Catholics are ‘too sensible to go crazy every time a pope does’

“Pusillanimus” means “lacking courage and resolution; marked by contemptible timidity.”

I had to look that up. So Garry Wills has expanded my vocabulary. The rest of his New York Review of Books essay, “Contraception’s Con Men” is also educational:

Pusillanimous Catholics — Mark Shields and even, to a degree, the admirable E. J. Dionne — are saying that Catholics understandably resent an attack on “their” doctrine (even though they do not personally believe in it). Omnidirectional bad-faith arguments have clustered around what is falsely presented as a defense of “faith.” The layers of ignorance are equaled only by the willingness of people “of all faiths” to use them for their own purposes. Consider just some of the layers:

The Phony Religious Freedom Argument

The bishops’ opposition to contraception is not an argument for a “conscience exemption.” It is a way of imposing Catholic requirements on non-Catholics. This is religious dictatorship, not religious freedom.

Contraception is not even a religious matter. Nowhere in Scripture or the Creed is it forbidden. Catholic authorities themselves say it is a matter of “natural law,” over which natural reason is the arbiter — and natural reason, even for Catholics, has long rejected the idea that contraception is evil. …

The Phony “Church Teaches” Argument

Catholics who do not accept the phony argument over contraception are said to be “going against the teachings of their church.” That is nonsense. They are their church. The Second Vatican Council defines the church as “the people of God.” Thinking that the pope is the church is a relic of the days when a monarch was said to be his realm. The king was “Denmark.” Catholics have long realized that their own grasp of certain things, especially sex, has a validity that is lost on the celibate male hierarchy. This is particularly true where celibacy is concerned.

There was broad disagreement with Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical on the matter. Pope Paul VI set up a study group of loyal and devout Catholics, lay and clerical, to make recommendations. The group overwhelmingly voted to change the teaching of Pius XI. But cardinals in the Roman Curia convinced Paul that any change would suggest that the church’s teachings are not eternal (though Casti Connubii had not been declared infallible, by the papacy’s own standards).

When Paul reaffirmed the ban on birth control in Humanae Vitae (1968) there was massive rejection of it. Some left the church. Some just ignored it. Paradoxically, the document formed to convey the idea that papal teaching is inerrant just convinced most people that it can be loony. The priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley said that Humanae Vitae did more damage to the papacy than any of the so-called “liberal” movements in Catholicism. When Pius IX condemned democracy and modern science in his Syllabus of Errors (1864), the Catholic historian Lord Acton said that Catholics were too sensible to go crazy every time a pope does. The reaction to Humanae Vitae proves that.

Read the whole thing.

  • http://profiles.google.com/fader2011 Alex Harman

    You left an “o” out of “pusillanimous.”  Oh, and first!

  • Ken

    Ba gur Qvfpjbeyq, tbqf guevir
    ba uhzna oryvrs naq tebj zber cbjreshy nf gurl trg zber jbefuvcref.
    Gurer ner ovyyvbaf bs fznyy tbqf, srj bs juvpu rire
    nzbhag gb nalguvat, ohg gurl’er nyy ybbxvat sbe gung punapr gb trg gur
    nggragvba bs gung svefg uhzna naq evqr vg nf sne nf gurl pna. Pbairefryl
    gurl pna nyfb snqr va cbjre, vs gurl ybfr oryvriref – be vs npghny
    oryvrs vf ercynprq ol vafgvghgvba naq ebgr. Boivbhfyl gur erny Tbq vf
    qvssrerag, ohg bhe uhzna eryvtvbaf znl jnag gb gnxr abgrf.

     

  • Ken

     Stupid, STUPID Disqus…  When I typed the above it said:

    One of the delicate parts of pastoral leadership is being sure the flock will follow where you lead.  Terry Pratchett had an interesting take on this in Small Gods, where the god Om* gets his start by appearing to a shepherd – but just a valley or two away there was a goatherd. Had Om appeared to him, the future Omnian religion would have been quite different, because “Sheep are stupid and have to be driven, but goats are smart and have to be led.”

    * Spoiler footnote for Pratchett’s Discworld books.  Ba gur Qvfpjbeyq, tbqf guevir ba uhzna oryvrs naq tebj zber cbjreshy nf gurl trg zber jbefuvcref. Gurer ner ovyyvbaf bs fznyy tbqf, srj bs juvpu rire nzbhag gb nalguvat, ohg gurl’er nyy ybbxvat sbe gung punapr gb trg gur nggragvba bs gung svefg uhzna naq evqr vg nf sne nf gurl pna. Pbairefryl gurl pna nyfb snqr va cbjre, vs gurl ybfr oryvriref – be vs npghny oryvrs vf ercynprq ol vafgvghgvba naq ebgr. Boivbhfyl gur erny Tbq vf qvssrerag, ohg bhe uhzna eryvtvbaf znl jnag gb gnxr abgrf.

