Thursday, September 24, 2009

"If the People Don't Believe It, It's Not True"

I was going through some papers at the CPCSM office yesterday and came across a National Catholic Reporter article from January 2003. Written by Arthur Jones, this particular article is entitled “Sexuality Sets Stage for Church’s Next Reformation, Expert Predicts.”

The “expert” is Richard Sipe (pictured at right). Here’s how Jones introduces him in his article:

Sipe, a Benedictine monk for 18 years, then a married man for 32, in 1990 wrote “A Secret World,” an account of his 1960-85 research on celibacy.

The former monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., was trained by the Benedictines to deal with the mental health problems of Roman Catholic priests and religious. He continued to do that after he left, and to teach in major Catholic seminaries until, in 1984, a Vatican visitation of U.S. seminaries declared ex-priests could not be seminary faculties.

He has been called as an expert witness in more than 95 civil suits over sex abuse.

At one point in Jones’ article, Sipe notes that “In terms of human sexuality, the Church is at a pre-Copernican stage of understanding” – a reference, notes Jones, to “15th century Catholic priest and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who resurrected, despite church opposition, the scientific theory of the sun rather than the Earth as the center of the solar system.”

Says Sipe: “The church has not come to understand the nature of sex. And it’s not easily understood – we have to struggle along with the neurological, the genetic, the psychological, the evolutionary basis of it. The church has not done that and is frightened of doing it.”

Yet as you’ll see in the following excerpt from Jones’ article on Sipe, there is one group within the church that is not frightened of this “struggle” for understanding - and thus right teaching on - human sexuality. That group is the laity.


What the laity has began to realize, [Sipe] said, is that the reason the [clergy sexual abuse] scandal is so destabilizing to the church is because it goes to the fundamentals of the doctrine. The laity wants all these questions reexamined and rediscussed – from contraception, homosexuality, masturbation, sex before marriage, to sex after divorce, even abortion. The laity is beginning to ask the church on questions of human sexuality, “On what basis are you saying this is natural and this is unnatural? The laity is questioning the church’s reasoning on what is natural and how it’s natural and demanding it be rethought. This questioning is so compelling that nothing can turn it back,” he said.

“If you put it in religious terms, where we are today,” said Sipe, “concerns the obvious step from the hypocritical to an actual reformation. Historically, corruption comes from the top and reform comes from the bottom. I mean why does reformation come about? Reformation comes about because, my God, you’re teaching this and you’re practicing that. And people say: Either change what you’re practicing, or change what you’re teaching.

The laity is the force,” he said. “Articles say, ‘Oh, it’ll be different when we get a new pope.’ It may or may not. That’s not the real force in this. The real force of this is in the sensus fidelium, because, if the people don’t believe it, it’s not true.”

In effect, Sipe was saying there’s a simple parting of the ways between the sensus fidelium, the beliefs of the people, and the magisterium, the official teaching of the church. And it is this: The Vatican sees sexual behavior as central to belief. The Western Catholic people see sexual behavior as central to life and peripheral to belief.


In the six years since this article was written, the laity’s questioning of the church – on all sorts of matters – has only increased.

Here in St. Paul-Minneapolis we’re seeing this in the ten
work/study groups of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform - groups composed predominately of lay people and currently meeting on a regular basis so as to prepare for a “Synod of the Baptized” to be held in Minneapolis in September 2010.

These work/study groups have gathered people together who share a passion for reforming certain areas of church life. These areas are ones that many have long recognized as being at odds with the Gospel message of love proclaimed by Jesus. They include clericalism, the selection of bishops, church authority and governance, and official teaching on sexuality and gender. Other areas are less controversial though still crucial when discussing renewal of the Church. These areas include Catholic spirituality; Catholic identity/Christian identity; social justice; and children, youth, and church.

It’s an exciting initiative that’s underway, to be sure. And I’m honored and happy to be part of it, and to see so many other members of the laity similarly involved and engaged.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Time for a Church for Grown-Ups
Will We See Change?
The Catholic Challenge
A Time to Rethink the Basis and Repair the Damage
A Church That Can and Cannot Change
Robert McClory on Humanae Vitae
Rosemary Haughton and the “True Catholic Endeavor”
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 1)
A Catholic Understanding of faithful Dissent (Part 2)
Genuine Authority
Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology
Trading with Frozen Truths
The Standard for Sexual Ethics
Italian Cardinal Calls for “New Vision” for Sexuality
James Nelson on “Sexual Rules” and “Openness to Life”
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 1)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 2)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 3)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 4)
Getting It Right
God is Love


Liam said...

