Ms. Goodman Builds a Church

Archbishop, a wit once declared, is a Christian rank neither reached nor aspired to by Christ. Nothing prevents columnists from aspiring so high, however, or even higher. This my colleague Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe recently did, setting forth in a recent column her vision of how the Catholic church ought to be constituted.

As Foundress, Ms. Goodman would arrange the church so: Any person who no longer shares the Faith would, just the same, never “be forced to leave it.” In this new dispensation, Mother Church would not be forgiving (she already is that); rather, she would no longer make distinctions.

Ms. Goodman wants Catholicism to be a religion in which each individual declares to be doctrine whatever he or she wishes. It follows, then, that that is Catholic doctrine. Not for Ms. Goodman’s church, “Catholic Authority, Obey It or Leave It.”

The drama in which Ms. Goodman has been elevated to draft a new constitution for the church has three acts. Act One featured an ad of October 7 in the New York Times, signed by 94 theologians, stating that there is not just one Catholic teaching on abortion, but a pluralism of opinions. In this Act, Ms. Goodman sees no difference whatever between the two concepts, “Catholic teaching” and “a diversity of opinions among Catholics.” In short, she misses the point of Act One.

The U.S. Catholic bishops, however, did not miss this crucial point. As Act II opens, Ms. Goodman is shocked when in November, 1984, the bishops denounce the ad, and its signers. The bishops do not doubt the evident fact that there is a “diversity of opinions” among Catholics, on this and many other fundamental points. But they would be derelict in their duty if they shrugged their shoulders and said, “So what?” The ad equated the personal opinions of Catholics with official Catholic teaching. It is the job of bishops (and pope) to keep official teaching clear and pure.

The fact of a diversity of opinions on abortion is in itself no challenge to the bishops; it is the normal course of events. Challenge arises from the claim that such personal opinions have the same weight as Catholic teaching, the same authority as that of bishops.

Obviously, Ms. Goodman does not believe that bishops have any more moral authority than 94 laypersons, 24 nuns, whoever. For her, the Second Act is sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But then the Third Act! The Vatican denounces the ad and goes to the religious superiors of those 28 signers who happen to be ordained clergy or publicly professed religious, under voluntarily affirmed vows of obedience. Such persons are official embodiments of church authority, official spokespersons of Catholic faith. They are bound under canon law, which they have freely accepted, to be faithful in their teaching to the Faith officially in their care. The Vatican asks them to recant—or leave.

For Ms. Goodman, this plot line makes no sense. So she supplies another one. Why can’t the Catholic church be “a family with room for disagreement and feuding and belonging”? “In the name of purity or rigidity,” she writes, “the Vatican is tightening up the qualifications for belonging.” She thinks this is sad.

But suppose the issue were racism. Would Ms. Goodman cheer backsliding then? Would she defend dissenters who held that some forms of racism in some situations are, in the opinion of some Catholics, legitimate? Anyone who knows Ellen Goodman knows that on some issue, she favors principle, clarity, and fidelity to the depths of the spirit and to the absolute letter. Understandably, for her, abortion is not such an issue.

Ms. Goodman would never wish the Vatican to “silence” racists. She would surely demand, however, that church authorities publicly disassociate themselves from such persons, and publicly deny that such persons speak for the church. The distinction between the personal opinions of some and official church teaching would not seem then to be a product of narrowmindedness, rigidity, and false purity. She would not want racists to be officially welcomed “in the family.”

Well, official Catholic teaching (you can love it or leave it) is that abortionists are like racists: violating the unalienable human rights endowed in individual human beings by their Creator. Humans being human, it is normal that official Catholic teaching is not accepted by some otherwise committed Catholics, even clergy and religious.

Clear creeds and firm principles play an important role in human life. Ms. Goodman is wrong to encourage a church—any church—to abandon these for the shifting winds of personal opinion. On mere personal opinion, no one builds a church.

Michael Novak


Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.