When the Second Vatican Council opened the Roman Catholic Church to the modern world, it may have bitten off more than it could chew. Not only would the late 1960s make the modern world look not so great (radical terrorists and sexual liberation) and so once again raise questions about the bishops’ discernment. But the modern world is one that is at odds with deferring to elites because of the latter’s authority, and with receiving the teaching of bishops simply by virtue of their office. When the church teaches something that collides with the views of a majority in the church or with the expertise of lay Roman Catholics, can church members and clergy simply expect conformity to church beliefs because the laity is supposed to pay, pray, and obey? In a pre-Vatican II world (more like a pre-1789) that might have been plausible. Rome’s episcopal and Vatican structures are more medieval than modern. But now that the church wants to come along side the modern world, that means accepting modern ideas like majority rule and authority based not on office but knowledge, learning, and study.
American Catholicism is certainly unique. A majority of American Catholics buck the global Catholic trend on capital punishment in their support the death penalty, according to the Washington Post. Yet it would be good for us to remember that we are but one, relatively small part of a global body of Catholics — about 6 percent.
We may be wealthier than Catholics in other parts of the world. We may even be better-educated than the average Catholic worldwide. But that doesn’t make us necessarily better Catholics, nor does it mean we have some outsized claim on commenting on church decisions. Indeed, a truer “conservative Catholicism” would be one that exemplifies humility and self-restraint, rather than self-importance and bluster.
Commentators in the coming weeks and months will continue to debate whether the pronouncement is a “legitimate development,” as one article termed it, or a “reversal,” as other commentators are labeling it. I’m uninterested in raising that debate here (although two of my favorite commentaries, demonstrating a more nuanced, reflective, and unemotive analyses of the decision, can be found here and here). Far more important, I offer, is the manner in which Catholics debate and analyze the Holy Father and the remainder of his pontificate.
One solution to the problem would be for popes and bishops to speak less and narrow their teaching to those matters related to the Creed. But since bishops continue to think they can teach about a whole range of issues and policies (thus substituting the temporality of the church for its spirituality), the church hierarchy will continue to run up against lay church members who may actually know more about banking or climate change or capital punishment than the pope.
And yet, the converts choose to double-down on papal audacity, when? When other church members have lost confidence in the bishops on matters of holiness and church discipline:
We are also angry. We are angry over the “credible and substantiated” report of Archbishop McCarrick’s abuse of a minor. We are angry over the numerous allegations of his abuse of seminarians and young priests. We are angry that “everybody knew” about these crimes, that so few people did anything about them, and that those who spoke out were ignored.
In addition, we have heard reports of networks of sexually active priests who promote each other and threaten those who do not join in their activities; of young priests and seminarians having their vocations endangered because they refused to have sex with their superiors or spoke out about sexual impropriety; and of drug-fueled orgies in Vatican apartments.
As Catholics, we believe that the Church’s teaching on human nature and sexuality is life-giving and leads to holiness. We believe that just as there is no room for adultery in marriages, so there is no room for adultery against the Bride of Christ. We need bishops to make clear that any act of sexual abuse or clerical unchastity degrades the priesthood and gravely harms the Church.
Wouldn’t Pope Francis be better off trying to remedy another sex scandal than to “develop” church teaching in a way that makes most nineteenth-century popes guilty of mortal sin (because they ran a state that executed criminals)?