Catholic Theologian Refutes Common Misconceptions

News: Commentary
by Anita Carey  •  •  April 4, 2018   

Clericalism, supremacy of conscience and role of women in the Church explored

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( - A Catholic theologian is blasting some common feminist and homosexual opinions pushed as theology onto Catholics.

Many Catholics today are in favor of same-sex "marriage" and are openly speaking out against the male hierarchy of the Church. The supremacy of conscience is used to justify many dissident positions. Church Militant spoke with a theologian who wished to remain anonymous about some of these common errors.

Church Militant: Australian Jesuit Fr. Frank Brennan wrote that same-sex marriage should be legalized for "the common good" — a position that flies in the face of canon law — late last year. Is there any "common good" in redefining marriage to include all sort of unions?

Theologian: The criteria for the "common good" is understood in a pretty perfective way by Catholic social teaching. Put very simply, "if it ain't true, it ain't good." This is especially true if we are dealing with a central aspect of human nature and culture.

In this sense, marriage is a rather clear case. If marriage, broadly speaking, is understood as the Church understands it, as a "covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life and which of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children" (Canon 1055 §1), one whose roots belong to the very soil of the created order, the laws of which apply to all human persons, then calling other non-marital unions "marriages" is a lie, not just a little white lie but a deeply subversive lie that undermines one of the most constitutive human truths.

Calling other non-marital unions "marriages" is a lie, not just a little white lie but a deeply subversive lie that undermines one of the most constitutive human truths.

Because marriage belongs to the Truth and goodness of the original creation, the Church has always understood any validly contracted marriage between a man and woman, no matter their religion or lack thereof, to be a real marriage (i.e. "natural marriage"). This is true, even if in Christ we Catholics recognize a new fullness of marriage in the perspective of the sacrament.

So even a civil marriage, as long as it is validly contracted, cannot be thought of as a merely "secular" reality, i.e. as not having a deeper ontological basis. It still communicates, however imperfectly, God's original plan for creation. Because it is created, it is still the best (and from the perspective of faith, the only) place for sexual union. It is still the best place for a child to come into existence and grow and learn. It is still, therefore, the foundation of civil society, the pre-political reality prior to the state that guarantees the person an identity beyond ideology.

Saying there's a "common good" achieved in calling non-marital unions "marriages" would entail the misunderstanding that the common good is somehow achieved by the fulfillment of the subjective freedom and rights of the individual. Catholics should know this isn't so.

CM: Is it true that if you're a Catholic, you're obliged to submit to canon law? Why? What are the effects of "following your conscience" if it differs from matters the Church is clear on?
Theologian: I'm no expert in canon law, but I'm enough of a Catholic to understand that it represents a particular application of the broader Church doctrine and teaching entrusted to the apostolic tradition by Christ. In this sense, it's not just "law" but divine wisdom. Conscience, therefore, must submit itself to the norms of this source.

But many more fundamental considerations are necessary, especially today. What interests me before questions of the formal laws or norms of canon law is the deeper anthropological law that they assume: the much more fundamental question about who the person is for whom such laws are normative. Get this wrong and everything goes south. Get this wrong and more specialized, technical disciplines (i.e. canon law, moral theology) become like foreign languages that nobody understands or cares about. The teaching of the Church may at the formal level be clear as day, but if nobody knows the language or where it comes from, then it matters not a whit. "Legalism" and "rigorism" are the disparaging terms you hear today for anything doctrinal. Meanwhile, subjective conscience becomes its own "magisterium," picking and choosing its truth according to the measure of the person's own life choices, choices which more often than not align with the values of the secular culture in which all of us live.

The point is that authority and technical clarity alone mean very little for the person who has already lost living contact with the deepest sources of faith. Unless the living sources of canon law once again begin to fire, the kind of confusion and rebellion around issues like same-sex marriage that have sadly become typical amongst even prominent Catholic leaders will continue. The odds are stacked against us as long as faith continues to be mediated by practices, preaching and witness that undermine doctrinal and canonical norms at a much more fundamental level.

St. Pope John Paul II

But we are not without guides. And if we are looking for an answer for why the Church sets so much importance in marriage, both in its sacramental and civil reality, rich clues can be found in the teaching of one deceased Polish pope. Saint Pope John Paul II understood that if you get the basic anthropological question wrong, then all other measures of truth regarding the person lose their power to convince.

And it just so happens that he thought that embedded in the heart of anthropology was marriage. That is the mystery of spousal and filial love reaches back into the very foundations of created existence in "the beginning" of Genesis. Sexual difference — man and woman — mediates and makes visible the very mystery hidden in God from eternity, fulfilled in Christ and the Church. To be human, to be a man or a woman, is to carry that mystery in your body.

And this is why there is so little wiggle-room regarding the Church's approach to marriage, both sacramental or civil. For marriage concerns everything: the unity of God's plan for both the created order and the world to come, expressed in both creation ("natural law") and the fullness of revelation in Christ. The fundamental truth of both created and redeemed man, of the natural and sacramental orders alike, are at stake. In the eyes of the Church, the domain of civil society cannot be exempt from this foundational truth.

