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Can you be a Catholic and have a questioning mind?

  • PETER BERGER

There has been no shortage of recent media stories bound to embarrass the Roman Catholic Church.

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There has been no end of reports about priests abusing boys and girls under their care (more boys than girls, it seems), culminating in the criminal conviction of an ecclesiastical official for protecting abusive priests.  And there have now been stories about intrigues and corruption reaching into the highest circles of the Curia.  But none of these stories — though certainly damaging to the credibility of the Church — affect the core of her identity.  Even the most fervent anti-Catholic will not claim that the core of Roman Catholicism consists of pedophilia, court conspiracies and financial irregularity.  But there are some other media stories that cut closer to the real core (whether they are embarrassing or not depends on the theological position of the observer).

A few weeks ago the Catholic bishops of the United States staged a campaign somewhat oddly called "Fortnight for Freedom" (as a reader of this blog pointed out, the title was in British English — how many Americans use the term "fortnight"?  — is there some Anglophile scribe in the offices of the Bishops Conference?  — perhaps a recent convert from the Church of England?!).   The campaign was triggered by the attempt of the Obama administration to force Catholic institutions to include contraception in health insurance offered to their employees.  The campaign was strongly supported by many non-Catholics who did not agree with Catholic teaching on contraception, but who agreed with the bishops that the issue here was not contraception at all, but the free exercise of religion guaranteed in the first amendment to the US constitution.  (I too agreed with this view.) What is more, ever since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church is indeed credible as a defender of religious freedom in society, as she has been a strong proponent of democracy in many countries.  But there is another issue not touched upon by the bishops — the issue of religious freedom within the Catholic Church.  The "Fortnight" campaign attracted a good deal of attention, but another story has quickly replaced its featured place: the contretemps between the Vatican and the major organization of American nuns.

The current issue of the National Catholic Reporter contains several articles about this event.  In April 2012, after a long investigation, the Vaticn's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the latter-day successor to the Inquisition, and before his ascension to the papacy headed by Benedict XVI) issued a sharp criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about eighty percent of American nuns.  The Congregation, in what is labeled an "assessment of doctrine", cited the "prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith".  These themes include sympathy for the ordination of women and questioning of many staples of Catholic sexual morality, as well as left-leaning political involvements.  Peter Sartain, the Archbishop of Seattle, was appointed to head a commission to oversee a general review of the organization and its subsequent revamping so as to conform to Roman standards.  On August 10, 2012, at its convention in St.Louis, the Leadership Conference decided to forego open defiance in favor of "dialogue" with the Vatican overseer.  (The New York Times reported this in its issue of August 11 on an inside page.  A separate story on page 1 reported on a break-in at a US nuclear facility by a couple of militantly pacifist nuns.  This may or may not fall within the mandate of Archbishop Sartain).  The issue was defined in terms of one basic question by Pat Farrell, a Franciscan nun and head of the Leadership Conference: Can you be a Catholic and have a questioning mind?

What the Church can never compromise on is obedience to the authority of pope and magisterium: If the Roman Catholic Church compromised on that, it would give up the very core of its identity — it would cease to be itself.

Several other stories, reported both by Catholic and secular media, are interestingly related to Sister Farrell's provocative question.  In the same issue of National Catholic Reporter (it was also reported in the New York Times) a story deals with the decision by the Vatican to withdraw the recognition of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru as, precisely, an institution both "pontifical" (that is, directly recognized by the Pope) and "Catholic".  The very prestigious University, located in Lima, was ordered to change its name and to turn over its assets to the archdiocese.  The reason is, once again, alleged dissidence from Catholic teaching.  The University has long been a center of Liberation Theology, whose neo-Marxist ideas have been condemned by the Vatican.  Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the founders of this school of thought, has long been on the faculty.  Thus far the University has been defiant, refusing to follow the Church's orders.  There is, incidentally, a curious relation to the previously mentioned story: Pat Farrell spent more than twenty years in Latin America, in Chile during the Pinochet regime and in El Salvador during its civil war.  I can well imagine that this experience would make her sympathetic to the perspective of Liberation Theology.

Far from the United States and Peru, the Austrian Association of Catholic Priests has very explicitly challenged the authority of the Church.  Now representing over 400 Austrian priests and deacons, it was founded in 2006 by Monsignor Helmut Schueller (the very respected former head of Caritas Austria).  In June 2011 the Association issued an "Appeal to Disobedience", promising to disobey official teaching on a number of issues, including clerical celibacy and refusal to give communion to divorced and remarried Catholics.  Reaching beyond Austria, the Association is in the process of establishing an international network of like-minded clerics.  The reaction by Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, is very instructive.  Austrian Catholicism has a long tradition of moderation and mellowness, which Schoenborn personally embodies.  Thus he intervened when a local bishop removed from a congregational council one of its elected members, a man living openly in a same-sex relationship.  Schoenborn had lunch with the man and the latter's partner, and became convinced of the council member's sincere Catholic faith.  He overruled the local bishop and had the man reinstated, in the explanation of this action reaffirming Catholic teaching on marriage and homosexuality, but adding that individual cases should be decided by pastoral considerations and not in terms of abstract doctrine.  Yet the open defiance by a group of priests was too much even for Schoenborn.  While he expressed willingness to discuss their concerns, he ordered the rebellious priests to remove the word "disobedience" from their manifesto and threatened them with excommunication if they refuse.


