My papist pal and fellow academic Andrew has agreed to answer some more of my questions. For Part One, see here.
(1) If the Vatican opposes gay marriage/abortion/issue X, does it make it incumbent on you, a believing Catholic, to oppose said issues too?
(2) At what point do those Catholics who oppose some of the Vatican’s teachings cease to be “spiritually” Catholic? What is the point of Catholicism if the Vatican loses its authority to guide believers’ morals?
(3) If you’re a Catholic and you think the Vatican has lost the plot on certain issues, would it not make sense to go to a more “liberal” church, such as the Episcopalians?
If one considers the Bible to be genuine revelation, then the instruction one gleans from the Bible, with the teachings of Jesus having a particular importance for Christians, will have serious ethical implications. Scripture is revelation in that it reveals a God who acts with love and justice. These divine acts invite a human response in the same spirit of love and justice. This all sounds perfectly agreeable, but the obvious problem is how to appropriate a biblical ethic faithfully. Even if we could agree on what precisely constitutes such an ethic, how could we translate that ethic to the myriad issues one encounters nowadays. The biblical horizon and the modern horizon do not always meet and have to be mediated.Catholics believe that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has been invested with the authority to mediate these two horizons. On the one hand, the Bible itself describes how Jesus commissioned his disciples to carry on his mission; Church leaders are inheritors of this apostolic mission. On the other hand, the hierarchy of the church is authoritative in that the people of the church ascribe authority to them. Although it may often seem otherwise, Catholic teaching is not designed to be exclusively top-down; the Magisterium (the teaching body) is most authoritative when it is in concert with the wisdom of the faithful. (Note how this is a different paradigm than the one that underlies the second half of Question #2.)
I’m sure this all sounds like a Vatican brochure, but it is just a brief overview of how the Catholic Church understands itself as a teaching body. They are the inheritors of the biblical message and its long tradition of shaping human action through the faithful interpretation of the Magisterium.
So what about individual issues? It is well known that the Church opposes gay marriage and abortion. (I’m not at liberty to discuss “issue X.”) As a Catholic I am obligated to explore the Church’s teaching as fully as possible. This means not just learning the Vatican’s position but understanding the logic behind the decision. These decisions almost always have a cogent logic behind them, which one must acknowledge, even if one ultimately rejects it. In this way for a Catholic the Church should always have the first word in a moral decision.
But the Church does not necessarily have the last word in that decision. At least as early as the time of Thomas Aquinas, whose moral theology became rather normative in the Catholic Church, the Church has recognized the primacy of conscience. That is to say, I am ultimately bound to obey my own conscience, even if it contradicts a Church teaching. This primacy of conscience should not be abused as a get-out-of-jail-free card one can use to believe whatever I want to believe; rather it should be understood as a way for the faithful to exercise human reason, which is after all a divine gift. Thus there is a way to disagree with the Church yet stay in communion with Church teaching.
The other advantage of fully appreciating human conscience is that the rate and diversity of new moral decisions is such that even the Church cannot address every issue humans encounter. The Vatican doesn’t have a trouble-shooter but rather takes time to form decisions that are consistent with previous teachings. In the meantime, Catholics have to go on living and making decisions, and they do so with a conscience that has been formed through familiarity with the current body of Church teaching and their own prayerful study of the Bible. If and when the Church does weigh on a particular issue, the Catholic should thoughtfully compare his or her own conclusion with that of the Church.
The last question wonders: Why even bother, if you disagree? Because I think the Catholic Church is onto something and I want to be a part of it. My commitment to the Church involves working for its improvement not just by promoting theological positions I think are more consistent with a biblical ethic but also by recognizing the works of love and justice that the Church undertakes and trying to continue them. The Church’s greatest strength is its unity; I am comforted to know that I am part of a diverse but unified community. The downside of unity is being challenged to subscribe to doctrine you may not agree with. But then again who am I to claim that my belief is the right one? Who could not benefit by being challenged by an opposing view and made to reconsider the issue in a new light?
And what is the alternative? Other churches may be more “liberal” (whatever that means), but one need look no further than the acrimony that has beset the Episcopal Church to see the potential for division, when there is no central body to mediate different opinions. Some (including me!) might bristle under that central body’s authority on certain issues, but that is a small price for the communion it enables among a worldwide community with a common vision of love and justice.