True Catholic Belief

Who is a “true” Catholic? What constitutes authentic Catholic belief? I have often met claims in the comments threads on a range of Catholic sites that one cannot claim to be part of the Catholic faithful unless that includes faithfulness to Catechism, that loyalty to the Church necessarily implies, indeed requires, loyalty and automatic obedience to the pope and to Vatican doctrine. How sound is the claim? I know, of course, what the Catechism says, but this is circular reasoning: we must believe the Catechism, because it says so. (This reminds me of Scott Pomfret’s delightful observation: “How do we know the Pope is infallible? Because he said so. In 1879“). I could equally well argue that you must believe me, “because I say so.” It is true  that the argument summarised above is far more complex, with the doctrine developing over many centuries, but at its essence, the argument remains: believe the bishops, because (over many centuries) they have, collectively, said so.

James Alison likes to respond to Vatican teaching by saying “Yes, but is it true?“. I like to respond by checking claims not against theory, but against empirical evidence. So I repeat my questions, and ask ou to pay attention to the precise words: not what should Catholics be or believe, but who are the, what do they really believe?

I begin by taking the second question first. Dugan McGuinley, in “Acts of Faith, Acts of Love“, reviews some research on Catholic “identity”, Catholics’ own perceptions of what it is that makes them Catholic. For example, a 1999 survey by the sociologists, Hoge, D’Antonio, Davidson and Meyer, found

substantial agreement across a wide range of Catholics…regarding what is most central about being a Catholic. Topping the list is the sacraments, followed closely by a sense of spirituality, concern for the poor, and the spirit of community.

What is notably absent from that list is blind obedience, to either Pope or Catechism.

Two earlier studies from 1997 and 1999 showed similar results. One summary of the 1997 study identified three sets of factors constituting Catholic identity, conceived as three concentric rings.

  • The most important, central, factors were the core beliefs of Catholicism: the Trinity, the incarnation, the Real Presence, and Mary as Mother of God.
  • The next set were the Church’s social teachings and responsibility to the poor.
  • The third circle concerns rituals, such as attending Mass and receiving communion, which are commonly represented as “practicing Catholics”.

Once again, I do not see in there any reference to automatic obedience, still less to compliance with “official” sexual ethics.

Yet another study looked at Catholic identity and belief from a different perspective entirely, examining the common use of words such as “traditional” or “conservative”, as opposed to “liberal” or “progressive” Catholics – and found that they have limited value, except as they pertain to specific issues. Some of those who most loudly proclaim strict adherence on papal loyalty and to obedience on sexual teaching, for instance, totally ignore teaching on social responsibility, the death penalty, and on war. These matters of social teaching are included in the second circle of teaching described above – sexual ethics and papal obedience don;t feature at all. On the other hand, the “liberal” theologians so heavily criticized by some who think of themselves as orthodox, heavily promote the social teachings, and also seek to recover teachings and practices of the earliest church. Surely these are more authentically “traditional” Catholics than those who ignore most of Catholic history, focussing instead on the (relatively) modern insistence on automatic obedience to an infallible Pope?

The simple truth is, while we unite around some broad issues, there are many areas of disagreement. We are all Cafeteria Catholics, and no-one has the right to dispute another’s claim to inclusion.

On Catholic sexual ethics, I have previously shown how most Catholics, in their opinions and in their practice, disagree with the Bishops on same sex relationships, on gay marriage, and on gay adoption.

This week, I found some useful information from a 2008 survey by the highly reputable Pew Research Foundation on Catholic attitudes to abortion. This is one of the few areas of sexual/ social ethics where Catholic are not more tolerant than the American public as a whole: slightly more Catholics than other Americans agree that abortion is never acceptable, which is the official Vatican doctrine. However, this does not mean they are in agreement with their bishops on this. For whereas the bishops’ opposition is implacable, insisting that abortion is wrong in all circumstances, as notoriously demonstrated in the excommunication of a nun whose judgement as a professional ethicist went the other way, most US Catholics agree that there are at least  some circumstances where abortion is morally acceptable.

On abortion, as on homoerotic relationships, contraception, and sexual expression before marriage, the bishops are fully entitled to present their statements as representing Vatican doctrine. Any attempt to represent them as “Catholic” belief is simply false.

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