Why I’m listening to the laity, not to the U.S. Catholic bishops

Who speaks for Catholics?

Catholic polity says the hierarchy speaks for the church. Mostly. But it also allows that the overwhelming consensus of the laity cannot be ignored. So when the consensus of the Catholic laity is in conflict with the assertions of the bishops, it may be legitimate to heed the laity as the true voice of the church.

And right now the U.S. Catholic bishops are in conflict with the U.S. Catholic laity on (at least) two significant issues. On both of these issues, the lay faithful are right and the bishops are wrong. And so on both of these issues, I think it is appropriate and more respectful to acknowledge the laity and ignore the bishops.

Again, Catholic doctrine holds that this can sometimes be proper. The idea is, of course, expressed in Latin — the sensus fidelium, or the “sense of the faithful.” When the overwhelming consensus of the sensus fidelium conflicts with the teaching of the hierarchy, the hierarchy’s job is not simply to clamp down on this widespread dissent, but to listen to it and to be counseled by it.

On these two important issues, the U.S. bishops refuse this counsel of the faithful. On both of these issues, the bishops have chosen instead to regard the sensus fidelium as rebellion. That’s a mistake. It’s a practical mistake, because it cuts the bishops off from the collective wisdom of the people. And it’s a doctrinal mistake because it violates their own church polity and has the effect of undermining their own claim to authority.

Here then are the two issues on which the consensus of the laity and the assertions of the bishops are in conflict: contraception and child rape.

The bishops teach that contraception is a grave moral sin. The laity know that it is not. The devout laity know this. They are sure of it. They employ contraception with a clean conscience and an untroubled spirit. Some may be troubled that their doing so is a form of disobedience to the teaching of the bishops, but the only guilt they experience is due to that disobedience, not because they believe the practice to be intrinsically wrong.

The laity have listened to the bishops’ rationale for their opposition to contraception and have not found it compelling. It’s too confusing, contradictory and inconstant to be understood. It changes and collapses back on itself. (Contraception is wrong, the bishops say, because it denies the possibility of procreation, so Catholics must instead use “natural family planning.” When the laity protest that natural family planning isn’t effective, the bishops respond that it’s the most effective method and that nothing is more effective at denying the possibility of procreation.) Unpersuaded by the bishops’ case, the laity thus choose to heed their own conscience and ignore the prohibition.

That decision is informed by and reinforced by the second, more vehement, disagreement — the matter of child rape.

For the Catholic laity, overwhelmingly, the rape of a child is considered a moral horror and one of the worst sins imaginable. For the bishops, it’s a regrettable act, but it’s not as bad as the public disclosure of it. For the laity, there can be no greater priority than ensuring that children in one’s care are not abused. For the bishops, there has been no greater priority than ensuring that abusers are not exposed. The paramount concern for the laity is the protection of children. The paramount concern for the bishops has been the protection of their own reputation.

The laity are morally and doctrinally in the right on this matter. The bishops’ practice with regard to this matter has been morally and doctrinally indefensible.

This matters. It has meaning. It is not possible to consider the moral standing of the bishops or the authority of the bishops as the representatives of their church without accounting for this.

And the bishops, thus far, have utterly failed to account for this. They have sought to minimize its meaning. “Well, yes, on the one hand, there has been the callous disregard for the rape of thousands of children, but on the other hand …”

“On the other hand” what? What could possibly be on the other hand? What could conceivably be placed on the other side of the ledger to balance this out? The very idea of such a ledger is repugnant.

We saw this same thing unfold at Penn State, where a long-time assistant coach of the football team is accused of being a sexual predator who abused perhaps dozens of children. The team’s head coach, Joe Paterno, allegedly was told of this abuse, but did not contact the authorities, instead opting to cover up the abuse, thereby enabling it to continue somewhere else. Paterno, in other words, is suspected of having responded to the same crime in the same way as the U.S. Catholic bishops.

It would not be possible to overstate the love, respect and reverence that Paterno enjoyed in Pennsylvania before this scandal became public. That’s gone now. Those who tried to defend it by appealing to some “on the other hand” ledger in which the rape of children might be balanced out against his legacy as the winningest coach in the history of Division I college football were rightly shouted down. “On the other hand, he won 409 games and coached five undefeated seasons,” doesn’t cut it when weighed against enabling and protecting an abuser of children.

