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The Catechism Again: The I-Believe-Everything Approach to Catholic Orthodoxy

Terry Weldon recently posted a very good reflection here about the place of the catechism in the life of believers.  In particular, Terry addresses the question of whether the Catholic catechism is best understood as an answer book for those who need answers—all the answers—to the pop quiz we’re presumably going to be given at the end of our lives.   About our orthodoxy, don’t you know.

About whether we’ve informed ourselves as to everything there is to know about what the Catholic church teaches.  And whether we’ve accepted everything the church teaches, and implemented all of that teaching in our actions.

I find this discussion fascinating (and Terry’s approach to it sane and helpful) because on threads discussing Catholic issues in the U.S., I increasingly bump into Catholics who apparently believe quite sincerely that they know everything that the church teaches.  And that they follow everything the church teaches.

The claim, which is repeated over and over again these days on Catholic blog threads, goes something like this: Unlike you cafeteria Catholics, I’m orthodox.  I believe everything the Catholic church teaches.  And I follow everything it tells me to do.

These are interesting claims from a number of standpoints.  First, and perhaps most important, those making the claims seem utterly unaware of one of the absolutely central Catholic teachings about the moral and spiritual life: namely, that self-righteousness is among the most serious of all obstacles to spiritual progress, because it undercuts our recognition that we stand always in need of grace.  All of us.

The claim of many self-professed “orthodox” Catholics nowadays that they have the corner on dogmatic truth and the practice of the spiritual life is astonishingly self-righteous.  And like all self-righteousness, it’s woefully oblivious of the manifold ways in which all of us fall short, both in what we know and what we do, in our lives of faith.

It’s absolutely impossible to be informed to the hilt about what the church teaches, and to follow every rubric to perfection.  As Jesus himself teaches over and over in the gospels, the point of the spiritual life is not rubristic perfection at all.  It’s our disposition of openness to God, our willingness to be led where we do not intend to go.

Which depends on our recognition that we do not know the way.  That we do not and cannot see clearly.  That our vision is limited by imperfection and sin.

That we stand in radical need of grace, and of divine guidance.  Always.

The claim of contemporary “orthodox” Catholics that they have all the answers—somewhere, in some answer book, in the catechism—re: what the church teaches is surprising and ill-informed from another standpoint as well.  This claim lacks any strong historical awareness of the complexity and diversity of a rich tradition that spans two millennia and a rainbow of different cultures.

The church teaches, and has taught in the past, many interesting things.  It has taught that women who have borne children need to come to the church for ritual purification after having given birth.  I know of at least one scrupulous American Catholic woman who continued that practice right up to the middle of the 20th century, though it had long since fallen out of use in most parts of the Catholic church by then.

The church has alternately condemned and then permitted usury.  It once accepted slavery, and then changed its mind about that longstanding (and biblically sanctioned) social practice.

The Vatican forbade inoculation against various infections as a violation of natural law when this medical procedure was first discovered.  It long stood against Copernicus and his recognition that the earth revolved around the sun—again, because the scriptures do not assume a heliocentric worldview.

The consumption of chocolate by women was forbidden by the church when Europeans first discovered that delicious and stimulating food of the new world.  The church has long stood against various enticing forms of dancing.  The Second Council of Baltimore found modern dancing in general “revolting to every feeling of delicacy and propriety.”  In 1917, the U.S. Catholic bishops, ever doughty defenders of delicacy and propriety, succeeded in obtaining a Vatican condemnation of modern dance altogether, and the tango in particular.

The church has taught that women should be veiled and then unveiled in church, that people should refrain from and then not refrain from the consumption of meat on Fridays.  Pope Pius IX’s (Pio Nono, we liked to call him in graduate school) Syllabus of Errors famously condemned the modern world altogether, ending with a zingy condemnation of anyone who maintains that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”

The church has taught a sizable number of things over the years, and many of its arcane prohibitions remain on the books now, just as towns in various parts of the United States continue to maintain laws criminalizing the consumption of food in public, or playing of dominoes on Sunday, or driving while blindfolded.

Does anyone really know everything the church teaches?  And more to the point, does anyone truly follow everything that the Catholic church teaches?

I’d be interested, indeed, in meeting those “orthodox” paragons of virtue who have succeeded in informing themselves of “everything,” and who follow “everything” with scrupulous exactitude.  I become a bundle of tics just contemplating the possibility of compiling a comprehensive list of church teachings.