Both conscience and the norms of canon law, then, belong to the pedagogical soil of God's plan for marriage. Conscience is, as it were, the interior path of truth, capable of prompting in us a native recognition of the mystery we carry in our bodies, while canon law is the exterior path charted for us by the wisdom of the Church accrued throughout the ages by the apostolic tradition. Both are agents of God's plan but neither can work the way they ought to without a functioning culture and practices of faith where Christ is revealed as the living Son of God.

CM: Has Church dogma ever changed due to an outcry from the laity or priests?

Theologian: As a kind of "majority rules" form of coercion? No, at least not in such a way that would have lasting and universal implications. Some questions have of course taken centuries to work out, with much pain and conflict (for example, the Christological controversies of the first centuries of Christianity). In such cases, there were often factions militating for this or that position. There may be many different and contrasting suggestions, and there may be whole regions that take up what will eventually be declared a doctrinally heterodox understanding.

But the Church, the mystical body, listens to Christ who promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against her (Matt. 16:18): this is to believe that in Christ, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the apostolic tradition is guided by something more than the imperatives of majority opinion, the signs of the times, or even the apparently best kind of human wisdom which must always be to some degree relative or provisional.

New "truths" do not emerge overnight, especially if they are the "truths" of things fundamentally contrary to the consensus of the apostolic tradition.

The bottom line? Established dogmas and doctrines are the fruit of centuries of (sometimes protracted) reflection. New "truths" do not emerge overnight, especially if they are the "truths" of things fundamentally contrary to the consensus of the apostolic tradition. As a rule, it could be suggested that any claim to some new insight accompanied by the confident claim that the "Spirit is moving" is a sure sign that the Spirit is not moving. If new insight into the deposit of faith does occur, it is by way of a deepening of some prior truth. It is a capacity born above all from a change in us, born of our greater conversion, our more ready docility to the "Spirit of truth" (Jn, 16:3).

CM: Some Catholics are quite outspoken in their disapproval of the male hierarchy structure of the Church. Why is the Church structured the way it is?

Theologian: It goes back to the mandate Christ gave to Peter: "You are Peter and upon this rock, I will build my Church and the gates of Hades will not overpower it" (Matt, 16:18). Christ chose 12 men for Apostles, seemingly unconcerned with gender parity.

It is, of course, now quite normal today to say that this decision simply reflected the norms of Jesus' own time and place and that if He were to come back today, He would probably have picked six men and six women or perhaps to make a point, seven women and six men. But it seems silly to think that the Son of God would allow Himself to be so determined by cultural conditions in such a momentous act. Consequently, the Church has always been clear that it has no power whatsoever to reverse what it has consistently seen as a deliberate act on the part of Christ: "The Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful" (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 40).

More broadly, the Church's understanding of a male-only priesthood rests on a belief that sexual difference matters — one derived from the broader anthropological vision we have already mentioned. This recognition that man and woman have different capacities and strengths is often reduced to a question of "natural" social "roles," a tendency that has led to many distortions and reductions of the actual mystery at work here.

But the difference consists of something more than this. In Christ, it gives man and woman properly "dramatic" vocations of mediating the mystery revealed in Him. So it's more properly a question of a "charismatic" identity and mission in the sense of possessing a unique, divinely-given charism to reveal something of who God is in Himself and how He has related to the creature in Christ. In the case of men, this charism has been understood as the gift of mediating God's fatherly authority, one that applies in the "Petrine" dimension of the Apostolic tradition and in the teaching that the husband is head of his wife (cf. Eph. 5:23).

There is a self-excoriation that comes from inside the Church — the declaration that the Church has more to learn from the world and the pews than it has to teach them.

Of course, no one can deny that the men chosen to lead the Church are more than capable of almost stuffing the whole thing up. Moral failures and seedy goings-on have been (and still are) a staple in the history of the institutional Church. A certain kind of real pathology associated with the term "clericalism" has at times enabled the worst kind of privilege, corruption, paternalism, elitism, moral immunity, opacity, etc.

Today, especially at the moment, anything associated with the Church, understood as an institution bearing authority, both eternal and temporal, is under attack. There is no question that the Church here has brought a measure of this on itself. Its failures in recent years have been well-publicized. At best, it has been slow and clumsy in its response to various problems, thus exacerbating the impression that it's little more than an institution concerned with its own assets and status.

No surprise, then, to see a new assault, both from outside and inside the Church, on "clericalism" understood as signifying any sense that the priest and the leaders of the Church are set aside for a specific kind of moral and structural leadership. On the one hand, there is a self-excoriation that comes from inside the Church — the declaration that the Church has more to learn from the world and the pews than it has to teach them. On the other, we are told that unique leadership structure of the Church must be abolished.