It’s possible that if Paterno had lived, he might one day have earned a measure of rehabilitation to restore some of his reputation. If he had been a younger man when his disgrace was exposed, and if he had responded with humility and contrition, then perhaps decades from now we might think differently of him. If he had dropped out of the spotlight, renouncing any claim to our respect until he had earned it back, dedicating himself to making right what he had allowed to go wrong. If he had done this quietly and humbly, without seeking praise or attention, demonstrating a whole-hearted commitment of his time, energy and wealth to restoring and healing those who had been harmed. And if he had done so without ever suggesting, without so much as hinting, that he had thereby done “enough” to again deserve our respect and admiration, then perhaps he might again have come to be viewed as a figure worthy of that respect and admiration.

Alas, in Paterno’s case we’ll never know.

And it seems we’ll never know in the case of the U.S. Catholic bishops either. They have not yet shown any interest or inclination in pursuing such a path.

The bishops have not yet displayed any proportionate sense of contrition or adequate commitment to healing and restoration for victims. They continue to fight in court against the punishment of the abusers and against restitution to their victims. They have tended, instead, to portray themselves as the greater victims here, insisting that they’re being unfairly denied sufficient credit for the many more children in their care who were not raped.

The bishops have now squandered more than a decade, failing to listen to the desperate concern of the U.S. Catholic laity over the scope, duration and horror of this scandal. They have failed to grasp how angry the laity is over the abuse of thousands of its children. And they have failed to grasp that this anger is justified and just and righteous.

If they understood that, then they would understand that right now and for the foreseeable future, they cannot and ought not to be heard or heeded on anything else. They cannot and ought not to be acting as though any other matter or concern is a greater priority.

And until they understand that, I think it would be disrespectful of Catholicism and unjust to the majority of Catholics for me to regard those bishops as the legitimate spokesmen for and representatives of that church. The anger of the Catholic laity earns my respect. The callous obtuseness of the bishops earns my disregard.

That’s why I’m listening to the laity and not to the U.S. Catholic bishops.

  • Anonymous

    Let’s keep things in perspective. Priests only get fired for truly heinous things. Buggering young boys is bad, sure, but it’s not up there with paraphrasing the prayers you’re supposed to say or being more popular than the archbishop. Those things get you shown the door quick smart.

    http://www.bnd.com/2012/02/04/2044617/priest-loses-job-for-changing.html
    http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/8370206/father-bob-hits-out-at-cardinal-pell

    (Yes, I have turned my snark on.)

  • Tricksterson

    As to the third problem, if anything the Church hierarchy sees priests having consenting adult relationships as far worse.  they cover up pedophilic priests while openly expelling priests who get married.

  • Anonymous

    59% of Catholics Disapprove of Obama’s Job Performance

    According to the survey 44% strongly disapprove, while just 19% strongly approve.  In 2008 Obama won the Catholic vote by a 9% margin over his opponent.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    Yeah. And. So. What?

    Even if Catholics generally disapprove of Obama, that doesn’t mean that a) they don’t agree with him on this specific issue (which other polling says they overwhelmingly do) and b) they don’t think the GOP would be doing a far worse job. That’s certainly my personal position – he ain’t great, but he’s a whole hell of a lot better than McCain would have been and any of the potential GOP nominees could be.

  • Mackrimin

    I cannot in good conscience support men’s anything if it takes away from
    female and/or child victims of domestic abuse, and that trumps the
    (very real, but much smaller) need for help for adult male victims of
    domestic abuse.

    So you admit what I said is true, then.

    THAT DOES NOT MEAN I CONDONE VIOLENCE AGAINST MEN.

    Of course not, you merely disregard and overlook it in favour of focusing solely on women.

    Wait, “to condone” _means_ “to disregard or overlook”. So I guess you do. But at least you’re “sorry”, which makes it all okay.

    You have personally insulted me and a great many of my friends, Mackrimin, and I demand an apology.

    I have said feminists don’t care about violence and injustice as long as the victims are male, and you have confirmed this about yourself, at the very least. So what is the “insult” that you demand an apology for? Or do you demand an apology for saying a truth you don’t want to think about?

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    *upgrades*

    Fuck you, Mackrimin.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

     Prioritising finite resources is not the same things as not caring about injustice. I can care about every injustice in the world, but if I only have $100 (or $1000, or $1m or $1b, etc) then I have to pick which causes I feel need those resources most.

    To use an example from my own private life – just because I only donate (regularly) to Amnesty International doesn’t mean I “don’t care” about people with cancer, male victims of domestic abuse, female victims of domestic abuse or any other cause.

  • Mackrimin

    Despite my frequent disagreements with feminists I don’t believe that
    feminism is about solely advancing the position of women.  Certainly
    there are some feminists who take that approach but they are wrong to do
    so and just like every other shortsighted group they will eventually
    die off and stop troubling us.

    I have to express some doubts about that. As long as any human being is willing to profit at any other’s expense, such groups will remain as one expression of that will.