One caution: there a couple of equivocations going on here.

First, the sensus fidelium commonly misunderstood as something of the people as opposed to the Magisterium. That's an erroneous understanding. The SF is never considered apart from the Magisterium. If the people and the bishops are diverting from each other, the people do not thereby become the repository of the SF.

Second, there is the issue of who these "people" are. As they are described here, they appear to be First World folks. Catholics in other parts of the world (and, of course, not all in the First World) do not necessarily share this perspective.

Were bishops to become elected by the faithful at large tomorrow, I would not assume it would result in a more progressive outlook on their overall part on these issues as a group. Actually, I would venture they might become somewhat more conservative overall.

Anonymous said...

"if the people don’t believe it, it’s not true.”

What is one than to make of those early years of the Church when Arianism was rampant, and by some accounts, the majority of "believers" did not affirm the Divinity of Christ?

Applied to any other field other than theology, this statement would be seen for its absurdity.

With all due respect, the author needs to stick to psychology and avoid theology. I don't think he really knows what he's talking about. He could begin by reading Cardinal Newman.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Actually, I’d wager that for the vast majority of Catholics the idea of the “sense of the faithful” (however crassly it may be expressed by non-theological folks like Richard Sipe) is not nearly as “absurd” as the magisterium’s relatively recent claim of infallibility on matters of faith and morals.

It’s a claim that dates back to the 1870s when the concept of the “ordinary, universal magisterium” – a “third way” of teaching infallibly – was introduced at the First Vatican Council. In his book, Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic, Philip S. Kaufman writes that “under [this third way], without coming together in council, the Pope and the bishops around the world could agree that a teaching had been divinely revealed and ‘must be believed with divine and Catholic faith.’” However, according to Kaufman, the First Vatican Council “didn’t define this third way of teaching infallibly.”

Sadly, what this has meant for the church is that in the last 130 years many have been confused by ideologues within the church who declare that the Church’s teaching on issues such as homosexuality and contraception are “non-negotiable truths” binding on all who claim to be “practicing Catholics.” Yet one has to ask: Are the 97% of Catholic couples who practice birth control engaging in a moral evil? Or does their faithful dissent have something to say about the Spirit’s call for the reexamination of key aspects of the Church’s understanding of the meaning and purpose of human sexuality? According to some, simply asking questions like this makes one a “bad” Catholic. Something’s seriously wrong here.



Anonymous said...

Michael -

May I ask where the "97% of Catholics are practicing birth control" comes from? This seems quite high. I would want to know the source, and how the questions were raised in the survey. As you know very well, data can be shaped based upon the way the question is formulated. Does this mean Catholics who attend Mass every Sunday, or those who identify themeselves as Catholics regardless of their practices? This piece of data makes a big, big difference.

Was the First Vatican Council an Ecumenical Council, or wasn't it? If it was, than how could its dogmatic teachings not be binding? The declaration of Papal Infallibity was made by an Ecumenical Council; it was not the solitary decree of the Pope. Did the Holy Spirit chose to "duck out" for a smoke during the vote on the decree? I don't think so, anymore than the Holy Spirit "ducked out" when Lumen Gentium was approved, a document that reaffirms Papal Infallibity.

Was there ever a time in the Church's history when artifical contraception was not recognized as a moral evil? As best as I can tell, the CHurch has always been oppoed to artificial birth control, not least of all because it ultimately damages women and children.

I also would like to challenge the term "faithful dissent." Most people just don't know enough about their Faith to claim this. This applies to people on both sides of the "aisle", to be sure.

Oboedientia et Pax

Mareczku said...

I think a problem is that for most of the life of the Catholic Church celibacy was seen as the ideal. Sex was considered to be a sin and only sex for procreation within marrriage was considered licit. Only in more recent years has the Church begun to see sex as a positive good. (The Theology of the Body) Things are not that easy for men as male orgasms are seen as sinful except when a man is having sex (without any form of contraception) with hs wife. Sadly, this leaves many priests in a bind as their body's are just not allowed to do that. Actually until I was well into my 20's I thought that almost all priests were pure and celibate and that they didn't have to worry about that stuff because their bodies didn't have orgasms because they took vows and were kind of perfect that way. Well, with all the stuff that has gone on I sure don't believe that anymore.

Phillip Clark said...

Asking questions is something that is never wrong. After reading this article I'm delighted to think that we could could all be players in a modern day reformation. In the past reform has taken place beacause of the gap between the actual practices of the clergy and the Faith that they claim to preach. Now, the battle lines have been drawn on the subject of human sexuality. We can't back down, and even if pressured by Rome, we must be encouraged by the fact that the Church is the People of God, not just its shepherds (however well intentioned they may be) in Rome!

