Catholic “Officialdom” and Theological Ambiguity

A few months back I guested on a talk radio show and got a call from a man who wanted to know what the “official Catholic teaching” was on (I kid you not) “how much body mass you can lose before you lose your soul.” The man was apparently under the impression that if a certain amount of tissue gets lopped off in an amputation, your soul would leak away and he was urgently interested in whether the Church had issued an official measurement (in grams?) of just how much tissue this would have to be.

The question, odd as it was, nonetheless is not the only one of its sort out there. On the Internet, in magazines and on other media I frequently run across the notion that the Catholic Church must have an “official teaching” on absolutely everything. My friend, Jimmy Akin, the noted apologist who works at Catholic Answers, has remarked on the same phenomenon and tells me he is tempted to draft a series of mock answers to the burning questions, “What is the Catholic Church’s official favorite Beatle?” and “What is the official Catholic way to eat a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup?”

What is going on here? Apparently, many people (one cherishes the flickering hope they are mainly non-Catholics) labor under the illusion that the Church operates according to the “That which is not forbidden is compulsory” model of totalitarian micro-management and thought control. The idea seems to be that, since the Church is hierarchical, it must therefore be the case that Catholic teaching is a thing of such nitnoid and picayune obsession with detail that no Catholic can set his watch without phoning the Vatican or brush his teeth without consulting the catechism on which hand to hold the brush in.

What is especially funny about this misperception is the garbled conversations one can have with people who hold this belief and who do not know whether it is accurate or inaccurate, nor whether they think it is good or bad.

Thus, I have seen conversations on the Internet proceed in this fashion:

Somebody declares, for instance, that “the Pope has officially declared that evolution is true.” (After all, if the Pope has not declared evolution absolutely 100% false, the only alternative must be that it is absolutely 100% dogma.)

Much speculation then ensues about the motive for this “radical reversal” in Catholic teaching. Voices ask archly whether this might not be a gambit by Rome to prepare the way for other reversals of dogma like “married priests” or even Apostolic Succession (one wonders how apostolic succession might be reversed.) Much bustle ensues as the chatter in cyberspace attempts to cast some nuanced magisterial statement in concrete dogmatic galoshes and demand that it dance.

What never seems to occur in such conversations is the thought that the Catholic Church, so far from being obsessed with defining everything down to the last jot and tittle is, in reality, profoundly disinclined to define Her Tradition unless she absolutely has to. Thus, in the case of the Pope’s statement on evolution, the fact is the Pope was aiming to open up various channels for reflection, not cram all Catholics into some narrow rut. He said, in essence, that certain aspects of evolutionary theory do not pose a theological problem to Catholic Faith, but that Catholics could not, of course, accept a strictly materialistic philosophy to account for the creation of human life since this is counter to one of the basic truths of the Faith.

This is a far cry from saying that “evolution [which theory?] is dogma.” On the contrary, it is the declaration that a Catholic is free, if he likes, to accept or reject the possibility that God may have somehow used creatures whether angelic or apelike to create the body of the first man. The only thing a Catholic is not free to believe is that the soul is merely a function of matter (as some forms of naturalism claim). Moreover, this is neither a new thing nor a “reversal” of Catholic teaching. St. Augustine speculated 15 centuries ago about whether God made Adam immediately or over a long period of time. Pope Pius XII made substantially the same comments as Pope John Paul II in Humani Generis nearly 50 years ago. Catholics have felt themselves quite free to speculate on this and thousand other questions since the founding of the Church, for they have always understood that such questions are, to a very large degree, a matter of liberty and even ambiguity, not dogma.

