FATHER BOB PIERSON: As Catholics we must follow our own conscience in making decisions such as how to vote. My conscience tells me to vote no on the amendment because I have yet to hear a convincing reason why we need such an amendment to our state constitution. In fact, I believe the church does not have the right to force its moral teaching on others outside the fold.
Matthew Vines speaks on the theological debate regarding the Bible and the role of gay Christians in the church. Delivered at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas on March 8, 2012.
Part 5 of a 5-Part Series — Understanding Catholic Moral Theology
This column concludes my series on Roman Catholic moral (sexual) theology. But before I move on to other topics I’d like to leave you with some tips on how you might make up your own mind when grappling with difficult moral issues.
In Part 1 of this series, A Key To Understanding Catholic Moral Theology, I talked about the cornerstone of all Catholic, and indeed all Christian, teaching — the principle of the primacy of one’s conscience. That is, you must follow the sure judgment of your conscience even when, through no fault of your own, it might be mistaken.
Tip 1 — When faced with a moral dilemma, start with some soul-searching. Your conscience is, in fact, your primary connection with your God. No law, dictum or dogma can take precedence over your conscience. I contend that we don’t need theologians to tell us what is right and wrong or what is just and unjust. We simply need to tap into that simple formula called the golden rule. Deal with others, as you would like others to deal with you. That pretty much covers everything.
As we’ve seen in this series, much of Catholic moral theology is shame based. Shaming is a very effective means of regulating an individual’s behavior so that it conforms to the mores of the group. But capitulating to shame is never the same thing as acting morally. In fact, in many situations the moral thing to do is to stand against the prevailing opinions of the group.
Tip 2 — Try to unravel the system that instills the shame. If you go back to the source of the shaming you will, most likely, discover the reason why the shaming continues. I gave you a good example of this in Part 1 of this series. “To get a handle on Catholic moral theology one must first grasp the depth and breath of it’s institutionalized misogyny.“ Once you uncover the root of the shame you can demythologize it. This will free you up to form your moral decisions less encumbered with dubious communal mores.
Guilt-based theology is dependent on demonizing people or behaviors. When people blindly accept what they are told, they perpetuate the communal mores even if they are unjust or intolerant. Sometimes this becomes so extreme that whole groups of people are vilified often using only stereotypes as evidence of their wrongdoing.
As I pointed out in Part 2 of this series, Sins Of The Flesh, it all begins with language. That’s “wrong”, “dirty”, “bad”, “disordered”, “unnatural” or “intrinsically evil”. In short order this incendiary language becomes a rallying cry that inevitably sets in motion active persecution. Moral maturity, on the other hand, demands that each of us take responsibility for our judgments and prejudices. If nothing more, this process of owning our biases slows down our rush to judgment.
Tip 3 — When faced with a shaming statement, like “that’s wrong”, it’s incumbent upon us ask why it’s wrong and who is making that judgment call. Because if something is “wrong” that means there must be a “right” way. But who gets to determine that, and what are the criteria for making that judgment?
“That’s dirty, disordered, unnatural or intrinsically evil!” Are some body parts or some sexual behaviors more wholesome, more in keeping with the natural order, than others? Again, whose prejudices are at work here?
I suggest that theologians aren’t competent to offer the definitive interpretation of the natural world, but even if they were, we still should ask. How much of your “natural/unnatural” worldview is culturally induced and dependent? Remember, it was once anathema to suggest that the world is round and not the center of the universe.
Finally, Catholicism is not a club. Despite what the hardliners say, lock-step adherence to every facet of church dogma is not what determines ecclesial fellowship. Baptism is! Catholic Christianity is a faith community. That means it’s a living, breathing, malleable thing. Just as I pointed out in Part 4 of this series, Seismic Shift, even the Pope must, from time to time, bow to the currents of culture, history and science.
Tip 4 — Questioning systemic injustice or intolerance in the Church is the right, nay the responsibility, of every believer. And if you find yourself at odds with Church authorities on moral issues, know you are not alone. Catholic women and men of conscience have always been a voice of dissent within the church. Their loyal opposition is precisely what helps keep the hierarchy honest.