An ongoing Catholic story concerns the Society of St. Pius X.  It was founded by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre as a very traditionalist community, opposed to many of the reforms inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council.  One of the Society's hallmark characteristics was its continuing use of the Latin Tridentine Mass, resisting the Council's establishment of vernacular languages in almost all rituals of Catholic worship.  But the retention of the Latin Mass is just one potent symbol of the rejection of all moves of aggiornamento — reconciling Roman Catholicism with the modernity of the day (giorno).  The tension with Rome was greatly intensified in 1988 when Lefebvre, defying then Pope John Paul II, ordained four bishops (one of them, more recently, turned out to be a Holocaust denier).  Rome declared that the Society was schismatic and that all its priestly actions were invalid.  Nevertheless, the present Pope Benedict XVI has promoted a dialogue with the group in order to restore its communion with the Church.  At the time of writing, the negotiations are stalled.

Many of the Catholic dissidents in these stories mention conscience as an authority. There is indeed a Christian tradition which puts conscience (though as guided by God's Word) over the authority of the Church. This tradition is known as Protestantism.

Four stories about Catholics in trouble with the Church for dissident views and actions — American nuns, Peruvian academics and Austrian priests, all located somewhere on the Left of the theological spectrum — and the priests of the Society of St.  Pius X, about as far to the Right as one can go short of restoring the Inquisition to its historic role.  Yet, despite these differences, the four cases have in common to what is at the very core of Roman Catholicism — the authority of the papacy and its official teaching (the so-called magisterium).  The Catholic Church has a long history of accommodation and compromise with deviant groups, from the radical Franciscans centuries ago who despised the worldly splendor of Rome and thus its civilization, to the Anglican converts of our own time who want to retain married priests and the use of the Book of Common Prayer.  What the Church can never compromise on is obedience to the authority of pope and magisterium: If the Roman Catholic Church compromised on that, it would give up the very core of its identity — it would cease to be itself.

Back to Sister Farrell's question: Can Catholic faith be combined with a questioning mind?  History suggests an emphatic yes. Catholic civilizationhas nurtured some of the best minds ever, some very questioning indeed.  But Farrell's question is misleading: The issue is not what one thinks in private, but what one says publicly that is contrary to the magisterium. Roman canon law contains a very important proposition: De occultis non iudicat Ecclesia — "The Church does not judge secret matters" — such as the private ruminations of a questioning mind.  What is more, when these ruminations are publicly advocated in opposition to the teachings of the magisterium, the Church has the authority to condemn them and to discipline Catholics who advocate them.  [A disclaimer: I know very little about canon law.  I know this Latin proposition because Soeren Kierkegaard used it to comfort himself about a dark secret in his family history.  I further disclaim any ambition to be considered a Renaissance man.]

Many of the Catholic dissidents in these stories mention conscience as an authority.  There is indeed a Christian tradition which puts conscience (though as guided by God's Word) over the authority of the Church.  This tradition is known as Protestantism.  My late friend Richard John Neuhaus (while still a Lutheran, before what he called his "ecclesial transition" to the Roman Catholic Church) once put it very succinctly: There are Christians who view the Church as a vehicle for faith, others as an object of faith. Amicable ecumenical dialogue (such as the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue about the doctrine of justification) is useful and even admirable.  But it neither should nor could deny this fundamental difference. 

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Acknowledgement

Peter Berger. "Can you be a Catholic and have a questioning mind?" The American Interest (August 15, 2012).

Reprinted with permission from The American Interest and the author, Peter Berger. 

The American Interest is an independent voice devoted to the broad theme of "America in the world."  In its six issues each year, we provide the premier forum for serious and civil discussion on the full spectrum of issues — domestic and international — that shape America's role on the world stage, a discourse characterized by a passion for useful truths.

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The Author

Professor Berger is Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology and Theology at Boston University.  He previously taught at the New School for Social Research, at Rutgers University, and at Boston College.  He has written numerous books on sociological theory, the sociology of religion, and Third World development, which have been translated into dozens of foreign languages. Among his more recent books are In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions without Becoming a Fanatic, Religious America, Secular Europe?, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience, and Modernity, Pluralism and the Crisis of Meaning.  In 1992, Professor Berger was awarded the Manes Sperber Prize, presented by the Austrian government for significant contributions to culture.  Since 1985, Professor Berger has been Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture.  The institute is a research center committed to systematic study of relationships between economic development and sociocultural change in different parts of the world.

Copyright © 2012 The American Interest
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