Tuesday, May 19, 2009

So Who IS a Real Catholic? Faith, The Church, and the World

A couple of days ago, I referenced an Op-Ed piece by Catholic author David Gibson entitled, "Who Is a Real Catholic?". The piece basically explored the war of ideas currently raging in the Catholic Church, the tendency of Catholics to simply ignore Church teachings that they disagree with, and seemingly called them to task for the deep divisions politically that cause schisms and a lack of focus spiritually.

Not being a Catholic myself, but being deeply interested in the topic anyway (for reasons I'll get into later), I forwarded the article to a handful of my friends in the Catholic Student Association at my university for their reactions. Four responded, and their opinions were fascinatingly diverse. Some highlights:
  • NATHAN replied first, calling out Gibson for his use of some quotations out of context and his accusations of "conservative" Catholics "distorting the true vision of what the Church is." Nathan also defended the fight over Obama's Notre Dame commencement speech, saying, "The ND fight has been necessary because no matter how good President Obama may be on "Catholic Issues," that does not change the fact that he and his Administration do not fully understand the damage that abortion has done to our society, and that ND, which likes to pride itself on its "Catholic identity and heritage" is giving him a platform to say that this negligence on the issue is somehow okay."
  • KATIE liked the article as a general rule, acknowledging Notre Dame's tradition of inviting presidents to speak at its commencement and some of Gibson's criticism of the Church-- how conservatives are sometimes too quick to condemn, and the level of disconnect between the Church and the people.
  • TJ brought up the concept that the Church has always been and will always be in a "state of war" to "maintain orthodoxy and to protect God's truth," saying that it all relates to a "sin of pride"-- that is to say, individuals viewing themselves as "mightier than the Church God established." He says that part of being a good Catholic means defaulting to the higher authorities (like the bishops) in the Church hierarchy.
  • KAYLOR brought it back to another view of the purpose of the Church-- "the community of saints that is responding to God in search of us." As a community of this nature, she says, Catholics are called to holiness and to seek after moral truths, then commit to these truth when they're found...but always "mitigated by love."
In the four responses that my Catholic brothers and sisters offered, I see all ranges of what I, as an outsider, view as the beauty and the problems in Catholicism. A wide range of ideas, hierarchy, tradition, spirituality, authority, social platforms, search for moral truth... positives and negatives abound in all of these, and more.

While I don't know that much about the sources that Gibson uses, his slant is indeed perfectly clear throughout the article. I'm sure, because of that, he was selective in the sources he chose to cite. The focus on abortion in the Catholic Church has been quite controversial (as has the topic of abortion everywhere, inside the faith community and out), but I certainly respect the stance and the commitment Catholics everywhere put into it. I personally happen to think that what President Obama said at the university was an important message to convey, and that because of the controversy, a Catholic university may well have been an appropriate place to bring it up. However, I can understand where Catholics might see some hypocrisy from the leaders at ND.

I happen to largely find agreement with Katie. It's not just within the Catholic Church that there is a lot of talking down from the right-wing (and even left-wing) elements. In every denomination, there are people who say that people who disagree with them are wrong and either stupid, going to hell, or both. The lack of empathy and understanding is disturbing, and must be changed in all elements. It's all about love-- all of Christianity is-- and the sooner we understand that the more likely the Church is to really make a difference in the world.

In TJ's response, he hit on what are perhaps my two largest philosophical disagreements with the Catholic Church: women in ministry and emphasis on authority.

First, women: In the United Methodist Church, we allow women to be ordained ministers, so I have grown up believing that that is not only acceptable, it is desirable. The most effective pastor I've ever had is a woman. She made a huge difference in my personal faith walk and in my home church, and the vast majority of the congregation was devastated when she had to move on to other fields of ministry. TJ said that women who "think they have the right to become priests, even though Christ established the priesthood explicitly among men" are an example of the "sin of pride" in the Church today. Now, maybe I'm missing something, but I have found nothing in the Gospels that indicates a restriction by Christ of women from leadership. In Christ's day, it would have been considered unthinkable for 13 single men to travel with women, which is presumably why Christ did not include women among his apostles. Paul, of course, is a different story-- he was the one who in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy restricted where women should speak. Still, under Paul, women WERE in positions of leadership, so Paul must have been referring to women who were speaking and acting out of order. He also wrote in Galatians 3:28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Regardless, I would caution TJ and others (both in and out of the Catholic Church, for many churches restrict women from leadership) to be careful not to confuse Christ's teachings with Paul's-- they are not inherently one and the same. For more on the Scriptural implications of women in ministry, see this piece by Betty Miller.

