Sunday, February 5, 2012

Fighting with Weakened Forces

The U.S. bishops are taking a lead on the HHS contraception mandate that is inspiring to see and is bringing together the theologically orthodox and liberal dissenters.  The two sides are united in defense, not of Church teaching (on which they disagree) but of the Church's right to have a teaching on the matter and of its members and organizations to be free of government coercion that would impose an obligation to collude in practices it considers gravely immoral.  That is, whatever their view on Church teaching about contraception and abortion (and remember that abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization are at issue and not just condoms), everyone agrees that religious liberty, the first freedom, must be defended against an ever-more intrusive and authoritarian secular state.

Well, not quite everyone.  As is to be expected, the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) effectively sides with the most anti-Catholic administration in my lifetime.  A recent "commentary" trivializes the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium by asking "Which Catholics are against contraception coverage?" as if the teaching of the successors of the Apostles were just a minority opinion in the Church.  It misses the distinction between being free to buy contraceptives--no-one argues that employees of Catholic organizations should be prevented from doing so--and being forced by the state to purchase such products and services against your conscience.  The article, like so much in that publication, not only rejects the Church's teaching (citing as usual assorted dissident theologians) but also denies the teaching authority of the bishops and the Magisterium.  

[Update: NCR has since come out in favor of an expanded exemption, but--as editor Dennis Coday puts it, because it sees Obamacare itself as threatened by the controversy and because "a wider exemption will be necessary to defend against bills concerning life issues such as euthanasia, abortion and genome research pending in state legislatures."  In other words, NCR's position on religious liberty is completely unprincipled.  Their support for wider conscience exemptions depends on their own view of the matter involved.  Coday's "call for compromise" consists almost entirely in an attack on the bishops--so business as usual at NCR.]

Of course the Obama administration has a host of post-Catholics--politicians who publicly reject Church teaching and defy the Church's authority to teach but who, like NCR, hang on to the label of Catholic and so provide cover for those Catholics who have little understanding of Catholic teaching and little connection to the Church except for family rituals and perhaps Christmas and Easter.  They vote Democrat out of historical and ethnic reflexes but their loyalty to the Church, once such a powerful marker of personal and ethnic identity, has evaporated.  

It is this hollowing out of Catholic parishes and communities, described so powerfully by Philip Lawler for the case of Boston in his invaluable book, The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture, that makes the position of the Church so weak in the present confrontation.  It is what makes it possible for a Democratic administration to dismiss so contemptuously the concerns even of those Catholics who have covered for it in the past (like Fr. Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame).  The administration's post-Catholic spokespeople explain with relish that hardly anyone believes or follows the Church's teaching on contraception anyway, again reducing timeless moral teaching to a matter of head counts.

Lawler argued that the sex abuse scandal has been devastating in its effects on Catholic communities, not least in that it emboldened the media, such as the never-sympathetic Boston Globe, to attack the bishops openly, virulently, and relentlessly.  (The same phenomenon is evident in other once hyper-Catholic communities - in Ireland, Quebec, and Spain - now among the most thoroughly secular places on the planet.)  But as Lawler says, the abuse scandal is part of a wider postconciliar context.  The laxity in faith and morals, especially sexual morals, in seminaries (where homosexuality was protected and fostered while orthodoxy, asceticism, and piety were excluded as evidence of 'rigidity') created an environment in which traditional discipline was relaxed and sexual abuse could arise in the clergy in the next two decades to approximate the level in the general male population.  The corruption of the 'liberal' seminaries was aided and abetted by Catholic theology departments and dissident nuns.  At the same time, a ruthless and unrelenting iconoclasm stripped from the faithful their accustomed devotions, liturgical practices, statues, altars and altar rails, music, and architecture.

The bishops played a key role in enabling all this devastation by their failure to confront the virulent growth of dissent in the seminaries, theology departments, parishes, and among the 'church mice' (those who scurry about the parishes and chanceries on their own errands and who constitute the core base of NCR).  The failure to deal effectively with cases of abuse of minors (mostly adolescent boys) was, Lawler argues, part and parcel of a too comfortable accommodation to the secular world, where the bishop was an important public figure.

So for years before Cardinal Burke, then Archbishop of St. Louis, told Senator John Kerry, 'Catholic' Democratic presidential candidate and public supporter of abortion, embryo-destructive research, and same-sex unions, not to present himself for Communion when campaigning in his archdiocese, the defiant behavior of such cultural Catholics had been tolerated by other bishops.  This despite the clear provision of canon law to the effect that such public opposition to the Church's teaching on abortion puts one outside the Catholic Church.  Burke's stance resulted in a public split among the bishops.  It revealed, not so much that the bishops could not rely on the faithful to support them if they took an unpopular stand (in fact, the bishop of Providence did just that, stood up to a barrage of criticism from the media over his line on Catholic pro-abortion politician Patrick Kennedy, and retained support from local Catholics) as that the bishops themselves had become weak, ineffectual, and divided.  Their own failure to deal with the sex abuse scandal had robbed them of credibility even when they did seek to provide moral leadership in the public square.

