Friday, February 17, 2012

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

I keep being drawn back to this subject like a moth to a candle flame. But this article by Gary Wills pointed out to me, again, that no church is a monolith, despite what the "leaders" of the church might think.

Wills' argument can certainly be argued, but the simple fact is: there is always a gap between the "official" stance of any organization, and the actions of its constituent members. The United Church of Christ officially supports the use of "inclusive language" in worship, and yet my use of "The Prayer of Our Savior" in substitution of the more traditional (but no less non-scriptural) "Lord's Prayer" prompted at least one church member to denounce me and the title as "Roman Catholic" (fear and loathing of "Papists" among Protestants did not die out in the 19th century, despite the ecumenical efforts of the 20th century). I found out use of the liturgical services in the UCC Book of Worship could equally prompt anti-Papist invective from church members. In a different matter, I had two church members, waiting for the execution of their son's killer on Death Row, stop coming to church the day I used a UCC pre-printed bulletin which included information on the official church stance against the death penalty. They were shocked, appalled, and aggrieved.

The UCC, of course, is a Protestant's protestant church. We do not stand in the tradition of Calvin (to the extent that he ran Geneva as a theocracy) or of Luther (who was the first to practice "Catholicism Lite"). Each congregation is autonomous, and the basic unit of the church is the individual. It is not, in other words, the Roman Catholic church in structure or tradition. But still, as Mr. Wills points out, "Catholics [are] too sensible to go crazy every time a pope does."And that's a sentiment from 1846, not from Vatican II.

Is contraception banned by Roman Catholic teaching? Yes. Is that teaching valid? Well, depends on whether you accept the authority of the Church without question, or whether you examine the reasoning, using the skills highly praised (and exemplified) by such luminaries as Augustine, Aquinas, and Loyola. It was George Lemaitre in 1927, a Roman Catholic priest, who presented the first valid formulation of the "Big Bang" theory of cosmology. Seventy-three years later the Church officially apologized for its position on Galileo's work. The official position may be one thing, but the position in practice is clearly quite another.

Today the U.S. Conference of Bishops insists it must make common cause with such groups as the Southern Baptist Convention on the matter of insurance coverage of medical care it deems to be against church doctrine (a conclusion which doesn't seem to jibe with church teachings after all. Whose teachings are to be followed, again?). Oddly enough, many church institutions, including hospitals and major universities, do not share the views of the Bishops in this matter. The conclusion, then, rests on reasoning, not on blind obedience to ecclesiastical authority. Mr. Wills' brief article is a fascinating rejoinder to the idea that, as one caller on a call-in show this morning put it, the Catholic church has been against contraception for 2000 years. Or even that the ban is solidly grounded in church teachings and traditions.

Don't, of course, expect this argument to get made in the public discussion. There, the Bishops hold sway out of all proportion to their impact in the rest of the country, and Catholics are all a monolithic group with absolute loyalty to Rome, and they will vote accordingly. Or, at least, they will make common cause with Baptists and other conservative Protestants to keep this issue alive in American politics until November.

That's the assumption, anyway. Personally, I seriously doubt we'll be talking about it a month from now.


  1. Rmj, thanks for the link to Gary Wills' splendid article, and three cheers for Lord Acton. We are indeed in the midst of crazy times, and voices of sanity are much appreciated.

    Personally, I seriously doubt we'll be talking about it a month from now.

    You can't know how fervently I hope you're right.

  2. I wonder if someone scared Rick Sangtorum with one of these when he got married.

    My sister's brother was given one by his brother, I think it was at the grooms' party, I wasn't invited to it.

  3. That should say "My sister's brother-in-law.