But contemporary culture is about 2000 years behind the times when it comes to comprehending Catholic theological liberty and ambiguity. Hence the confused reaction to Pope John Paul II’s recent expression of disapproval for the death penalty in Evangelium Vitae (when he said, in essence, that he couldn’t see much justification for the death penalty anymore and that, if a criminal could be punished without the taking of human life that comes from God, then human life should be spared.) Many commentators wondered how an infallible Church could “reverse itself” on this topic. But the reality is, this opinion of the Pope is no more dogmatic than previous teaching which allowed for the death penalty. All such teachings have been but prudential judgments, based on a reading of “the signs of the times” which the Church asks the faithful to consider seriously as they form their own consciences. The bottom line is, there is no “official teaching” stating unequivocally that the death penalty is Always Wrong, just as there was never an “official teaching” that it was Always Right. There is room in the Catholic tradition for endorsement of the death penalty. There is also room for opposition to it. Prudence seems to indicate increasingly that it is, in almost all circumstances, a greater evil than the evil it seeks to avoid. So the Pope counsels against it. But he makes no dogma.

And this is the case with the bulk of the Church’s Tradition. There are a few (a very few) restrictions concerning what Catholics may and may not believe and do, but one can be a perfectly faithful Catholic and believe, disbelieve or care nothing about evolution, farm subsidies, tax reform, just war theory, pacifism and smoking. One can hold all sorts of opinions about the duration of purgatory, the music of Spike Jones, the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, the question of whether there is time in Heaven, whether Our Lady died and whether we should have fought the Vietnam War. The Church has no “official position” on these and a billion other questions. She prefers freedom whenever possible. This is why, in 2000 years, the number of dogmatic definitions the Church has formulated is so very, very small.

And it is also why, strangely enough, I often encounter a weird reaction from those who set out to criticize the Church for being rigid, dogmatic and obsessed with angels on pinheads. For when they suddenly find that it is diverse, variegated, miscellaneous and Catholic, when they discover the Church has no “official teaching” on whether Mary died or Purgatory is instantaneous or farm subsidies are the eternal will of the living God, they react with tremendous confusion and resentment.

“What?” I am asked. “The Church doesn’t know?! But if it can’t even answer an elementary question like this, why should we put any faith in her claim to be infallible in larger things?” The curious thing here is that many of the people who protest most loudly the Church’s “overbearing authoritarianism” are also the ones who object most loudly when the Church refuses to tell us what to think. They complain the Church is dogmatic about everything and then they complain that it isn’t.

It seems that the world has gotten things almost exactly backward from the Church here. The world often has a philosophy which treats all matters of Catholic dogma as open questions and many open questions as dogma. Is there a God? Maybe. Is smoking the locus of all evil in the universe? Absolutely. Did Jesus say what is attributed to him in the gospels? Who knows? Is homosexuality inborn, natural and God-given? Absolutely. Are the Mosaic Laws against adultery valid in our day and age? That’s debatable. Can an office full of cubicled bureaucrats micromanage an elementary school room 3000 miles away? Absolutely. Chesterton once remarked of H.G. Wells that he held two bizarre and contradictory philosophies. One of his philosophies held that everything is absolutely unique and therefore unclassifiable (making a common morality impossible). The other philosophy argued passionately for the need of the World State. Chesterton remarked, “It is a quaint and almost comic fact, that this chaotic negation especially attracts those who are always complaining of social chaos, and who propose to replace it by the most sweeping social regulations. It is the very men who say that nothing can be classified, who say that everything must be codified.”

In contrast to this is the Catholic vision of a free human being. Catholics are certain about a few basic facts concerning the nature of the cosmos; facts sketched in the Creeds, offered in the sacraments and fleshed out in the few dogmatic pronouncements the Church has made about this and that. Beyond that, though, they are gloriously different and rather enjoy the fact that they do not see eye to eye on scarcely anything in the world. Submitted to God they find they are taller when they bow, freer when they wear the “shackles” of dogma and wiser when they allow the Church to insist on the very few doctrines she cannot compromise. But the world, seeking to be free of the big laws, does not get freedom. It gets the small laws, the petty dogmatisms and the mental slavery that forces it to not think (in a hundred ways) about Jesus, but allows it to think in only one way about whatever ideology is the going thing at the moment. Catholics, having no detailed dogmatic program to go on besides “Love God and love your neighbor” can look like William F. Buckley, Dorothy Day, Joan of Arc, Mother Teresa, Richard John Neuhaus, or Oscar Romero. They can be all over the map once they leave mass, for they are all one in Christ at the altar. For Catholics, as Chesterton said, agree about everything. It is only everything else they disagree about.


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