Up on the Tight Wire: Taking Catholicism Seriously

I’m up on the tight wire

One side’s ice and one is fire
It’s a circus game with you and me
I’m up on the tight rope
One side’s hate and one is hope . . .
And the wire seems to be
The only place for me
~ Leon Russell, “Up on a Tightrope”

Being Catholic, being liberal. More and more, the question seems to be whether it’s possible to be both, if either one is done seriously. For this particular Catholic, this particular liberal, life in America at the moment is very much like walking Leon Russell’s tight wire. Ice. Fire. Hate. Hope. The wire seems to be the only place for me, as I keep saying to people who ask.

I’ve found it much easier, strangely, to explain to liberal friends who aren’t Catholic why I am standing with the bishops and against the administration on the issue of mandating free health coverage for contraceptive services as part of “preventive” care. Even when they think the bishops’ position is wrongheaded at best and viciously misogynist at worst, most liberals I know will grudgingly accept that I am coming from a sincere position of belief. They think I’m nuts on this, but they tolerate my madness. Sometimes they’ll even let me get a word, or a Facebook comment, in edgewise.

It’s the liberal Catholics–the ones I know, and the ones all over the news–that keep surprising me. To hear some people talk, to read the published opinions and hear the sound bites, you’d think that being a liberal Catholic is easy: All you have to do is ignore all that Catholic stuff. Nobody believes those medieval doctrines anyway, they say. The bishops are just a bunch of homophobic hypocrites, protecting child molesters while depriving women and gay people of their rights. If the Church wants to appeal to young people, they better get with the program. And the ones who don’t flat out deny the relevance of Catholic teaching seem to be completely unaware of it–even when they are “professional” Catholics. The bishops aren’t the Church, they say. Catholics are using contraception at the same rates as everyone else, so how can doing so be against Catholic teaching? Jesus never said anything about the Pill!

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been saying those things, too, for most of my life, while I was still calling myself Catholic and after I wandered away. But here I am, back. And just as I have had to find ways to explain why my decision to live where I live is a conscious one (“You left Los Angeles for Dayton–on purpose?”), I am now having to be very conscious and careful about my choice to live in Catholicland. That means, for me, doing the opposite of ignoring all that Catholic stuff. So, here, by way of explaining to myself what it is I’m being called to take so seriously, is a kind of Sister Mary Jojo Explains It All for You, for the Catholics out there who don’t know any better, or don’t want to.

Yes, people still believe all this stuff. It is perfectly possible, though only by the grace of faith, to be a 21st century American and believe what Catholics believe. My assent to the articles of the Creed–to the mystery of the Trinity, to God’s creative love at work in all we see and can’t see, to the Virgin birth and saving death and transforming resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to the Holy Spirit alive in the Church through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist–is not in any way limited by my intelligence or by the whole body of human knowledge. In spite of what many non-Catholics (and way too many Catholics) think, Catholics do not hate science. We recognize it as another language, one of many for describing the indescribable. We do not want to take the world back to the Dark Ages. In fact, we got the world through the Dark Ages, with knowledge intact.

Scriptura is not sola for us. If the body of faith were limited to what is between the covers of the Bible (even the Catholic Bible, which contains a few more books than most Protestant versions), the Church would indeed have little to say to the 21st century. But Catholic teaching is a seamless garment of God’s revelation through natural law (what’s observable in creation), the Word of God in Scripture (especially as it reveals God’s greatest revelation, Jesus Christ), and sacred Tradition (the Church’s inspired reflection on and application of revelation). So pointing out that Jesus never said anything about contraception is, besides being flippant and silly, irrelevant. Jesus preached the radical dependence of human life on God’s providence alone, which is what lies behind the Gospel of Life. (We’re not biblical literalists, either, by the way. It’s not the Church that’s pushing for creationism to replace natural selection in science classes. Surprise!)

They are too the boss of us–the bishops, that is. I have to say I am still trying to winch my jaw off the floor after Leslie Tentler, a professor of history at The Catholic University of America, was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “I think most Catholics would take exception to the bishops’ argument that only bishops get to say what is Catholic morality in very difficult situations.” Take all the exception you wish; they are the only ones who do get to say. The bishops, in union with the pope, are the magisterium, the definers of Catholic teaching on faith and morality. In very difficult or any other situations. That we are a hierarchical Church with an authoritative body of teaching (and teachers) is a fact of Catholic life for which, most days, I am grudgingly grateful. Other days, it ticks me off no end. But it’s what it is. When I left the Church, people who had a hard time accepting this were called cafeteria Catholics, for picking and choosing only the tasty bits of the faith to follow. I find I’ve come back to a Church full of single-serving Catholics, who munch on 100-calorie easy-to-digest portions self-assembled according to individual whim.

It’s not a democracy. This is the biggest sticking point for American non-Catholics and many liberal Catholics alike. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who identifies herself as a Catholic, used the rate of Catholic women’s use of contraception (originally and inaccurately given as 98%) as an argument that the teaching wasn’t central enough to faith to require a conscience exemption from the HHS mandate. Others cite polls saying most Catholics support the administration–or, on another issue, believe women should be ordained. But statistics and polls are beside the point. Catholics don’t vote for Church leaders or hold referendums on Church teaching. (See They are too the boss of us, above.) Every Catholic in the world could use contraception, and it wouldn’t change the Church’s teaching that doing so violates the principle that God alone determines when life begins and ends–just as 100% of the world’s Jews eating bacon for breakfast this morning would not change the laws of kosher.

Conscience is more than a singing cricket. Catholics who choose to ignore or act counter to Church teaching often claim what Nancy Pelosi called “that conscience thing”–the notion that individual conscience trumps law when the two come into conflict. But there’s a big difference between being guided by an informed conscience (the operative word being informed) and simply doing what I want or what feels good. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cautions:

Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. . . . The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings. (1783)

In the current debate over contraception, I can believe that a Catholic hospital with a long commitment to serving the poorest of the poor might, in conscience, choose to cooperate with the HHS mandate in order not to compromise the provision of other critical services, but I think it should still make its position and motives very clear. I have a harder time with a Catholic college saying it must comply because its students have a right to be sexually active without worrying about costs or consequences. Say what? The thing about conscience–even in the form of a singing cricket–is that it can and should pinch us like a too-small shoe when we’re headed in the wrong direction. If the shoe fits, it may not be conscience but self-justification.

The clergy sex abuse crisis was horrific, and horrifically managed, but it is not the Church. Any more than the Crusades, which were horrific in their own way, were the Church. Any more than the sinful anti-Semitism that has marked too much of European Catholicism for its whole history is the Church. Any more than the sin of any institution, or country, or individual is the totality of that institution, or country, or individual. To believe otherwise is to deny that conversion and salvation are possible. And conversion and salvation are the Church. Preaching the right thing after having done the wrong thing does not make the bishops hypocrites. It makes them human.

I’m not just shouting these things from my tightrope, please note. I’m struggling with them myself, and with lots of other challenges that come from taking Catholicism seriously, every day. That’s OK. I have a feeling that if the high wire is where I’ll be spending my time, I might as well take the Phil Dunphy approach. Modern Family‘s perennially goofy Phil, attempting to fulfill a lifelong dream of tightrope walking, kept falling from the practice rope he’d strung 6 inches off the ground. With his son Luke’s help, Phil realized that both the rope and his expectations were set too low. Raising the rope to tree height, and his expectations even higher, Phil did the impossible.

Let’s give it a try.

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