The key trigger for this destruction of Catholic culture was the open and public dissent of theologians and priests from the Church's teaching on marriage and contraception in the context of Vatican II and the sexual revolution of the 1960s.  There was an expectation by many that the Church's teaching would change but instead Pope Pius VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae reasserted and reinforced it.  The resulting open dissension and quiet disregard created a split between Church teaching and 'pastorally' indulged practice, along with an accommodation or silence of the bishops that has been compared to the "Truce of Clement IX" (1667-1713) in face of Jansenist dissent.  The bishops' failure to confront this open disobedience and dissent from theologians and priests helped to break down the Catholic culture in the most strongly Catholic communities, creating the impression not only that contraception was acceptable, but soon that attendance at Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation was no longer obligatory, and that the sacrament of Confession was no longer necessary for reconciliation with God and the Church except in the case of the most heinous sins like murder or adultery.

In my opinion, though apparently not Lawler's judging by the second (2010) edition of his book, many of today's bishops are incomparably better, stronger, more orthodox, more capable of standing up to the pressures of an increasing hostile and authoritarian state secularism, than their predecessors.  But they have to lead an American church that is, in some of its erstwhile bastions, devastated and in ruins. 

In the piece below, Howard Kainz provides one example of how many priests, especially those trained in the 1970s and 1980s, deploy the "pastoral" excuse to trump even the most basic Church teaching in the areas of life, death, sex, and marriage.  There's no doubt that the derelictions of bishops in that period allowed the rot to spread in their ranks.  The result is also clear.  The Church and her bishops have severely weakened forces with which to defend the Faith against the secularist onslaught.
Vatican II and the Two Ends of MarriagePrintE-mail
By Howard Kainz   
A Catholic couple that I know went to a pastor to arrange for marriage. They had mentioned to friends and relatives that for various reasons they had no intention of having children, and they made this known to the pastor when he asked. He had no problem with that decision, and they were married in the Church several months later.
I was surprised. Obviously, the pastor’s stance indirectly approved using contraceptives indefinitely for a fertile couple that had no interest in Natural Family Planning. And if contraceptives failed and the woman became pregnant, the presumed right of the woman to avoid nine months of pregnancy could be interpreted as implying a right to abortion.
I asked a Jesuit theologian what he thought about the situation. He answered in terms of the traditional Catholic doctrine concerning the two ends of marriage – the procreative and the unitive; but he insisted that the two ends could not be arbitrarily separated. In fact, he thought that if a marriage were conducted with agreement that it would be childless, it would be invalid canonically.
Recently I came across the pastor in question and decided to ask him about what I had heard. He defended his decision on the basis that with Vatican II there was renewed thinking regarding the ends of marriage, downplaying the procreative purpose, and emphasizing the unitive purpose. I told him the view of the theologian that the two purposes could not be separated, but he insisted that for pastoral purposes, the unitive end, which is most important, would satisfy Church requirements.
The main document from Vatican II regarding marriage is Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”), which does not exactly prioritize the unitive aspect of marriage, but states that it is not less important than the procreative aspect, and proceeds to restate this latter aspect: 
While not making the other purposes of matrimony of less account, the true practice of conjugal love, and the whole meaning of the family life which results from it, have this aim: that the couple be ready with stout hearts to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Savior. . . .Married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate.
The message that the unitive aspect is just as important as the procreative may be understood as an attempt to correct certain earlier theological positions which did not recognize this truth; and the reemphasis of the unitive aspect is of course particularly important in cases where married couples are infertile, past the age of childbearing, in sickness or hard times, etc.
But the same document also warns that “Sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.”
With a view to possible misinterpretations of Gaudium et spes, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 Encyclical Humanae Vitae brought out the procreative dimension more explicitly: 
Each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. . . .This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act. 
This view notoriously triggered dissent among many clerics and theologians. A widespread silence in many areas has amounted to non-enforcement, which, as I mentioned in a previous column, was one of a number of things that, for some strange reason, were considered by many to be connected with “The Spirit of Vatican II.”
The expectation among dissenters now seems to be that eventually the magisterium of the Church will catch up with the modern world, rescinding restrictions that Christians from Apostolic times have taken for granted. Dampening such hopes, Pope John Paul II in his 1984 “Reflections onHumanae vitae,” reiterated the “inseparable connection between the unitive significance and the procreative significance of the marriage act”; and in his 1993 Encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, emphasized that the “concern for the transmission and preservation of life” was one of the three “precepts” of the natural law, according to St. Thomas Aquinas.
American bishops, at the 2009 USCCB meeting, issued a Pastoral Letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” further sidelining the liberals’ plans for “reforming” a Church which is “behind the times.”
For seculars, and for many Catholics, the command of Yahweh in Genesisto “increase and multiply” has now been superseded by unwritten commands to protect the environment, free women from childbearing, and – most importantly – to combat the “overpopulation crisis” which is one of the most potent mythsinfluencing ethical policies and decisions in the modern world.
The inseparability of the two ends of marriage is of absolute importance. Does anyone marry just to have children? History tells us that royalty looking for male heirs occasionally did this – Henry VIII being an extreme example. And I have encountered young women who said they wanted to have children but not marry. Let’s hope, this attitude is on the wane.
Certainly an indispensable pastoral objective is to make sure that the union of the two “ends” is present in the aspirations of couples contemplating marriage. In any case, the procreative end of marriage has not become less important because of some perceived “Spirit of Vatican II.”
Howard Kainz is emeritus professor of philosophy at Marquette University. He is the author of many books, including the recently published The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct.
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