Friday, August 15, 2008

On Catechisms: Vs. Fundamentalist Attempts to Capture "the" Truth

A regular contributor to the National Catholic Reporter café blog has recently asked me to respond to questions about the Catholic catechism (see and I’ve been talking to this contributor for some time. After I published my posting entitled “Love. Period.” on this blog, and then uploaded it to the NCR café, this conversational partner mounted an attack on my reading of Catholic sexual ethics, and began to post pieces of his own defending what he regards as the only defensible Catholic approach to sexual ethics (see and

Essentially, my dialogue partner continues to cite the catechism as if it is the final answer for things Catholic, the source for the Catholic truth. Thomas (the username of the person with whom I’ve been talking at the NCR blog) maintains that some acts are and will always be intrinsically evil.

He includes in that list homosexual acts, masturbation, and the use of artificial contraception—that is, any genital sexual act that is not open to the possibility of procreation. I have asked Thomas to reconsider his strong emphasis on intrinsically evil acts as the key to the moral life. In my reading of moral theology, an emphasis on acts alone cannot ever yield a complete picture of moral behavior. One must place an act within the context in which it occurs, and one must take into account the intention of the person(s) doing the act.

I think it is more productive to talk about moral norms that have to be applied in various situations, taking the intention of the one applying them into account, than to talk about acts in isolation from their situation and intention. I think it is very difficult to identify acts that are always, everywhere intrinsically evil—particularly in the realm of sexual morality.

I also find Thomas’s method of argumentation circular, and thus not convincing. When challenged to support his claim that some acts are always intrinsically evil, he states that the Catholic church defines some acts in this way, and so these acts must be intrinsically evil. When I ask him to explain how the church arrives at this position, to explain it to me in a way that shows me why rational people who apply their conscience to difficult moral situations should stop using reason and conscience and simply do as they are told by the church, Thomas points me to the catechism itself as “proof” that the church has spoken and the case is closed. In other words, he justifies the universal, unquestionable validity of what the church teaches by pointing to a summary of Catholic teaching produced by . . . well, the same institution whose word we’re supposed to accept without question in the first place.

Thomas is now asking me and other contributors to NCR discussions to respond to questions he’s raised about the Catholic catechism. I’ve been mulling over Thomas’s challenge to answer his questions about whether the rest of us read, know, use—and, implicitly, accept (no questions raised, no interpretation needed)—the catechism.

It’s impossible to answer Thomas’s questions in the limited space allotted on a public blog such as the NCR café site. There are many ramifications of Thomas’s questions that go beyond their seemingly benign surface, and a full response requires a comprehensive look at those ramifications, as well as a frank recognition that Thomas is asking these questions to entrap Catholics who do not toe his line, the line he identifies with “the” Catholic position on issues.

It’s important to provide a full answer to Thomas’s questions because, as with many Catholic political activists allied with the religious right today, Thomas wants to marginalize voices such as mine, which read the Catholic tradition differently than he does—or than he believes the catechism does. Thomas’s last response to a posting of mine implies, in fact, that I am not a Catholic.

It interests me that right-wing Catholics are choosing to use the catechism as a political weapon—as an answer book that contains all Catholic truth, which can then be used as a sword to divide the flock into true and false Catholics, for political reasons. I’m not surprised that this is going on. Right-wing political groups have laid the foundation for this use of the catechism in recent years by funding absurd Catholic answers websites and Catholic answers journals, as well as Catholic voter guides, all of which hammer the rich tradition of Catholic theology, belief, and thought into tiny, rigid “answers” that support the political outlook of neo-conservative activists.

The more this method of corralling the Catholic vote and assuring that it is predictably Republican falters—and there are some strong indicators that it is not working so well in this election cycle as it has done in recent ones—the more adamant and angry those promoting the Catholic answers approach become. The fascist tendency that runs always just beneath the surface of Catholicism is very evident in their use of the catechism today. As they sense that they cannot any longer command all Catholics to toe their political line, they step up the insistence on the catechism as the ultimate arbiter of Catholic truth (indeed, of all truth everywhere). These right-wing Catholic activists demand that those who do not accept catechetical teachings in the most literal and fundamentalist way possible should absent themselves from the church and renounce the name Catholic.

Unfortunately, this attempt to divide the sheep from the goats prior to the eschatological judgment is not receiving the strongest possible reception in Rome itself. The last election was a kind of dark kairotic moment for the American Catholic church, in which some bishops (notably in Charlotte, South Carolina, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Omaha) used the Eucharist as a political weapon to try to bully their flocks into voting Republican.

