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When the Media Decide What the Church Should Teach 

by James Hitchcock
September 6, 2004

In Virginia a bishop announces that those who hold office in the Church should adhere to Catholic doctrine, and he dissolves a diocesan committee which dissented from the Church's teaching about homosexuality. A newspaper editor chastises the bishop and asserts that all such questions need to be kept open.

In St. Louis the archbishop requires that the only parish that owns its own property, independent of the archdiocese, should cease that arrangement. The media scold the archbishop for "legalism" and "rigidity."

In New Jersey a girl with celiac disease cannot digest Communion hosts made from wheat. The diocese suggests that she receive Communion by sipping from the chalice or receiving a tiny piece of the sacred host. Her mother asks the Church to authorize hosts made from rice flour, and the media make it a major issue.

Also in St. Louis the archbishop receives the vows of several women who have committed themselves to live as consecrated virgins. This event, seemingly quite minor amidst the day's news, merits a front-page article in the local newspaper, setting the stage for a cartoon ridiculing the practice.

A syndicated national columnist who is not a Catholic wants to "send the Vatican hearing aids" because a recent Vatican letter fails to endorse the complete feminist agenda.

We are so used to these media blitzes that we scarcely think twice about them, but in reality they involve something quite troubling. Although in each case those who criticize the Church do so in the name of "freedom," their own agenda is actually a threat to religious liberty.

There is much controversy over the policy of some bishops that pro-abortion politicians should not receive Communion. Here there is an at least apparent excuse for the media 's interest -- the claim that bishops should not "interfere" in politics. But the other side is the refusal to acknowledge that the Church has the right, indeed the obligation, to set its own conditions for membership.

The Catholic Church holds that women cannot be validly ordained to the priesthood, that homosexual activity is morally wrong, and that valid Communion hosts must be made from wheat flour, to take three of the currently disputed issues. But in effect the critics of those positions, even if they are not Catholic, claim the right to determine who should be admitted to Communion, who should be ordained, what kind of Communion hosts we should use, and what kind of sexual activity is moral. Ownership of parish property is not a matter of doctrine, but it is basic to the Catholic governing structure, and those who think the St. Louis parish should keep its property are in effect claiming that we should be congregationalists.

The fact that some of those who criticize the Church are Catholics does not change the situation. The Church has always arrived at its teachings through hierarchical authority -- popes and general councils -- not by popular vote, and dissident Catholics are simply demanding that the Church undergo a revolution.

At work here is the self-defined "enlightened" class who claim the right to judge other people's beliefs, even when they do not understand those beliefs, a claim which clearly contradicts the same enlightened class's constant sermons about "respect" and "understanding," Their favorite cause is "sexual freedom," and nothing sets off their alarm bells faster than the suggestion that chastity may have some value, hence the attention to consecrated virgins. Religious believers are continually accused of trying to impose their beliefs on others, which in reality means resisting having secular beliefs imposed on them.

A recent article relates how "Wiccans" -- self-described witches -- are now demanding and receiving respect in society. I assume the reporter is not a wiccan, but the article was elaborately respectful and it is inconceivable that any mainstream media organ would criticize something like Wicca, no matter how absurd some of its beliefs might be.

The enlightened class obviously does not understand Catholic teachings about many things, nor does it wish to, and it gives itself license to trash those teachings. Ellen Goodman thinks the Vatican needs a hearing aid because the pope does not listen to her, not that she needs to listen. If consecrated virginity, or the required use of wheaten bread, were beliefs of a Native American tribe, the enlightened class would be very severe in cautioning us to respect precisely what we do not understand, and to learn from it.

There is an important issue of religious freedom here. Some legal commentators have pointed out that it is not entirely clear whether religious liberty as such exists any more, or whether freedom of belief and worship are forms of freedom of expression. If there is such a thing as religious liberty, then it must apply to churches as a whole, not just to individuals. But that is precisely what the enlightened class now denies.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's two volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', was released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

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