Magic, Mystery, Delerium: Magisterium!

So I’ve been mulling over this whole “Rome vs. Nuns” thing and related issues for awhile, mulling it over in the sense that I wanted to write about it (not so much in the sense of making up my mind about it, because I think I pretty much know what I think, although an insight or two may show up as I type it all up here, but just in the sense that I’ve been thinking about how to write it down in th’ weblog).

And my thoughts never organized themselves very well :) but the topic is aging a bit (Stephen Colbert having covered it on TV for instance, as I noted last month), so I will just sit here while the tiny girls on the TV do scary things on the balance beam (is that really healthy?), and put down the Major Topics as they float to the surface, and then maybe if it isn’t too awful I will publish it.

This all came to my attention the other month when the Catholic Church published its official Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and this made various headlines.

I read the actual Church document (it’s not very long), and when I first read it I have to admit that it struck me as absolutely exuding evil. Evil of the velvet-gloved type, but evil nonetheless. You may not dissent, it says, you may not think for yourself, or decide what is important. You may not help the poor if you do not also work against same-sex marriage and abortion. You must not allow dissenting voices to speak, unless you clearly denounce them as dissenting.

A choice and representative passage:

The documentation reveals that, while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching. Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, that is, has not been fulfilling “its purpose”, which is to submissively and unquestioningly promulgate the opinions of the Bishops, who are “the Church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals”.

I found that utterly chilling the first time I read it; talk about ideological absolutism! Later I saw it more as simply reflecting the hierarchical structure and history of the Roman Catholic Church; but on a little more contemplation I found that pretty chilling in itself.

Also chillingly, the Vatican apparently appointed a group of (male, of course) Bishops to, well, in their own words:

…the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has decided to execute the mandate to assist in the necessary reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious through the appointment of a Archbishop Delegate, who will – with the assistance of a group of advisors (bishops, priests, and women Religious) – proceed to work with the leadership of the LCWR to achieve the goals necessary to address the problems outlined in this statement.

Doesn’t that just make your skin crawl? To “assist in the necessary reform” and “to address the problems outlined”. So wise and God-appointed men (with a few token women, somewhat surprisingly, perhaps to get the coffee) will take these erring nuns in hand, and shove them back into the intellectual bottle where they belong, curing them of this disturbing habit of thought and dissent.

It is of course the consensus of hordes of angry posters to Internet forums that that is by definition the purpose of the LCWR, since that’s what its charter said when the hierarchy set it up, and that that’s what all good Catholics are bound to believe, and if someone doesn’t believe that, or wants to operate in a less oppressive atmosphere, they should just join some more liberal religion.

And to some extent I agreed with that, in that I at least felt that more liberal Catholics must be somewhat conflicted, between their feelings and the official mindset of their Church and all.

But then I heard Christine Quinn on NPR, and was amazed. Here’s a snippet from her interview with David Green:

Quinn: Well, it’s just who I am. I mean, I’m Catholic and I’m gay. There’s not much to deal with. It’s who I am. It’s how I wake up every morning.

Greene: But your church, obviously, doesn’t, you know, officially accept that.

Quinn: Right. That’s kind of their problem, not mine. I mean, I just don’t dwell on it. I’m not really sure what the upside of me dwelling on it would be. I mean, I was raised Catholic, I take a lot of comfort and inspiration and motivation and support from my faith. I get what they kind of see in some political issues. They get that we’re not in agreement on that. But that doesn’t make me not who I am. It’s still who I am.

And I thought that was just astoundingly wonderful. I don’t know if she would agree with this next bit or not, but what I heard her saying was that she knows very well what it means to be Catholic, and what Catholicism is, and if some wizened old men in Rome have some other opinion, well, that’s okay, but it’s not a big deal to her.

Being Speaker of the New York City Council and all probably helps :) but I thought this showed an admirable sense of proportion about just how important someone’s statements are by virtue of being stated with great confidence, on vellum, and in Latin. Eh, she says, that’s their problem, not mine.

(The document on vellum in question, by the way, was written by the Congregatio Pro Doctrina Fidei, in English roughly the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which until 1904 was known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition. Yeah, those guys. Although if you refer to the CDF as “the Inquisition” on a Talk Page on Wikipedia, one or more persons may take issue with the term, as I found out somewhat to my amusement here; although it being Wikipedia the incident may no longer be on record.)

Relatedly, the Vatican (again in the form of the CDF) issued a statement (a bit later I think) criticizing a book by an American nun: “Just Love” by Sister Margaret Farley, saying (among other things) that it “contained erroneous propositions, the dissemination of which risks grave harm to the faithful”.

Whoa, yeah! Can’t have erroneous ideas out there, people’s heads might explode!

