Don’t Know Much about Theology . . .
Why two Catholic stories are grossly misinterpreted.

Sister Margaret Farley


George Weigel

Casual observers of Catholic affairs, reading the press in recent weeks, might well conclude that the Vatican is trying to distract attention from its own internal woes — Vatileaks, and all that — by waging a “war on women,” and on several fronts.

On the Roman front, according to the Washington Post, the Vatican, in its statement of concerns about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, uses “the word ‘feminist’ and even ‘radical feminist’ the way third-graders use the word ‘cooties.’” The same paper reported, with barely repressed glee, that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recently released critique of Sister Margaret Farley’s study of sexual ethics, Just Love, had resulted in a sharp spike in the book’s sales on Amazon.

On the American front, innumerable media outlets have claimed for months that the U.S. bishops’ opposition to the Obama administration’s “contraceptive mandate” is an attempt to cloak the Catholic Church’s essentially misogynist cast of mind behind a campaign for religious freedom.

None of this Sturm und Drang, it would seem, has anything to do with doctrine. It’s all about power. And in that power struggle, it’s all war-on-women, all the time.

Which is all rubbish, all the time. But when you take the trouble to sift through the rubbish, you actually learn some things, unpleasant as they may be. One involves American culture’s 21st-century concept of religion. The other involves the sorry state of the professional theological guild in the United States.

The American mainstream media, reflecting deeper currents in American culture, typically treats “religion” as a private lifestyle choice: a personal option one may exercise to make sense out of life (and death) through certain rituals embodied in communities. That the “choice” in question has anything to do with adherence to the truth, as one is grasped and transformed by that truth; that those rituals embody religious truth in a unique way that links the believer to the very life of God; that those communities are formed by, and accountable to, truths that can be rationally explicated in a body of knowledge called “theology” — say what? To treat religion as a lifestyle choice leaves little room for the very concept of “truth,” unless it be the anorexic postmodern notion of “your truth” and “my truth” (which means that Khalid Sheikh Muhammad’s “truth” is just as much “truth” as Pope Benedict XVI’s). In the sandbox of self-absorption that is so much of postmodern culture, there is little or no room for the truth.

There is even less room for the notion of “the truth” as both binding and liberating at the same time. Yet that just happens to be the Catholic understanding of doctrine: a “doctrine” is an authoritative truth that invites (indeed compels) assent, and that liberates the believer into the deep truths of the human condition and the divine life. So when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, citing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’s own documents and program, avers that the LCWR has come up short in what was specifically and deliberately called a doctrinal assessment, the Congregation is concerned about truth, not power, and about the integrity of religious vocations, not misogyny.

But try telling that to the Post’s Lisa (“cooties”) Miller. Or the Church-obsessed Maureen Dowd over at the nation’s former newspaper of record. Or the editors of USA Today, whose June 8 editorial falsely charged that the Catholic Church, in its opposition to the HHS mandate, was “attempting to apply its view of contraception to non-Catholics” and to “limit birth control coverage for non-Catholics.” Now, to be sure, the scribes and editors in question have their own issues and incapacities — including, it seems, an inability to read federal laws, government regulations, or Vatican documents with minimal comprehension. Perhaps more important, though, these falsehoods and calumnies embody the widespread equation of “theology” with “irrationality” in contemporary American culture. (How many times have you read “theological” used as a synonym for “rigid” or “mindless” by otherwise-sensible writers?) And that leads, without much further ado, to the notion that “doctrine” is simply the imposition of someone’s will on someone else.