Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dissenting without defecting

The current atheist blogging buzz seems to be Catholics who dissent from Catholic Church teachings without defecting.  Bill Donohue, head of the Catholic League, said in his most recent book that liberal Catholics should just leave the church.  New York Times columnist Bill Keller agreed.
Much as I wish I could encourage the discontented, the Catholics of open minds and open hearts, to stay put and fight the good fight, this is a lost cause. Donohue is right. Summon your fortitude, and just go. If you are not getting the spiritual sustenance you need, if you are uneasy being part of an institution out of step with your conscience — then go. The restive nuns who are planning a field trip to Rome for a bit of dialogue? Be assured, unless you plan to grovel, no one will be listening. Sisters, just go.
Following this, there was an unrelated story that an atheist blogger, Leah, (who I had never heard of before) decided to convert to Catholicism.  Many atheist commenters, knowing little about the particular rationale for this, grabbed on to this one obvious fact, and asked how anyone could support the Catholic Church.
I’m seriously disappointed. Of all religions to join, you choose Catholicism? One of the most despicable, nonsensical, homophobic, misogynistic religions on the planet?
Full disclosure: I'm ex-Catholic, and went to a Jesuit high school.  Jesuits are known for being one of the more liberal and intellectual Catholic organizations.

Catholicism is somewhat in a weird position.  The major distinction between Catholicism and other Christian denominations is the ancient organization of the Church.  But most Catholics dissent on teachings that secularists care most about, such as birth control and gay marriage.  They also seem to dissent about pointless beliefs like transubstantiation.

The Church seems to tolerate a lot of dissent.  I recall from my high school days that there are official teachings on dissent.  Though, I have not seen them anywhere else, so perhaps the teachings were less official than my recollection.  But the idea was that Catholics are allowed to dissent as long as they have a personal conviction, wrestle with the question, consult a leader on the matter, and so forth.  Oh, and you can't dissent from infallible teachings.  (The infallible declarations of the Church are few, and include such things as "The saved see heaven before Judgment day," and "Mary was conceived without original sin.")  Of course, if you're clever, you could just dissent from the idea that Popes can ever speak infallibly.

I'm pretty sure most Catholics aren't following these demanding guidelines.  Priests don't have the time for that many consultations.  No, according to my theory of mind, people take dissent much more lightly.  It's a thing that everyone does, and the Church can't kick them all out!

But many secularists believe that Catholic dissenters have a moral obligation to leave the Church.  The Church is an evil organization, for having enabled and rewarded child-abusing priests, while punishing their victims.  They also have very regressive teachings on abortion, same-sex sexual behavior, and birth control.  I contend that even for Catholics who disagree on these teachings, the Church acts as an immobile anchor which prevents them from progressing to a point where opposing birth control is utterly unreasonable.  People support these regressive causes with their Catholic affiliation, their money, and their implied respect.

Dissenting while staying within Catholicism may be tolerated by the Church, and it may be as ordinary as Catholicism itself.  That doesn't make it right.

People say that they're staying so that they can work for change within.  I'm not convinced that this really works better than working outside the Church, but what do I know?

More to the point, I'm not convinced that all those dissenting Catholics are staying just because they are actively working for change within.  The most vocal people may say they're changing the church, but surely the less vocal people are also less vocal in criticizing the church.  Catholics stay in the church because that's the default thing to do.  Disagreeing with doctrine is ordinary, but leaving the Church is heresy.  The political impact of the church seems abstract and distant, while the impact of leaving your church seems immediate and real.  It is easier to just say that you disagree with the Church on a few matters. And you can always minimize the importance of those few matters--it's just gay rights and women's rights, right?

To be honest, I can imagine myself using similar rationale to stay affiliated with other organizations or communities when my affiliation would contribute to harm.  One hopes that if this comes to pass, you will slap me.  A desire to stay in the community is not a justification, it is just a challenge to making the right decision.