Church Loyalty Oaths Revisited
I am doing something of a spin-off on Michael O' Loughlin's blog about tough questions in Oakland. My concern is less the debate between Bishop Cordilione and the Board of the Catholic Association for Gay and Lesbian ministry but rather the disturbing and growing recourse to ecclesiastical loyalty oaths.
I am not, generally, much of a fan of loyalty oaths of any kind. I remember still, with a shudder, the awful McCarthy period and the House Un-American Activities Committee and the harm they did to innocent people and the way they sowed as much suspicion and fear of outsiders as any real patriotism. In the end, the loyalty oaths of the 1950's probably did more harm than good. Most of them got knocked down by The Supreme Court or other federal courts in the 1960's. The courts ruled that if the state suspected a citizen of breaking the law, the burden of proof lay with the state to prove that, not with the citizen to have to proclaim his or her loyalty by an oath. The courts also shot down many of the loyalty oaths because of the vagueness or undue breadth of the language written into the oaths.
I have only once been confronted with a loyalty oath in the church. When I was preparing to be ordained in 1967, I was expected to sign the infamous "Oath Against Modernism" initiated by Pius X in 1910. Until late 1967 (after my ordination) it was mandated that every professor in a seminary and every priest take the oath against modernism. I and another Jesuit seminarian had serious objections against taking that loyalty oath. We had read enough history about the grave evils which fell on innocent people and on the church because of its overwrought anti-modernism crusade. Spies listened in on professors's lectures and denounced them to the authorities. People were afraid to write any pastorally bold and innovative works of theology. A cloud of suspicion hung over the church. I have always been a fan of Benedict XV who succeeded Pius X because he opposed the anti-modernist crusades ( or better said, vindictive witch hunts!). The anti-modernists had insisted on an adjective, integral, to accompany the noun, Catholicism. Benedict retorted that Catholicism in its universality did not need any accompanied adjectives. I refused, therefore, to sign the oath against modernism since it violated my conscience.
I live in a diocese where on two sides other dioceses have resorted to a kind of loyalty oath in the church. Bishop Vasa of Santa Rosa devised, when he was still Bishop of Baker, Oregon, a loyalty oath called "Affirmation of Personal Faith." All lay Catholics who worked in the diocese in parishes, diocesan offices or Catholic agencies (such as hospitals and Catholic Charities) had to take the loyalty oath--to the consternation and resentment of many. Now a version of it is being promulgated in Santa Rosa and I have had people ask what is going on in such an extensive invasion of consciences in the diocese.
Vasa's oath affirms the church's teaching on the sinfulness of abortion and says: " I do not recognize the legitimacy of anyone's [presumably including non-Catholics] claim to a moral right to form their own conscience on this matter. I am not pro-choice. I further attest that I am not affiliated with, nor supportive of any organization which supports, encourages, provides or otherwise endorses abortion or euthanasia." The last phrase is striking in its breadth and vagueness. Does this mean I cannot support United Way if it also gives money to Planned Parenthood for its cancer work among women but not for abortions? Is there guilt by association in any support of Planned Parenthood? Does this mean I am promising never to vote for a pro-choice candidate who, on all other scores, is morally superior to his or her opponent?
The oath continues: "I affirm and believe the Church's teaching about the sinfulness of contraception." It asks the oath taker to assert that contraception is always intrinsically evil. The oath goes on: "I accept the church's teaching that any extra-marital sexual relationships are gravely evil and that these include pre-marital relations, masturbation, fornication, the viewing of pornography and homosexual relations." A further paragraph insists that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered." Other sections of the oath affirm the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the virginity of Mary, a belief in hell and purgatory and that the oath taker acknowledges that church teachings "pronounced in a definitive manner, even though not as an infallible definition, are binding on the conscience of the faithful and are to be adhered to with religious assent. "Note the ambiguity in the term," binding on the conscience." Does this mean I must first take seriously the teaching and enter as best I can into it before my conscience may dictate a different path from it? Does it allow ever any conscientious objection to fallible church teaching? Theologians also dispute what the meaning of "adhering with religious assent' really entails. In a masterful book, A Church that Can and Cannot Change (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005) John Noonan documents a series of changes (even radical ones) on Catholic moral issues: the morality of slavery, usury, church discipline on divorce. Noonan, of course, earlier argued that he thought elements of the church's teaching on contraception as always and everywhere and in every form it takes intrinsically evil could change.
Now I have sympathy, as an associate pastor, for a bishop wanting to make sure that Catholics who work for the church and in church institutions do not use that format to contradict church teaching or mislead the faithful. But I wonder if such loyalty oaths are the best way to do so. A young Jesuit from the East Coast with whom I shared my concerns here told me that such loyalty oaths imposed by bishops are proliferating also in the East coast. Resort to loyalty oaths often enough breeds suspicion, precludes frank and open dialogue and stifles honest discourse between the imposer of the oath and the one who, however unwillingly and resentfully, may or must take the oath. This does not foster a spirit of charity and mutual trust.
Michael O' Loughlin's blog also raises the way Bishop Salvadore Cordileone has resorted to his own composed oath to impose it on the board of the Catholic Association for Gay and Lesbian Ministry whose headquarters lie in his diocese (although the organization, as such, is national and usually the bishop of the diocese where its national conference meets celebrates an opening mass for the group). Cordileone's oath includes " I affirm and believe" statements regarding the definitions of marriage, purgatory and hell [I am a bit puzzled that both Bishop Vasa and Bishop Cordileone's loyalty oaths included sections on hell and purgatory but not on the true divinity and humanity of Jesus!], the belief that communion is available only under a state of grace and church positions on chastity and cloning [Why a group with pastoral outreach to gays and lesbians would be involved in issues of cloning or purgatory eludes me!]
This growing resort to loyalty oaths in the church by bishops is quite disturbing. Often the loyalty oath seems to represent an unprecedented and extensive demand for a manifestation of conscience. It is not always clear who has written them and on the basis of ones that I have seen they seem to fall under the same censure of being at times vague and too broad in language to be truly fair and just. All I can imagine is a TV hearing of the bishops one of these days, beginning with those famous words of Joe McCarthy barking at us: Are you now or have you ever? We do need more serious discussion about these proliferating episcopal imposed loyalty oaths in the church.
John A. Coleman, S.J.