I know it may be a tired subject for some, but I keep seeing defenses of the Roman Catholic church and hierarchy that could have worked just as well for said defender to remain Protestant. The latest comes from David Mills who offers encouragement for those who are discouraged by what some Cardinals or bishops do or say.
Before getting around to Mills’ encouragement, here are a few examples of church teaching that Roman Catholics find befuddling. One is the bishops’ guide to voters in the United States, which received this objection:
My eyes glazed over when I first tried to read the entire 44-page text of Faithful Citizenship, when it first appeared on the scene in the fall of 2007. In their instructions to voters, the bishops dutifully call for opposition to abortion. But they mix that admonition with so many other considerations that the overall effect is weak. Faithful Citizenship does not draw the necessary, clear distinction between the issues on which good Catholics might disagree (such as economic policy) and those that are non-negotiable (such as abortion)—not to mention the distinction between issues on which prudent compromise is wise (economics again) and those on which compromise is odious (abortion again).
Faithful Citizenship was itself clearly a compromise of sorts, cobbled together to maintain the peace within the bishops’ conference. The final document was not entirely satisfactory to anyone on either end of the political spectrum, nor did it prevent public disagreements among American bishops during the ensuring election year.
And the net effect? Archbishop Raymond Burke believes that Faithful Citizenship helped ensure the election of President Obama, since the crucial Catholic vote swung toward the Democratic candidate. But that may be an exaggeration; survey results show that most Catholic voters were blissfully unaware of the bishops’ advice, and probably would have ignored that advice even if they had heard it.
Another example is whether the Roman Catholic faithful need to support the arms deal between the U.S. and Iran because the Vatican supports it:
Thus far, however, there has been no change in the Holy See and the U.S. bishops’ steady support for such an accord, even as the Obama administration has been criticized for making too many concessions to Iran to secure a deal that restricts the country’s nuclear stockpiles, centrifuges and research for 15 years.
“The agreement on the Iranian nuclear program is viewed in a positive light by the Holy See,” stated a Vatican spokesman in June, as talks with Iran appeared to be gaining traction, after 20 months of negotiations that involved the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.
On Aug. 9, the 70th anniversary of the U.S. military’s dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II, Pope Francis called for an end to all nuclear arms and weapons of mass destruction. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago ought to serve as a permanent warning to humanity in order “to repudiate her forever from war and to banish nuclear arms and every weapon of mass destruction,” he said.
The Church had registered its support for the Iran nuclear deal in the months leading up to the conclusion of the negotiations. But it has issued no public statements during the last three bruising weeks on Capitol Hill, as the Obama administration defended controversial elements of the accord, including the fact that it did not permanently dismantle Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.
Now, as the president himself admits the accord will not eliminate the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program or call a halt to its promotion of terrorism in the Middle East, some Catholics have questioned whether the bishops’ stance affirms Catholic moral and social teaching, or whether it remains a matter of prudential judgment on which people of goodwill may disagree.
Asked to comment on this matter, Bradley Lewis, an authority on political philosophy at The Catholic University of America, clarified that the Church’s position on the accord is “a matter of prudential judgment.”
“Our Lord calls on us to be peacemakers, and the making of peace is one of the greatest responsibilities of statesmen, but so is the maintenance of a just peace; and precisely how to do this most effectively is something over which there can be a great deal of disagreement,” Lewis told the Register.
So what is a church member to do? David Mills counsels, “remember the theology”:
It’s “the hardest problem for converts to Catholicism — at least those who are theologically informed,” wrote a scholarly friend who had entered the Church about a decade ago. He felt no buyer’s remorse — he had been an Episcopalian, so how could he? — but the wild statements of Bishop X and Cardinal Y still upset him.
I would have thought the opposite from my friend: that Catholic failings is a harder problem for those who are not theologically informed. To put it simply: theology can make you feel better when every day’s news might bring the story of yet another scandal, which someone you know is going to bring up with glee.
In this case it clearly does. Theology provides an emotionally reassuring distinction between the form and the performance. It tells us exactly what the Church claims for herself and how far she is from claiming any great perfection in her members, from the pope on down.
She doesn’t claim much for herself on the human side. She claims a great deal on the divine side. There’s not a line in magisterial teaching that claims a pope will be a holy, wise, or even a prudent man. It doesn’t even claim he’ll a good man. See among others Alexander VI. What it does claim is that God will use him in certain ways that we can count on. He can even speak infallibly, in certain carefully defined circumstances. Alexander VI could have given an infallible teaching from his mistress’s bed. Strange but true, as the comic strip used to say.
The problem here is that what Cardinal X or Y says is also the theology. Possibly you can distinguish between infallible teaching and Alexander VI’s sexual exploits. But all of these Cardinals and Popes are the vehicles through which theology comes. Protestants are the ones who believe the truth (the Word) transcends the church. That’s how you can remain a Protestant and endure its many problems (until it abandons the gospel). But Mills and other apologists don’t have the pay grade to discern the teachings by which to judge the bishops. That’s the bishops’ task.
Even harder for Mills is the doctrine of infallibility. Did God protect the bishops from error in their voters guide? Has God protected the Vatican from error in its support for the arms deal? Isn’t God protecting the bishops all the time when they speak on everything — including climate change?
But if the church can be wrong about the morality and theology of voting and foreign relations, why can’t the same follow for morality and theology? I know. We’re talking about the Yankees. (Game’s fixed.)
This is not a solution to Protestantism. It only adds to Roman Catholicism’s problem.