I came across an interesting article this week looking at the Catholic Church’s response to the book of “Sister Margaret Farley, a member of the Sisters of Mercy religious order and emeritus professor of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School.”* There were several points that I found interesting in the article. I will take them one at a time.
Before I do, I do want to say a couple of things. First, I am not Catholic, an ex-Catholic and I do not have an axe to grind with the Catholic church. Second, there are many things that I appreciate about the Catholic church. (Two of my favorite movies have heavy Catholic themes: Joshua and The Shoes of the Fisherman. Check them out they are very good.) Third, while there are many within the Protestant traditions who do not believe that the Catholic church is true to Christ’s desires, thinking like this is such an overreaction that I do not even have time to write about it here. Fourth, any failure to see that in spite of its flaws (as we all have in our churches) the Roman Catholic church protected the Gospel of Jesus Christ from A.D. 300, when Constantine Created the Holy Roman Empire to A.D. 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Thesis sparking the Protestant Reformation.
OK, that being said let’s get to it. Here are three facts that I find stunning based on this article.
1. The fact that the Roman Catholic Church checks on what its theologians are writing.
Like I said, I am not Catholic and therefore am not that familiar with Catholic theology, but I have never heard of another faith tradition within the Christian Church that sought to have a uniformity of teaching in the same way that the Catholic church does. The fact that there is an entire organization with in Catholic structure that ensures that the faith is protected and perpetuated is really impressive.
The question that comes to mind is this, why do not other traditions have the same kind of checks and balances? What are we so afraid of in our non-hierarchical traditions? Or said a different way, what are we trying to protect? If it is not doctrine, then what?
Being an American, it is difficult to see the biases that can creep into the theological tradition of the western church(es) because I am so entrenched. So, watching another tradition struggle and strive for a purity of faith is inspiring. I am inspired because they are not interested in giving ground. They are not interested in keeping pace with the surrounding world. They are not interested is pleasing anyone other than God. We may disagree with how they understand, relate and interact with God. These are areas of discussion, but we should not dismiss them as insignificant or irrelevant.
2. The fact that the American branch of the Roman Catholic church thinks that it’s on the cutting edge of spiritual evolution.
Here is an example of this kind of thinking.
“The fact that Christians (and others) have achieved new knowledge and deeper understanding of human embodiment and sexuality seems to require that we at least examine the possibility of development in sexual ethics.”*
I always find interesting the human tendency to think that “new” is better. Who says? The power of tradition is that it refers back to a way and time that has outlasted the fads and trends of the centuries. While we may not all agree with those traditions they provide the baseline from which we can evaluate the new and current.
There is one danger here that is disturbing. It is the tendency of the American church to think that we are more right on issues than anybody else. Not only is this arrogant, but it reveals a lack of trust for those who do no agree with us.
3. The fact that for the Roman Catholic Church the wheels of change grind very slowly.
While this may sound as a criticism, I mean it as a compliment. It was three years from the publication of the book to the evaluation of the content. Either that means that were many other issues on the docket, or they took their time to determine how to respond. Either way, just because something is not answered immediately does not mean that it will not receive an answer.
I know that for some this all is just ridiculous and unnecessary, and I would agree in most cases. The Roman Catholic Church has never shied away from controversial positions. They are a large and flawed organization, but they have (in my opinion) attempted to be theologically consistent. The leadership of the church knows that its positions will not always be popular, but they hold to them and explain them even when they know they will not be well received. I have always appreciated that about the Catholic Church.
* Quotations are taken from the Associated Press article found here.