    Most feminists however are genuinely concerned with equality and work towards that point.

    Most feminists start from the idea that women, as a group, are oppressed and work from there. That might have been true a hundred years ago, but it isn’t anymore.

    The fact that women in our society are so far behind in many ways to
    start with is why their focus in exclusively on women at the moment.

    Really, now? Are there political positions women are not allowed to run for? Are they not allowed to vote? To run businesses? Are they not guaranteed the same wage for the same job?

    I think that their approach is often not optimal but reshaping society
    to be just and equitable and stop the harm that the patriarchy causes to
    both men and women is a pretty complicated task and they have different
    experiences and focuses that lead them to take different approaches.

    Patriarchy? So women are held as property to their fathers until they marry, at which point they become the property of their husbands? Or did you actually mean something else entirely and simply used the word “patriarchy” to make it seem sinister?

    Such a negative and dishonest attitude isn’t going to get you far around
    these parts.

    So daring to criticize feminists – for something EllieMurasaki admitted was spot-on – is now dishonest. And I don’t exactly lose any sleep over “not going far” in a Web forum.

    If you want to whine about how those ‘Feminist bitches
    just care about women’ I’d suggest sauntering over to the cesspool that
    is Men’s Rights Activists* and you’ll fit right in.

    I’m fine with feminist bitches only caring about women. I’m not fine with feminist bitches only caring about women and then pretending they’re for equality. That prevents actual for-equality groups from forming, which perverts the political landscape.

    Or as Deird said
    more concisely ‘Screw you’.

    Yes, it was adorable how proud of herself she seemed for having come up with that. Especially when combined with the “you wouldn’t listen to me anyway” part.

    *I hate the fact that while I agree with some of the broad concepts
    behind MRA their sexism and general horribleness has poisoned the well
    regarding so many vital topics that even broaching them gets you painted
    as a MRA bigot.

    Then you just have to decide whether you broach them anyway and ignore arguments from intimidation or court acceptance by echoing the party line. Which might be a difficult choice out there in Real Life but becomes pretty easy one in an Internet forum.

    More cynically, has it ever occurred to you that this might be an entirely purposeful arrangement? That there might be groups who find it in their best interests to control what can and can’t be talked about? And that it’s not the MRA that profits from being unable to talk about these?

  • Lori

     
    Most feminists start from the idea that women, as a group, are oppressed and work from there. That might have been true a hundred years ago, but it isn’t anymore.  

     

    You are either deeply, deeply stupid or incredibly dishonest. In either case you need to head right back to the MRA pit you crawled out of.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    And that it’s not the MRA that profits from being unable to talk about
    these?

    And presumably those dastardly feminists FORCED these otherwise lovely men to spew misyognistic bigotry, right? Couldn’t just be that a large proportion of them are – in fact – utterly contemptible. Nooo, your scenario makes much more sense.

    ETA: And it’s not that the MRA has been forced to stop talking. They’re still out talking rubbish (much like yourself), it’s just that most people have seen through their bigotry and have stopped engaging with them.

  • Anonymous

    Are you implying these numbers are a result of the contraception mandate? That seems not to be the case; Catholic approval hasn’t changed since December (the Feb numbers are actually (though insignificantly) better than the December ones. From the Rasmussen link (emphasis added):

    This faith gap was evident in December, well before the current dispute between the Obama Administration and religious leaders.[...]In that earlier survey, 60% of likely Catholic voters disapproved of the president’s performance, including 45% who Strongly Disapproved.

    As a liberal I’m not happy about these numbers, but at least so far, the newest non-troversy hasn’t made these bad numbers worse.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    Yes, it was adorable how proud of herself she seemed for having come up with that.

    Apparently I’m adorable! Awesome.

    Wondrous dearlingheart Mackrimin? Sweety-pie? Scrumptious ikkle trollikins? Get bent.

    (I came up with that myself, too! Aren’t you proud?)

  • Anonymous

     Of course not, you merely disregard and overlook it in favour of focusing solely on women.

    Wait, “to condone” _means_ “to disregard or overlook”. So I guess you do. But at least you’re “sorry”, which makes it all okay.

    I do not disregard domestic violence against men. Nor do I overlook it. (I’m ceding ground here, because I’ve never heard the word ‘condone’ used to mean ‘to disregard or overlook’.) Given a choice between helping adult male victims of domestic violence and an equal number of adult female victims of same, I’d have to toss a coin.

    But that isn’t the choice offered me. The choice offered me is between helping a few adult male victims of domestic violence (and there are only a few) and helping a great many adult female victims of domestic violence (and there are a great many). Put like that, it isn’t much of a choice at all. I have to help the women, because there are more of them.

