A letter to the editor in the May 4th issue of the National Catholic Reporter captured my thinking about freedom of conscience and Catholic Bishops and the Vatican. I read the letter after having just read a position paper by Bishop Alex Brunett in the Catholic Northwest Progress about freedom of conscience. As I understood the bishop, freedom of conscience really means agreeing with the bishops and Vatican. The letter in the NCR quoted the Catholic bishops on birth control and gay marriage and pointed out they had said:
"The bishops are the successors of the apostles, who are given the authority to proclaim the teachings of Jesus Christ…Laity and clergy embody and express the sense of the faith precisely when they conform their consciences to what the church authentically professes and teaches."
The letter writer’s complaint was that this is nothing short of a claim of infallibility on the part of church leaders who are not infallible. She went on to observe:
"The clergy and laity have two choices: They can pay, pray and obey or they can study an issue and listen carefully to the bishops. If agreement on an issue is impossible, then dissent must be expressed lovingly and clearly. But then, I am female, so who will listen."
I remember when, now Pope Benedict then, Cardinal Ratzinger, acting in his capacity as John Paul’s Vatican enforcer was turned loose on Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen in 1985. Right wing conservative Catholics had been complaining to the Vatican about Hunthausen’s compassionate treatment of women and gays as well as other issues involving freedom of conscience for Northwest Catholics. As a result of the complaints, he was investigated by the Vatican and ultimately suffered the indignity of having them appoint an "adjunct bishop" who was sent to Seattle and who was really the Vatican’s watch dog to make sure he toed the Vatican line. Hauthausen retired early.
This woman’s letter to the editor seems to me to capture the dilemma of Catholics today. As the writer says they can either "pay, pray and obey" or be labeled sinners. There is no room for sincere dissent which will not be tolerated and will be silenced immediately if voiced by a theologian or priest or member of the religious. Laity are kept in line by labeling their dissent as being anti Catholic and sinful. It is church leader’s way or the highway. According to the American Bishops in the last election, intelligent adult Catholics had no choice in the voting booth. Either vote for the bishop’s pro life, anti gay candidate or be a bad Catholic and commit sin. In the case of the presidential election that meant their choice was one of the worst presidents in U.S. modern history. Either agree that birth control is evil or commit sin. Either agree that gay’s have no rights legal or otherwise or commit sin and so on. It’s their choice or fire and brimstone for poor adult Catholics who are given no forum for debate or dissent.
I have not forgotten when the present Pope, who was then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, acting in his capacity as John Paul’s Vactican enforcer was turned loose on Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen in 1985 after right wing conservatives were yelling about his compassionate stand in favor of women and gays. He was investigated by the Vatican and ultimately suffered the indignity of a "adjunct bishop" who was really the Vatican’s watch dog leading to his later resignation.
So why do I remain an active, but sometimes dissenting Catholic? Gary Willis has already explained my position in his book Why I am A Catholic. While I view present church bureaucracy for the most part often acting as an archaic and spiritless body lacking the compassion preached by Jesus, I view its sacramental benefits as life giving and essential to spiritual growth. I view the church’s achievements in creating holy people as beneficial and its history as a spiritual body an important part of world wide spiritual growth. But as Willis’s points out, Chesterton once wrote about how one could be a member of a church while criticizing its faults. Chesterton said in part:
"A man does not come an inch nearer to being a heretic by being a hundred times a critic. Nor does he do so because his criticisms resemble those of critics who are also heretics. He only becomes a heretic at the precise moment when he prefers his criticism to his Catholicism. That is, at the instant of separation in which he thinks the view peculiar to himself is more valuable than the creed that unites him to his fellows."
That’s my view and I rather be the one pointing our the emperor has no clothes then ignoring my conscience and intellingence on important moral issues. I acknowledge a moral obligation to carefully consider the position of church leaders in the formation of my own conscience, but I believe they owe an obligation to listen as carefully to full and open dissenting views.