I’m not a Roman Catholic, but I play one online.
Not really. But for some years now I have been in close dialogue with many Catholics who have challenged my thinking on religious issues. Others, however, have only baffled me – namely, “liberal Catholics.” These are members of the Catholic Church who are constantly calling the Church to reform (example). I am continually amazed that people who claim to be in the true Church have no problem demanding that it change its settled teachings on issues like abortion, gay marriage, or the ordination of women. It is not simply that I disagree with them for thinking liberally – I disagree that they’re even thinking Catholicly.
Now, the Catholic Church has a fairly detailed hierarchy of dissent - it’s not “all or nothing” when to comes to member agreement. If an issue involves issues of dogma (like the dual wills of Christ), then one must affirm the Church’s position to remain orthodox; however, if it is only the Church’s current practice (such as the celibacy of the clergy), disagreement is not a problem so long as one does not attack the Church. Thus, it may be that some of these liberal Catholics are just confused as to what issues fall into which category. It is relatively easy to tell the difference, though – so it seems they would remain culpable to some extent.
In any case there are many who are well aware of their non-allowable dissent. According to the Catholic Church’s own teachings, a Catholic who rejects a doctrine which must be definitively held is no longer in full communion with the Catholic Church. So, by definition, a dissenting Catholic is not a Catholic.
My position is that if you’re going to be Catholic, then be Catholic! Don’t call Protestants heretics and then act just like them. And if you’re not going to be a Catholic, then don’t be Catholic. Like I said to a dissenting Catholic friend years ago: You don’t agree with Catholicism, so you’re basically a Protestant who goes to a Catholic Church. (She later became Lutheran.) In another example, when I noticed that a Catholic friend of mine changed her Facebook profile picture to the red equals sign during the gay marriage debate, I questioned her about it – specifically with regard to the Catholic Catechism sections 2357-2369. Her response shocked me:
“I live by the Holy Bible, not the catechism. I have prayed sincerely, open-heartedly and repeatedly before the Blessed Sacrament to change my heart if God is opposed to marriage equality. My conscience is clean.”
Living by the Bible and prayer is great – but accepting the moral teachings of the Catholic Church only when they agree with what one already thinks is simply not Catholic (it is what some call “Cafeteria Catholicism“). Whether someone accepts or rejects the claims of the Catholicism, it needs to be on the Catholic Church’s terms.
That is why I often feel, ironically, that I am more consistently Catholic than some Catholics!
Cradle vs. Conversion
In addition to these dissenting liberal Catholic posts I often see on Facebook, another class of articles discuss how to stem the decline of the faithful in the Catholic Church. Well here is one thing that will help: converts. The logic is simple: Liberals won’t convert to the Catholic Church for the same reasons that liberals in the Church try to “reform” it, and conservatives who convert don’t try to reform it.
My guess is that most liberal Catholics are “cradle-cultural” Catholics – folks born into the Church but who do not remain in the Church because they have true faith in it, but because that is just where they found themselves. Then, confused in their understanding of the Church’s hierarchy, tradition, and possibility of reform, they think that their contrary opinions ought to count toward changing what the Church is.
Converts, though, generally convert because of what the Catholic church is and because it will remain what it is. They convert because they have studied the Church carefully, think it is the true Church, and therefore have neither illusions about - nor desire for - its “reforming” along liberal lines. Therefore, since conservatives in the Church don’t want to reform it, then growth in converts would mean growth in the number of conservative Catholics.
That is why converts often feel, ironically, that they are more consistently Catholic than some cradle Catholics (and why converts sometimes drive the “cradles” crazy)!
One thing I appreciate about Protestant churches is that people usually cannot remain very comfortable attending regularly if they do not hold to that church’s beliefs. Liberal or conservative, Protestants are pretty passionate about what doctrinal and moral distinctives they hold to – and if someone doesn’t agree with what is being taught at one Protestant church, they’re free to leave and join the Protestant church down the street. The flip side of that coin is that because Protestantism lacks any overarching, controlling authority, Protestants can make “church” whatever they want it to be (another ironic similarity between Protestants and liberal Catholics).
A wise man once said, “Walk on road. Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle – sooner or later get squished like grape.” Catholics who think their Church needs to reform its dogma according to their own beliefs should quit pretending to be something they are not. Why should they waste time trying to reform the Catholic Church when the kind of churches they want can be found elsewhere (e.g., Anglicanism)? Or, if any church claiming a higher authority than their opinions is still too oppressive, they can always leave and start their own church (you know, one that gets Christianity right), and see how that goes.
It’s not an original idea, but at least it’s honest.