You are, it seems, applying conscience to matters of faith. And that, I believe, is an error. You must follow your conscience in terms of moral action, but I don't believe it applies to questions of faith. My sense of reading the Catechcism of the Catholic Church (888-893) and the following quote from DV is that we don't have a choice. We must assent to the Church's teaching in matters of faith and morals.
Consider also Dei Verbum 5: By faith man freely commits his entire self to God, making "the full submission of his intellect and will to God who reveals," (Vat I, Dogmatic Constitution on Catholic Faith, 3) and willingly assenting to the Revelation given by him. Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who (opens) the eyes of the mind and "makes it
easy for all to accept and believe the truth" (Orange II, can. 7).
Now whether phenomenologically this "ease of belief" is felt is an open question, but the assent of faith is not an option for those who call themselves Catholic. It is my sense that Catholics are not offered the option to believe only those things they can embrace "in good conscience." Much less are they bound by their conscience to deny those teachings to which they cannot assent.
Other Catholic Bloggers also weighed in on the issue. In response to the question of whether I was thinking like a Catholic, Mike Hardy of Enemy of the Church wrote “more than your critics,” which is very gracious, but probably undeserved. Eve Tushnet posed a number of good questions, only one of which is excerpted here (click here to read the whole thing):
How elastic is Nixon's understanding of Catholicism here? Say someone came to him and said, "I'm a faithful Catholic, but, after thoroughly examining the issue and trying to form my conscience as the Church instructs, I think that the Church is just plain wrong about [X]." For which X's would Nixon conclude that this person was just not self-aware or accurate in his belief that he had properly formed his conscience? Can you be a faithful Catholic and think that it's OK to commit adultery; skip Mass on Sunday; receive Communion while in a state of mortal sin; shtup someone of your own sex; etc.? (I'm not comparing women's ordination to any of these acts--I'm trying to figure out what Nixon thinks are the boundaries of the Catholic community, and how he goes about discerning those boundaries.)
Summa Contra Mundum delves into the relationship between conscience and faith and wonders whether a person’s conscience might lead them out of the Church.
So where does that put the dissenter? It seems to me that he or she has no other choice but to leave the Church. If you don't believe as the Church believes, why would you stay? I wouldn't be a Muslim if I didn't believe Mohammed was a prophet. So how can one be a Catholic who doesn't believe in the infallibility of the pope? A conscience that tells someone not to accept an infallibly declared teaching of the Church must also tell the person not to remain in that church. Anything less would be inconsistent. Of course, if the person were to balk at leaving the Church, I would suggest that rather than dissent, prayerful acceptance is the answer. There is faith that tugs at the person, leading him to remain in the Church; the dissenter ought to pray and work that this faith succeed in seeking understanding.
Oh, by the way, I am not directing this personally at Peter Nixon. I am just trying to work out the logical consequences of dissenting from Church teaching.
As Michael Corleone used to say, “it’s not personal. It’s business.” This is probably not the time to go into detail about the precise nature of the charism of infallibility. Suffice to say that I do not hold the view described in the above paragraph. So I guess I’ll be around for a while.
I’m taking a time-out from theological combat for a while, so don’t expect me to post a detailed response to any of the above. It’s time to move on.
ONE FLESH: In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus lays out a vision of marriage that seems at odds with the Jewish tradition that He inherited. The Mosaic law allowed a husband to write a “bill of divorce” if he wished to divorce his wife. But Jesus argues that this law was only a concession to human weakness. God’s intention is that marriage should be permanent: “So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined, no human being must separate.”
Why is it so important that marriage be a lifelong commitment? One can think of sociological reasons of course, having to do with the strength of families and the welfare of children. These are clearly important. Some scripture scholars have suggested that Jesus’ command was an attempt to protect women (who had few rights under Jewish law) from arbitrary treatment by their husbands. This, too, may be true.
But I think there is a deeper meaning to Jesus’ words. Marriage, in its own way, is a form of religious life. The vows of marriage call the parties to a particular form of poverty, chastity and obedience. For a marriage to succeed, each party must gradually come to see life through the eyes of the other. It involves a dying to self and a rising to a new form of life.
During a long marriage, a couple lives that paschal mystery many times. There is the inevitable adjustment as they move from the single life to the married state. The relationship changes again, sometimes dramatically, with the arrival of children. Tragedy, illness, or infidelity may bring further change. Finally, there is the drama of aging, where couples often must rediscover one another as husband and wife after so many years as mother and father. It is by working their way—often with difficulty—through these various stages that a couple truly becomes “one flesh.”
If marriage is only a contract, a relationship that continues only as long as the individual needs of both parties are met, then this sort of transformation cannot occur. If we jump out the first time—or even the second or third time—that we hit a rough patch, then we’re not going to become the people that our God—the God of the Covenant—is calling us to be.