I can’t begin to imagine what putting all those contradictory—and, in many cases, plainly absurd—teachings into practice would do to the human body and psyche.  Orthodoxy walking around in plain view might be a less refreshing sight to behold than many of its adherents imagine it would be, if orthodoxy—of the contemporary ilk—ever really did succeed in grabbing total control of a human mind and a human body.

The claim of today’s self-professed “orthodox” Catholics that they scrupulously adhere to every jot and tittle of church teaching (and that they know each jot and tittle) seems to me spectacularly to miss the point.  The point is that church teachings have shifted constantly over the years, in response to new cultural insights and developments.

And that any time we’ve chosen to imagine that we can freeze those teachings at a particular moment in time, we’ve been proven wrong.  Because cultural development itself does not stop, and along with it, doctrinal development and development of the church’s moral teaching occurs.  Because development and change must occur, if the teachings of the church are to reach new generations of believers, or believers in new cultural settings.

Because the church’s teaching is always for people living now, in particular cultures at particular moments in time.  It is not for those who inhabit cultural bubbles set apart from the here and now.  Asking American Catholics of the 21st century to adhere to teachings formulated for, say, European women of the early modern period, who sipped their chocolate in grand defiance of church law, makes no sense at all, if we imagine that what the Catholic church teaches has pertinence for people in other cultural settings.

The demand that those being catechized cling to mutable teachings formulated for cultural conditions quite different from those in which the catechized now live is a tacit admission that the church is intellectually bankrupt, when it faces contemporary culture.  The I-believe-and-practice-everything approach to orthodoxy is really an unspoken admission that what the church has to offer contemporary culture is just not good enough.  That “real” Catholicism showed itself only in some splendid period of the past like the Middle Ages.

And the best we can do now is try to imitate, with chastened awareness of our shortcomings, the fervent religiosity that imbued both church and state in that idealized period of history in which the pope ruled the world and the church called the shots for the culture at large.

Not only does the I-believe-and-practice-everything approach, with its peppery little Latin phrases and its fiddleback church dress and scads of scarlet silk, seek to freeze the entire significance of orthodoxy in an imagined period of total Catholic fidelity.  It also ignores the obvious fact that not everything the Catholic church teaches  at any point in time or anywhere in the world exists at the same level, when it comes to the everyday life of believers.

As Karl Rahner noted, there is a hierarchy of truths in the Catholic church, and the everything or nothing approach to orthodoxy overlooks that hierarchy, placing fiddleback chasubles on a par with, say, the divinity of Christ.  Or proclamations about the children of gay couples entering Catholic schools on the same ground occupied by the Sermon on the Mount.

Rather than trying to learn and follow everything, it might be wiser for Catholics today to try to focus on what counts above all.  I wonder what would happen if we started the catechetical process with the gospels, for instance, as Terry Weldon wisely suggests we might do?  With the Sermon on the Mount?

With the honest recognition that the claim of most “orthodox” Catholics today to know and follow everything is really about squashing any discussion of “abortionsamesexmarriage,” and imposing their view of those moral issues on the rest of the church in the name of orthodoxy.  And doing so by pretending that there’s only one answer to the questions raised by complex, controversial contemporary moral issues—and that this answer is locked away in “orthodox” Catholics’ version of the catechism.  Which is to be used as a weapon against so-called cafeteria Catholics, who do not know and practice everything the church teaches, as the orthodox do.  (Well, as the “orthodox” practice everything about abortionsamesexmarriage, if not everything about the moral untenability of capital punishment or the right of every human being to health care . . . .)

Orthodoxy that makes much of rubrics and moral regulations and condemnations and scads of scarlet silk and fiddleback chasubles.  But far too little, it seems to me, of the Sermon on the Mount.

Which is rather the point of it all.

Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 1 June 2010.


10 Responses

  1. Thanks Bill. You’ve gone way beyond my original post and added to it immeasurably. I shall enjoy reminding the orthodox of the Church’s prohibition of chocolate. (A reference, please?)

    One important change in teaching I like to remember is Humanae Vitae. Most people think of it as firmly coming down against artificial contraception. They forget that the OK it gave to natural contraception was pretty revolutionary, in its own way.

    The challenges you describe in dealing with “all” of Catholic teaching remind me once again of the start-up of the gay Masses in Soho, London. The clear directive from the Cardinal, which left my head spinning, was to ensure that Catholic teaching was delivered, “in full, and without ambiguity”. This is plainly impossible: to be delivered, truly “in full” contains its own internal contradictions and ambiguities, especially when you start adding in other strands of teaching, on conscience, and on justice.

    That’s when I started blogging: in an entirely hopeless attempt, if “without ambiguity” is impossible, at least to start exploring what it might be to investigate the teaching, and the history and the practice, “in full” – one post at a time.

