Questions for a Catholic: Part Two

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.


  1. Thanks for this mature, honest, and faithful exposition of your Catholic beliefs. You have gently expressed something (the question of conscience vs. central authority) that in Mormon circles often descends into shrill accusations of heresy vs. blind obedience. Thanks, pal.

    Tell me, do you think what you have shared here is the normative view of most Catholics, of the Church?

  2. Does the mean then that there is no official Church action taken against those who “follow their conscience” and publicly oppose the Catholic Church?

    I get the feeling for your post (which is excellent btw) that a Catholic should follow their conscience but be mostly quiet about it at the same time. Do you think that’s true? If a Catholic according to conscience, supported gay marriage would it be in keeping with their Church Community beliefs to tell their community and say be involved in some pro-gay marriage something or other?

    Also, do you think that allowing/teaching members to assess how they feel (considering both their conscience and the Church’s teachings) waters down doctrine or Church authority?

    Too many questions you can pick and choose what you answer. According to your conscience.

    Thanks again for the great post.

  3. Wow. Thank you for your thoughts. I think there is alot of confusion about Catholic doctrine is. I think that your positions are sensible; I am not sure where to put things I’ve heard about (but of which I don’t know explicit details) like infallibility of the Pope.

    Also, if I may add another question to the already long list – is this democratic affirmation, which you describe, a relatively new thing? Or does it truely and popularly date back to Aquinas?

  4. Seth R. says:

    I see a lot of my own belief system reflected here. Not all, but a lot.

    I really like the idea of how the leadership has the obligation to align itself with the saints that it serves, and not just dictate terms and demand compliance. I don’t know how much play the concept can have in the LDS faith, but I still think it’s a neat idea.

    “Because I think the Catholic Church is onto something and I want to be a part of it.”

    Exactly! I feel that way myself all the time. Thanks for putting it into words.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Papal infallibility is a fairly recent dogma, having been articulated by the First Vatican Council of 1870. And, of course, it only applies to ex cathedra statements, which are considered to be rare.

    There are two clear examples. Nearly all Catholic theologians agree that both Pope Pius IX’s 1854 definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and Pope Pius XII’s 1950 definition of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary are instances of papal infallibility. However, theologians disagree about what other documents qualify.

    But even though papal infallibility is a concept of fairly limited reach, it is really just a subset of a broader infallibility doctrine in the Church. For instance, there are many more decisions of ecumenical councils that are considered to be infallible than ex cathedra decisions of popes. So infallibility in general is a significant issue.

    The anathema formulae of such infallible decisions (to the effect that those who reject them are outside of the Catholic Church) seems to foreclose a role for individual conscience to disagree, but I acknowledge I am reading this from the outside and may not adequately understand the nuances of Catholic thought on this subject. I would be interested in any clarification that could be offered on this subject.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Andrew. Like many Mormons, I am appreciative of the Catholic Church.

  6. Seth R. says:

    I wonder why I find it so much easier to sympathize with Judaism, Catholicism, and even Islam, than to sympathize with Protestantism.

    I’m not proud of this sentiment. But I have to honestly admit that it exists. And I’m not entirely sure why it is.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    I suspect it may be that Mormonism sprang from, and is in large measure a reaction to, Protestantism.

    Also, it doesn’t help that the vast majority of critical literature (from a theistic perspective)against the Church is written by conservative Protestants.

  8. I too am grateful for the gracious answer to questions about catholicism. I am curous though about the paradigm mentioned. How do you square the paradigm of magisterium being most correct when in concert with the faithful with the doctrine of Papal infallibility. Though I am absolutely no scholar on this subject, it seems like primacy of conscience and inffallibility of the Pope are at times destined to be at loggerheads with one another.

  9. Thank you for taking the time to share your beliefs in a forum where they could be attacked. That takes courage.

  10. Andrew the Catholic says:

    Hi Folks, thanks for the positive response (again). I will reply to replies order but first a confession: Ronan sent me the questions several months ago and I have procrastinated till now. So, #9, I appreciate your thanks but must also apologize for “taking TOO MUCH time”!

    #1 – Normative, or normal? I think it is a fairly normative position. You might find some who think I undervalue how strongly Church teaching should inform a moral decision.

    On the other hand, other Catholics may consider me abnormal for considering the teaching of the Church in the first place. I think for many the Church’s credibility has been damaged such that their “moral capital” is quite low. And this started even before the sexual abuse crisis. “Humanae Vitae” (which banned all forms of birth control) was a real turning point, when people thought the Church leaders were on another planet. This may very well be true for many issues, but this perspective neglects a moral framework that is quite rich in many ways. For example, the Church steadfastly opposed the war in Iraq because it did not satisfy the “just war theory.” Whether they were right or wrong, it is noteworthy that their opinion was not really “in play” in the months leading up to the war.

  11. Andrew the Catholic says:

    #2 – “The Quiet Dissenter” definitely has the ring of a good Graham Greene novel. “Keeping quiet” seems like a glass-half-empty of “being discreet” (or discrete?) — there is good reason that prudence in the greatest of the Christian virtues.

