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February 11, 2015

A Catholic Pragmatist

Re Of Many Things, by Matt Malone, S.J. (2/2): Given Father Malone’s political training before joining the Society of Jesus, I’m surprised by his traditional Catholic interpretation of Mr. Cuomo’s two famous speeches. Mr. Cuomo was the ultimate pragmatist, knowing he could do more good for the poor in New York as a compassionate governor than as a right-to-life candidate who would lose every election because he didn’t represent the views of all the people.

Father Malone also points out the distinction between sinful conduct and “grave matters of life or death,” using homicide, assisted suicide and rape as examples of what should be proscribed by law. He posits that Mr. Cuomo failed to explain why abortion was different than these other grave matters. Yet Father Malone doesn’t mention capital punishment as one of his grave matters. Isn’t capital punishment as much a serious sin as abortion? Again and again, Mario Cuomo vetoed legislation favoring the death penalty. He stood up to the pressures of his party for three terms as governor of New York. In my view, his political courage and forthrightness make him one of the great American lay Catholics of this past century.

Edward J. Thompson Sr.
Gettysburg, Pa.

Lay Voices

Re “How Not to Preach,” by John J. Conley, S.J. (2/2): In general, I have found the homilies given by the two priests at the Episcopal church I attend to be far superior to most I heard during the almost 60 years of my life in the Catholic Church. I have especially appreciated the homilies of our woman priest.

Episcopal priests in general, and especially the women priests, are highly skilled at making the readings real in our own time and our own daily lives. Perhaps this is because they share many of the experiences of the laity, as married people, as parents, as grandparents. But women approach Scripture a bit differently than the men do, even in the Episcopal church. They see the feminine that is God, who made them male and female in God’s image. When our woman priest gave a homily on Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, her understanding as a woman, as a mother, came through loud and clear, with insights no male celibate could ever begin to grasp.

The Catholic Church not only bans women from the priesthood, it bans women (and all laypeople) from giving homilies. At the very least, this shoot-yourself-in-the-foot “law” should be changed, as there are many lay people, both men and women, who have better educations in formal theology and biblical scholarship than the average parish priest, and who have lived experience in the world that they lack. This would allow for far better homilies and enrich the understanding of those in the pews instead of putting them to sleep.

Anna Chapman
Online Comment

The New Normal

As someone currently applying to Ph.D. programs, I think “Theology’s New Turn,” by Thomas P. Rausch (2/2), misses a primary point: the academy is somewhat self-propagating. People study under professors and then doctoral advisers who are interested in these topics and end up using them as a base. They work in these fields and then are hired because hiring committees concentrate on these topics. So it’s really more complex than this article makes it seem. These fields are still popular because this is where much of the work has been done since the 1980s. These “transgressive” fields may work toward becoming more transgressive, but many are so deeply imbedded as to be the norm. It’s honestly easier to get an adviser and a job doing queer theory than doing Neoscholasticism or hermeneutical phenomenology.

I do not say this because I dislike these fields (they produce both good and bad work) but because this article is misleading. Things remain the same. Graduate schools give offers to those working on topics of interest to their professors. Departments hire in fields they understand. Postmodernism is no longer on the outside; it hasn’t been for 30 years.

Chase Padusniak
Online Comment

Conscience in Community

Many responses to “Following Faithfully,” by Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman (2/2), equate individual formation of one’s conscience with individualism. If you carefully read the article and carefully understand the work of Bernard Lonergan, S.J., that understanding would be far from the truth. The formation of conscience is a dynamic interchange of the individual and the church. Our experience and understanding should include the church’s teachings and other moral authorities, along with our own individual experiences and reflection. Also, the article includes reference to prudence, which is critical to good judgment. No matter how much you want to, you cannot wish away the role of subjectivity in moral decision-making and the development of conscience.

David Laroche
Online Comment

Who Defines ‘Natural’?

Re “Has Natural Law Died?” by John J. Conley, S.J. (12/22/14): Citing natural law assumes that we fallible human beings have a complete understanding of the nature of the world, ourselves and the interactions of the two and our places in it. In some ways, in some uses, this is absolutely good and necessary. The equality of all human beings, the value of the body and the mind, the inseparability of both, the inherency of rights of all people on a level far deeper than state or religion—these are treasured aspects of natural law. Natural law that looks to the level of harm caused to the person or interactions between persons has a solid ground for justification.

But when natural law is cited as the reason that homosexuality is wrong, for example, the cart has been put before the horse. No one has managed to cite the harm to persons or relationships caused by loving relationships between two members of the same sex. And certainly denying those relationships to others on account of natural law can cause harm.

Pornography, in contrast, is wrong on natural law grounds because it degrades the sacredness of the human body and prizes looking at human beings as objects for sexual pleasure rather than as persons. It does harm to interactions with human beings in the future by falsifying expectations of sexuality and interactions in the future. Its source and legacy are poisonous, so there are grounds for attack.

Homosexuality is condemned for breaking natural law, but no proof of the poison can be found. Instead, it seems that God has created people of this nature, and it is up to us to widen our understanding of nature to find out where they fit.

Winni Veils
Online Comment

CORRECTION: In “Pope Francis: Our Man in Havana,” by Tim Padgett (2/9), a quotation was attributed in error to John Suarez of the Directorio Democrático Cubano. Ana Garcia, not Mr. Suarez, said, “We’ve gone from a Catholic Church that helped bring down Communism in Eastern Europe to one that’s now propping it up in Cuba.”


Status Update

This is a fraught issue. Most people think of their conscience as “whatever I think” or even “whatever I want.” To say that it is supreme over the teaching of the church is to grant a devilish blank check to justify whatever we want. That is how most people twist this point nowadays in the West. To set up the conscience in competition with the church is to encourage that very misconception and a “who has the bigger stick” mentality—the very kind of triumphalism that many conscience-trumpeters think they are escaping from the “bad” hierarchical church.
Michael Newhouse
Question: Are the U.S. bishops allowed to follow their conscience when they condemn the opinions expressed by Mr. Lawler or Mr. Salzman or Sister Elizabeth Johnson as being contrary to the Catholic faith? 
Father Scott Sina
Thank you for publishing this information. When I have taught this to undergrads or shared it in discussions with adults, the reaction is frequently disbelief or that I am teaching inappropriately subversive material. The tradition of the centrality of the well-formed conscience has been kept well hidden from Catholics, which is truly sad.
Eileen Devine
Though the authors consistently cite the Father Ratzinger of Vatican II (who spoke merely as a theologian), they fail to cite the views of Cardinal Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who spoke with much greater authority and who clarified points of the former in important ways. While conscience remains the supreme authority, it does not and cannot allow one to ignore authentic and especially definitive pronouncements of the church in areas of faith and morals.
Andrew Hart
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