  2. Terry, I’m glad you find this posting helpful.

    One (among many) scholarly sources you may want to consult re: the church’s surprisingly protracted concerns about consumption of chocolate is Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, ed. Louis E. Grivetti and Howard Yana-Shapiro (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

    Especially illuminating in this book is the chapter entitled “Chocolate and Sinful Behaviors: Inquisition Testimonies,” by Beatriz Cabezon, Patricia Barriga, and Louis Evan Grivetti. This essay studies the Inquisition’s involvement in inquiring into the moral feasibility of chocolate consumption by Christians.

    Theological debates about the use of chocolate were heated, believe it or not, through the 17th and into the 18th century. It’s not entirely clear what the concern with chocolate was.

    Part of the problem may have been that it was associated in the mind of some church officials with Aztec worship, and so it had a ritual connotation from the beginning, when it was introduced to Europeans. It was also reputed to be an aphrodisiac, and this is clearly one reason attempts were made to limit its consumption by women.

    Both the “pagan” connotations and the aphrodisiac connections also spurred beliefs that chocolate was favored and used by witches. When nuns began to produce chocolate confections and chocolate for drinking, there were charges that convents engaged in such activities were particularly louche–that if religious women got their hands on the stuff, all hell broke loose.

    Hard to imagine now, isn’t it, that people of faith could become so exercised about a foodstuff we now take for granted as healthy, good, something without moral connotations at all.

    But that’s the point, I think, as we look back. Much that we now take for granted was once not taken for granted and/or viewed very differently than we now view these matters.

    Which suggests some of our most fiercely held beliefs may eventually be regarded as equally peculiar and eccentric by believers down the road.

  3. Well, as my mother always used to say with a wink about some church teachings, sex in particular, “It’s ok to do it as long as you don’t take any pleasure in it.”
    Here’s the word on chocolate:

    What it does: Phenylethylamine triggers the release of dopamine in the pleasure centers of the brain. This chemical is released during sex and peaks at orgasm. Curiously, it is also one of the chemicals found in chocolate.

    How it makes you feel: You are overwhelmed with feelings of bliss, attraction and excitement.

  4. Wise lady, your mother, Jayden. I can see where you have gotten your own wry sense of humor.

    I hadn’t even thought about the chemical basis of what chocolate does to people as something underlying the church’s suspicion (back then), but now that you mention that, yes. Makes a lot of sense.

    As Richard Sipe so eloquently says in his latest article at NCR, the church wants to be in the business of control, when it comes to sex. Because sex (and the pleasure associated with it) have an instrumental value for a hierarchy who need to be indispensable in 1) laying down the many laws that circumscribe the use of sex and 2) forgiving the many transgressions that happen because people’s predisposition to enjoy bliss will inevitably make them transgress all those laws.

    Sex and chocolate: now there’s a title for a wonderful history of Catholic ethics!

  5. […] strong feelings from many Catholics. Bill Lindsey responded to my recent post on the subject with a reflection of his own, primarily on the folly and error of claiming to know and follow “all” Catholic […]

  6. “Absolutist” claims to most anything, but especially to “religious orthodoxy” are usually kingdoms built on ignorant: the old adage applies: “Ignorance is bliss! or in this case, the blissful assertion–“I believe everything the church teaches!'”

    • Steve, thanks–and I just took your insights here and developed them in a posting at Bilgrimage, applying the connection between absolutism and ignorance to moral analysis of the Gulf disaster.

  7. Cafeteria Catholics… are opposed by Chatty Cathy Catholics. You know, pull the string and they endlessly repeat what they were programmed to say.

    I have been unsuccessful in validating that the Vatican forbade inoculation against various infections. It was as far as I can tell, mentioned as a logical possibility but no actual data or document to support it.

    • Thanks for your reply, Rory. I like that distinction: cafeteria Catholics as opposed to Chatty Cathy Catholics.

      Keep searching: the answers you’re seeking are out there. And they’re not too difficult to find. (I issue that encouragement as a pedagogical response in line with my article: if I dispense the information I’ve need, then I deprive you of the joy of the search, with all of the insights that searching for information brings to the one searching. By responding in this way, I also issue a reminder that I’m not the authority figure with all the answers. In my view, one of the big problems with the approach to religion that is based primarily on authority is that it inevitably ends up making one or another person “the” authority, in a way that undercuts divine authority.)

  8. […] strong feelings from many Catholics. Bill Lindsey responded to my recent post on the subject with a reflection of his own, primarily on the folly and error of claiming to know and follow “all” Catholic […]

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