These bishops called for turning away from the Eucharistic table any politician who supports abortion (see In one case in South Carolina, a lay member of a parish who approached the communion rail wearing a Kerry button was denied communion.

This repugnant political use of the central Catholic sacrament rightly outraged many Catholics, including some bishops. Recently, when he met with a group of priests during his vacation, Pope Benedict told his brother priests that he had been more severe in the past, but that he now sees that the pastoral way of approaching the Eucharist is to invite anyone to partake of it in whom there is even the tiniest spark of faith ( Prior to being made pope, Benedict (as Cardinal Ratzinger) gave communion even to non-Catholics, including the head of the Taizé movement (

This is the authentic catholic tradition. This is catholicism at its best. At its best, when it is true to what the word “catholic” actually means, catholicism invites everyone to the table, excludes no one, recognizing that the Lord who sets the table is the sole judge of the hearts of those who come, and honoring the Lord’s invitation of all sinners. This authentic way of being Catholic is, unfortunately, a way of being Catholic that infuriates those who want the church to use its sacraments and its teachings—above all, the catechism—as political weapons to whip dissenters into shape and to assure that voters choose the one political option they believe is justifiably Catholic.

As I’ve thought about what I’d like to say to Thomas in response to his questions about the catechism, I’ve been thinking about why I so radically depart from his reading of the tradition and of the catechism. I’ve been thinking about why I simply cannot buy into the Catholic-answers approach to the catechism, the use of the catechism as a tool to bludgeon dissenters over the head with, or as a sword to divide the flock into a tiny cadre of true believers and all the rest of us, the vast majority, sinful slobs who just can’t cut muster.

To be specific, I’ve been thinking about wisdom—or, perhaps better, Wisdom. There’s a venerable tradition in Judaism and Christianity that sees the entire spiritual life as a journey towards Sophia, Wisdom. There’s a whole genre of literature within the Jewish scriptures (and strands of it run through the Christians scriptures as well) describing how one sets out on the path to Sophia (and yes, Sophia is a female name, and there are longstanding currents in scripture and Christian tradition equating Her with the Holy Spirit).

Ultimately, I reject the way Thomas and other right-wing Catholics are trying to use the catechism for political reasons today, because it is not wise (in my view). This use of the catechism does not place us on the path to Wisdom. It does not do so for the following reasons:

• It is never wise to limit truth to a single source.

• It is never wise to assume truth can be locked into a book, any book.

• Truth is never like a set of answers—a set of things—to be pulled out of a bag we alone own, and produced as if on cue when it’s demanded.

• It is never wise to assume that one’s own understanding of truth is The Truth.

• It is never wise to believe that we can control and manipulate truth.

• Truth is not like that: it has the upper hand, if it’s truth.

• We know when we have met truth, because it overwhelms us: it moves us; it shatters us; it points us to revision of how we see things, and to transformation of our lives.

• Truth speaks from many different mouths, in many different voices.

• Because truth speaks with many mouths and in many voices, what it has to say can never be packaged into a single, univocal package.

• Those who hear truth hear contradiction, tension, yin and yang, yes and no.

• Because truth points to mystery beyond our control, when we meet it, it invites us on a journey—on the path to Sophia/Wisdom.

• We lose our sense of balance, control, assured place, when we set out with truth on the path to Sophia.

• Truth controls us, not vice versa. This is why truth can never be shut up in a book that we own and use to our own ends.

• Truth is never complete in this life. No one possesses it utterly and completely.

• Truth is eschatological. It is a horizon. It is ahead of us, not behind us.

• Wisdom demands that we listen especially to the voices we (personally, in our social institutions, in our churches) exclude because we don’t want to hear the complacency-shattering truth they tell.

• Truth comes far more often from those at the bottom of the social order than those at the top; those at the top have a vested (and self-serving) interest in limiting what can be seen and in controlling “truth,” while those at the bottom see the wider picture, including inconvenient realities those at the top try to hide.

• Truth demands willingness to foster community, respect for complementarity, and respect for many different perspectives.

• Truth demands justice, the attempt to create a social order in which those whose voices are extinguished, silenced, muffled, distorted, finally have the chance to speak.

• Truth and justice point to a table at which every voice has a place. No one can have a voice without bread, work, the social place and social respect that having a job, access to healthcare, etc., provide.

Thomas, if you happen to read this posting, please let me know if I have answered your questions about the catechism to your satisfaction.

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