Why a liberal Catholic is embarrassed

In his recent L.A. Times article, “NoneSo Blind,” Jason Berry describes Chicago’s Cardinal FrancisGeorge, who is about to assume leadership of the U.S. Council ofCatholic Bishops, as arrogant and callous. But George’s characterand attitudes are not unusual in the current church hierarchy. Ashort time ago, some Catholics were embarrassed to have CardinalJoseph Ratzinger become Pope Benedict XVI. Throughout his longcareer as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of theFaith *, Ratzinger suppressed thought, opinion and opendiscussion.

My own Catholic values are clustered around the open window ofaggiornamento and around the style of Pope John XXIII, whoconvened the Second Vatican Council. In my view, style communicatessubstance, and substance is the foundation of style. Jesus had acertain style of living, loving and thinking. Despite the learnedand sincere obfuscations of many popes, prophets, saints andtheologians over the centuries, the style of Jesus comes throughthe New Testament Scriptures beautifully. To me, there is anobvious connection between the open style of good Pope John and thedocuments of Vatican II, and the style of Jesus and the NewTestament; all the other documents and decretals of Catholicism andChristianity must be read with a view to the horizon of Pope JohnXXIII and Vatican II.

Enter Pope John Paul II, who became pontiff 13 years after theSecond Vatican Council had closed. Immediate chagrin, abidingembarrassment — these describe my somewhat learned, basicallybut not totally liberal and abidingly loyal Catholic response. Forme and others like me, Pope Benedict XVI puts the seal ofrelativity upon Catholicism. To my mind, the Vatican is lesscredible, not more credible, when it condemns theologians. Badstyle relativizes good substance. The same Holy Spirit that guidedJesus guides all Christians, the Christian churches and theCatholic Church preeminently. The rock star style of Pope John PaulII never impressed me. He wrote voluminously and even brilliantlyat times, but he was a dictatorial pope who refused to allowcompeting ideas in the Catholic Church during his reign.Intellectually, his was a reign of terror for thinking Catholics.Great Catholic thinkers living and dead — Teilhard de Chardin,Hans Kung, Charles Curran, Edward Schillebeeckx, Leonardo Boff,Anthony de Mello, Roger Haight, Thomas Reese — were censuredin one way or another. Cardinal Ratzinger was the enforcer.

So I spent the entire reign of John Paul in a state of religiousembarrassment. I was embarrassed to be a Catholic long before thenews of the pedophilia scandals began to break. I was notembarrassed about the Vatican’s probing and judging the ideas ofthe Catholic thinkers and theologians but about the way the Vaticancarries on its necessary work. The Vatican’s probing, questioningand testing of theological work are important and necessary. Buteven before that, the theologians must probe and ponder the Gospelsand other writing for ever deeper meanings and ever broaderapplications. The style of the Vatican’s response need not beanathemas and condemnation.

There are various ways and degrees of censure that are used by theVatican in reviewing theological work. When a theological work ispublished, official Vatican theologians or the Holy Office shouldoffer a preface or appendix that criticizes the work from anofficial point of view. Catholics should be regarded as intelligentenough to compare the work and its criticism and to make their ownconclusions. Teachers of theology in the colleges could then referto the Vatican response as well as to the new ideas, as they arefound under the same cover. It is a question of style that verysoon becomes a question of substance. The church’s guidance will bemore accessible, more effective and more respected. It will at lastshow charity and respect toward theologians and other thinkers.

A few years back, the distinguished but censured theologian CharlesCurran came as a visiting professor to the University of SouthernCalifornia. I was very proud as Cardinal Roger Mahony debatedFather Curran in an open format of mutual respect. I realized thenthat I could have a cardinal for a hero and could applaud one of mytheological heroes, both at the same time. The heroism of both menthat day was demonstrated in the respect that they showed for oneanother. Their common ground and style was one that communicatedrespect for truth in the Catholic tradition, the communication oftruth and the development of truth. I am Catholic because I believewe need the teaching authority of the church, but I am embarrassedby the lack of Christian style in the way the Vatican treats ourtheologians.

This type of open exchange stands in marked contrast to theVatican’s treatment of our theologians. It must be possible for aCatholic to opposeabortion on the grounds of the church’s moral teaching andstill be in favor of choice in the public sector. A public officialwho happens to be Catholic represents many people, not onlyCatholics. Each of those constituents has a conscience, and many donot hold that abortion is the taking of a full human life. ACatholic public official must support the liberty of conscience ofeach constituent, even above his or her personal moral convictions.In the opinion of many, the question of abortion is so intimate tothe woman involved that her conscience must be the ultimate courtof appeal in the matter. Her conscience may not be properlyinformed, or may even be malicious, but it is a matter of herconscience in the final appeal. To deny a woman access to propermedical care as a matter of public policy runs counter to thespirit of democracy, as well as the traditional Catholic view onthe freedom of conscience.

Yet Benedict XVI would make private conscience a matter of publiccensure, to the point of suggesting that Catholic politicians bedeniedHoly Communion. The church should not behave as a pressuregroup or political lobby. Nor should our political life become themeans for imposing our views on others. Neither should we startrehearsing the rhetoric of punishment, penalties andexcommunication for Catholics who hold different opinions on thesematters. Separation of church and state is a political and a moralprinciple for each American, and each of us should deepen thatconviction in our own hearts.

The bishops have done their job when they articulate the church’smoral teaching on abortion and urge us to vote accordingly. They gotoo far if they try to eliminate the pro-choice option from theconscience of every Catholic public official. The Catholic Churchdoes not require that its moral teaching be imposed on otherswithout regard for individual conscience. It’s embarrassing whenour church leaders or vocal Catholic groups disrespect thisAmerican principle.

There is no mechanism in Catholic theology by which dogma and moralteaching can be revised or brought up to date. There is nomechanism in our church by which truth may be spoken to power. Welove so much about our church, but our church is also human,fallible and sinful. Catholicism has never found a way ofacknowledging its own faults. To all non-Catholics, I apologize formy church. Please pray for us Catholics that we can get through aperiod of very poor leadership, and indeed make revisions andreforms that were anticipated in the Second Vatican Council.

Robert E. Doud is a retired professor of philosophy andreligious studies at Pasadena City College. He has also been amember of the Catholic Theology Society of America for more than 30years.

* An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated thatRatzinger was secretary to John Paul II. He was Prefect of theCongregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during John Paul II’sreign.

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