  • Lizzy L

    The bishops’ opposition to contraception is not an argument for a
    “conscience exemption.” It is a way of imposing Catholic requirements on
    non-Catholics. This is religious dictatorship, not religious freedom.

    This, exactly. And also the rest of it.

  • Anonymous

    Paradoxically, the document formed to convey the idea that papal
    teaching is inerrant just convinced most people that it can be loony.

    Sounds like part of the dialogue with the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

    Pope: “I’m inerrant.”
    Most Catholics: “You’re a loony.”

  • Anonymous

    That was excellent. Pope Paul really, really shot his position in the foot with Humanae Vitae. And since then John Paul and Benedict have just kept doubling down on the idiocy. It’s like they’ll drag the papacy as an institution down rather than admit the encyclical was wrong (or doesn’t apply any more, or whatever formulation they need to lift the ban).
    Of course there is precedent for this pigheadedness. During the early Reformation, the Popes refused to concern local needs over papal authority and as a result lost England and Sweden at least. 

  • Aine

     out of curiosity, how do I figure out what your footnote says?

  • Anonymous

    You can go to rot13.com and plug it in to be deciphered.  If something looks like Elder god-inspired profane spew, it’s probably been rot13′d.

  • Anonymous

    It’s encoded with rot13, a simple substitution cipher which, through a trick of the latin alphabet, has symmetry — the rot13 algorithm can be used to encode and decode.

    Which is a fancy way of saying that it shifts all the leters by 13 places.  So A becomes N, B, becomes O, and so on.  The cool thing is that the reverse is also true.  N becomes A, O becomes B.  If you ‘rot13′ a message twice, you get the exact same message (provided you’re using a latin alphabet and character set.)  (Hence a once-common cypherpunk joke: ‘This message is encoded in rot13.’ ‘Well, I needed more security so I ran it through rot13 TWICE.’) You can automatically decode it — and encode anyting, too! — by going to http://www.rot13.com, or doing a Google search for any rot13 converter.

    ETA: As an aside, am I the only one who is utterly amused by the fact that ‘furby’ when run through rot13 comes out as ‘sheol’?

    Furby will STEAL YOUR SOUL!

  • http://lost-erizo.livejournal.com/ LE

    The bishops’ opposition to contraception is not an argument for a “conscience exemption.” It is a way of imposing Catholic requirements on non-Catholics. This is religious dictatorship, not religious freedom.

    Statements like this get under my skin – not because I disagree with the sentiment, but because they ignore a major constituency.  Not only are the Bishops trying to impose requirements on Non-Catholics – they are trying to extend their authority over Catholics into the secular/legal sphere.  What about the religious freedom of Catholics to examine their own consciences and ignore the edicts of the Bishops if they want? It probably seems like a minor point but it affects the whole framing of the ridiculous religious institution exemption.  It’s an area where they simply have no authority legally and yet here we are ceding it to them.

    I realize the original author did sort of address this issue with the discussion of the history of  Humanae Vitae (which yay – someone finally discussing the substantive reason why so many Catholic women use BC other than “because it’s convenient and they don’t care”) but the fact that he this aspect of the issue in “The Phony Religious Freedom Argument” and only addresses it as a religious argument just reinforces the impression that the bishops have some legitimate secular authority over their church members.

    /rant.  Or maybe it’s just me.

  • Mary Kaye

    It’s not just “it’s convenient and they don’t care”.  It’s “BC can save your life.”  Another child would have killed my mother, according to her doctors.  The bleeding that hit me a couple of years ago was well on its way to killing me, and the effective treatment involved contraceptives. 

    “Lifelong celibacy or you die” (my mother’s case) or “hysterectomy or you die” (mine) goes a long way past “inconvenient” and into “ruining someone’s life” territory. There would need to be a truly impressive justification for this, and it’s just not there.

  • http://lost-erizo.livejournal.com/ LE

    Your point is well taken – there are a myriad of reasons why women (regardless of religious background) take BC, both therapeutic and for life planning (believe me I know – my sister has terrible endometriosis.  She’s in a constant battle with insurers over filling the Rxs that keep her relatively healthy, sane, and pain free).  And in many discussions of BC that I’ve seen recently, people have brought those concerns up.

    But one of my points (which, admittedly, was poorly expressed mostly because I was focusing on the legal authority issue) is that people have been bandying about this “98% of R Catholic women use BC” number as a bludgeon without much discussion of why, philosophically, those women disagree with the hierarchy’s edicts, which often makes RC women appear merely hypocritical and self serving about their religion rather than having a principled and conscientious disagreement. 

  • P J Evans

     When I was a kid, we lived down the street from a Catholic family that was using the officially-approved method. They had 10 kids. It was a good bad example. (Most of the other Catholic families we knew didn’t have that many kids.)

