Asking me why I am still a Catholic is rather like asking me why I’m still an American. After all, it can be argued that, over the past decade or so, with acts like waterboarding, the country has abandoned a lot of what made it unique in history and suffered a profound loss of faith in its founding ideals. (I’ve argued that myself.) I am still an American because, as Herman Melville put it, the Declaration of Independence makes a difference. I remain a Catholic because the Gospels make a difference. In both cases, ideals are set out, pathways delineated, and through them, our shortcomings can be measured as precisely as possible. In the former case, the torturers and their bureaucratic masters cannot contradict the verdict of that measuring, and in the latter, the crimes against conscience perpetrated by the institutional hierarchy of the Church cannot stop the slow, painful evolution from moving forward. I can stay a Catholic because of what I’ve learned about being an American. I am, in my own way, a Madisonian Catholic. To borrow a line from Thomas Jefferson, my church neither picks anyone’s pocket nor breaks anyone’s leg. Most important of all, it is mine – a personal church, if not a personal Savior.
. . . [N] obody gets to tell me that I’m not a Catholic.
Those of my fellow Catholics who remain loyal to the institutional structure of the Church don’t get to do so. People who talk glibly of “cafeteria Catholicism” don’t get to do so. People who seek to coin Catholic doctrine into political advantage – be they left or right – don’t get to do so. No priest gets to do so, and no bishop, either, and that especially means the bishop of Rome himself. No pope can tell me I’m not a Catholic.
Things went awfully bad when, in the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine backed the right horse, adopted Christianity as the religion of the Roman empire, and set the institutional church on a course wherein it became a royal European court with the pope as its king. This shrewd political move by an emperor came to be seen as a very bad thing for both religion and the state. In developing a system to disentangle religion and government here in the United States, Madison cited the example of Constantine and Christianity as something to be avoided. In fits and starts, both institutionally and, more important, one conscience at a time, the Church has progressed only on those occasions when it operates contrary to this bad ancient bargain.
Garry Wills regularly points out how Vatican II – the mid-’60s council that put the church on the path of liberalism and ecumenism – defined the church as the entire “people of God.” That being the case, one can find a way to remain a Catholic while not only distancing oneself from the hierarchy of the institutional church but also subverting it, in a kind of internal Reformation. After all, as Wills pointed out in a recent issue of The New Republic, “The pope is a freak of history – specifically, of medieval history. . . . Peter was not a pope, or a bishop, or a priest – offices that did not exist in his lifetime. There are no priests in the New Testament.” Wills further explains that “the democracy that would be denounced by Pius IX had been practiced in the early church, where priests and bishops were elected by the people.” For some time, at some instinctive level, in the depths of their informed consciences, Catholics knew this. And it was 45 years ago when they first put those feelings into action.
In 1869, desperate to cling to the spiritual power of his office as a secular revolution in Italy eroded his temporal power, Pope Pius IX called the First Vatican Council and rammed through the doctrine of papal infallibility, by which the pope is incapable of error while speaking on matters of faith and morals ex cathedra, from the Chair of Peter. Bureaucratic thinking being what it is, the Vatican became shrewd at draping almost every pronouncement with the trappings of infallibility, and the doctrine became a millstone on the consciences of millions of Catholics. It slipped loose in 1968, when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, his encyclical condemning artificial birth control. The encyclical seemed so shabbily derived from Scripture, and so giddily divorced from the realities of daily life, that the informal infallibility with which it was sold seemed an unconvincing burlesque. Catholics discovered that they could ignore the pope in good conscience and remain Catholics, no matter how many people told them they couldn’t.
“That was the last straw,” Richard McBrien says. “Paul VI, by comparison, was a pretty good pope. He was frightened into reaffirming that teaching. That was the turning point. It wasn’t Vatican II that made Catholics freethinking people. It was that birth-control encyclical, when they realized that the pope didn’t know what he was talking about.”
When the sex-abuse scandal exploded, the church hierarchy discovered itself with a laity that was already armed with a towering skepticism as to the ability of the hierarchy to confront honestly the depths of the crimes that had been committed. There was no credibility left in the tactics of deflecting blame; for a long time, the Vatican seemed to be arguing that this had been a uniquely American problem. To borrow a phrase from the Watergate scandal, that argument has been rendered inoperative by the events of this year. People determined that they would defeat the sullied authority of the hierarchy by ignoring it. The latest Reformation is taking place in people’s minds. The papacy, as an institution, can recognize that, or it can wither away over time, and its authority with it, until there’s nothing left but one more museum piece, a pointless man on an empty throne, all lost save ceremony.
To read Charles Pierce’s article in its entirety, click here.