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Reading the Church correctly

| Thursday, November 20, 2014

Sarah Morris’s latest Viewpoint column (“In defense of Jesuits,” Nov. 19) is an interesting but unsound stab at juxtaposing several themes Catholic.

Morris rightly observes that “the labels of left-right/liberal-conservative can often be reductive when discussing varying ideologies within the Catholic faith.” Setting aside the irony that she concludes her piece by speaking of “liberal Catholics,” Morris here, in speaking of Catholic teaching as “ideological” and of Catholic “brands” and “factions,” makes the same mistake that Scholastic Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Warren did when he repeatedly called Catholicism an “ideology” in his October Letter from the Editor.

The Church is indeed, as Pope Francis has spoken of it, a capacious communion. Within the sphere of doctrinal and dogmatic magisterial expressions, a vibrant pluralism of theologies and spiritualities coexist; the Jesuits alongside the Carmelites alongside the Cistercians and Benedictines and Norbertines, ad infinitum, leading Chesterton to say of the Church that it “is not a movement but a meeting-place; the trysting-place of all the truths in the world.”

Precisely because the Church safeguards a doctrinal and dogmatic singularity, theological and spiritual and pastoral pluralities can coexist. These pluralities and this vibrant dynamism are made possible by the firm structure of doctrinal and dogmatic teaching, not hampered by it. And on this point Morris misfires.

She attempts to appropriate Pope Francis’s remarks from his September 2013 interview with America Magazine in an effort to prop up her political views. Before passing judgment on the Pope’s (or the Church’s) comparative moral positions on the various issues she raises, Morris might read Francis’s remarks to the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations (delivered the day after the America interview was released), in which the Pope emphasized the foundational nature of the right to life, for the preborn as well as the impoverished, and denounced the “culture of waste” in which the unthinkable (excusing preborn persons from the community of human dignity) becomes thinkable.

But more importantly and regrettably, Morris instantiates the typical American Catholic effort to appropriate the Church (or the Pope) simpliciter as an ally in political or ideological debates. She does this by dismissing a concern for the preborn and for the sanctity of marriage as being less important because narrower in scope of effect than concern for the poor or the undereducated, citing Francis’s papal charism as exemplary of this humanitarian broadness. This argument backfires badly for her, first because Pope Francis throughout his papacy has spoken out vigorously not only about economic (in)justice and poverty, but about the grievous scourge of abortion and the paramount importance of upholding the “sanctity of the family” as the foundation of flourishing society; and second because abortion and an impoverished marriage culture affect wider swaths of American humanity than Morris lets on. Fifty-three million Americans, infants and mothers alike, have died due to abortion in the last four decades; the overwhelming majority of extant social science establishes a strong correlative link between deviations from households headed by intact, married biological parents and children’s poor-being, including material poverty.

In her attempt to relativize and therefore liberalize the Church’s doctrinal and dogmatic teachings on the moral stratification of these and related issues, Morris evinces a less thorough grasp on Church teaching than she may regard herself possessing. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent,” indeed, as Pope Francis writes. Pastoral focus rightfully varies at subsidiary levels, and the beauty of the Catholic teaching on personal vocation is that it enfranchises each member of Christ’s body into a unique and irreplaceable ministry to those in need in order to build up the Kingdom (cf. Romans 12:3-8).

It is dishonest and mistaken, though, to place various moral issues on a par with each other, or to claim that those who do not are simply factious or espousing a peculiar preferential “brand of Catholicism.” The desire to levy this accusation stems all too often from an effort to justify one’s own disagreement with the same moral hierarchy of which Francis spoke in his America interview, or to valorize one’s own views, as Morris does in defending Georgetown University against the charge of meaningful (if not yet comprehensive) departure from fidelity to the Catholic Church.

There are no “liberal Catholics” and “conservative Catholics,” as Notre Dame professor of law emeritus Charles Rice once wrote. There are Catholic liberals and Catholic conservatives. Catholic orthodoxy and praxis ought to inform and shape the Catholic person’s political leanings, not vice versa.


Michael Bradley

Class of 2014

Nov. 19

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Nathan

    I’m re-reading Morris’s article, but frankly I’m a little lost here. How is Morris’s quoting of Pope Francis about the church needing to expand its focus an “attempt to appropriate his remarks to prop up her political views”? She didn’t take his quotes out of context, she didn’t distort their meaning. Am I missing something?

  • Here’s a radical thought:

    Both Sarah’s and Michael’s, and Jonathan Warren’s, descriptions are correct.

    It’s when we start to say what a “religion”, “theology”, “faith tradition” ISN’T is when we start to get into trouble.

    • Nathan

      I took a look at the linked article by Warren. He uses the “ideology” word three times, but I guess what confuses me is why the author here is taking issue with it. Ideology often has the connotation of being political, but is also just a way of saying a system of beliefs (which Catholicism is). Is it just the political connotation that’s being called out here?

      • Good question, Nathan. Perhaps Mr. Bradley might answer it. I have heard people get quite animated, even insulted, that words like “ideology” get attached to Catholicism. That, perhaps, “ideology” is more of a “secular” term while “Catholicism” describes a religion so, therefore, because “Catholicism” is a religion it’s not and can’t be an “ideology”?