  • http://profiles.google.com/anoncollie Anon Collie

     The simple truth of the matter is, LE, that while the mandate of conscience exists, and is a solid part of Catholic doctrine, the bishops don’t like to be challenged by the layity over anything.
    Even the most studious and learned theologians of the church’s opinions on matters are always, *always* secondary when it comes to clergy’s take on the matter.

    It’s one of the most frustrating things about being a Catholic theologian.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I wish that the papacy would just own up already and say that birth control is a good thing.  The ability to carefully plan one’s family holds great benefits for that family’s stability and ability to not be accountable to those with greater financial power, thus allowing them a greater degree of social justice.  And as social justice is a core doctrine of the Catholic church, that means that birth control is to be commended. 

    The church hierarchy will have to decide what is more important to them:  “unnatural” birth control, or social justice? 

  • Anonymous

    And to build on what Fearless Son said, I would tolerate this nonsense a lot more if the  Bishops were also tearing into the GOP for their terrible economic polices which harm the poor and spit in the face of social justice by preying on the weak and leave children hungry, wanting medical attention, and lacking a stable homelife. But they don’t. Funny that. 

  • Anonymous

    I wish that the papacy would just own up already and say that birth control is a good thing.

    I’d like that too, but I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon. It’s one thing for the Church hierarchy to admit being “in error” 500 years after the fact on an issue like their rejection of Galileo’s discoveries, but it’s entirely something else of them to admit their position is wrong on an issue they’ve addressed or referenced many, many times encyclicals, pronouncements and public statements in the past 100 years, right up to the present day. I mean, it would be one helluva mea culpa for them to say, “And to all of you in developing countries suffering from AIDS, famine, and overpopulation who we could have helped with condoms and other family planning services, WOOPSIES and see you Sunday!”

  • http://lost-erizo.livejournal.com/ LE

    Oh, believe me, I know how intransigent and pompous the hierarchy can be  - I’m no theologian, but I grew up Roman Catholic (12 years of Catholic School -and I paid attention).  The Bishops are welcome to work themselves into a snit over Catholics who don’t toe the party line.  I just wish the media wouldn’t buy into it – they don’t have to let the Bishops frame the discussion.

  • Matri

    rather than admit the encyclical was wrong

    B-B-But the pope is never wrong! [/sarcasm]

    What we regard as human nature and a mere contradiction, becomes a logic bomb for these people.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Catholics who do not accept the phony argument over contraception are said to be “going against the teachings of their church.” That is nonsense. They are their church.

    This.

    I’ve been told (including in this blog’s comment section) that I should leave the church if I don’t agree with the teachings or actions of the hierarchy on every point. But it’s my church, no less than the magisterium’s.

  • Münchner Kindl

    “I’ve been told (including in this blog’s comment section) that I should
    leave the church if I don’t agree with the teachings or actions of the
    hierarchy on every point. But it’s my church, no less than the
    magisterium’s.”

    The problem with that is: if you have no legal way to affect change in your group, and the group’s policy crosses some line you can no longer accept, your only choice is to leave. If you keep staying beyond some point, you are implicitly agreeing with their politics. *

    The Romans called this “Tacit, clamat” – he who (stays) silent, shouts: because during a vote in the Senate, if you didn’t speak out loudly against a proposal, you were counted in agreement.

    That’s why Luther and later the Christ-Catholics (over the un-historical, un-scriptural, issue of Papal infallibility) left the Church.

    And it’s not limited to religion: people split away from political parties or the local pigeon breeders clubs, too, if the top is in firm control of a group of people with agenda and there’s no way for members with opposing views to get some control back.

    * where you draw that line of no return will vary among individuals, but you need to recognize that some lines are decisive and that a person of conscience can’t support a group that advocates for X, whatever X is.

    Thought experiment: if tomorrow the Catholic Church declared that the Eucharist needs to be done with real human meat for theological reasons, so they will start to kill and eat little babies – would you still stay? Or would you try to storm the Vatican? Or say “that is not my Church anymore” and leave?

    Of course it’s unfortunate that unlike Protestant Churches, the laity can’t change official policy.

    But RCC is not the only Catholic Church – the Old Catholic Church http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Catholic_Church and Orthodox Churches have as much legitimate claim to the descendance from Peter, and historical accuracy on their side as Rome.

  • Tricksterson

    They decided that long ago and took the Third Option: Whatevr maintains and expands their power.

  • Tricksterson

    “I read this encyclical
    It’s written by the Pope
    Says those who got money ain’t got no hope
    The rich ain’t welcome in the heavenly Palladium
    But the Knights of Columbus own Yankee Stadium!
    Now I’m not saying that the Pope is wrong
    But he can easily afford to sing that song”
    –Don McClean

    Not really germane to the argument maybe I just thought it was cute.


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