The scandal of Catholic professions of faith

Last night I read a Washington Post story that gave me reason to revisit my Lutheran confirmation rite. After a reading from the Gospel of Matthew, the catechumen is then directed to answer some very serious questions about what he or she believes. The structure of the rite is that as the pastor asks the questions "Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty" and "Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord?" and so and so forth, the response is to quote from the Apostles' Creed, one of the earliest confessions of Christian faith. The final five questions are:

Do you hold all the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God?

Do you confess the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, drawn from the Scriptures, as you have learned to know it from the Small Catechism, to be faithful and true?

Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully?

Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?

Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?

Did you catch those last two questions? We say we intend to suffer even death rather than fall away from our confession of faith.

So it's funny (or sad) that I was almost scared to mention these rites since they are so much more intense than what the Arlington Diocese is taking heat for in the story "Arlington Diocese parishioners question need for fidelity oath."

Now, by the use of the plural "parishioners," don't get the idea that it's more people than the number of nuns on that partisan bus tour that got the gushy coverage from the Post last week. It's apparently not:

Kathleen Riley knows her beliefs on the male-only priesthood and contraception put her at odds with leaders of her church. But as a fifth-generation Catholic who went to a Catholic school and grew up to teach in one, Riley feels the faith deeply woven through her. So when her Arlington parish asked for volunteers last summer to teach Sunday school, she felt called by the Holy Spirit to say yes.

A year later, the 52-year-old computer scientist feels the same spirit calling her to say no.

Last month, Riley joined at least four other Sunday school teachers and resigned from her post at St. Ann’s parish after a letter arrived at her home requiring her — and all teachers in the Arlington Catholic Diocese — to submit “of will and intellect” to all of the teachings of church leaders.

Now, one thing I really wanted to know from this story was the precise wording of this letter. My understanding of the particular Catholic view of the authority of their church leaders is such that I'm not surprised they'd ask their doctrinal teachers to submit to it. I don't hold to that understanding of church authority, which is why I'm Lutheran and not Catholic. But I could imagine a letter that was either totally expected for any Catholic or somewhat unexpected. I just needed more precise details.

Instead of more details, though, we get the following direct quotes from the big bad document:

"of will and intellect"

“profession of faith”

“believe everything”

And that's it! It's possible the fidelity oath also includes the line "“profess our faith in the risen Lord.” but I think that is a quote from Pope Benedict XVI or from a diocesan spokesman. I wasn't quite sure. Actually, I think "profession of faith" might be the title of the document, rather than a line from it.

Now, the reporter does tell us, as in the excerpt above, that the oath is to submit to "all of the teachings of church leaders" but I'm not entirely sure what that means. I can't imagine a better time to just link to the entire letter. Or, if that's not possible for some reason, we really need more than nine words (six if we're not counting prepositions and conjunctions). And "of will and intellect" and "believe everything" might be all we have from the body of the oath.

None of those quotes give us the information we need to be independent judges of the document, do they? We basically have to accept the summaries provided by the reporter. And all reporting and writing includes summarizing, but this strikes me as a bit much.

The Arlington Diocese, which includes nearly a half-million Catholics across northern and eastern Virginia, is one of a small but growing number that are starting to demand fidelity oaths.

Ah, the old "small but growing number" thing. I always wonder, when I come across that phrase: What does that mean? Anyway, the phrase "demand fidelity oaths" might be more comfortable in a Dan Brown novel than an impartial journalism piece, but we learn that in Baker, Ore., Catholics are expected to agree that abortion is a sin and personal disagreement is not an option. In Oakland, Calif., some church leaders are expected to say they "affirm and believe" official church teaching on marriage, and hell and, gasp, chastity.

The reporter summarizes for us that the Arlington folks are supposed to commit not, as we were told in the lede, to "all of the teachings of church leaders" but to "'believe everything' the bishops characterize as divinely revealed." These two things are different, another reason why the actual text would be helpful. We're told that Arlington's top doctrine official says it includes religious freedom, although he's not quoted saying as much.

After we get through the first nine paragraphs, we hear from the Diocese and someone who supports the letters. So if you make it down that far into the story, you get a different perspective:

“The church is foremost a communion, not a building,” said the Rev. Paul deLadurantaye, Arlington’s head of education and liturgy. “And the church’s teaching is meant to be a service, not to coerce or oppress. ... This is just to say the church is a reliable guide, more reliable in these matters than what I read elsewhere. There’s something more transcendent than just my own judgment.”

Diocesan spokesman Michael Donohue said the letter was sent to parishes this spring in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s direction that churches worldwide celebrate this year’s 50th anniversary of the start of Vatican II in various ways, including those that “profess our faith in the risen Lord.”

The reporter asks Donohue, who said it was uncontroversial, about polls showing Catholics use contraception. He says he would find it hard to believe that anyone who opposed church teaching on the matter would want to teach church teaching on the matter. Then we get this perspective from the reporter:

But for some, particularly more liberal Catholics, the oaths are an alarming effort to stamp out debate in the church at a time when it is bleeding members and clergy in the West. They note that church leaders’ views have changed over the centuries on various subjects, including contraception.

An alarming effort! To stamp out debate! At a time when the church is bleeding members! Yikes. And, actually, Roman Catholic church leaders' views haven't really changed over the years on contraception. I mean, has that church ever officially supported contraception? It's been a pretty consistent public teaching since the first century. If you're going to assert a claim such as that, you need to back it up. Or don't use the word "note" to describe a particular viewpoint that is not settled, at the very, very least.

The "some" in question is, apparently, Riley, again.  Only one other person opposed to the statement of faith is quoted (although I notice a picture accompanying the story does feature one of the other four people). I did appreciate this quote from Riley, which really explains her motivation:

“I’m just shocked, I can’t believe they’re asking me to sign this,” said Riley, who said she may keep her own children out of the parish education program in the fall. “The bishops are human, and sometimes their judgment is not God’s judgment. We always have to be vigilant about that. The Holy Spirit gives us the responsibility to look into our own consciences.”

Anyway, we're then told, passively, that St. Ann's "is considered a community that deliberately doesn’t focus on such hot-button issues as abortion and same-sex relationships." I've actually visited this church, as one of my best friends attends there. She attends because she lives within walking distance. She finds it almost unbearably "wishy-washy" (as she puts it) and won't send her children to the parish school there for related issues. Maybe I should have her gather three friends and phone up the Washington Post!

The other disgruntled parishioner we hear from in the story also provides great quotes explaining her motivation. But they only made me wish I could read the actual document all the more. Rosemarie Zagarri is quoted describing the hot-button-avoiding church as an "oasis of humanity" and:

Zagarri said the oath was a “slap in the face” to Catholics who have remained active and close to the church despite controversies.

“Although I fully understand the authoritative role of the Catholic hierarchy in defining the teachings of the faith, in my view only a person who is willing to abandon her own reason and judgment, or who is willing to go against the dictates of her own conscience, can agree to sign such a document,” she wrote to Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde.

“This is not in the spirit of what people go to a Catholic church for, which is community and a loving, welcoming environment. It’s exclusionary, a suppression of dissent, let’s all line up and be the army of God,” Zagarri said in an interview for this article.

We get a quote from a woman who teaches elsewhere in the Arlington Diocese. She supports the oath and says that if others are struggling with something the bishops have said, that's fine, but that you shouldn't be teaching others.

The article ends by drawing a parallel between the the Arlington Diocese's oath and bishops who obeyed Nazis during World War II.

Image of rosary via Shutterstock.

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