Tom Gilson

Extra! Extra! Church Expects Its Teachers To Believe Its Teachings!

I'm not a Catholic, and I've never thought I would become a Catholic—but I'm almost tempted to convert, just to raise another Catholic voice against the recent absurdity at the Washington Post. The great problem with my doing that is that there are some Catholic beliefs I don't agree with. That matters to me, and it matters to the Catholic Church, too. A person ought not be a Catholic unless he or she really agrees with Catholicism.

That's plain old common sense, and it's hardly news—except if you're the the Post, in which case you think it's front-page material. For some reason it really bothers the Post that the Roman Catholic church would expect its teachers to teach Roman Catholic teachings.

Note that this is not about just attending or joining the Catholic Church, it's about teachers and leaders.

There are numerous problems with the Post's approach in this story. Matthew Franck has a round-up of opinion on this absurdity at First Thoughts, so I'll only go as far as the lede:

Kathleen Riley knows her beliefs on the male-only priesthood and contraception put her at odds with leaders of her church. But as a fifth-generation Catholic who went to a Catholic school and grew up to teach in one, Riley feels the faith deeply woven through her. So when her Arlington parish asked for volunteers last summer to teach Sunday school, she felt called by the Holy Spirit to say yes.

A year later, the 52-year-old computer scientist feels the same spirit calling her to say no.

“Feels the faith deeply woven through her.” “Feels the same spirit.” Those two phrases say it all, for they place feeling and “spirit” at the center, and disconnect faith and the Spirit of God from propositional truth. It is the all-too-familar fact-value dichotomy once again in evidence.

It's also palpable nonsense. Is Kathleen Riley going to stand before a classroom of students and weave her five generations of heritage through them? If that evokes any image at all in your mind, it's probably frightening. Is she going to make them feel some spirit? I've had teachers do that for me—all kinds of spirits, from deep interest to serenity to boredom to anger.[1. I do not think the “spirit” of which the Post was speaking was any personal or supernatural spirit. They don't seem to recognize the difference between “the Holy Spirit” and “the same spirit,” lower case.]

Why then should those things qualify her to teach? Teachers impart attitudes, to be sure, but in most classes their main responsibility is to convey propositional knowledge. A teacher's opinions concerning matters of propositional knowledge are therefore relevant, and in particular, a when a teacher is teaching for the Church, her opinions regarding Church beliefs are quite relevant.

This is not just a Roman Catholic issue. The Post is saying the Church has no business setting Church policy and polity—that the Church is wrong to practice its own beliefs. It's only a matter of time before they apply the same considerable pressure against the rest of us.

 

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14 thoughts on “Extra! Extra! Church Expects Its Teachers To Believe Its Teachings!

  1. Tom,

    Thanks for posting on this. I’m Catholic, but I have a strong respect for a lot of Protestant thought, and entirely support the right of such groups to run their organizations and churches to teach (shocking we need to say it) their own doctrines and beliefs.

    By the way, you may like the coverage of issues like this at getreligion.org – they add some interesting perspective to these questions. I just started checking them out regularly myself.

  2. Huh. So much for championing freedom of association and the right of a private organisation to regulate its own membership!

  3. Sounds like an internal dispute within Catholicism, and I don’t quite see where the Post is explicitly taking sides. As a non-Catholic, I commend Riley for questioning her church on these points. The bit at the end seems most sensible to me:

    Nuzzi said he keeps a photo on his desk from the 1940s that shows all the German bishops in their garb, doing the Nazi salute. “I keep it there to remind people who say to do everything the church says, that their wisdom has limitations, too.”

  4. While I can appreciate & respect the right of an organization to freely associate & regulate its membership… the Church in Rome is ordered by principles beyond democratic theory. Chief among them is its explicit devotion to and worship of a man who specifically expressed a desire that his followers should “be one”—a theme picked up and amplified through the Pauline contributions to the faith.

    Throughout Christian history we see the dynamic tension between those who would maintain the status quo at a given moment and those who would push for reform. The perennial question for Christians is just how much difference of opinion or diversity of thought is permitted within the ranks of those with whom who we consider ourselves “one” in the faith.

    I wonder where each of us draws the line within our own communities. I would like to think that Rome would be able to articulate a pastoral response toward those who question the positions and policies of the Magisterium while also insisting that those will be in fact the policies of the Church.

    While I support in theory the idea of a group being able to internally implement a fidelity oath. I wonder how each of us might feel if our own religious body were to do the same in such a way that we felt violated our conscience on a particular issue?

    Lastly @ Tom: I think your footnote is off-base. The Post seems very much to use the general common noun in the second sentence to refer back to the specific proper noun referenced immediately before.

  5. I wonder how each of us might feel if our own religious body were to do the same in such a way that we felt violated our conscience on a particular issue?

