Monday, April 21, 2008

Pope Benedict’s 'Consistent' Catholicism Is Not Consistent with Vatican II's

I am grateful to Washington Post syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. for highlighting the following statement that Pope Benedict XVI made to the U.S. Catholic bishops at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on April 16th. I didn’t see it covered anywhere else. Benedict asked:

“Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching, or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?”

The answer Benedict wants is “no.”

That, certainly, was the answer required of each of the bishops before they were promoted to their current jobs—almost all of them by Pope John Paul II or by Benedict himself. Of course, the answer could vary in intensity: U.S. Catholicism has devoted considerably more energy and resources to upholding the right to life than to effectively helping the poor and marginalized.

The answer I want to defend is “yes.”

It is, to be sure, a qualified yes. But the fact that it can be yes at all is the fundamental difference between my theological attitude toward the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the attitude of the two popes.

And that difference is why the way in which Benedict thinks the church should provide hope and leadership to the world is ultimately not productive, but the Vatican II model is.

The popes’ diagnosis is that the world is confused and grappling for answers in all the wrong places. The popes’ vision is that only official leadership of the Catholic Church has the divinely revealed absolute truths that provide the answers the world needs.

The Vatican II diagnosis—expressed in several of its documents but most pointedly and repeatedly in Gaudium et spes, its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World—agrees that human beings are searching for answers. In contrast, however, the answers are implanted in all of creation, in every human heart, in every human interaction, in every religion the Creator has inspired and in every human experience, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

The church in this model is the pilgrim people of God. Its calling is not to tell the world what the answers are, but by constant dialogue with human beings in all their social, political and religious groupings, to discover with them and to learn with greater and greater precision the answers we already have or that novel human creativity needs to craft.

Using the Vatican II model, the answers to Benedict’s questions become much more nuanced and thus more realistic.

“Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized?”

As the liberation theologians taught all of us, including Benedict, there is no doubt that the Christian calling requires a preferential option for the poor. Faithful Catholics cannot defend a stance that does nothing for the poor and the marginalized, let alone ignore them. But as Benedict himself shows by disagreeing with some of the concrete actions proposed by liberation theology, there are many different ways for Christians to work to improve the lot of the poor. It is not possible for the church to adopt a single set of solutions and characterize everything else as exploiting them.

The diversity of options comes to light when the church in the United States tries to defend the rights of immigrants. The pope is correct to insist that any immigration reform should respect the fundamental human right of families to remain together. But that guideline does not yield a monolithic U.S. Catholic answer for practicing Catholics to follow. Practicing Catholics conscientiously disagree on how to control our borders, address those who have crossed illegally, decide if U.S. employers should have a legal source of non-citizen labor, or prevent the problems of the last two decades from happening all over again.

“Is it consistent for practicing Catholics…to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching?”

If the Catholic moral teaching on sexual behavior were only that emphasized by recent popes, it would be inconsistent for practicing Catholics not to follow it and not to at least encourage others to. The fact is, however, that based on their personal experiences, practicing Catholics are persuaded conscientiously that the Catholic position should permit more alternatives than the popes want to allow. They do not buy the papal position that the only legitimate sexual behavior is in a marriage between one man and one woman where each instance is open to the production of offspring.

It is no secret that over several decades practicing U.S. Catholics have disagreed with the popes in increasing numbers on issues such as birth control, divorce and remarriage, sex before marriage, homosexuals’ right to express their love sexually and aspire to lasting unions, the value of priestly celibacy, and the exclusion of women from the priesthood.

What is inconsistent is not the steady, growing resistance of practicing Catholics to the narrow view of human sexuality the popes want to retain, but the popes’ refusal to acknowledge that most U.S. Catholics (as well as those in Europe and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere) have not found the papal teaching persuasive. Consistency requires the popes to listen to the experience of the faithful, not to dismiss it in favor of abstract philosophical positions that had started to unravel even before Vatican II.

“Is it consistent for practicing Catholics…to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?”

Here again the consistency issue is the failure of the popes to sell their position to enough practicing Catholics. The failure has been most conspicuous on the papal opposition to stem cell research and a more recent effort to mandate extraordinary end-of-life measures which even the most traditional Catholic theology did not require. But even on abortion, where the papal position has probably gained the most assent among practicing U.S. Catholics, only a slim majority of them favor imposing the official Catholic position on non-Catholic Americans.

The popes face a number of challenges if they want practicing Catholics to do more on these issues than they already have. One is basing their answer on when life begins on an arcane philosophical model that admits of multiple answers. Another is assuming that in a pluralistic democracy the church can demand that politicians who are practicing Catholics have an obligation to impose one of those answers as public policy. Another is assuming that Catholic politicians who believe conscientiously that other public policies do more to advance the papal position than imposing it are somehow not in communion with the church.

In short, what is consistent for practicing Catholics is for them to keep telling church officials when they find official positions defective—so that the officials can carry out their own duty to re-examine the soundness of their positions or their effectiveness in trying to communicate them.

Berating practicing Catholics for being unconvinced is unlikely convince many more.

No comments: