Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The I-Believe-Everything-Approach to Catholic Orthodoxy: Critical Reflections

Terry Weldon has a very good posting now at the Open Tabernacle site, looking at the place of the Catholic catechism as an answer book for those who need answers—all the answers—to the pop quiz we’re presumably going to be given at the end of our lives.   About our orthodoxy, don’t you know. 

About whether we’ve informed ourselves as to everything there is to know about what the Catholic church teaches.  And whether we’ve accepted everything the church teaches, and implemented all of that teaching in our actions.

I find this discussion fascinating (and Terry’s approach to it sane and helpful) because on threads discussing Catholic issues in the U.S., I increasingly bump into Catholics who apparently believe quite sincerely that they know everything that the church teaches.  And that they follow everything the church teaches.

The claim, which is repeated over and over again these days on Catholic blog threads, goes something like this: Unlike you cafeteria Catholics, I’m orthodox.  I believe everything the Catholic church teaches.  And I follow everything it tells me to do.

These are interesting claims from a number of standpoints.  First, and perhaps most important, those making the claims seem utterly unaware of one of the absolutely central Catholic teachings about the moral and spiritual life: namely, that self-righteousness is among the most serious of all obstacles to spiritual progress, because it undercuts our recognition that we stand always in need of grace.  All of us.

The claim of many self-professed “orthodox” Catholics nowadays that they have the corner on dogmatic truth and the practice of the spiritual life is astonishingly self-righteous.  And like all self-righteousness, it’s woefully oblivious of the manifold ways in which all of us fall short, both in what we know and what we do, in our lives of faith.

It’s absolutely impossible to be informed to the hilt about what the church teaches, and to follow every rubric to perfection.  As Jesus himself teaches over and over in the gospels, the point of the spiritual life is not rubristic perfection at all.  It’s our disposition of openness to God, our willingness to be led where we do not intend to go.

Which depends on our recognition that we do not know the way.  That we do not and cannot see clearly.  That our vision is limited by imperfection and sin.

That we stand in radical need of grace, and of divine guidance.  Always.

The claim of contemporary “orthodox” Catholics that they have all the answers—somewhere, in some answer book, in the catechism—re: what the church teaches is surprising and ill-informed from another standpoint as well.  This claim lacks any strong historical awareness of the complexity and diversity of a rich tradition that spans two millennia and a rainbow of different cultures.

The church teaches, and has taught in the past, many interesting things.  It has taught that women who have borne children need to come to the church for ritual purification after having given birth.  I know of at least one scrupulous American Catholic woman who continued that practice right up to the middle of the 20th century, though it had long since fallen out of use in most parts of the Catholic church by then.

The church has alternately condemned and then permitted usury.  It once accepted slavery, and then changed its mind about that longstanding (and biblically sanctioned) social practice.

The Vatican forbade inoculation against various infections as a violation of natural law when this medical procedure was first discovered.  It long stood against Copernicus and his recognition that the earth revolved around the sun—again, because the scriptures do not assume a heliocentric worldview.

The consumption of chocolate by women was forbidden by the church when Europeans first discovered that delicious and stimulating food of the new world.  The church has long stood against various enticing forms of dancing.  The Second Council of Baltimore found modern dancing in general “revolting to every feeling of delicacy and propriety.”  In 1917, the U.S. Catholic bishops, ever doughty defenders of delicacy and propriety, succeeded in obtaining a Vatican condemnation of modern dance altogether, and the tango in particular.

The church has taught that women should be veiled and then unveiled in church, that people should refrain from and then not refrain from the consumption of meat on Fridays.  Pope Pius IX’s (Pio Nono, we liked to call him in graduate school) Syllabus of Errors famously condemned the modern world altogether, ending with a zingy condemnation of anyone who maintains that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”

The church has taught a sizable number of things over the years, and many of its arcane prohibitions remain on the books now, just as towns in various parts of the United States continue to maintain laws criminalizing the consumption of food in public, or playing of dominoes on Sunday, or driving while blindfolded.

Does anyone really know everything the church teaches?  And more to the point, does anyone truly follow everything that the Catholic church teaches? 

I’d be interested, indeed, in meeting those “orthodox” paragons of virtue who have succeeded in informing themselves of “everything,” and who follow “everything” with scrupulous exactitude.  I become a bundle of tics just contemplating the possibility of compiling a comprehensive list of church teachings.

I can’t begin to imagine what putting all those contradictory—and, in many cases, plainly absurd—teachings into practice would do to the human body and psyche.  Orthodoxy walking around in plain view might be a less refreshing sight to behold than many of its adherents imagine it would be, if orthodoxy—of the contemporary ilk—ever really did succeed in grabbing total control of a human mind and a human body.

The claim of today’s self-professed “orthodox” Catholics that they scrupulously adhere to every jot and tittle of church teaching (and that they know each jot and tittle) seems to me spectacularly to miss the point.  The point is that church teachings have shifted constantly over the years, in response to new cultural insights and developments.

And that any time we’ve chosen to imagine that we can freeze those teachings at a particular moment in time, we’ve been proven wrong.  Because cultural development itself does not stop, and along with it, doctrinal development and development of the church’s moral teaching occurs.  Because development and change must occur, if the teachings of the church are to reach new generations of believers, or believers in new cultural settings.

Because the church’s teaching is always for people living now, in particular cultures at particular moments in time.  It is not for those who inhabit cultural bubbles set apart from the here and now.  Asking American Catholics of the 21st century to adhere to teachings formulated for, say, European women of the early modern period, who sipped their chocolate in grand defiance of church law, makes no sense at all, if we imagine that what the Catholic church teaches has pertinence for people in other cultural settings. 

The demand that those being catechized cling to mutable teachings formulated for cultural conditions quite different from those in which the catechized now live is a tacit admission that the church is intellectually bankrupt, when it faces contemporary culture.  The I-believe-and-practice-everything approach to orthodoxy is really an unspoken admission that what the church has to offer contemporary culture is just not good enough.  That “real” Catholicism showed itself only in some splendid period of the past like the Middle Ages.

And the best we can do now is try to imitate, with chastened awareness of our shortcomings, the fervent religiosity that imbued both church and state in that idealized period of history in which the pope ruled the world and the church called the shots for the culture at large.

Not only does the I-believe-and-practice-everything approach, with its peppery little Latin phrases and its fiddleback church dress and scads of scarlet silk, seek to freeze the entire significance of orthodoxy in an imagined period of total Catholic fidelity.  It also ignores the obvious fact that not everything the Catholic church teaches  at any point in time or anywhere in the world exists at the same level, when it comes to the everyday life of believers.

As Karl Rahner noted, there is a hierarchy of truths in the Catholic church, and the everything or nothing approach to orthodoxy overlooks that hierarchy, placing fiddlebacked chasubles on a par with, say, the divinity of Christ.  Or proclamations about the children of gay couples entering Catholic schools on the same ground occupied by the Sermon on the Mount.

Rather than trying to learn and follow everything, it might be wiser for Catholics today to try to focus on what counts above all.  I wonder what would happen if we started the catechetical process with the gospels, for instance, as Terry Weldon wisely suggests we might do?  With the Sermon on the Mount? 

With the honest recognition that the claim of most “orthodox” Catholics today to know and follow everything is really about squashing any discussion of “abortionsamesexmarriage,” and imposing their view of those moral issues on the rest of the church in the name of orthodoxy.  And doing so by pretending that there’s only one answer to the questions raised by complex, controversial contemporary moral issues—and that this answer is locked away in “orthodox” Catholics’ version of the catechism.  Which is to be used as a weapon against so-called cafeteria Catholics, who do not know and practice everything the church teaches, as the orthodox do.  (Well, as the “orthodox” practice everything about abortionsamesexmarriage, if not everything about the moral untenability of capital punishment or the right of every human being to health care . . . .)

Orthodoxy that makes much of rubrics and moral regulations and condemnations and scads of scarlet silk and fiddlebacked chasubles.  But far too little, it seems to me, of the Sermon on the Mount.

Which is rather the point of it all.