        Once again, like in so MANY things, it comes down to words and definitions/interpretations of words: one person’s “faith” and “doctrine” are another person’s “ideology”.

        Which, though, in a way, is one of the great things about religion and faith and spirituality (and other things like philosophy and art and literature ): day after day, year after year, century after century, you can still talk about it and never ever like be able to pin it down completely. I think that’s cool.

        • Charlie Ducey

          Regarding words: yes, each word has slightly different meanings and connotations for each individual “participating” in the language. The problem is when two people use the SAME word and assume that each person is referring to the same CONCEPT. The idea is that words are signs or “signifiers” that refer to objects (things, concepts, actions, relations between concepts) in the world, the “signified” meaning of a word. However, if one wants to “participate” in a conversation that involves abstract or otherwise unclear terms (such as “ideology” and “Catholicism”) consistent “signifieds” for each “signifier” should be established. This is why Michael insists on Catholic being used as an adjective rather than a noun, since its use as a noun alongside adjectives such as “liberal” and “conservative” cause schism and even contradiction in what it means to be a “Catholic” person. The question is, are there necessary conditions for something being “Catholic”? If, for example, opposing abortion is such a necessary condition, then there could be no pro-choice “Catholics.” The point is, there are binding qualities that make something Catholic or not, and calling something “Catholic” does not make it so. The signifier word is only valid when expressing certain signified

      • I just thought of this, too Nathan: some people get quite upset when you don’t use a word properly, how it’s “supposed to be” used. Example: a professor circles the word “truth” on an essay you write and writes “I don’t think you understand what this term means in the context of the book”. Well, maybe to someone who’s educated to the eyeballs & knows the Greek origins of the word & how it’s been used throughout history knows what “truth” REALLY means, but I think I know what “truth” means, too. Maybe the way I describe isn’t quite the same but the crux is there, right? And isn’t that the way it is with “faith”, it’s not just one thing, one word, one interpretation? Maybe it’s the same thing with “ideology” and “religion”: there are like intelligent, PROFESSOR ways of understanding things and everyday people ways? Which to me are the same, except one maybe sounds more “intelligent” than the other, ‘cuz they’re both talking about the same thing, like overlapping circles in a Venn Diagram. It’s what overlaps that’s important, right?……..I don’t know. I’m babbling. Sorry. Gonna run.

      • Annie

        I think the issue with using the word ideology is it segregates the faith to one’s system of beliefs, which is not only what it is. You don’t simply “assent” to the faith – you live it. Part of being a member of the Catholic Church is believing that She is guided by the Holy Spirit, which means trusting in the truths that She espouses. It’s a humbling thought, to be sure, to place ourselves and our own convictions aside and trust our Mother Church in all things, and through Her to trust the Lord, but that is what we are called to – a life of faith, in all things. When I see the Church, I see her numerous missions to the poor, and I see her dedication to the last and least (which includes the unborn), but I also see her beautiful churches, and liturgies. We have to stop separating the mystical from the prophetic and vice versa, otherwise we all become heretics of a sort – overemphasizing one element of the Church to the point that it becomes the focus of one’s beliefs. That’s exactly how heresies happen. We have to pray for guidance through this difficult time and when we cannot seem to understand the Church’s beliefs, prayer is once again the answer. I think what many of us Catholic conservatives and Catholic liberals keep forgetting is how to trust our Church in all things. I think that is where the conversations should all start from – prayer. Truthfully, I think we should not attempt to speak of Her without having prayed and asked for guidance from the Holy Spirit, otherwise it may be us as fallen individuals who speak our own words to try to glorify ourselves or our ideologies instead of the voice of faith coming through us to touch minds and lives as God wills.

  • Sarah Morris

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the response. It’s always nice to know people actually read my stuff. Allow me to make a few clarifications and respond to some of your points. First, I am in no way making an attempt to use the Church to “prop up” any of my political beliefs or ideologies. That would be a wholly unsuccessful endeavor as many of my views do not align with the teachings of the Church. In some cases, they go directly against them.

    I included one of Pope Francis’ quotes to demonstrate that the Church is BROADER than what many people tend to focus on. Though I alluded to a value judgement on what “issues” I personally find more relevant, I would never attempt to downplay Pope Francis’ commitment to the unborn, family issues, etc. Of course he cares deeply about such things.

    Finally, and what concerns me most, is that you seem to have missed the entire message of the piece. I’m not defending Georgetown’s “meaningful (if not yet comprehensive) departure from the Catholic Church.” As I stated, this is simply not true. There’s really not much to defend–it’s a matter of fact that Georgetown is a Catholic university. Nor am I trying to “liberalize the Church’s doctrinal and dogmatic teachings.” Rather, my intention was to encourage dialogue among “Catholic liberals” and “Catholic conservatives” as you call it (seems more of a semantics issue to me…), instead of casting out “others” as fundamentally non-Catholic, or less Catholic. By claiming that Georgetown is leaving the Church (insinuating that they are not “true” Catholics), or labeling someone pejoratively as a “typical American Catholic” is far less productive and fruitful than actually discussing the differences found among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.