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

Why I’m listening to the laity, not to the U.S. Catholic bishops February 13, 2012

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.

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