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Conscience and Chaos
by James Hitchcock
April 22, 2006
The “Gospel of Judas” is rediscovered, which leads some people to announce triumphantly that the entire New Testament story has been turned on its head. The Bible the Church has given us is fundamentally in error, essentially a lie.
When the Holy See states that the idea of Limbo has never been official doctrine (which it has not been), a theologian exults that soon the doctrine of Original Sin will be abolished.
A newspaper reports that “an ordained Roman Catholic priest” has come to town, something that is noteworthy because the “priest” happens to be a woman.
Theologians in Australia denounce their cardinal to the Vatican as a heretic, because he points out that “conscience” is not the ultimate criterion of truth.
The lay trustees of a Catholic parish appoint their own pastor, who serves entirely at their pleasure. The pastor in turn offers his support to a parish of the “American Catholic Church,” headed by a “bishop” who has never even been a Catholic priest, which has as one of its tenets the acceptance of homosexual activity.
When the closure of a New Orleans parish is announced, parishioners complain that they are being denied the sacraments and manifest their love for those sacraments by repeatedly interrupting the celebration of Mass with jeers and angry threats.
In each of these cases something fundamental to Catholicism is being denied, sometimes, perhaps, without the people involved even realizing it. The Church teaches that women cannot be ordained, so that the woman who claims to be a priest is in fact not. The idea that "conscience” is not the ultimate criterion of truth for Catholics is not the invention of an Australian cardinal; any competent historian would consider it self-evident. If people value the sacraments, raucously interrupting the celebration of Mass as a means of protest indicates that they have little appreciation of what the sacraments even are.
The case of the lay trustees is significant because what starts out as apparently a dispute over property, which is not a matter of faith, ends with overtures to a church that denies an important Catholic moral teaching and whose priestly orders are questionable.
Some Catholics say that all they want is a “pluralistic” Church, but it is no exaggeration to say that the above incidents (the list could be a lot longer) manifest nothing short of chaos. A woman is a priest and a man is a bishop because they say they are. A parish is Catholic even though it is not in communion with any Catholic bishop. A congregation expresses its love for the Mass by desecrating the Mass.
The key to all this is the claim about “conscience.” Long ago that noble word was debased to mean, “I am the ultimate judge of right and wrong.” At one time conscience was experienced as demanding, because it nagged people not to do things they wanted to do. Now it has been turned into a self-issued blank permission slip, so that in one sense the theologian is right -- it is necessary to abolish original sin, even though that would make Christianity meaningless.
Catholics often think that Protestants at the Reformation enshrined the principle of “private interpretation” of the Bible, but that is not really accurate. At first it may have seemed that way, but Protestants soon established firm criteria of doctrine and discipline, including the means of enforcing them. They believed in heresy and moral absolutes and acted upon that belief. Even those Protestant groups with the least degree of hierarchical authority, such as the Baptists, nonetheless insist on a high degree of uniformity among their congregations, something that can be enforced by congregations breaking union with one another.
The habit of appealing to the Bible over the head of the Church, so to speak, is untenable. Without the Church who is to say that the Gospel of Judas is not more authoritative than the Gospel of John?
We do live in a pluralistic society, which means that Catholics dissatisfied with their Church have an endless menu of other groups to choose from. As far as I can see, dissidents remain in the Church mainly because of a kind of stubborn sense of “ownership” -- "It’s my church, and no one is going to drive me out.” But that is a denial of the fundamental nature of Catholicism as it has existed for almost two millennia.
People who advocate this kind of “pluralism” are not rising above petty theological quarrels to achieve a higher unity. Rather they are exacerbating disunity in a radical way, introducing, as it were, a wild card into the deck to be played any way people choose. It is a formula for endless rancor, like a dysfunctional family whose members gather regularly for Sunday dinner and always go away even more alienated than when they arrived.
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 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', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.
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