    The word ‘condone’ used the way I’m familiar with it, by the way, means ‘to give tacit approval to’, and I do not approve, tacitly or otherwise, of violence, no matter whom the victim. Or it means ‘to pardon or forgive an offense’, and violence is forgivable if and only if it is used to prevent greater violence.

    I have said feminists don’t care about violence and injustice as long as the victims are male, and you have confirmed this about yourself, at the very least.

    Oh fuck you.

    Still waiting for that apology.

  • Anonymous

    Are there political positions women are not allowed to run for? Are they
    not allowed to vote? To run businesses? Are they not guaranteed the
    same wage for the same job?

    (tw: rape)

    OH MY GOD FOLKS, HALF THE US PRESIDENTS HAVE BEEN FEMALE. HALF THE US CONGRESS AND SUPREME COURT ARE FEMALE. HALF THE FORTUNE 500 HAVE FEMALE CEOS. FEMALE RAPE SURVIVORS NUMBER AS FEW AS MALE RAPE SURVIVORS. FEMALE DOMESTIC ABUSE VICTIMS NUMBER AS FEW AS MALE DOMESTIC ABUSE VICTIMS. NO MORE THAN HALF OF ALL HETEROSEXUAL HOUSEHOLDS DIVIDE RESPONSIBILITY SO THAT THE WOMAN GETS ALL THE CHILDCARE AND HOUSEWORK. NO ONE IS EVER CALLED A ‘SLUT’ OR ‘BITCH’ ANYMORE. WE’VE WON, PEOPLE. MACKRIMIN SAYS IT SO IT MUST BE SO.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

     Patriarchy? So women are held as property to their fathers until they
    marry, at which point they become the property of their husbands? Or did
    you actually mean something else entirely and simply used the word
    “patriarchy” to make it seem sinister?

    And another point: GET A FRICKIN’ DICTIONARY, DUMBASS.

  • Dan Audy

     

    But that isn’t the choice offered me. The choice offered me is between
    helping a few adult male victims of domestic violence (and there are
    only a few) and helping a great many adult female victims of domestic
    violence (and there are a great many). Put like that, it isn’t much of a
    choice at all. I have to help the women, because there are more of them.

    I need to point out that this is simply not true. 

    While women are more frequently the victims of domestic abuse it is not the case that men are infrequent victims.  The breakdown of domestic abuse victims overall is roughly 60% female and 40% male and there is no statistical difference in the rate men and women experience severe force in domestic abuse.  Men are less likely to confide their abuse in others and vastly less likely to report to police, social, or health services partially due to attitudes like this.

    Please don’t minimize the extent to which men experience domestic abuse even if you choose to invest your efforts and focus on reducing domestic violence against only women.

  • Dan Audy

    Most feminists start from the idea that women, as a group, are oppressed
    and work from there. That might have been true a hundred years ago, but
    it isn’t anymore.

    Just because things have improved does not mean they are yet just.  No one denies that women are closer to equality today than a hundred years ago but the fact we are approaching equality is an argument to increase our efforts to achieve equality because we have momentum on our side and the goal in sight.  It would be just as ludicrous to run a marathon and stop at the top of a hill two miles from the finish line and say ‘well I’ve finished the race, no more need for running now’.
     

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post Fred.  You hit the nail on the head at least twice.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/BUBIGPYX3JHBB7CPWMWGHTCVEM qatharms

    This whole article avoids an important point: from whence do church teachings come? If I understand anything at all about Catholicism, church teachings come from God. It doesn’t matter what the bishops think. It doesn’t mater what the laity think. Somebody needs to be listening to God. Not one of your arguments one way or the other is even slightly relevant to the question of contraception. Church teaching is not about anybody’s opionion or anybody’s reputation.
    For that matter, let’s just stop making the behavior of the bishops a measure of the rectitude of the church teaching on contraception. I think the bishops chose evil over good when they protected priests and others guilty of child abuse, and that is because Christ told us to protect children, the least of these. But that has nothing to do with the morality of contraception.
    I am not Catholic.  I have used contraception. However, I never would have even tried the pills had I known how they actually work. I believed the label – against (contra) conception (creation of an embryo as the result of fertilization of the egg). Contraceptives are labeled incorrectly. They are contra-implantation, not contra-conception. But that kind of language is typical of this whole argument. When our president thinks of pregnancy as an epidemic disease that must be stopped in its tracks, we have a real problem. The Bishops are on the right side of this argument. The fact they were wrong to protect predator priests does not make them wrong about contraception.
    What would make them wrong about contraception would be the discovery that God wants people to kill off babies. I don’t think we will hear that revelation any time soon, but that would be the only argument that would invalidate the Bishops’ demand that our president preserve, protect and defend the freedom of religious expression documented in the First Amendment in the administration of the new abominable healthcare law.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/S6W6UGJPVRA5M6EI7G4J7QHBFA Carl

    I’m not clear that your use of “sensus fidelium” accurately reflects RCC dogma, although I hope it does and will look more into the issue. Some footnotes/references for your claim would help. 