Of course the flip side of taking a conscientious stand against the institution can often result in ostracism, shunning and persecution as I pointed out in Part 3 of this series, Sacred Cows. But then again, no one ever said embracing gospel values was gonna be easy.
Part 4 of a 5-Part Series — Understanding Catholic Moral Theology
Something earthshaking happened the weekend before Thanksgiving last year. It was so dramatic it was felt right round the globe, don’t cha know.
Pope Benedict made a most extraordinary comment in an interview with the German journalist, Peter Seewald, in July 2010. He said that condom use could be justified in some cases to help stop the spread of AIDS. This startling statement came to light as part of a promotional push for Seewald’s latest book on Cardinal Ratzinger, (now Benedict XVI): Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times.
In order to see just how astonishing this is one need only look back to the spring of the previous year. In March, 2009, during his trip to Cameroon, the pope not only reaffirmed Church teaching on the unacceptability of condom use under any circumstance, including the effort to diminish the spread of AIDS. He went on to say that he thought condom use might actually make HIV infection worse. This reiteration of the Vatican’s hard line, especially on African soil, coupled with his casual dismissal of established scientific evidence, drew immediate criticism from around the world. It was yet another public relations nightmare this pontiff didn’t need, or apparently want.
But now Benedict says condoms are not “a real or moral solution” to the AIDS epidemic, adding, “that can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” But he also says that “there may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.”
To the avid Vatican watcher this is nothing short of revolutionary. I tell you the Catholic world has shifted on its axis, Benedict’s tortured logic aside.
The week that followed the initial revelation of the pope’s condom statement was a maelstrom. The Vatican curia, bishops from around the world as well as Catholic activists all tried to spin his words. Church conservatives insisted the pontiff had been misquoted or misunderstood. — “The pope’s statement on condoms was extremely limited: he did not approve their use or suggest that the Roman Catholic Church was beginning to back away from its prohibition of birth control” said Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, one of Benedict’s former student and editor in chief of the very conservative Ignatius Press. The liberal wing of the Church was hopeful. — “It’s a marvelous victory for common sense,” said Jon O’Brien, the head of the Catholic group — Catholics for Choice.
Then, only a couple of days after the original news broke, more startling information came to light. At a news conference in Rome, papal spokesman, the Fr. Frederico Lombardi, said Benedict knew his comments would provoke intense debate, and that the pope meant for his remarks to apply not just to male prostitutes, but also “if you’re a man, a woman, or a transsexual.”
The pope seemed to be clarifying and expanding his comments, instead of walking them back. At this point, my head began to reel. Had he undergone some kind of metanoya? Did he develop a sense of compassion for male (female and transsexual) prostitutes and their johns? Was he finally having second thoughts about all us sexual reprobates and the damnation that awaits us for our unnatural acts? It was utterly astonishing! And who knew the word transsexual was even in the pope’s vocabulary?
Astonishing, because in October 2010 Belgian Archbishop, André-Joseph Léonard, asserted aloud what most hardliners say in private. He said the worldwide AIDS epidemic is a matter of “immanent justice”, i.e. God’s retribution for sodommite depravity.
By week’s end all hell had broken loose. Many prominent conservative Catholics were publicly rejecting the Vatican’s own explanation of what the pope said. They declared that they would only accept a more formal papal pronouncement, like an encyclical. Liberal Catholics, on the other hand, were taking the pontiff at his word. For them the pope had spoken; exceptions to the Vatican’s previously uncompromising ban on the use of artificial contraception CAN be made in the worldwide effort to combat AIDS.
But what is the average pew Catholic supposed to make of all of this?
The pope is appealing to the principle of double effect, a standard of Catholic moral theology since Thomas Aquinas. This doctrine claims that sometimes it is permissible to bring about, a harmful side effect (contraception) in an effort to promote some greater good (the fight against the spread of AIDS). In other words, accepting the lesser of two evils.
No matter how you look at it, this seemingly innocuous papal statement has created a fissure in the bedrock of Catholic moral theology. It is a total game-changer and nothing will ever be quite the same.
