Saturday, January 19, 2008

Tips for Thinking Catholics

One of several Catholic blogsites* that I regularly visit is Crystal’s Perspective: A Catholic Convert’s Thoughts.

Crystal has a real gift for selecting and sharing the very best from the writings of Catholic thinkers, theologians, and authors. And her own reflections are always heartfelt and insightful.

Recently, Crystal shared excerpts from an article by Tom Reese, S.J., entitled “Survival Guide for Thinking Catholics: Ten Tips.”

I particularly resonated with the following “tips” from Reese:

We are a believing community with 2,000 years of tradition and history. We need to know our history – our triumphs and our failures, our saints and our sinners. A study of history helps us take the long view. Things have been worse, things can get better. For example, prior to the 20th century, a Catholic understanding of the Bible appeared to be in conflict with science. Today, contemporary biblical scholarship not only has eliminated this conflict, but helped us to better understand the Bible. Imagine what is going to be the situation 100 years from now as people look back on our time. How many of our theological debates and doubts will seem as silly as those caused among Christians when they discovered that the Earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa?

It is important to distinguish between law and doctrine. If you are a conservative and want a return to the pre Vatican II liturgy, don’t let anyone tell you that you are a heretic. If you are a liberal and believe that married men should be ordained, don’t let anyone tell you that you are a heretic. The question of married priests, the question of Latin in the liturgy, these are not doctrinal issues. These are matters of canon law and liturgical law. Laws have changed over time, laws can change again.

Understand the level of authority of a doctrinal position with which you disagree. Popes have only made two infallible declarations since Vatican I, the time when the infallibility of the Pope was defined: on the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception. Some people tend to give all Vatican statements a definitive or infallible status, and that is just not the case.

Today we see that even longstanding teachings of the church can sometimes change. The church now teaches that capital punishment is wrong, whereas for centuries it had no problem with it; in fact, popes executed people in the papal states. Likewise, the Church is rethinking its position on limbo. Most theologians now believe that unbaptised children go to heaven. This is not what I learned in the Baltimore catechism.

Know how to interpret the words in doctrinal statements. Catholics in the last generation have learned from scripture scholars that it is a mistake to understand the bible in a fundamentalist way. It is important to study the historical and cultural context of the writing, the literary style, and the audience to which it was addressed. The same is true of doctrinal statements. When a Vatican document says that homosexuals are intrinsically “disordered,” we tend to think of this as a psychological description, whereas the authors meant it as a philosophical description. You may still disagree, but it is important to understand what you are disagreeing with.

Sometimes the Church uses words that are open to multiple interpretations as a way of covering over differences and maintaining unity. This was certainly done at the second Vatican council. Paul VI wanted documents approved by what amounted to almost unanimity. Compromise and ambiguity were important to gain conservative votes. Problems arise today when this historical fact is ignored and conservatives go back and give unambiguous interpretations to words and phrases that were purposely ambiguous at the time.

In my parents’ day there were only two options when facing questions about your faith: “Accept what the Church says or leave.” This is more an Irish or Northern European response than a Catholic response. Certainly this is not the way Italians and Africans live their faith. Italians pick and choose just like the classic cafeteria Catholics in the United States. The only difference is Italians don’t question the Church’s authority publicly; they simply ignore it and do what they want. The response is much more cultural than theological.

We need to recognize there will always be disagreements in the Church because there have always been disagreements in the Church. The Acts of the Apostles discloses that Paul disagreed with Peter at the council of Jerusalem. What I find so delightful in this story is that the disagreement was resolved through a compromise: Gentiles would not have to be circumcised, but they would have to refrain from blood sacrifice to idols (no longer a problem) and from adultery (still somewhat of a problem).

In the Catholic Church, we believe that an informed conscience is our highest authority. We also believe in the importance of humility. One must pray not simply for the conversion of ones’ opponents, but for the conversion of oneself. Despite their weakness and sinfulness, Christians have faith in the word of God that shows them the way. Christians have hope, based on Christ’s victory over sin and death and his promise of the spirit. And Christians have love, that inspires them to forgiveness and companionship at the Lord’s table. Any survival strategy for thinking Catholics must be based on the virtues of faith, hope, and love.