Lord, send forth Your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth (and Your Church!)

Michael J. Bayly said...


Checking my source, the figure's 96% not 97%. And that source is the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, as noted in this article.



Terence said...

Sipe's argument mirrors precisely the conclusions I have been reaching while researching and writing about the issues at Queering the Church: the official teaching of the church on sexuality no longer has the SF; this goes to the heart of the problems facing the church, especially the problem of abuse; and that what is needed now is not just a new pope or some tinkering of the doctrines, but a complete reformation. (I do however want to see this taking place inside the universal church, not by more splintering.)

Liam is right in his cautions: the concept of SF is more complex than simple majority opinion; but it is equally true that if bishops and laity diverge, the bishops must be right - that would make the whole concept meaningless. Sure, the SF must be considered with respect to the whole church, not just the rich West. But as a South African with a deep interest in the developing world, I am not convinced that there would be a fundamental difference in the main conclusion.
As for Anon’s reference to the early church, it is ironic that he refers to Arianism.

"The Nicene dogma was maintained during the greater part of the fourth century not by the unswerving firmness of the Holy See or councils of bishops but by the consensus fidelium.”

Who said so? Cardinal John Henry Newman, quoted by Robert McClory, in his book "In the Beginning: the Coming Democratisation of the Catholic Church", and as reported in a review of the book posted on the Wild Reed in Robert McClory’s “Prophetic Work”, May 02, 2008.

Liam said...

So, that's an estimate of 96% of married American Catholics have at some point used birth control. That stat, while not irrelevant, does not travel as far as some might like it to.

William D. Lindsey said...

Great article, Michael. I'm amazed at how a number of respondents in this thread completely turn Newman on his head, when it comes to the sensus fidelium and the Arian crisis.

As Newman repeatedly and clearly points out, it was the faithful--lay believers--who held onto what became the orthodox definition of Christ's nature, when a majority of bishops (the magisterium, to use Liam's term) were Arianists.

As John J. Burkhard notes in "The Sensus Fidelium" in Gerard Mannion and Lewis Seymour Mudge's (eds.) "The Routledge Companion to the Christian Church" (London: Routledge, 2008), "Newman, for instance, was famous for his claim that during the second phase of the Arian crisis, when many of the bishops accepted Arian compromise formulas for expressing the faith in Christ, the faithful rose to the task of witnessing to Christ's full divinity by refusing to have anything to do with such compromises. Increasingly, then, a doctrine of the role of the faithful as a true source of the church's faith became a part of the Roman Catholic theology of faith" (pp. 561-562).

My God, what are they teaching in these right-wing Catholic colleges nowadays, if they can take Newman's theology of the sensus fidelium and his history of the Arian crisis and try to argue that this theology and that history argue for the perpetual rightness of the magisterium and the wrongness of the laity in matters of faith and morals?

Liam said...

But the flip side to Arianism was Donatism: and there, it was the lay faithful who became so fundamentalist that they created something like a civil war in the Church of North Africa. (Donatists at times would make Fred Phelps and Glenn Beck seem pleasant by comparison.)

Be careful about cherry-picking historical evidence to favor one's own side.

Btw, I completely agree with Terence that the SF is not simply the Magisterium either.

There is a great temptation for Catholic to turn their dogmatic toggle switches to transform questions into teaching. And *that* is the fundamental error ideological Catholics are prone to. Catholics have a great deal of trouble letting questions be questions without reaching for an answer that creates a universal solution. That does not only apply to bishops, but to those, for example, who want to base on teaching for the whole Church on the fact that 96% of married American Catholics have at some point resorted to birth control.

One had to be disciplined about asserting facts and history as narrowly as possible when trying to develop a teaching. Why, you may ask? Because overarguing is a sign of weak argument that is very vulnerable to being ignored or, worse, backfire.

Michael J. Bayly said...


I think it needs to be said that the article I cite in which the U.S. Catholic bishops acknowledge the widespread use of birth control by Catholic couples does not use the rather discounting language that you’ve used in your comments, i.e. “96% of married American Catholics have at some point resorted to birth control” (emphasis mine). Rather, the article states: “[The bishops] acknowledged that most married Catholics – 96 percent, according to their own estimate – use birth control.”



Liam said...


Well, do you think married American Catholics are always using birth control? Subtract out the currently infertile (including by age) and you get a much lower percentage of Catholics. Then, you need to consider that many people don't always used birth control, and some people use it infrequently, and for some couples it's a source of deep dispute when one spouse wants children and the other doesn't (or where the wife does not want the chemical effects of ABC but the husband doesn't want to use a condom instead).