    If push came to shove the Church would have a hard time rejecting your act of conscience. Also remember the Church generally recognizes a hierarchy of truths such that it’s one thing to say “I believe in my conscience that Jesus is not coeternal with the Father,” and another to say, “I cannot in good conscience abstain from cereal during the hour before Sunday mass.”

    As for gay marriage, a more prudent way to state support may be to say you thank God for the witness of Christian love and fidelity you have observed in numerous gay couples. That would be one way to be supportive and appreciative of their positive example without going right to the divide of a wedge issue.

  12. Andrew the Catholic says:

    #3 – How do you mean “democratic affirmation”? Let me know if my response to #8 answers your question.

  13. Andrew the Catholic says:

    #5 – The two examples of ex cathedra statements are in fact fine illustrations of how the Church is most authorative when it teaches in the same voice as the people. Note that both instances deal with the place of Mary: both were a case of “lex orandi, lex credendi,” the law of praying is the law of believing. The Church didn’t announce the sinlessness of Mary and then everyone had to believe. Just the opposite: tons of Catholics were praying for Mary’s intercession as if she was sinless. The Vatican spoke to give authority to an already existing phenomenon. This is exactly the way Jesus’s divinity was ultimately confirmed in the face of Arian opposition. The tide of the faithful’s belief in his coeternal divinity was enough to uphold the Council of Nicea’s creed (no matter what Dan Brown says).

    Your point about infallible decisions is well taken, but I think it may assume too strongly that conscience and Church teaching are mutually exclusive, when it has been my experience that times I disagree with the Church are a little fuzzier.

    Decisions are not moral commandments but are more discursive and logical. There are certainly times when you might follow the logic but come to a different conclusion. In that case have you rejected Church teaching? Yes and no.

    Also the tradition is more variegated than may first appear. Just because the Church just issued an opinion on X, but the writings of Athanasius, who is as orthodox as they come, leads to a cogent argument in a difference direction. Am I outside the Church in this instance? Or all the more steeped in it?

    When the Church speaks and says “The Church has always taught…” they are in fact being selective in their presentation of the tradition. There are other major figures and theologies in the tradition that afford difference of opinion and allow for some gray area.

  14. Andrew the Catholic says:

    #8 – I think my reponse to #5 addresses the loggerheads question.

    Please also note that there is a big difference between most correct and most authoritative.

  15. Please also note that there is a big difference between most correct and most authoritative.

    This is a lesson that I believe is most important for Mormons in thier own self evalutions.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Andrew, thank you for your thoughtful replies.

  17. I am wondering: why don’t all of those with questions about what the Catholic Church teaches and believes, read the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law? You will find every single answer to every single question in those two books, in which are everything that the Church believes and teaches. If you haven’t read those two books, then you are not an authority on what the Catholic Church teaches, therefore it’s rather useless to talk about it unless you have all the facts at hand. But then again, do you really want to know what the Catholic Church teaches. . . .?

    Regardless, I think it is rather impotent of anyone to talk about another religion unless they really know what they are talking about, i.e., what the other religion teaches vis-a-vis your own.

  18. Sarah, you may wish to note that this post was an interview with a Catholic scholar, and many here were posing follow-up questions. As to the Catholic Catechism, I read it in french ten years ago, but you are right that I should bone up (hence my questions to Andrew).

  19. Sarah Grant says:

    I did note that. However, many Catholic scholars also hold views and teach things that the Roman Catholic Church does not sanction or teach; i.e., talk to 10 different Catholic Scholars, and you’ll get 10 different answers (example: Fr. Richard McBrien, Fr. Karl Rohner, Fr. Benedict Roeschel, the list goes on). I’ve spoken to scholars of many other religions as well, and gotten answers to my questions that their churches/pastors/bishops certainly wouldn’t endorse. I am definitely not saying that Andrew is one of these people, but he himself would tell you that I am right. . .he should not be considered an ultimate authority, just because he has studied something.

    My point of view is that if you truly seek the answers, go back to the source, because man tends to use his own interpretation in a matter which might change it from its original intended form; you might be missing something, whereas it is so easy to just go to the main source, in this case, the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law, which contain the true teachings of this Church. Then you really will know the answers.

    The other concern I had is that some of Andrew’s answers sparked other questions that Andrew wasn’t there to answer, which leads the people asking the questions to conjecture about “what they’ve heard” the church teaches. This is kind of silly. You can conjecture, but you will never know the real answer unless you go to the source.

    I personally don’t debate with a couple different religions because I haven’t studied them in depth, read their church documents, etc., the Mormon church included. Hence I am not arguing about your religion. Rather, it just makes sense for everyone in all religions to make sure they know what they’re talking about when they debate with people of other religions. The truth is what we are really seeking, ultimately; we should leave no room for conjecture. The facts are ready enough to find.

  20. A point well taken. We should all seek out the official doctrinal imprimus when seeking for official policies/doctrines of any church or organizations. That said, I think such discussions as these are valuable.

  21. Sarah Grant says:

    I totally agree. They are wonderfully valuable;)

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