Holy Orders prayer card

But clericalism, at heart, is a problem that goes much deeper. Given what we said about the "charismatic" reality at the heart of apostolic authority, "clericalism" actually involves anything, whether from the right or the left, that falsifies the understanding of the priest as one who exists to radiate the Fatherhood of God. A priest, in this sense, is a spiritual father before he is anything else. All of his unique tasks flow from this point. He is neither the mere dispenser of sacraments nor a "manager" of his parish.

"Clericalism" is thus a basic failure of Christian identity: a failure to conceive of masculine identity and the priesthood as a spousal and fatherly mission shaped by the centrality of Christ the Bridegroom and God the Father. In other words, again, the problem is a fundamental anthropological one: whether we are talking about the vocation of a man in marriage or the priesthood, we fail to understand it if we do not conceive of it as a charism of loving as Christ loved the Church and thereby radiating the Fatherhood of God.

So, the real problem is when we forget what we might simply call the "family" character of Church leadership and authority. This is, of course, what the ethos of secular institutions can never understand, namely, a structure in which there are ontological bonds between members that are more constitutive than formal laws and regulations. Within the "family" of the common priesthood of the baptized, there different gifts and roles, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters. But all are subordinate to the love of the Father in Christ. All answer to and are motivated by the higher law of a filial obedience to love. This is what is (or should be) unique about the structure of the Church. And in this sense, it should in every way be better, more just, more human, than any secular understanding of leadership and authority.

The challenge of the "family" model is that it does not easily translate to a larger scale. The bigger the Church gets, the more influence it bears, the more involved in the temporal world it becomes, all of this easily works against the law of love. And the family model, so heavily premised on personal sanctity and fidelity, is of course intrinsically vulnerable to sin and the failures of freedom. The very best thing, sadly, can become the very worst thing. It has ever been this way.

I think the institutional apparatus of the Church is now very far from the vital sap of the family model. This sap is gone, at least for the time being. The Church is more motivated to protect the family's yacht and holiday home, so to speak, than the dignity and spiritual welfare of its members. The almighty bottom line has more pull than the Almighty Himself. Put starkly, perhaps the only way in which the credibility of the spiritual authority of the apostolic can be restored is for the Church to lose her status and assets.

CM: Kristina Kenally, a Catholic and the former Premier of New South Wales, sums up the feminist view in this opinion piece where she advocates for contraception and female clergy saying, "Everything in the Catholic Church after Jesus's death and Resurrection represents human attempts to interpret and apply the teachings of Christ to our circumstances. Because men fairly exclusively ran the world until very recently, it has been fairly exclusively men in the Catholic Church who've done the interpreting and applying. Not overly surprising, then, that the result is a set of teachings and rules that exclude and oppress women." Are women oppressed by the Catholic Church?

Theologian: If there is in the "family" model of Christian identity a masculine identity premised on radiating the Fatherhood of God, there is a correlative and complementary feminine identity premised on radiating the creature's perfect response to the Father's gift of election and adoption as exemplified in the motherhood of Mary. Neither is complete or makes sense without the other. Both, in their anthropological inscriptions, sacramentally mediate the deeply spousal and filial character of Christian faith: of a God who is a Father, of a divine Bridegroom who marries a human bride, of sons and daughters elected and adopted into the divine life. The anthropological structure of sexual difference thus has everything to do with communicating a transcendent and eschatological depth to human existence. And it has everything to do with why things like contraception and a female clergy are unacceptable.

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The bottom line is that Keneally subscribes to a very different anthropology than the one defended by the Church and has, by and large, given up on the belief in the capacity of the apostolic tradition to faithfully transmit the essentials of the Faith. In the first instance, her understanding of what it means to be a woman is shaped more by the principles of the Enlightenment, liberalism, feminism and generally post-critical, liberationist modes typical of secular, liberal democracies. Thus, her criteria for terms like "liberation," "oppression" and the like presupposes an anthropology where the self is understood as primitively free from the claims of others, human and divine. In the radicalizing of freedom typical of neo-liberalism, the claim that the identity of the self is constituted by the divine Other, that human freedom is relative to divine freedom, that the body is a sign and mediator of salvation history — all of this is now intolerable.

Thus, a woman is "oppressed" if she is told that contraception violates the unitive and procreative value of the sexual act. She is "oppressed" if she is rejected entry to the priesthood. And so on. But clearly, what counts as oppression here has everything to do with the deeper anthropological premises to which one subscribes.

CM: Can a Catholic be a feminist?

Theologian: A Catholic could perhaps once have been a very early feminist (i.e. the feminism that fought for things like universal suffrage) but today, inasmuch as the term embodies the liberation from all ontological and vocational characteristics of the deepest conception of what it means to be a woman in the light of faith, no. To be a "feminist" today, according to its popular understanding, is to embrace the whole anthropological playbook of the very antithesis to Christian anthropology.

But let me conclude on a more critical note. Again, that clericalism of identity mentioned earlier is a very real factor as regards people's inability to see in Christian anthropology its truly original liberative possibility. If there is an oppression of woman going on, it is in the ongoing failure of Christian preaching and practice to uphold the beauty and seriousness of what it means to be a man or a woman; what it means to be a father and a mother.


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