Part 3 of a 5-Part Series — Understanding Catholic Moral Theology
The most contentious hot button issue for the Roman Catholic hierarchy today is gay marriage. The pope and his bishops stand united, at least publicly, in vehement opposition. But that’s as far as the unanimity goes. Your typical church going lay Catholic isn’t all that up in arms about gay marriage. Surveys show that Catholics are more accepting of LGBT people than any other Christian group. According to a May 2010 Gallup Poll; 62 percent of Catholics said gay and lesbian relationships are morally acceptable. That’s a 16 percent increase from just four years earlier.
Why the big disconnect between the leadership and the laity? Good question. First off, the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church, is in a dogmatic bind. The procreative nature of sex is the bedrock issue of Catholic sexual morality. There can be no legitimate expression of sex outside the confines of heterosexual marriage. And even within a marriage, all sexual expression must be open to procreation. (See last week’s article — Sins Of The Flesh)
The Church leadership opposes homosexual activity because it is “intrinsically disordered and an abuse of our human nature.” And marriage is “a conduit through which God’s grace flows to the couple and their children.” So you can see that in the mind of the bishops, the two concepts “gay” and “marriage” are really mutually exclusive. That’s why they use what little moral authority they have left after the clergy abuse scandals and their always deep pockets (Where does that endless supply of money come from anyway?) to push for bans on same-sex marriage and even civil unions in states from California to Maine.
The bishops argue that the law influences what is socially permissible and acceptable. “In effect, giving same-sex unions the legal status of marriage would grant official public approval to homosexual activity and would treat it as if it were morally neutral.”
But there is a growing groundswell of vocal Catholics urging mutiny against the hierarchy on this issue. Much like in the early 1970’s when activists formed Dignity, a worship-based support system for gay Catholics; Equally Blessed, a coalition of faithful Catholics who support full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people both in the church and in civil society was born September 2010.
The majority of lay Catholics are at loggerheads with the hierarchy because the two groups keep talking past each other. The bishops insist on defending their interpretation of the unique meaning and purpose of marriage, i.e. “a faithful, exclusive lifelong union of a man and woman” who “commit themselves completely to each other and to the wondrous responsibility of bringing children into the world and caring for them.” And lay activists focus on compassion and human rights. Each group believes the other is missing the point.
It’s not surprising then that public relations snafus, like the one that happened last September, occur. Archbishop John Nienstedt, of the Saint Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese, and his fellow bishops in Minnesota mailed out 400,000 DVDs, explaining the Church’s position on the institution of marriage. Every registered Catholic family in their state received one. The bishops said that the DVD simply defended the Church’s position, but most people saw it as a ham-fisted attempt to influence the upcoming election. This sparked an equally high profile ”Return the DVD” campaign, which questioned the priorities of bishops and planed to make art from the returned DVDs. The faithful asked; How could the over $1 million spent to distribute these DVDs have benefited the poor?
As one would expect, the American Catholic hierarchy is playing hardball. They simply will not countenance decent. Pro-gay priests are being silenced or removed from ministry. Inclusive worship communities, like Dignity, have been exiled from Church property. Organizations like New Ways Ministry, a gay-positive ministry of advocacy and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics, has been vilified and their loyal opposition denigrated. Even the artist who suggested the DVD sculpture in Minnesota was suspended from her artist-in-residence job at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. And some of the lay faithful are being denied the sacraments for their conscientious objection to this church teaching.
This is pretty much business as usual for Church leadership. But the opposition shows no sign of caving. If anything they appear emboldened by the example of nuns who broke with the Catholic bishops by supporting the health-care overhaul Congress passed in March 2010.
In the end, a detente will no doubt settle in as it has in all the countries that have already adopted same-sex marriage — Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. In the meantime, however, American Catholics of conscience know that they are in the midst of a struggle every bit as significant as the struggle against segregation. For them sexual orientation is as much a part of a person’s identity and humanity as the color of a person’s skin or his/her gender. Clearly they have plenty of work ahead of them as they demand the Church leadership to live up to the most basic standards of human decency.