The erroneous statements include the notion that masturbation might be normal and natural and healthy (whereas, says the CDF, “Both the Magisterium of the Church… and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action”), and that in her opinion homosexual persons and acts were really just fine (whereas per the CDF, “tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered… [t]hey are contrary to the natural law”).

The book apparently makes no claim to be official Catholic doctrine, and according to the Hufffington Post piece “Farley doesn’t identify herself as a member of the Sisters of Mercy on either her official Yale biography or on the book’s cover”, but the Vatican still felt it necessary to point out that it dissents from their horrid oppressive closed-minded beliefs.

Sheesh.

Okay, so I waxed a little vehement there. But I mean, “gravely disordered”? “contrary to the natural law”? Seriously?

I think it’s that in some way I expect the Catholic Church to be more intelligent than that. I mean, they have Jesuits, who are supposed to be smart. They run a big international organization, they have Universities that are reasonably well respected, and so on.

So can they really believe all these things? I know various people in the U.S. believe them, but in general I put that down I admit to ignorance or thoughtlessness. Who, in the XXIst century, could actually think about the matter, and conclude this kind of absurd stuff?

And actually that’s another mulling I wanted to write down. There’s this Doctrine of Papal Infallibility, which basically says that the Pope is incapable of error when he makes some pronouncement about faith and morals, and (basically) he says that he’s saying it in the magic infallible way. But there’s also this other doctrine of infallibility, about the infallibility of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium, which seems to say that if all of the Bishops at any point in history have agreed that some particular point of faith and (and/or?) morals ought to be believed by everyone as infallible, then by gum it is.

And I hope it is clear to all my readers that this is just dumb. I mean, even if we stipulate that there is an omniscient Deity out there, it’s pretty clear that our human minds are fallible, so that any thought process that we use to get to a conclusion has a nonzero chance of being wrong, including any thought process that we might use to get to the conclusion “this here statement is 100% accurate infallible divine wisdom”. Whatever reasoning the Bishops and the Pope have used to conclude that some statement is “infallible”, that reasoning is just fallible human reasoning, so They Could Be Wrong.

And surely they realize that; it’s a simple argument.

So we have the question of just what the Pope and the Bishops actually think about these statements of theirs that they either think are infallible, or at least think are the authentic teaching of the Church that everyone must follow without dissent. Possibilities that occur to me include:

  • They hear voices or otherwise get what seem to them to be more or less direct communication from the Deity, and that gives them faith that these beliefs are correct. This seems wildly unlikely, and even if they did hear voices etc what exactly would lead them to believe it was the Good Guy rather than the Bad Guy speaking? And even if they had what they thought was good evidence that it was the Good Guy speaking, how could they think that their belief of that fact, that the voices they hear are the voices of God, is itself 100% infallible?
  • While they don’t hear voices, they have a deep confidence that the conclusions to which they and their peer Bishops come through due deliberation and thought and Scripture study are in fact the beliefs that the Deity wants believers to hold, and therefore they feel justified in requiring everyone to believe them. This would mean they are amazing egomaniacs, basically (or, perhaps more honestly, douchebags).
  • They don’t hear voices, and they even realize that the conclusions they reach are just those of a small number of fallible humans in a fallible process, but they think it is best for the faithful not to realize this, and to think that something more reliable than that is going on, so they quash dissent not because they are certain that it is wrong, but for the ultimate good of those who might otherwise be confused by it, and so on. This would make them paternalistic condescending douchebags.
  • They don’t hear voices, and they realize that their conclusions are entirely fallible, but they enforce the notions of infallibility and “authentic teaching” just because they enjoy the power that it brings, and gives them sway over lots and lots of human minds, and this floats their boats. This would make them pretty much evil incarnate, and sadly I suspect that it’s the most likely explanation, although the prior two combined might beat it out probability-wise.

And that’s really about the end of the mulling. I conclude that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is a Bad Thing, but that’s not exactly a new thought. I get from the words of Christine Quinn (whose political views or other things might by the way for all I know be partially or wholly repugnant to me) a way of thinking about what a religion, or any similar system, might really be about, in a way that isn’t simply by looking at what the Officially Documented Leaders of the system think it’s about. And I get this deep puzzlement about what Catholic Bishops, for instance, who are apparently often intelligent people apparently committed to believing something patently false, must actually think down in their hearts of hearts.

Such a mystery, the world is!

And I want to close, or almost close, with one nice pithy snippet from a piece by Gary Willis in the New York Review of Books. In the current context it speaks pretty much for itself, making a point related to, but not the same as, my mullings above:

Now the Vatican says that nuns are too interested in “the social Gospel” (which is the Gospel), when they should be more interested in Gospel teachings about abortion and contraception (which do not exist).

Nicely said, I thought. :)

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