Catholic Sense 4

Church Criticism: Out of Control

By David Mills

The pope and the world’s bishops believe what they do because they dislike women and homosexual people and want to hold on to their power. They value their own control more than truth and love. At least according to Newsweek, in an article published a few weeks ago, written by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Being abused in one of the country’s two major news magazines is sort of a compliment. The editors must think the Church big enough and important enough, and counter-cultural enough, to take on. They don’t run such articles on the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Episcopalians.

Townsend doesn’t give any evidence for her charges — the theological equivalent of serious felonies — but she delivers them with great certainty. “The hierarchy,” she declares, “ignores women’s equality and gays’ cry for justice because to heed them would require that it admit error and acknowledge that the self-satisfied edifice constructed around sex and gender has been grievously wrong.”

She insists that American Catholics are “tired of watching the church grasp frantically for control at the expense of truth and love.” When Pope Paul VI affirmed the Church’s teaching on contraception, “authority — not truth, not love — prevailed” because he was “fretting that to change this position would weaken his authority.” That decision she calls the “most famous” of the Church’s “heinous” decisions.

A public proposal to ordain women “was greeted with revulsion at the Vatican, which insists that the only people who can represent God in the priestly role are those with male sex organs.” And “Despite the rhetoric of love and truth, the Vatican shows disdain (if not disgust) toward gays.”

Townsend does not seem to have wondered if maybe, just maybe, the popes and the other bishops teach what they do for a reason, because they find Catholic teaching intellectually compelling and pastorally effective. They teach doctrines she dislikes, therefore, as far as one can tell, she thinks they must be bad.

She assumes that they teach in bad faith, yet in the same article she praises President Obama for “his notion that we should acknowledge the good faith underlying opposing viewpoints.”

People talk about the pope and the Church like this a lot. What do you do when someone declares that Benedict or David Zubik or your pastor believe something because the belief keeps him and his gang in control?

You can ask a simple question, one that might bring your critic to a stop. This is another case when the Catholic can only hope to stop the anti-Catholic from saying something silly, in the hope of having a real conversation with those who want to talk seriously about the Church and of having a more peaceful talk about the Steelers with those who don’t.

Just ask him, “How do you know?” And then don’t let him try to answer by saying something like “Everyone knows” or “No one could really believe that.” Insist on good reasons, with the kind of evidence you’d expect if he was talking about a friend.

I would be surprised to find anyone who knew enough about the pope to say the kind of things Townsend says. We have enough trouble understanding why our spouses or children or friends do what they do, and we know them personally.

Without a wide knowledge of the man and his works, you can only say these things as a dogmatic assertion, which is the opposite of truly trying to understand another person. It’s certainly the opposite of acknowledging the good faith underlying other people’s viewpoints.

If you can get the critic to stop making such charges, and if he’s willing to listen, you can then try to make the Catholic teaching at least plausible. Not argue for it, but try to help him see that the Church might have good reasons for thinking as she does.

Here is one example. The Townsends of the world insist that the Church restricts the priesthood to men because men want to keep the power for themselves, and don’t really like women anyway. When a Christian says something like that, you can mention creation, which tells us that God created two sexes for a reason. The basic distinction is His.

Now, if God created a system by which sexual differences were necessary for the creation of new souls, which is just about the highest thing man can do, it is reasonable to believe that the differences will play themselves out in the rest of life. It’s reasonable to believe that God intends men and women to have different duties and callings, and in particular that men have something in them appropriate to spiritual fatherhood. The modern understanding of equality as meaning interchangeability may have missed something important.

Your critic may well not believe this, but he should admit that the belief is plausible. It makes sense. Someone might believe it — Benedict might, say — because he thinks it true, not because it helps him hold on to power.

But admitting that means engaging Catholic teaching before you criticize it. Imagining foul motives is easier, and safer. If you engage Catholic teaching seriously, you might find it convincing.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First ThingsThis column appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic on September 28, 2009.