Reading the Church correctly
Letter to the Editor | 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.
Class of 2014
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.