Part 2 of a 5-Part Series — Understanding Catholic Moral Theology
I was absolutely mesmerized by the recent papal visit to Spain for World Youth Day. I confess it was a morbid curiosity in the spectacle, but who among us doesn’t have a guilty pleasure or two? My clergy days are way behind me, but the pomp and ceremony are still very familiar and even a little beguiling.
Benedict XVI, the kindly grandfather figure, kisses babies, waves to the crowd from what looks like a clown car. Yet there was a palpable tension in the air that was not missed by the devout and the skeptic alike. The pope came to Spain to mark his territory and that is always an anxious time for those whose territory he invades.
The innocuous visit soon turned ominous when the elderly pontiff began to scold against the dual evils of relativism and secularism. You’d think having so much to apologize for in terms of the worldwide priest sex abuse scandal he’d take a more humble approach to our common human foibles. But there was no hint of that.
His litany of our cultural sins is as familiar as his papal vestments. Abortion; homosexuality, particularly those who advocate same-sex marriage; sexual permissiveness among the young; and the spiritual vacuum at the heart of a modern society bent on instant gratification. The common thread being an abhorrence of sexual pleasure.
Catholic doctrine specifically states that the sacred act of procreation is the only legitimate reason for sexual expression and that, or course, can only occur within the confines of a marriage between one man and one woman. If a married couple is interested in having intercourse, then they’d better be willing to accept the real potential for creating another life each and every time.
On New Year’s Eve 1930, the Roman Catholic Church officially banned all “artificial” means of birth control. Condoms, diaphragms and cervical caps are artificial, in as much as they block the natural journey of sperm during intercourse. Douches, suppositories and spermicides kill or impeded sperm, so they too are banned. Tampering with the “male seed” is tantamount to murder. A common admonition at the time was “so many conceptions prevented, so many homicides.” To interfere with God’s will is a mortal sin and even grounds for excommunication.
Catholics are left with abstinence or the rhythm method (the practice of abstaining from sex during a woman’s period of ovulation) as the only means of family planning. But, the rhythm method is wildly unreliable. The roulette of it all places its heaviest strain on the women, but the marital relationship is also stressed.
In 1966 the Church revisited the doctrine. A papal commission set up to review the dogma voted 30-5 to relax the concerns on birth control. But in 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical, Humanae Vitae which overrode the bishops and reiterated the anti-birth-control stance. He said this was necessary for several reasons. Chief among them was — if sex were not about creating children in a loving family unit, then sex would solely be about pleasure with no responsibility. Men would simply use women as pleasure objects and would lose respect for them.
Some argued that Pope Paul’s decision to issue the letter was more about exerting papal authority then it was about birth control. They claimed he wanted to reserve to himself the authority to decide the issue rather then let the bishops of Vatican II decide. But I see it differently; the pope had virtually no choice. If he buckled on the bedrock issue of the procreative nature of sex he would have undercut the totality of Catholic sexual morality. There’d no longer be a cogent argument for outlawing masturbation, homosexuality, premarital sex, extramarital sex and divorce as disordered and intrinsically evil.
Obviously, the practical application of this encyclical goes way beyond the marital bed. It prohibits condoms in the fight against AIDS; young people are set adrift in a void of sex education; teenage pregnancies soar; gay and lesbian people are vilified; and married people as well as theologians are left questioning the relevancy of a doctrine that causes so much harm.
But, in this matter at least, that faithful have spoken. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention’s 2002 National Survey of Family Growth revealed that 97% of American Catholic women over age 18 have used a form of contraception, which is the same percentage as the general population. A 2005 nationwide poll of 2,242 U.S. adults by Harris Interactive showed that 90% of Catholics supported the use of birth control. Use of modern contraceptive methods is also high in many predominantly Catholic countries: 67% of married women of child-bearing age in Spain, 69% in France, 60% in Mexico, and 70% in Brazil.
These statistics underscore what we’ve all known for a long time. There is massive “disobedience” on the part of Catholic faithful. But they’re not being obstinate just to be contrary. These are women and men of conscience, who have weighed the Vatican arguments and found them wanting. Most Catholics know their religious affiliation is more than a slavish adherence to dogma; they know that it actually means finding the divine in the crucible of their own life.
