral fads to serve their own selfish purposes. 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 . 

Surely there are those among the many disagreers who in fact don't grasp what the church is teaching and others who do get hooked on controversial values such as belief in gay and lesbian marriage. But to suppose that most who find themselves at odds with the church are incapable of making conscientious decisions is to insult them mightily. For many decades, for example, women have sensibly insisted that their roles as wives and mothers give them a privileged position from which to view reproductive rights.

What cripples this attempt to rationalize dissent from the outset is the prior assumption that officially declared teaching is virtually infallible. It must be protected like a mother grizzly her cubs. The "faithful" may have lots of "sense" but it's not welcome if it clashes with unalterable Truth. It's a show of supreme confidence, of course, but reveals a cavernous insecurity about the ability of doctrine explained even correctly to hold its own. If the judgment against women priests were so convincing, for example, why did Pope John Paul II forbid Catholics from even discussing it? Such matters give witness to the simple question that threatens the shaky thinking: "what if the dissenters are right?" Legions of lay people have laid hold of that question in myriad ways and join the dissent. The last (and first) defense, that the Holy Spirit reveals truth from the top has worn thin.

Without allowing for error, and willingness to admit it, there will be no widespread solution to these profound disagreements. Condescension to the "confused" who aren't confused at all has made it worse. The prevailing problem isn't that Catholics haven't correctly been taught what doctrine means; the more common problem is that they have been and found it wanting.

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