August 22, 2013

A Surprisingly Steadfast Tradition

This post is a response. Before you read it, read the Washington Post op-ed to which it refers, by a certain Jon O'Brien, who happens to also be the president of Catholics for Choice.

This article makes a claim which, to anyone outside the Catholic circle, would seem self evident: "Catholics desperately want change in our church, and Pope Francis is being heralded in Time magazine and on almost every major network and newspaper as the one who will deliver it," but "Francis insisted that the doors were closed." After such a thesis, the article spends the rest of its time disparaging Pope Francis' humility as "a PR offensive headed by a more likable pope," ridiculing the tendency of the Church to keep doctrine as it is without changing it, and insinuating some sort of sinister hierarchical plan to force otherwise faithful Catholics to believe things they don't want to. Although I have a number of problems with such a conclusion and with such aspersions cast at my beloved Church, I will restrain myself to a rather brief and to-the-point disagreement.


Alright, I take it back. I can't help responding to this particular sentence: "idiotic assertions that HIV can pass through a condom — announced with the same certitude once employed to tell Galileo the world was flat." Such an assertion is one among many of its kind, apparently, so much so that "... many pronouncements by the hierarchy have been painfully embarrassing." I dislike it when people use the Galileo story as some kind of dart gun to shoot at traditionalist Catholics, especially when they seem to think Galileo's borrowed Copernican theory of heliocentrism has anything to do with the world being round or flat. Moreover, the Church is right about condoms in this instance. According to the Center for Disease Control, a US government agency, "Consistent and correct use of male latex condoms can reduce (though not eliminate) the risk of STD transmission." I don't have the pleasure of knowing what Church official is quoted here by Mr. O'Brien, but I have the feeling the aforementioned official probably said something a lot like this further quote from the CDC, "The most reliable ways to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), are to abstain from sexual activity or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner." At any rate, the Church official in question is correct, and Mr. O'Brian is, unfortunately, less so.

With that aside, I'll move on to the point I really want to make. Mr. O'Brien spends the majority of this article operating upon one major assumption: a body, nay - a majority, of "faithful" Catholics is "desperately" waiting for the Church to change its opinion on several key issues, all of which are currently in contention within American politics. This assumption, again, makes sense to anyone outside of the Catholic circle. The majority of people in my generation (Millenials, apparently) favor homosexual marriage being legalized. Enough people think abortion morally permissible that officials running on that platform are repeatedly elected. By a logic of secular culture, Mr. O'Brien is absolutely right. The Church is behind the times, locked down by a hierarchy full of "celibate men who, unable to understand the reality and complexity of family life, choose to condemn so many in our church."

This critique of the Church is altogether common, and yet, completely unfounded. Church doctrines, beautifully-formed as they are by the cooperation of direct Divine inspiration and the most intelligent of human kind, have stood for two thousand years. Culturally, this places them on a level with horse-stirrups, paper, firearms, and democracy. The Catholic Church has existed, roughly as it is, since prior to the year 100 AD. Critiquing the Church, as such, is much different from critiquing an op-ed in the Washington Post: the Church deserves the respect its age has earned it.

Moreover, this critique does not come from a similarly-aged quarter. Rather, these particular arguments against Church doctrine are comparatively newborn. Homosexual activism, reproductive "rights," and female ordination are each have less than two hundred years' experience berating the Pope to change his mind. Moreover, they are predominantly arguments made by affluent Westerners. In fact, Mr. O'Brien seems to be criticizing the Church for not being on his own side of certain political arguments in the United States.

As it stands, the Church has a good track record at keeping its doctrine the same. There are rules about what doctrines can and cannot be changed, and these rules are unilaterally upheld. Popes have tried to conquer Italy, the founders of major religious orders have committed appalling sins, and Catholic laymen around the world have continually misunderstood the Church's message. And yet, despite all this, the Church is the same as it was at its founding, thriving upon the same Spirit, and pointed toward the same heavenly end. After countless opportunities to abandon its old ways, the Church has repeatedly elected to keep its teachings the same. Even without pointing to the Spirit directing and safeguarding the Church's teachings, probability points to its continued tenacity. If it didn't change for Luther, Diocletian, or Satan, it probably won't change for Mr. O'Brien.

However, I do not think it is the case that there is some "majority" of Catholics somewhere who think contrary to the Church on those hotbed, American political issues. Perhaps in certain urban parts of the United States this is the case, but looking around the entire globe of Catholics and looking at the ranks upon ranks of saints and angels who still praise God from within the Church in heaven, the Church is as it has always been, and will be unto eternity.



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