Wednesday, November 05, 2008

CHURCH and Church

Why the Vatican always gets it wrong about sex
by Stan Kutz
From the New Catholic Times

Stan Kutz argues for the need of "listening" Church

For Catholics, the question of same-sex marriage has been characterized, by the Vatican and others, as a conflict between Church and State. This, I believe, conveniently obscures a much deeper rift within the Catholic Church: the conflict between what the Church hierarchy teaches, and what the Catholic faithful believe, particularly with respect to sexual ethics. The recent Ipsos-Reid poll amply bears out the fact: 50% of Canadian Catholics interviewed approved of same sex marriage; this, despite several recent and well-publicized condemnations by the Vatican and several Canadian bishops.

How has the Church arrived at this state of affairs? It has come about, I believe, from a misunderstanding, and misapplication, of the notion of infallibility. In the early Church, there was a sense that the teaching Church and the believing Church together made up the Church of Christ, and that this Church was protected from substantial error by the Holy Spirit precisely because its two components listened to each other. But by the time this concept came to be codified in the first Vatican Council, the guidance Christ had promised his Church had come to be narrowly understood as a shield (infallibility) that protected the hierarchy (and especially the pope) from teaching error. The role of the body of Catholic believers in keeping the Church faithful to Christ was muted, or altogether ignored. Successive popes have gone on to expand their claims to infallibility, and consequently found it ever more difficult to correct the errors of their predecessors. This has become an intellectual blind alley, from which no pope or Council, to date, has had the courage to extricate the Church.

Nowhere does this problem become more hurtful that in matters of sexual ethics. (Why the celibate hierarchy is so singularly exercised about this area of morality, while it is often silent about more egregious forms of immorality and inhumanity, is a question whose analysis could fill volumes!) The still unresolved debate around artificial birth control is perhaps the clearest example, both of the split within the Church, and the harm that continues to be done by it. Throughout the 1960's, and ever since, Catholics have been trying to urge upon the hierarchy the necessity of coming to terms with the devastating human, social, and ecological consequences of the official Church position, to no avail. Pope Paul VI went so far as to create a Commission that included lay people to study this question, but when the Commissioners presented a report favoring a relaxation of the ban on birth control, they were disbanded and the report buried, all on the grounds that a change in teaching would call in question the "infallibility" of Paul's predecessors. As a result, the official Church continues to proscribe birth control to this day, while the vast majority of married Catholics, having taken a conscientious look at their own life situation (and the intellectual poverty of the official teaching) are limiting their family size, by whatever methods seem effective to them, in good conscience.

A need for a listening Church

There is only one way out of this dead end. The teaching Church (bishops and pope) has to once again become a listening Church. It needs to listen to what the faithful actually think and believe, as opposed to what the hierarchy has decided they ought to believe. Because the consensus of the faithful is really the only valid guidance that the hierarchy has as it strives to articulate the meaning of the good news of Christ for the world of the 21st century. No pope or bishop has ever imagined (or at least claimed) that he has received direct personal inspiration from on high. In a very real sense, the Church can only teach what the Church already believes. It comes down to a question of conscientiously trying to "read the signs of the times", as Vatican II so felicitously recommended. But reading the signs of the times is not the prerogative of any bishop or pope; it is a process available to all, and indeed necessary for all to exercise, because any claim to moral action depends on it. It is simply another way of describing conscience.

Nowhere is the necessity for Church leaders to become listeners more critical than in matters of sexual ethics. To the rest of the world, and to most Catholics, it has become self-evident that if the celibate hierarchy is going to have anything meaningful to say to the world about sexual ethics, they must first listen with great care to the life experience of the sexually active laity. Until they do so, they will continue to see their credibility as teachers and leaders erode, and the faithful will continue to be embarrassed by the kind of factually inaccurate and emotionally distorted condemnations that have so far characterized the hierarchy's input into the debate about same-sex marriage.

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