Claiming the Mantle of Catholicism: A Reply to Dr. Mary Hunt
Last week, Dr. Mary Hunt, of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, took issue with an earlier post of mine about Frances Kissling’s attack on President Obama’s selection of Alexia Kelley to an important post at the Department of Health and Human Services. Kissling objected to the appointment because Kelley is pro-life and the group Kissling founded, Catholics for Choice, recently issued a glossy pamphlet denouncing the group Kelley founded, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, on the same grounds.
I do not intend to revisit the issue of Kelley’s appointment, but Hunt made a specific charge against me. "What I detect, however, in this blog piece is shades of the replication of a tactic that Vatican officials use when they are challenged," she writes. "They imply or declare that the person who disagrees with them is not really "Catholic," not worthy to raise hard questions that apparently only ordained Catholic men behind closed doors are able to handle." Mind you, I am not ordained, do not work in the Vatican, and so far from being behind a closed door, my concerns were raised in a blog post of a national magazine posted on the internet. (Hunt also said some of my post was gratuitous but as her quote above shows, I guess the crime of gratuitousness is in the eye of the beholder.) But, on to the central point.
Are there some arguments, some positions, that can properly be labeled "not really Catholic."? Is there something "un-Catholic" about such labeling? (The issue was raised, as well, in a post by my colleague Father Jim Martin, S.J. about a debate between Paul Baumann and Joseph Bottums.) And, at a time when Randall Terry, who was a Methodist five minutes ago, is calling for the removal of the Archbishop of Washington because he refuses to apply Canon 915 in the way Terry wants, the question is important. Indeed, I raised the issue myself in an article at Slate about the unwillingness of the Lefebvrists to accept the decrees of Vatican II. There I wrote "We all may be cafeteria Catholics in one way or another."
I plead guilty to the charge that I consider the position held by Kissling on abortion to be un-Catholic. Abortion is proscribed in one of the earliest Church texts, the Didache. At Vatican II it was called "an unspeakable crime." Our bishops could scracely be more clear and more insistent in voicing their concern for the dignity of all human life, especially when it is most vulnerable and threatened. But, Kissling’s life work has been aimed not only at defending legalized abortion – which she has every right to do in a free country like ours – but in claiming the mantle of Catholicism for her position. Hunt, of course, is blind to why this is outrageous. She claims "abortion is a woman’s legal and moral prerogative." Moral prerogative?
The issue behind the issue, however, is that of authority. CFC’s website chastises the hierarchy because it "seeks to impose its narrow view of morality - and dangerous positions on public health issues - on Catholics and non-Catholics around the world." Impose? Are their guards at the airports? The hierarchy tries to lead people to what it believes is the truth. That is not only their responsibility as successors of the Apostles, it is their right in a free society.
Are there times when one can disagree with the hierarchy and still consider yourself a Catholic? Of course. Think of the prominent theologians who were silenced in the years before Vatican II from John Courtney Murray to Henri de Lubac. But, are there positions you can hold that put you outside the Church? Of course. If you deny an article of the Nicene Creed, I do not see how you can call yourself Catholic. Better to be a sincere Buddhist than to be a Catholic who denies a central tenet of the faith.
Is opposition to abortion a central tenet of the faith? It is as close as you can get within the realm of moral theory. Does our Catholic opposition to abortion require a particular political strategy? Clearly not. Indeed, I believe a good Catholic can hold that the Constitution as it currently stands requires that abortion be seen as a constitutional right (Blackmun’s position in Roe) or that the issue should be left to the states (Scalia’s position today) although both positions clearly fall short of a Human Life Amendment, which is the only way to truly protect the right to life of the unborn.
There are plenty of conservatives who charge me with being a cafeteria Catholic. I have publicly disagreed with this document or that sentence of a Vatican directive. Obviously, sometimes disagreement is required not by the dictates of my conscience but by the nature of a given text: I defy anyone to reconcile the first half of Dignitatis Humanae with the second half – if Courtney Murray couldn’t do it, neither can I. Yet, both halves of the text are a solemnly defined conciliar document. Archbishop Burke and Archbishop Wuerl have different interpretations of how to implement Canon 915. I do not count myself among those who have forgotten that the line about being "more Catholic than the Pope" is a joke. But, I also recognize the personal obligation to become more Catholic than I was yesterday.
I agree with Hunt that Catholicism is a big tent. I have long loved James Joyce’s observation that Catholicism means "here comes everybody." But, Catholicism is not just about where we are from but where we are going. Indeed, it is primarily about where we are going: the Way, the Truth and the Life. I understand that we are all of us on pilgrimage, but I also recognize the possibility of getting off on the wrong road. I am glad that the Fathers at Nicaea declared Arianism a heresy and so we can address Jesus Christ as God. I am glad that the Fathers at Trent defended the sacraments from Luther’s attacks so that we can go to confession, get confirmed and receive the last sacraments. And, glad or not, if I am to be a Catholic I have to recognize that Council Fathers have an authority within the Church that I do not have.
My problem with Kissling and Hunt is not just their pro-abortion stance. It is that they denigrate the hierarchy repeatedly. They are free to believe anything they want, but not anything they want warrants the label "Catholic." There are decisions I make that are all on me, which my conscience may demand of me, but for which I cannot claim the mantle of my faith. And, even when I find myself disagreeing with the hierarchy I think we Catholics should not derisively assume they are motivated by misogyny or other spiritual afflictions. In the Catholic Church that Kissling and Hunt seem to want, everyone is entitled to do and think what they want – except the bishops. This is not a Catholicism I recognize in the long history of the Church. It is not a Catholicism I recognize today. It is a big church, yes, a very big church, with room for liberals and conservatives of all stripes. But there are places that exist outside it too. To insist otherwise may or may not be "Catholic" but it is ridiculous.