As far as Church authority and hierarchy is concerned-- I view people in positions of authority in the Church with some respectful skepticism. Despite the call of God on their lives, it is not impossible that these authority figures get their messages wrong. In the case that that happens, I don't think it's a bad thing to subject them to some healthy questioning, rather than simply deferring to their authority and assuming they are correct. Perhaps it is in part a Protestant thing-- generically, we have a tradition of "sola Scriptura," Scripture alone, and put any authority figures to the test of what Scripture indicates God wants. In my case, however, I think it's more of a Methodist thing. We're not really a "sola Scriptura" denomination in most cases. Our founder, John Wesley, instituted as a means of determining the course of action in the church, a "Wesleyan Quadrilateral". In this, you look at four facets of faith: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. We are a questioning people, and tend to operate in a somewhat more democratic manner than the Catholic Church. Every four years, our General Conference meets to determine, by means of the Quadrilateral and democratic discussion, any changes that need to be made in our Book of Discipline or Social Principles. It's a different way of operating, and if, as you say, deference to authority is part of what it means to be Catholic, then I would say that constantly revisiting our beliefs based on the Quadrilateral is part of what it means to be a United Methodist.

Kaylor said it well:
First and foremost, the Church is the community of saints that is responding to God in search of us. We should always remember that in the end we all have fallen short of God's goodness and are not particularly deserving of his grace; however, we have access to it and our also fallen brothers and sisters have access to it as well. Because of this we need to love them, not demonize them, and always treat them with the utmost respect, even in times of disagreement.
If more of us would adopt that philosophy, the Church universal would be a better place. We all are seeking after a higher truth. We may arrive at different conclusions as a result, based on our differing life experiences and differing philosophies, but we are all seeking after the same end, and trying our best to serve the same God. I really liked the quote from Archbishop Fulton Sheen that Kaylor referenced (taking, for my purposes, the term "Church" to mean "Church universal"): "Dear friends, remember that the Church is always pointing to the truth about who God is. And God is love, infinitely just and infinitely merciful. You cannot have justice without mercy, and you cannot have mercy without justice."

At the end of his response, Nathan said something that really stood out to me: "As a United Methodist, your Church stands for things that may not be in line with popular culture, and it would make no sense for the Catholic Church not to be the same." There's a good point there. As a general rule, the Church universal does stand outside popular culture. That's what can drive Christianity's revolutionary nature at its best-- a willingness to look beyond this world and the present day and time to what the world could be...what its Creator desires it to be.

Which brings me to why I care about these debates within the Catholic Church: they are simply a microcosm of debates that are going on in every church of every denomination everywhere in this country and probably around the worlds. The fact that Protestants generally debate across denominations rather than within one denomination means nothing-- first of all because that's not actually true, there's extensive debate over social issues and certain spiritual truths within denominations, and second of all because Christianity as a whole is, as ever, one body within Christ, in spite of the many differences of opinion. Some debates may never be resolved in this life-- not by looking to authorities, not by extensive discussion in the public square-- but because we are still one in the Spirit and one in the Lord, we can remain brothers and sisters in faith throughout our disagreements.

This has gotten very long, so I will end here. Many thanks to Nathan, Katie, TJ, and Kaylor for sharing their views on Catholicism. This discussion made possible by the God who made all of us to love one another.

1 comment:

Rachel C said...

Carolyn Capern, I love your regular commentary. It makes me feel validated. Yes, I did run into some disgruntled people. My friends and I were biking on the sidewalk to AVOID GETTING KILLED, and this lady was like "Are you allowed to be up here?" in a very nasty tone. But now I know to where I can refer her.

RE: Your post...you make bang-on good points here, and I particularly agree with your viewpoint that there are fanatics in every creed. And while I've fallen outside the fold of what I would consider to be "religious" in recent years, this whole Catholic/Protestant divide is baffling to me. I disagree just as much with some Baptist doctrine as I do with Catholic doctrine. And I went to a Presbyterian church (PCA) where women were not allowed to be deacons or elders, which I always thought was rather silly. I mean, I suppose (like you mention) everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and thoughts (of course, with that viewpoint, everything becomes entirely too relative)...but with the ND incident, I was frankly a little annoyed at the whole thing. I suppose I was allowed to be, just as they were allowed to protest, and just as President Obama is allowed to be pro-choice.

Again with the relativity, though...this is about the point in the argument where someone would bring up Adolf Hitler.

This is not making sense. I hate it when I end up thinking in blog commentary. :-P