    Nevertheless, along these lines, the most devastating critique I have heard is harsh, but perhaps true: “If altar boys could get pregnant, birth control in all forms would have the full endorsement of the Roman Catholic (‘celibate’) establishment.”

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Just when I think the Catholic Church can’t sink any goddamn lower in their deflecting victim-blaming bullshit.

    People? It’s shit like this which is why I now look askance at ANY Catholic priests. If the reputation fits, it sits.

  • Anonymous

    When our president thinks of pregnancy as an epidemic disease that must be stopped in its tracks, we have a real problem.

    Here I thought the President was just reaffirming his support for the right of women as individuals to choose when to create a family. Your interpretation is a rather radical take on the situation, and I’d offer Sasha and Malia as exhibits A and B that you’re wrong.

  • Anonymous

     I never would have even tried the pills had I known how they actually
    work. I believed the label – against (contra) conception (creation of an
    embryo as the result of fertilization of the egg). Contraceptives are
    labeled incorrectly. They are contra-implantation, not
    contra-conception.

    Condoms prevent implantation, not fertilization? Spermicides prevent implantation, not fertilization? Pills that trick the female body into not ovulating prevent implantation, not fertilization?

    Good God, sex ed sucks.

  • Anonymous

    quatharms,  I dont knwo what kind of pills you’re taking.  All the contraceptives I’ve ever taken, or heard of being approved, work by tricking a woman’s body into thinking it’s pregnant, so it does not release and egg.  The scientists cannot say, “It never prevents implantation,” because scientists NEVER say never. 

  • Rbray7

     There was child sexual abuse in the RCC long before flower power hit the world.

  • GladysThrimble

     Luther was in no position to teach anyone about women or peasants since he had a deep hatred for both.

  • Anonymous

    Good Catholics fled the Church because of the banking scandal, and child rape scandals losing billions in tithes. What does the Church do? They step up their grant and subsidy requests to the federal government where they are unwilling to follow federal guidelines to qualify for federal funds. The Church has essentially gone hat in one hand begging the government for hand outs and in the other hand they have a list of demands the government must satisfy before they will accept the money they are syphoning out of worthy federal programs that provide for the general welfare and common good. The Catholic Church seems like it is trying to commit suicide on many levels. The Virgin Mary has become the posterchild depicting a narcissistic welfare queen who needs to be pampered to feel relevant no matter how much it costs or who has to pay..

  • Anonymous

    There was child sexual abuse in the RCC long before flower power hit the world.

    Absolutely. The Church is commiting the fallacy of mistaking exposure for prevalence, and in so doing are seeking validation for their dangerous and counterproductive war on modernity. Susan Jacoby wrote an excellent column in response to the report:

    As the professional criminologists at John Jay know well, sex crimes of all kinds increased in the 1960s and 1970s, but there is no way to tell how much of that increase simply represented a rise in reporting. Certainly, it took the feminist movement, and feminist demands for changes in hostile police treatment of victims, to increase the reporting of adult heterosexual rape. If, as most criminologists believe, rape and child molestation are still underreported crimes, how much more true that was six, seven and eight decades ago. If this was true of society as a whole, it was certainly true within the church.[...]

    Remembering the unconditional, unquestioning deference to priests practiced by devout Catholics in the 1950s, however, I am not convinced in the least that molestation was any less common than it would become over the next two decades. I know both men and women who were molested by priests in the 1950s, although as children, they didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what was happening. The savvier, tougher kids simply avoided “Father” after their first encounter with roving hands. The more vulnerable, deferential children—often those who were believed most deeply in the faith—were the ones who stayed, who listened to father’s voice telling them it was all right, and who paid the price in guilt, rage, and sorrow.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/spirited-atheist/post/catholic-church-blames-abuse-on-the-devil-in-the-sixties/2011/05/25/AGP5KPBH_blog.html

  • P J Evans

    I wonder where this post was linked, because there sure are a lot of people showing up to tell us how bad contraceptives are and how great the bishops are….

    (and Mackrimin, honeybun darling, I’m endorsing Deird’s view of you. Your reference to ‘feminist bitches’ was way over the line in the wrong direction.)


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