Posted by Christopher Johnson | Monday, March 12th, 2012 | Uncategorized | 23 Comments
Roman Catholics will be interested to learn that Gary Gutting, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame and someone who claims to be a Catholic, recently discovered that the Reformation is finally over and that the Protestants won:
What interests me as a philosopher — and a Catholic — is that virtually all parties to this often acrimonious debate have assumed that the bishops are right about this, that birth control is contrary to “the teachings of the Catholic Church.” The only issue is how, if at all, the government should “respect” this teaching.
Good question since Gutting thinks that Catholics have pretty much plowed it under and sowed the furrows with nuclear waste.
As critics repeatedly point out, 98 percent of sexually active American Catholic women practice birth control, and 78 percent of Catholics think a “good Catholic” can reject the bishops’ teaching on birth control. The response from the church, however, has been that, regardless of what the majority of Catholics do and think, the church’s teaching is that birth control is morally wrong. The church, in the inevitable phrase, “is not a democracy.” What the church teaches is what the bishops (and, ultimately, the pope, as head of the bishops) say it does.
The bishops aren’t the boss of us!!
But is this true? The answer requires some thought about the nature and basis of religious authority. Ultimately the claim is that this authority derives from God. But since we live in a human world in which God does not directly speak to us, we need to ask, Who decides that God has given, say, the Catholic bishops his authority?
Who died and made the bishops religious leaders?
It makes no sense to say that the bishops themselves can decide this, that we should accept their religious authority because they say God has given it to them. If this were so, anyone proclaiming himself a religious authority would have to be recognized as one. From where, then, in our democratic, secular society does such recognition properly come? It could, in principle, come from some other authority, like the secular government. But we have long given up the idea (“cujus regio, ejus religio”) that our government can legitimately designate the religious authority in its domain. But if the government cannot determine religious authority, surely no lesser secular power could. Theological experts could tell us what the bishops have taught over the centuries, but this does not tell us whether these teachings have divine authority.
Out: cujus regio, ejus religio. In: vox populi vox dei.
In our democratic society the ultimate arbiter of religious authority is the conscience of the individual believer. It follows that there is no alternative to accepting the members of a religious group as themselves the only legitimate source of the decision to accept their leaders as authorized by God. They may be wrong, but their judgment is answerable to no one but God. In this sense, even the Catholic Church is a democracy.
You know that joke I like to make about how in the future, everybody, to paraphrase Andy Warhol, will be an Episcopal bishop for fifteen minutes? As far as Gutting is concerned, every single Roman Catholic is a bishop right now.
But, even so, haven’t the members of the Catholic Church recognized their bishops as having full and sole authority to determine the teachings of the Church? By no means. There was, perhaps, a time when the vast majority of Catholics accepted the bishops as having an absolute right to define theological and ethical doctrines. Those days, if they ever existed, are long gone. Most Catholics — meaning, to be more precise, people who were raised Catholic or converted as adults and continue to take church teachings and practices seriously — now reserve the right to reject doctrines insisted on by their bishops and to interpret in their own way the doctrines that they do accept. This is above all true in matters of sexual morality, especially birth control, where the majority of Catholics have concluded that the teachings of the bishops do not apply to them. Such “reservations” are an essential constraint on the authority of the bishops.
So you can take all those cafeteria Catholic, cultural Catholic and CINO blasts and stick ’em where the sun don’t shine, pal.
The bishops and the minority of Catholics who support their full authority have tried to marginalize Catholics who do not accept the bishops as absolute arbiters of doctrine. They speak of “cafeteria Catholics” or merely “cultural Catholics,” and imply that the only “real Catholics” are those who accept their teachings entirely. But this marginalization begs the question I’m raising about the proper source of the judgment that the bishops have divine authority. Since, as I’ve argued, members of the church are themselves this source, it is not for the bishops but for the faithful to decide the nature and extent of episcopal authority. The bishops truly are, as they so often say, “servants of the servants of the Lord.”
You get the idea. The blithering idiocy of Gutting’s claim should become patently obvious by asking yourself a simple question. Is it immoral for a Christian to own a slave? Most, and hopefully all, Christians would say of course it is.
But according to his own proposition, Gutting can’t honestly answer the question, at least not directly. Because there was probably a point in this country’s history where the majority of American Catholics, while they would never have owned a slave themselves, had no moral objections to other people owning them.
So according to Gutting, if a Catholic bishop of that time decided that he agreed with the abolitionists, he would have been derelict in his ecclesiastical duty because he read the Scriptures, prayed and listened to the Spirit rather than listening to the voice of the people, most of whom probably would have thought he was going Protestant on them.
Gutting apparently believes that morality can be determined by majority vote, a concept which would greatly interest all the adulterers in Roman Catholic pews as well as take a great deal of pressure off any surviving Germans who enthusiastically supported Adolf Hitler in the early 1930’s. So Gary Gutting’s “morality” is nothing more than societal convention and is correspondingly worthless.
Or take that draconian anti-homosexual law proposed in Uganda, a measure which would severely criminalize homosexual activity. If the vast majority of the Ugandan people are shown to be enthusiastic supporters of that measure, should that country’s religious leaders either change their minds and support it or keep their mouths shut? If he wants to be consistent, Gutting would have to say yes.
The fact that quite a few American Catholics ignore church teachings is completely irrelevant. It’s quite true that there are Catholics who are Catholics because they were born into it, it’s a family tradition or they married someone who was and didn’t feel like contesting the issue because to them, one Christian church is the same as another. The same is true for Protestants, Orthodox, Muslims, Jews and everything else.
On the Christian end of things, there are very few people who take this stuff seriously, who investigate it, who read and pray about it, who don’t reject church teachings because they get in the way but try to observe them as best they can, who repent when they fail and try again and who refuse to appeal to
theological crack whores liberal “theologians” to help them find loopholes around commandments that they’d really rather not have to observe because, well, three-ways are fun.
But I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know.
Actual leadership, particularly actual spiritual leadership, occasionally involves sticking your neck out, telling people what they don’t want to hear, taking them places they don’t want to go and accepting whatever consequences might result. Anyone who thinks, as Gutting seems to, that Christian leadership necessitates that Catholic bishops bow their reading of Catholic doctrine to suit the whims of the laity should really avoid reading the Gospels or the entire New Testament, for that matter.
We already have one Episcopal Organization. We don’t need another one.