The Cultural Case against the Church
RSS Facebook by Dr. Jeff Mirus, October 11, 2010
There are several ways that the example of slavery can be used to indicate how different societies can be culturally blind. But slavery cannot be used as an example of changing Church doctrine. In other words, you can effectively argue that a society which perceives abortion as permissible is very much like an earlier society which found slavery permissible: The same sort of cultural blindness is at work. But you can’t argue, for example, that the Church will change its position on homosexuality just as she did on slavery, because the Church hasn’t changed her position on slavery.
This may be obvious, but it is not what many people think. There is in fact a deceiving double-speak which goes largely unnoticed in those who criticize the Catholic Church. In one sense this is understandable. After all, it is hard enough even for those of us who are deeply committed to the Catholic Faith to remain perfectly aware at all times of just what we mean by the word “Church”. Sometimes we use the term to refer to the Church’s members, including ecclesiastical leaders, and we are all too aware that Catholics can behave very badly indeed, including and sometimes led by their priests and bishops. But at other times we use the term “Church” to indicate what is not purely human about her—the Church’s doctrines, sacraments, and sacred structure or divine constitution.
So we may give others the benefit of the doubt. But what usually happens when people wish to score points against the Church is that they criticize the divine side of the Church when they wish to reject her current teaching against a contemporary cultural trend; and they criticize the human side of the Church whenever they wish to prove she has been wrong—and has changed her tune—in the past.
For example, the Church’s teaching that homosexuality is disordered and homosexual acts are sinful is widely condemned today, now that our enlightened culture has “learned” to regard homosexuality as a blessing. Here the critics really mean to rebuke the Magisterium of the Church. After all, it is annoying (and even infuriating) to many people that our culture has won over huge numbers of Catholics, including many priests and some bishops, on the question of homosexuality, but the culture cannot get “the Church” (the official Church, the magisterial Church, the divine side of the Church) to abandon its clear teaching to the contrary. To those who are culture bound, the Church’s position is an affront to reason and decency.
But when the same people wish to argue (as several have argued in emails to me this past week) that the Church is wrong about homosexuality, they invariably bring up examples which reflect the Church’s human side. Thus they will assert that the Church will one day change its position on homosexuality just as in time past she changed her position on slavery. But the Church’s Magisterium has invariably opposed slavery in principle and, through the influence of her doctrine, her hierarchy and her instruments of grace, the Church has historically been the primary influence in getting people to abandon slavery altogether. It is only “the Church” as a collection of sinful human persons that has at times favored slavery, in that many Catholics have held false views of the human dignity of minorities or conquered peoples, they have defended slavery, and they have owned slaves.
In exactly the same way, people will condemn “the Church” for her opposition to abortion, embryonic stem cell research or in vitro fertilization—despite the fact that millions upon millions of Catholics favor all three—because the Magisterium won’t leave these issues alone and opposition to these practices increases among Catholics in direct proportion to how often they frequent the sacraments. But these same people will condemn “the Church” of past ages for approving torture or religious warfare or the suppression of women because many Catholics at all levels, influenced too much by the cultures in which they lived, favored torture, participated in feudal warfare or were certain there was no good reason to educate girls. Note that at the same time, the Church’s teachings, sacraments, and divine constitution gradually mitigated the deficiencies of early Western juridical practices, the excessive warfare among Europe’s nobles, and the lack of opportunities for women.
A Convenient Fallacy
In one context “the Church” (seen in terms of her divine or unchanging elements) is condemned for not being responsive to her more culture-bound members, and in another context “the Church” (seen in terms of her culture-bound members) is condemned for not being responsive to her official teachings and her ministry of grace. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this means that “the Church” will be mocked for her official teachings during contemporary controversies (despite the sins of those numerous members who embrace whatever is popular) while being ridiculed for the sins of her members in past circumstances (despite Magisterial and sacramental opposition to those sins).
All of this is coming to a head again on the issue of homosexuality and gay marriage, which has become the new flashpoint of the culture wars, eclipsing even abortion. Because of their fundamentally broken understanding of human sexuality, contemporary citizens of the first world find it impossible even to imagine that people who experience same-sex attraction should be considered disordered or that it should be less permissible for them to satisfy their sexual desires than it is for their heterosexual counterparts. It seems overwhelmingly obvious in our culture that the Church must be wrong. And if “the Church” claims she has some superior insight into the question, then it is necessary to assert that “the Church”, despite her claims, has obviously changed her position on similarly great issues in the past.
I sympathize somewhat with this incredulity. Sadly, the Church’s human side—in which I include myself—all too often fails to properly represent her divine side. Thus the Church is always less effective than we would like in liberating people from the selective slavery of the mind which each and every culture so effectively imposes in its turn. Presumably most of us will be unwittingly hampered by one enormous cultural blind spot or another. But in another way, I cannot sympathize, for the argument against the Church with respect to these major cultural issues will nearly always be made by switching the human and divine references to suit the needs of the moment. This kind of argument, which good Catholics must endure again and again, may not always be disingenuous. But it will still be wrong.