My rendering of that stat reflects this necessary qualification of the stat.

It does not, however, deal with the additional issue that people's attitudes about ABC are not necessarily perfectly correlated to whether they have used it.

It also does not deal with the views of unmarried Catholics and non-American Catholics (married or non-married).

Stats are limited things. They usually say far less than we think.

Michael J. Bayly said...


You pose good questions, but there's simply no way of knowing for sure the answers (although one place to start would be the feedback gathered from married Catholics by the Papal Birth Control Commission of the late 1960s).

Accordingly, any attempt at rendering the statement "96% of married Catholics use birth control" in a way that presumes a "qualification of the stat" is going to be limited and problematic - and reflective, I'd argue, more of the person doing the rendering (and his/her stance on the matter) than of the actual reality of the situation.

Of course, one way around this problem would be for Catholic married couples to (once again) be invited to share their thoughts, experiences, and insights on the issue of birth control. Yet history has shown that the "official" Church doesn't look kindly on allowing the results of such sharing to guide and shape the ongoing development of church teaching.

No, the Church believes the matter settled once and for all, and it may well be - although probably not in the way the men in Rome would have us believe.



Liam said...


I don't have a big problem acknowledging that many Catholics contracept. I have no ideological dog in that fight.

But I do have a professional issue with sloppy stats (the sloppiness is no fault of yours) and arguments that assume too much from them. The fact that its common doesn't justify it. I think advocates are best served when they are aware of the cracks in the foundations of their arguments; in fact, the best advocate is one who knows better the weaknesses within her own arguments than do her opponents. I don't advocate that merely in terms of "debate strategy" but even more in spiritual terms. An advocate thus armed is much less at risk for despair and better armed for perseverence.

I too would welcome a much better way to get a sense of the authentic SF than we have now. I just don't assume it necessarily looks like modern civil democracies and I don't assume its results will necessarily be progressive in the way you or I might understand that.

William D. Lindsey said...

Liam, it's not clear to me if you're disagreeing with me or with John Henry Newman, in your reply.

It's not I who am "cherry-picking" the historical example of Arianism to conclude that the sensus fidelium is essential to consider when official church teaching is established. It's Newman who did so.

And as he pointed out, we're dealing here with a doctrine at the very center of our faith.

If your interpretation of the Donatist crisis is correct (and I have strong reasons to quibble with your assertion that the laity carried the day there), then isn't it interesting that Newman chose to focus his analysis of the sensus fidelium on the Arian crisis and not the Donatist one?

I wonder why.

The truth of what the church teaches is dependent on the faithful's reception of that truth. When there is such a huge discrepancy between what is being officially taught and how the laity are receiving that teaching in the case of sexual ethics, then something is wrong with the official teaching--and we have strong historical warrant to conclude that.

Liam said...


I am not accusing Newman of cherry picking. I am saying that relying on Newman to use Arianism as the sole example is a limited argument that takes you only so far. It's no slam dunk.

Given Newman's own docility on many vexing teachings, I think trying use Newman aggressively on this question is questionable. He has a point. But it won't carry you over the goal line. Far from it.

William D. Lindsey said...

Thanks for your reply, Liam. I'm sorry you seem to find Newman less significant than I do. My own conversion to the Catholic church back in 1967 had much to do with reading Newman, and being convinced by his theology of historical development--to the extent that I could understand that as an adolescent.

I'm glad the church is now going to give him long overdue recognition by canonizing him. I suspect this will make his theology even more significant than it has been--and will remind us again of what a key role it played at Vatican II.

Liam said...


Newman defended Pastor Aeternus in detail, and had a rather high concept of the role of bishops and of "rulers" in the Church. I don't think I am thinking him "less significant"; granted, he was no Manning (mercifully), but people read him more wishfully than is sometimes merited. Newman is a mixed bag, and can be put to non-progressive uses, too.

Canonization (in this case, just beatification, though) can be also be a way of keeping someone in the form of amber the canonizers desire. (Dorothy Day was very much onto that aspect of the process.)

Still, I did enjoy watching neo-ultramontanists get miffed over the pending beatification and grumble about honoring Manning instead (though many of them probably don't like Manning's role in developing social justice teaching).

Mark Andrews said...

There is an epistemic problem with the statement "If the people don't believe it, it's not true."

"I don't believe in gravity."

More clarity is needed. Some kinds of "it" are true, no matter what people believe, where they are from, etc. Let's distinguish between Sipe's "it" and other "it's" please.