CUT IT OFF: In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus offers a series of warnings about the dangers of sin. If a particular part of our body—our hand, our foot, our eye—leads us to sin, it would be better for us to do without it than to be “thrown into Gehenna.” Gehenna was Jerusalem’s garbage dump where large fires burned constantly.
What are we to make of Jesus’ warnings? Surely He does not mean to suggest that we should mutilate ourselves? While one must be careful in suggesting what our Lord meant to say as opposed to what He did say, I think it unlikely that Jesus was endorsing such a practice.
One of the points that Jesus is trying to make is that following Him is a radical choice, and sometimes requires radical steps. Some times we must “cut off” those parts of our lives that lead us away from God and toward sin, which is really two ways of saying the same thing. As older versions of the Act of Contrition put it, we need to avoid “the near occasion of sin.”
Most alcoholics in recovery have found that they must completely cut themselves off from alcohol. “Just one drink” quickly leads to another and another. Felons who are released into the community often find that if they continue to associate with their old friends, they adopt patterns of behavior that lead them back to jail. Cutting off old friends is hard, but sometimes it’s the only way to stay out of trouble.
Even if our lives are not this “exciting,” we may still need to cut ourselves off from things that harm us spiritually. How many of us spend far more time watching television or (ahem) surfing the Internet than we do at prayer? Reading (or—God forbid—publishing) a religious web site is no substitute for time spent with the Lord. If your mouse button leads you to sin…
Situations like this are why it is dangerous to pull quotes from the Bible out of context and deploy them for rhetorical purposes. The context of the two quotes is very different.
In today’s reading from Mark, the disciples are concerned that a person who is not part of their community is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus tells them not to be concerned, because a person who calls on His name to perform mighty deeds cannot, at the same time, be opposed to him.
In Matthew and Luke, Jesus has just driven a demon out of a man, and is confronted by the Pharisees. They claim that it is only by the power of the Devil (Beelzebub) that Jesus is casting out demons. Jesus rebukes them, and says “he who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”
If there is a common theme in the three passages, it is Jesus’ concern for the suffering. In Mark, Jesus tells his disciples not to prevent the man from healing those possessed by demons. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus seems angered that the Pharisees are more concerned about whether His healing has an ecclesiastical stamp of approval than its impact on the man who has been healed.
How often do we behave like the Pharisees or Jesus disciples? When a friend tells of an author who gives her great spiritual comfort, is our response “that’s wonderful” or do we say “is he Catholic?” Are we afraid to read the scriptures because “that’s a Protestant thing to do?” Do we gather or do we scatter? Something to think about.
The trouble with the pro-life movement is image. As long as "pro-life" equals "attention-KMart-shoppers", "salad" made of green jello and marshmallows, SUVs, sensible shoes and 10 dollar hair-cuts—as long as it is something only icky old men and post-menopausal ladies care about (tell THAT one to Dr. Freud)—it will remain the political equivalent of lawn bowling. S-Q-U-A-R-E. If you don't like my ideas, please return to your regularly scheduled Mother Angelica programming.
While Welborn did not contest with Shaidle directly, she did post a rather long list of links to demonstrate that “Pro-Lifers are Feminists, Pro-Lifers are Libertarians, Pro-Lifers are Democrats, and so on. Click here for the complete list. Mark Shea also weighed in, calling Shaidle’s characterization “unfair” and “cheap,” to which Shaidle replied “unfair and cheap are my Confirmation names.”
I stirred up a little tempest of my own last week with my post on women’s ordination (scroll below). It so annoyed Catholic seminarian Steve Mattson that he started his own Blog (which is definitely worth reading by the way). Mattson accused me of thinking like a Protestant, which is fine with me as long as I can think like Stanley Hauerwas, Reinhold Niebuhr, or Paul Tillich.
In my mailbag post last Friday, I noted the comments that Louder Fenn and Veni Sancte Spiritus made. Integrity ponders what light John Paul II’s Christifideles Laici casts on this question. Kairos has a reflection on this issue that is much deeper and theologically well grounded than my own (yes, yes, I know, ‘wouldn’t be hard’), so I commend it to you. John Schultz over at Catholic Light has a comment on Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and Veritas weighs in with a discussion about the obedience of faith. Eve Tushnet wonders whether my position would undermine any argument for a Church teaching that is based on authority.
There also seems to be a fair amount of Catholic Blogger commentary on the new Star Wars movie and, of course, lots and lots of posting on the scandal. Too much to summarize here. I leave you to discover other riches on your own.
