On Making Catholic Claims

Not long ago, on television, a woman speaking on behalf of Catholics for a Free Choice, made use of the following argument to justify her claim that there is no monolithic Catholic position on abortion. “I think that abortions are sometimes morally all right; I am a Catholic; therefore, some Catholics hold that abortions are sometimes moral. There is, then, no monolithic Catholic opposition to abortion.”

She spoke with perfect sincerity. I do not think there was any remote intention consciously to commit a fallacy. Her argument is manifestly unsound, something swiftly shown, but it raises two issues relevant to such a journal as this: the populist notion of the Church that some theologians sometimes find a convenient shield for dissent and, second, the significance, responsibilities and limits involved in calling Catholicism in Crisis a journal of lay Catholic opinion. But first the fallacy.

“I am a member of the CIA; I slip secrets to the enemy; therefore some CIA agents find slipping secrets to the enemy okay and it is wrong to suggest that it is against CIA policy to do so.”

A member of a society may hold views at variance with those of the society but then he does not hold them as a member of that society. If the policy of the society could be made in this way, there would be as many policies as there are members, which suggests the members are not members of a society in any significant sense of the term. A society of solipsists, perhaps.

The fact that some Catholics publically contradict official Church policy does nothing to alter that policy, teaching, doctrine. What it should do is alter the status of the objector. If a given tenet is a condition for membership and one does not accept that tenet, one does not redefine membership but forfeits it.

Why is it that people now think they can contradict the teaching of the Catholic Church and still claim to be as Catholic as anyone else? The villain of the piece, it seems to me, is the idea bruited about by theologians, particularly loved by liberation theologians, that Vatican II marked the demise of the hierarchical Church, the institutional Church, a highly centralized body with the Holy Father as its head, the bishops as its teachers, priests as helpers of the bishops and the laity as the governed. The Bishop of Saginaw recently dismissed this “model of the Church” in America as simply false.

In its place we have an ecclesial flatland over which the Spirit breathes as He will, prophetic voices are heard from time to time, and theologians and bishops, when they aren’t watching Dan Rather for signs of the times, heed these prophets as the carriers of Catholic teaching.

You will suppose that I am exaggerating for effect. I assure you that I am not. It is not only the unfrocked priests in the Sandinista movement who find it convenient to pit the base communities against the hierarchical Church; starry-eyed religious tourists return from Central America with breathless stories that remind one of Potemkin Villages of yore. The distortion has a revolutionary point in Central America. What is its point here?

Power. Power of a prettier kind, but power nonetheless. The assertion of one’s will against authority. The denial that there is any authority if it conflicts with one’s own views. Does the Church condemn contraception? Dissent is supposed to legitimize the view that one can be pro-contraception and Catholic. This is false. Does the Church oppose abortion? A few or many dissenting voices are sufficient to argue that such opposition to abortion cannot be the Catholic position. Again, false.

The people’s Church is a fiction put to use by a few who wish to compete for authority within the Church. To do this they must speak of the Church as a political society, human all too human. Above all, they must ignore the dogmatic and pastoral constitutions on the Church written by the Fathers of Vatican II and promulgated by Pope Paul VI. Far from rejecting the hierarchical Church, Vatican II emphasized and clarified and endorsed the traditional understanding.

There are, then, extenuating circumstances stemming from the theological muddle on the nature of the Church and the woman who spoke for Catholics for a Free Choice could very well have thought she was able to say what she did and remain a Catholic in good standing.

The question must arise as to the right of such a journal as this to call itself a journal of lay Catholic opinion. It may seem that, because of the role we played in the drama attending recent bishops’ pastorals, devoting entire issues to Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age and to the Letter on the U.S. Economy of the Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, that we are in the same logical neighborhood as the spokeswoman referred to.

Nothing could be further from the truth. This journal has not and never will consciously publish anything that is in conflict with clear Church teaching. In taking issue with the bishops on nuclear defense, we were responding to their own invitation and accepting their characterization of their views. They were very careful not to label their very detailed views as anything other than opinions. They called them prudential, meaning, I take it, that in contingent matters they were making a judgment that did not pretend to absolute truth. And of course they invited the faithful to ponder and discuss the matters they had taken up in their letter.

And so it is with the pastoral on the economy and the letter of the Catholic Lay Commission. There are Church teachings which bear on war and the economy which are absolute and that no Catholic can contradict. These, of course, could be swiftly stated and would not require a letter. The bishops decided to move on into a jungle of detail where reasonable men may disagree, where Christians, Catholics, holding the same faith, can disagree because they are not disagreeing on anything essential to the faith.

This is not to suggest that practical judgments of detail are unimportant or episcopally infra dig, only that they are what they are and not another thing. The bishops do well to give us examples of serious, prayerful application of the faith to contingent matters. Without such application, the faith would be a hollow thing, a mere formality. Disagreements with the bishops when they speak on this level have appeared in the pages of this journal. Let no one think that they are of a piece with the dissent of those Catholics who speak of a people’s Church, who suggest that the Pope and bishops are not the main vehicle of the magisterium, who imagine that any random Catholic can state what Catholic doctrine or policy is.

Nothing that appears here will be in conflict with Church teaching. Whatever appears is meant to stand on the arguments provided. We do not think that Catholics who disagree with us on contingent political and economic matters are insufficiently Catholic, up to no good, heretics. By and large, we are more likely to think they have lost their reason, not their faith.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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