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The Blind-Obedience Myth
There's no virtue in being an unquestioning sheep.


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In an otherwise reasonably fair-minded front-pager in the Sunday New York Times, Richard Bernstein and Daniel Wakin write that as a young professor in 1968 Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, began to insist on “unquestioned obedience” to the authority of Rome. That phrase is a residue of unexamined anti-Catholic bigotry. It is an insult. Its aim can only be to make the new pope look stupidly dogmatic.

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Catholics do not praise, admire, or aspire to unquestioned obedience. There is nothing virtuous in unquestioned obedience. Since God implanted in us the drive to understand (even little children are born with the drive to raise questions), it would be a sin against nature to stifle questions. Besides, one way that we are each made in “the image of God” is in our capacity to raise questions without end. That capacity in us is our foretaste of the infinite. It is the root of our “natural desire to see God.”

Andrew Sullivan is a self-described tormented Catholic who both loves his faith too much to leave it and is very angry with it. He is so angry that he recklessly hurls lightning bolts charging that freedom to question was not allowed in John Paul II’s church, and will not be in Pope Benedict XVI’s. According to Sullivan, Benedict’s Church will “turn toward authoritarianism, hostility to modernity, assertion of papal supremacy and quashing of internal debate and dissent.” “We are,” he thunders, “back in the nineteenth century.” And yet here’s what he wrote a week ago: “I stand by my questions and by my faith. You know I wish in many ways I could simply leave this church, and say to hell with it. But I cannot. For one, I keep believing. This is not experienced as a choice. It is just my reality… This is my family. I can no more divorce myself from it than I can my biological mother.”

Well, I have seen three generations of theologians since I was a young man, and in this generation hundreds more theologians in America (and elsewhere) have expressed contempt and disregard for Rome than in the previous two. Those who call themselves “Catholic theologians” today are often flying chiefly under their own colors, feeling largely unbound by whichever Catholic doctrines “of the past” they choose to discard. (So common has this become that Catholics have a name for it: “Cafeteria Catholicism.”) What is in the minority in some Catholic university these days, and even in many Catholic seminaries, is not dissent. What is in the minority (among the professors, not so much among the students) is intelligent, thoroughly questioned, and critically appropriated orthodoxy.

There are always reasons why the Catholic Church holds something as doctrine. It is never arbitrary. Those who inspect the reasons may or may not be persuaded; but they cannot deny that a reasoned case has been laid out. While other churches may rely more on conversion of heart and even abjure the giving of reasons, and while still others may take refuge in “Here I stand, I can do no other,” the Catholic Church is willing to run the risk of falling into an excess of rationalism by its willingness to put its case in discursive reason.

It is one thing for persons without education, or perhaps with only a child’s capacity for reasoning, to rest on a simple, more or less unquestioned faith. My mother was a simple person, without a college education, but God tested her through very great suffering, including the murder of her second son and a near-fatal car accident to a beloved daughter, among many other griefs. She was cruelly tempted to doubt the goodness of God and even the existence of God. Her love for God, even in the darkness, held firm. She could not, however, good woman that she was, offer a reasoned case for what she was doing. Her faith was deep, and tested, and wise, but not verbose or highly cognitive.

It is another thing for intellectually talented and well-trained minds to practice an unquestioned faith. That would be an abuse of God’s gift, a failure of application, a classic case of intellectual sloth, and a lack of honesty and courage. To think unquestioned faith a standard to be aspired to would be an outrage. In its infantile conception of the God who made the sun and all the stars–and all the brains within the universe–to think unquestioned faith a good would be a blasphemy.

God does not wish us, in coming to Him, to go down on all fours. He wishes us to come to Him erect and free and questioning and attentive. He wishes the worship, not of blind and dumb slaves, but of intelligent and free women and men.

Andrew Sullivan is a brave witness to both love for the Church and brave questioning. He has taught a lot of us more about homosexuality and its inner life than we would otherwise know. To the best of my knowledge, he has not been chastised by the Congregation of the Faith, or any bishop, or any priest for his probing and his quarreling and his often quite strident and grievously pained cries of disapproval. His questioning is a service to the church, as to all persons of good will who come in contact with it. I do think some of his allegations over the top, such as those cited above. Even so, he is entitled to cry out as he sees fit.

One point on which he is way over the top is his allegation that there have been an unparalleled number of excommunications and other forms of disciplining of dissenters in the Catholic Church during the 27 years of John Paul II’s pontificate. What is his evidence? He should name names.

The New York Times offered its own list on April 22. It included twelve names, of which all are priests or nuns, who labor under the special burden that Catholics who hear them have a right to believe that they speak for the Catholic Church. It is only truth in advertising to insist that they do so.

