Sunday, February 7, 2010

The closing of the cafeteria

I’ve said before—in fact, I said it last March—that it seems nowadays the only debates religious issues hang on have to do with sex and reproduction. Yes, it gets tiresome. I for one am not so obsessed with abortion, gay marriage and celibacy that I can’t talk about anything else. For instance, I was going to embark on a series of counterarguments to common atheist attacks … until life intervened.

But because the Catholic Church takes such a prominent position against gay marriage, and because that particular issue is cropping up in the news more often, it creates interesting ripples and reflections that bear comment. More to the point, the fact that gay marriage does take up more talking-heads time in the culture factories means that it can springboard sidebar discussions of other topics.

Case in point:

On Friday, Francis Cardinal George, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Archbishop of Chicago, issued a statement on the ecclesial standing of New Ways Ministry, an outreach program that styles itself “gay-positive”. The statement read in part:

New Ways Ministry has recently criticized efforts by the Church to defend the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman and has urged Catholics to support electoral initiatives to establish same-sex “marriage”. No one should be misled by the claim that New Ways Ministry provides an authentic interpretation of Catholic teaching and an authentic Catholic pastoral practice. Their claim to be Catholic only confuses the faithful regarding the authentic teaching and ministry of the Church with respect to persons with a homosexual inclination. Accordingly, I wish to make it clear that, like other groups that claim to be Catholic but deny central aspects of Church teaching, New Ways Ministry has no approval or recognition from the Catholic Church and that they cannot speak on behalf of the Catholic faithful in the United States.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Again, as I’ve said before, if you reject the authoritative teaching of the Church on any matter of dogma, you’ve become a de facto Protestant, no matter how much you insist on your “Catholic” identity. Doctrines might have a little give; disciplines can change, as can devotions. The pastoral response to a given sin might change somewhat depending on the times and environment. But dogmas and definitions, especially as they pertain to morality, are carved in stone; attempts to change the authentic teaching of the Church most often result in the foundation of yet another Protestant sect. The only aspect of this announcement, then, that should raise eyebrows is that it comes from Cdl. George, who normally leaves such gavel-banging to other, more outspoken bishops, such as Abp. Charles Chaput of Denver or Bp. Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln.

To hear New Ways’ side of the story, though, you’d think that Cdl. George’s statement came from some right-wing fanatic with no grasp of Catholic moral theology:

When dealing with such a sensitive topic as homosexuality, it is not surprising that questions will arise from individual Church leaders. Yet, for more than three decades, New Ways Ministry has had its programs reviewed by scores of Catholic bishops, theologians, and pastoral leaders [emphasis mine], and we have always been found to be firmly in line with authentic Catholic teaching.

Of course, such a claim immediately tempts us to say, “Oh yeah? Give us their names!” And maybe some priests will step forward with the air of Daniel entering the lions’ den, though they really put little on the line, as the last gasping vestiges of the Inquisition spluttered to a halt in Spain over one hundred and fifty years ago. The theologians and pastoral leaders will be even more eager, since they in turn risk even less than priests. But any bishops that put their imprimatur on New Ways’ advocacy of gay rights will have to be “outed” in the classic style.

In the magisterial pecking order, priests, theologians and pastoral workers teach by license of the bishops. Each of these can contribute to the ongoing unfolding of Christ’s revelation through their education, experience and personal insights. I can name three nuns without any special training in theology—St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Therese of Lisieux—who have been named Doctors of the Church, the highest accolade that the Pope can accord someone for their spiritual wisdom.

However, regardless of their contributions as groups and as individuals, priests, theologians and pastoral workers as such are not successors to the apostles.  For that reason above all others, they don’t have the authority to define dogmas and doctrines, let alone controvert those already declared. Of the bishops, only one has the authority to make such definitions by himself: the Bishop of Rome. All the others exercise apostolic infallibility as a college in union with the Pope. And even the Pope is bound to respect and work within the definitions given by previous popes and ecumenical councils; the power to bind and loose spoken of in Matthew 16:19 is not a blank check.

Since episcopal infallibility is a corporate gift rather than an individual charism, an erroneous assertion by a bishop gains no greater claim to authority than that of a lay theologian who goes off the reservation. Thus, for instance, Sinéad O’Connor’s “ordination” was both illicit and invalid, not only because she is a woman but also because the man who performed the ceremony, Michael Cox, was ordained bishop through an illicit line of succession. Indeed, a bishop can be defrocked by the Pope for persisting in teaching heresy just as can Fr. Schmuckatelli down at Our Lady of Perpetual Motion.[*]

Is it possible that a bishop or two may have given New Ways Ministry their apostolic approval? I’ll cheerfully concede such an assertion as a fact for the sake of the argument. God knows there were quite a few consecrated bureaucrats appointed during the reign of Paul VI who were more interested in keeping the peace in their dioceses than in asserting their authority; we’ve only begun to see our bishops grow backbones in the last five years or so. It’s possible, then, that a few bishops gave New Ways’ overall Catholicism their general approval while studiously ignoring their pro-gay stance, just as they refused to do anything about radical-feminist nuns and Catholics For Choice. It’s even possible that they got not just a polite waiver but also sub-rosa encouragement from one or two (or even half a dozen) episcopal liberals.

I can cheerfully grant all this because it doesn’t matter if New Ways got any under-the-table episcopal endorsements. Those bishops whom New Ways understands to have approved their ministry in private would most likely backpedal frantically if their names were publicly associated with tacit support of practicing homosexuality. If such support were a matter of principle or conscience, they would have gone public themselves at the time. A private endorsement is publicly and plausibly deniable.

Bishops have more to lose than do theologians and pastoral workers. A theologian who loses his (or her) place at a rigidly Catholic university—tough to do, given most rules surrounding tenure—can usually find a place at an equal institution less rigid … or less Catholic. Pastoral workers can shift to other parishes whose pastors are willing to support, or at least not block, their liberal activism. But the bishopric of a Catholic or Orthodox see is a unique position. Were he deprived of his position by the Pope, there would be no equivalent religious or secular position for which he could be hired. (Protestant bishops don’t have nearly the same kind of authority and influence within their churches that their Catholic brethren do.)

The Vatican, under the guidance of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has gotten pretty good in their selections of men who have the courage to stand up for the Faith. But they’ve also been very successful in picking men who are faithful to the magisterium. If any remain who doubt, they’re content to work under the radar like so many Manchurian candidates, where they’re least exposed … and, from New Ways’ perspective, least able to help.

The final irony is that homosexuals are fully equal members of the Church … as are every other type of sinner. New Ways Ministry caters to those who are unwilling to submit to the demands of Christian discipleship by engaging them in a daydream of institutional change. No matter how close the rest of their beliefs are to the Church, as long as New Ways advocates not just tolerance but celebration of gay sex, they remain simply another variant of “cafeteria Catholicism”.

Slowly but surely, the cafeteria is closing up. For good.

[*] I caught a glimpse in passing of a story about a Filipino hierarch to whom this had very recently happened. Unfortunately, I didn’t pause to study the story, and my memory is not photographic, so I can’t insist on it as a fact.