Part 1 of this series HERE!
Part 1 of a 5-Part Series
In this my inaugural column, I’d like to give you one simple cipher that will help you decode, and hopefully put in perspective, the whole of Roman Catholic moral (sexual) theology. I put the word sexual in parenthesis because, even though the Church insists that moral theology encompasses social justice, medical ethics and various other doctrine on individual moral virtue; it is sex that is THE Catholic sin. It’s also the only reason this column is being written.
In mid-July of last year the Vatican issued a revised set of in-house rules in response to the international clerical sex abuse scandal. Nothing new surfaced in these dictums. For example, we won’t be seeing the transparency victim advocacy groups are looking for, nor will there be a “one-strike and you’re out” policy for pedophile priests. And bishops still aren’t expected to report molester priests to civil authorities. (I’ll address some of these issues in a later column.) But for now I have another reason for calling your attention to this particular Vatican ruling; and it is not clergy sex abuse.
These new Vatican rules cover the canonical (Church law) penalties and procedures used for the most grave crimes in the church. As one would suspect, the Vatican considers clerical sex abuse a “grave crime”. What no one was expecting, certainly not in a document that deals with pedophile clergy, was the startling inclusion of the attempted ordination of women as a “grave crime” subject to the same set of procedures and punishments meted out for sex abuse.
This drew immediate criticism from many Catholic women and men, who said making women priests the moral equivalent of child rapists was deeply offensive.
Despite the repugnant nature of this Vatican rule, it does clearly elucidate the cipher I promised I’d give you. To get a handle on Catholic moral theology one must first grasp the depth and breath of it’s institutionalized misogyny.
Less than a hundred years ago, women had little standing in the church. Women were not allowed to receive communion during their monthly periods; and after giving birth to a child they needed to be ‘purified’ (or ‘churched’ as it was called) before re-entering a church building.
Women were strictly forbidden to touch ‘sacred objects’, such as the chalice, the paten or altar linen. They were certainly never to distribute Holy Communion. And while in church, a woman needed to have her head veiled at all times.
Women were also barred from:
- entering the sanctuary except for cleaning purposes;
- reading Sacred Scripture from the pulpit;
- singing in a church choir;
- being servers at Mass.
But the most important restriction of all — women were barred from receiving Holy Orders; being ordained as deacons, priests or bishops.
When I was in seminary in the mid 1970’s the movement to ordain women was just finding its footing. The official rationale for refusing women to the priesthood back then, as it is now, is that a priest must physically resemble Jesus. The priest acts ‘in the person of Christ’. Since Jesus was a man, only a male priest can signify Christ at the Eucharist.
I used to get such a kick out of that reasoning, because when I was ordained the bishop laid his hands on my head to ordain me. And since women also have heads, I just figured that the bishop was laying his hand on the wrong part of my anatomy if he wanted the part that made me physically resemble Jesus.
The truth of the matter is that every aspect of Catholic moral theology from birth control to homosexuality; from the ordination of women to pre-marital sex, from abortion to celibacy is rooted in a medieval theology that still holds sway today. Every woman is ‘a defective male’, ‘born through an accident’, ‘a monster of nature’; as Thomas Aquinas put it. Procreation was attributed to the father alone: the whole future child is carried in his sperm. The mother was seen to be only the ‘soil’ in which the seed developed.
Institutionalized misogyny of this magnitude leaves some Catholic faithful in a quandary. How do I remain faithful to my baptism, but resist what, I know in my heart, is not right? The answer is the principle of the primacy of one’s conscience. According to this belief, one must follow the sure judgment of his/her conscience even when, through no fault of one’s own, it might be mistaken. This is the cornerstone of all Catholic, and indeed all Christian, teaching. No law, no dictum, no dogma can take precedence over an individual’s conscience. Our conscience is our connection with our God.
This principal has allowed tens of thousands of Catholics over the years, both religious and lay; to stand against the unconscionable second-class status afforded women in the Church. And despite institutional resistance, great strides have been made over the last fifty years in toppling this gender-based injustice. Women are now included in many aspects of church life that were once closed to them.