* Along with Crystal’s Perspective, some other Catholic blogsites that I read and would recommend include:

And finally, although I don’t always agree with his theological views, Terry Nelson’s two sites, Abbey-Roads and Abbey-Roads 2, often contain writings and reflections that are interesting, heartfelt, and, at times humorous (in an off-beat kinda way!).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What it Means to be Catholic
Reflections on the Primacy of Conscience
The Question of an “Informed” Catholic Conscience
Chris McGillion Responds to the “Exacerbating” Actions of Cardinal Pell
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
To Whom the Future of the Catholic Church Belongs
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
The Old Catholic Church: Catholicism Beyond Rome
Signs of Hope and Creativity


Anonymous said...

Michael (and Crystal):

All these points are valid and extremely valuable to Catholic Tradition "in principle," but the sad fact is it is not "in practice." While post-Vatican II theologians tried to make these points clear and unambiguous, the laity went crazy with "the spirit of innovation," sometimes called "the spirit of Vatican II."

The average lay catholic knows little difference between speculative, consensus, and dogmatic theology; most have forgotten Pius XII's threats against Americans who favored "democracy, pluralism, capitalism." Quite an indictment in 1959 against the American experiment of "freedom" and "self-governance." It required JFK to give his famous speech in Texas (infamously blasphemed by Mitt Romney's dismal repeat performance). As of 1959, the American experiment was sinful.

The pontificate of John Paul II issued the most encyclicals by a pope, and every one of these encyclicals appealed to the "natural law" as Aquinas established it in the 13th century. Some cited "natural law" on every page. Clearly, the fact that natural facts do not constitute human values, and human values do not constitute natural fact -- the is/ought divide and "naturalistic fallacy" -- has not penetrated the consciousness of those universal pastors of falsehood. What? In another 400 years? That's longer than the condemnation of Galileo! Is truth found in falsehood? Since the is/ought fallacy is 250 years known, only 150 until "eureka?"

Humanae Vitae overrode Paul VI's own council of natural scientists and theologians and continued archaic sexual prohibitions based solely on Thomistic "natural law," adding that sexuality may lawfully be unitive, but only if open to procreation. Wow! It took nearly 2,000 years to achieve that concession: Unitive love can be incorporated in the "sex act." I suppose this means that other acts are allowed other than coitus alone, but even "head" is barred if it brings a man to "orgasm," since that is not the "natural end" for semen (it's laughably silly to think in such preposterous terms, but Mssrs. Grisez, Boyle, and Finnis defend it and NFP as venial sin that the Church allows -- perhaps the worst piece of casuistry written in the 20th century -- 1990, I believe). If the "final end of semen is procreative solely," any diversion from that "telos" is sinful, including a great many other activities.

Unlike usury, where the Vatican stood to benefit financially, reversing 700 years of definitive "natural law" Teaching, preceded by yet another less "mature" 700 years is highly unlikely. A doctrine of Stoicism, not revelation, refined in the fire by Aquinas' conflation of "natural teleology" with "human instrumental action," -- which Aristotle keeps distinct -- (and "natural teleology" is demonstrably false. as nature does not serve its own "ends" or "purposes", it simply "is") illustrates many of the problems with reforming a Church, or acting according to one's conscience, knowledge of facts, and mystical beliefs reduced by silly illogical schemes from the 13th century (however much I admire Aquinas' brilliance for his times).

But, these challenges are like a "double-edge" sword to evaluate certain claims for their truth or falsity and the reliability of that authority to "get it right." One can insist that the Church has never pronounced infallibly any sexual practice as lawful or not, and technically skirt the sensus fidelium, but not even androphile J. H. Newman can undermine 1900 years of definitive teachings regarding certain sexual practices; he chose celibacy, which may explain why the priesthood has declined in drastic numbers over the past 40 yearrs (in fact, I know so). Fewer and fewer androphiles believe that is their only option. Most left not only holy orders and the seminaries, but the Church entirely, for them to be "false" in the eyes of the Church, while "true" to themselves, was that sword that proved nature is not "natural law," but our biological constitutions.

As always, best wishes.

crystal said...

Thanks for the mention, Michael. On a day like this, when the Jesuits, after listening to a homily telling them to "think with the church", can still elect another Pedro Arrupe, I find it hard to be pessimistic about change or the pursuit of truth :-)