SERVANT OF ALL: There are three discernible ‘movements’ to today’s gospel. In the first, Jesus is speaking to His disciples about the future, telling them how the “Son of Man” will be killed, but will rise on the third day. In the second, Jesus’ disciples are arguing about which of them is the greatest. Jesus rebukes them, saying “if anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Finally, Jesus takes a child and places it in the midst of the disciples, saying “whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.”
Jesus’ use of a child to illustrate His point highlights an important truth. Children have a way of reordering our priorities. Our single-minded pursuit of a corner-office job gradually gives way to a more balanced life. Rather than spending what we earn as soon as we earn it, we begin to save and to plan for the future. We find ourselves thinking more about schools, libraries, parks and other aspects of the common weal. Of necessity, children draw us out of ourselves. Parenting can be a path—although it is not the only path—to holiness.
But this change does not come without cost. It involves a certain dying to self. Couples used to being relatively footloose before children suddenly find themselves constrained by the demands those children make. It is not easy to find oneself suddenly the ‘servant of all,’ or at least of small group of toddlers and pre-schoolers! The change often puts a considerable strain on the individual parents and on their marriage. But those who have made the transition successfully tend to find that their lives are psychologically and spiritually richer as a result.
CATHOLIC PRESS ROUNDUP: The new issue of America has been posted (subscription to the print edition required for access. This week’s editorial and an article by Cardinal Mahony discuss the June meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Both endorse the position that all allegations of sexual abuse of a minor should be reported to the police and that no priest guilty of abuse should be in priestly ministry.
Both the National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor have posted a story on John Paul II’s recent apostolic letter on the sacrament of reconciliation, Misericordia Dei. The intent of the letter was to clarify restrictions on the use of “general absolution,” where a priest confers absolution on a number of penitents at once without each one confessing their sins individually. The Register also has an interesting article on the efforts of Catholics and others to combat human trafficking in Southeast Asia, where thousands of women and girls are sold into sexual slavery every year.
The cover story in this week’s National Catholic Reporter is entitled “What the Bishops Knew and When They Knew It.” It focuses on a report (available at the NCR web site) that was distributed to the Bishops in 1985 that laid out what was known about the problem of clerical sexual abuse and offering some recommendations for action. There is also a column about the struggles of openly gay religious in light of the current crisis.
The British Catholic magazine The Tablet has an interesting article that compares the new Anglican Archbishop of Sidney, Dr. Peter Jensen, and his Catholic counterpart, Archbishop George Pell. The two men could not be farther apart theologically. Jensen is an unapologetic Reformation Protestant whose brother is an anti-Catholic propagandist. Pell is an enthusiast of the Counter-Reformation. But both men strongly oppose liberalism and secularism and profess admiration for one another. The author, a Reformation historian, questions whether either man has an adequate understanding of this period in British history.
This week’s Tidings has a number of interesting articles, including a piece that discusses the debate about whether there is a link between abortion and breast cancer. Some studies do show such a link, but others do not and the issue is mired in political and methodological controversy. There is also a story about a program that provides buses so that children of imprisoned mothers can visit them. Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s column challenges us to think about God in both masculine and feminine terms.
The June issue of U.S. Catholic has been posted and focuses on the clerical sexual abuse crisis. The cover story recounts the stories of a number of victims of clerical sexual abuse. There is also an interview with Fr. Donald Cozzens, author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood.
Mark has a reputation as a terse writer, but he is particularly good at describing raw, physical suffering. The afflicted man’s father describes the impact of the spirit on his son: “it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid.” When the boy approaches Jesus, “the spirit immediately threw the boy into convulsions. As he fell to the ground, he began to roll around and foam at the mouth.”
The man’s father comes to Jesus because Jesus’ own disciples have been unable to cast out the demon. He approaches Jesus haltingly, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus says that “everything is possible to one who has faith.” The reader can hear the father’s anguish in his reply: “I do believe, help my unbelief.”
I suspect that most of us understand the father’s emotion. We want to believe, but we wonder whether we can. There are many times when God seems absent and we begin to wonder if He is even there at all. Are we just kidding ourselves? Perhaps our prayer is merely an elaborate form of self-deception, a form of wish fulfillment. Perhaps we are alone after all.
Perhaps. But most of us, even the skeptics, don’t act as if that were true. Most of us still try to do the right thing, even when no one is looking. We’re inspired by stories of moral heroism and self-sacrifice and appalled by injustice and exploitation. When struggling with a decision, we hear the voice of conscience.
Where does that voice come from? What is its source? Perhaps it’s a belief in something, even if we wouldn’t call that something God, at least not yet. We need to grab hold of it and even if we can’t pray anything else, we can pray these words: “I do believe, help my unbelief.”
Please pray for Jim, Mitchell, and especially for Bobby, who gets out on May 31st. Pray for all the men of the Marsh Creek Detention Facility, for all the incarcerated and their families and for all victims of crime and their families. Thanks.