Of these twelve, only three were excommunicated, an average of one every nine years of the pontificate. The only one whose excommunication is long standing is Archbishop Lefebvre (and his followers) of the traditionalist movement that rejects Vatican II. This excommunication was only after very long talks, entreaties, and extraordinary efforts at reconciliation, in which the Vatican walked much more than the extra mile.

In the other two cases, the disciplined parties soon repented and were reinstated into full communion. The African Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who married a follower of Sun Myong Moon in a mass wedding, was temporarily excommunicated, until he chose to return to the Church and ended the public scandal. The Sri Lankan theologian Fr. Tissa Balasuriya was temporarily excommunicated until he reconciled with the Church the following year.

Of the twelve, eight were scholars, some of whose views were questioned by the congregation. On their refusal to qualify their views, two–Hans Küng and Charles Curran–lost their licenses to teach at Catholic institutions, in both cases in pontifical chairs or universities (those that speak with the special blessing of the Pope), but have continued practicing as priests, teaching, writing, and dissenting. Now that they are no longer seen as speaking for the Pope or the Catholic Church, their work is hardly distinguishable (except by its internal quality) from that of thousands of other Protestant and Catholic theologians.

The worst punishment three of the others incurred was to be asked not to publish for a year, which is about how long it takes to pile up enough pages for a book, which they could continue writing. (I have heard critics wish that I would be silent for at least a year.) One American nun, told that her work for the government (which required public support for abortion) was inconsistent with her profession as a nun, chose to resign from her order. Another, told by her own community that her open support for Catholic approval of homosexual couples was inconsistent with her religious profession, chose to resign from that order and join another.

Two quite famous theologians, Edward Schillebeeckx of the Netherlands and Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru, were questioned and problematic formulations in their work were pointed out, and that was that. Both remained at work.

Thus, what characterized the Wojtyla/Ratzinger era as guardians of the teaching of the Church was, for their part, great care to enunciate that teaching accurately and forcefully, and in regards to others, the reluctance and mildness of their disciplining of the “false shepherds” who mislead and confuse. Some say they set a record for mildness over a quarter-century.

After all, theological opinions are not like divergent opinions in astrophysics or archeology. Real people looking for guidance in how to live put their lives on the line when they follow the theology taught them. The pallium worn by the Pope, the cloak of a shepherd, symbolizes his responsibility to be certain that the vulnerable among the people not be misled. What, then, explains the dread that the Catholic Left–the culture of dissenters on women priests, a celibate clergy, contraception, divorce, and other gender/sex issues (the heart of what being on the left means these days)–feel toward the new Pope? As a new cartoon circulating on the Internet puts it: NOTICE: THE CAFETERIA IS NOW CLOSED. The Left argues that the Church should “modernize” in order to hold its flock. But the Left is overlooking an inconvenient reality.

Those churches that have chosen to modernize and to be “with it,” following the advice of their own progressives, have rapidly lost members, weakened conviction in many others, and become adjuncts of the morality of the secular culture. Churches that have resisted the currents of “the new morality”–whose initial guise is often the refrain “It’s all just a matter of opinion, so just choose your own version”–have tended to gain in high morale, growing numbers in the pews, and strongly committed new vocations to the clergy.

The Left doesn’t seem to get this. They urge bishops, cardinals, and the Pope to join contemporary currents in order not to lose members. The Anglican church, the Methodist church (in some districts), and others have tried that. When they do, they lose everything that once was dear to them, including their membership.

The only real reason for being Catholic is to be faithful to the faith as Jesus left it to us, reflected on and questioned, developing in its own self-understanding, but not betraying its inheritance in a rash desire for temporary popularity.

So it is true enough that the Church thrives only through the unlimited drive to ask questions. It is the duty of theologians, or at least of some among them, to be explorers, and to go into new terrain, to test whether their path is safe for the whole body of the faithful. Theologians have a special responsibility to the whole Church, in addition to their merely private responsibility to their personal intellectual interests. It is by such venturesome theological explorations that the horizons of the faith grow. Just the same, as theologian-explorers are not, the Pope as shepherd is responsible for the integrity of the whole flock. Theologians propose, but they do not dispose. Often their work bears better fruit after a generation or two rather than in their own lifetimes. The long view is necessary.

These are deep and difficult questions. They require mature and patient attention. To address them in the small space of this column is impractical. Fortunately, one of the Church’s most respected theologians has done them considerable justice. One can check his guidance out at the Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian. It was composed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, chaired by Joseph Ratzinger. But even that was intended to spur further and more practical proposals, region by region, country by country. To volunteer some rules that would serve the whole Church, not only the explorers, and suitable to our own country, is a topic I would like to return to in another essay.

Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.



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