    While I understand the emotional pull of such an argument, it seems the fundamental problem here is an inappropriate sense of ownership.

    For example, Catholic theology is fundamentally “owned” by the Pope and the Tradition he safeguards. It only belongs to anyone else to the extent that they are willing to follow. Someone might want to call themselves a Catholic and yet assert their own authority over their practice of theology, but they’re deluding themselves.

    The same is true of any similar Christian tradition, including – historically – most of the protestant denominations. There is some form of doctrinal statement – usually one which affirms the Scriptures and lays out some key understandings thereof – and to be both member and leader in the denomination you must assent to that authority.

    The same is true of many secular organisations. there is an expectation that members get on board with the organisation’s mission and code of behaviour.

    Problems occur when people discover that what they want to associate with and what they are associated with are different. The selfish response is for the individual to remain as the authority and for the organisation to adapt, even if this means compromising the organisation’s integrity. The honourable response is for the individual to either change their wants or to leave.

  6. Sounds like an internal dispute within Catholicism,

    Not really. It’s a dispute between Catholic teaching, and someone who doesn’t adhere to it, but wants to dissent from within. As can be seen in the following line:

    As a non-Catholic, I commend Riley for questioning her church on these points.

    Exactly. You’re not Catholic, but you’ll commend Riley for opposing Catholic teaching. See? Just because you oppose Catholic teaching, or want Catholics to change their teaching, doesn’t make you a Catholic.

    The bit at the end seems most sensible to me

    I bet it does seem sensible to you. I wonder if you’d have found a report that concluded like this most sensible:

    The bishop keeps a photo on his desk of a German poster promoting the view of the disabled as useless eaters. “I keep it there to remind myself where pro-choice Catholic perspectives may ultimately lead to again,” the bishop said in a quiet voice.

    Salient, sensible stuff, eh? Not at all Godwinning a conversation by painting one’s opposition in the most unfathomably horrible light possible, no sir.

  7. Andrew W,

    Pretty much dead on. This isn’t a “Catholic” thing. This is about the rights of an organization – in this case a religious body – to teach what they believe, and expect those who they employ to also teach in accordance with what they believe.

    Does the LGBSA allow dissent from within? Should we be surprised if the LGBSA refused to employ someone whose job it was to teach their organization’s views, but they actually dissented from those views and thought that homosexual acts were wrong?

    I seem to recall a situation years ago where then-Governor Casey of PA was denied a speaking role at the Democratic National Convention, because of his pro-life views. I suppose this year we should expect the DNC to feature pro-life Democrats stating their views in a major speech, since the DNC values dissent?

    I imagine not. Dissent is always dreadfully important, an extremely valuable check against hubris and worse… when it’s a dissenting view someone favors. When it’s a view they don’t favor, dissent is actually the beginnings of radicalism and extremism, and should be (peacefully… if possible) squelched.

  8. I feel that a human rights perspective can provide quite a few points that are “beyond discussion”. This is Article 18 from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), a legal document ratified by most countries in the world:

    “1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

    2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.

    3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

    4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”

  9. @Martin

    To be fair, I wouldn’t (and Nuzzi shouldn’t) equate WW2 German bishops with the Roman Catholic Church nor their actions with Church doctrine. Politics and society of course had a lot of influence there. But, ok, in general the sentiment still stands. I believe one should take Church teachings and theology as more or less authoritative, but to be taken with a grain of salt, as with any fallible human-run organization.

  10. I don’t think anyone is making that equation. Regarding previous comments, it also isn’t clear that anyone is denying that church authorities have “the right” to sanction church members for resisting their orders (however questionable those orders may be). The church authorities have “the right” to do many things that, if done, they would be appropriately criticized for doing. (Similarly, people have the right to publish poorly considered comments on the internet; if they insist on doing so, however, they expose themselves to legitimate criticism.)

    So I don’t really see any problems here. Given the Catholic church’s record, its current trends, and my suspicions towards institutional “authorities” generally, I am grateful to hear of individual Catholics thinking independently. If conservative evangelicals, like Mr. Gilson, don’t share this gratitude, it’s likely because they just happen, in this instance, to side with the church authorities on the specific issues.

  11. There’s also a difference between freedom of association and freedom from dissociation. It’s one thing to say that the government (or third parties) can’t stop me from associating with a group. It’s quite another thing to say that a group must associate with me even if I wont follow the group’s norms.

  12. Regarding previous comments, it also isn’t clear that anyone is denying that church authorities have “the right” to sanction church members for resisting their orders (however questionable those orders may be).

    And again I ask – what, exactly, is ‘questionable’ about expecting Catholic teachers to uphold and teach Catholic doctrine?

    Given the Catholic church’s record, its current trends, and my suspicions towards institutional “authorities” generally, I am grateful to hear of individual Catholics thinking independently.

    As I said, people seem to enjoy and stress the importance of dissent largely when the dissent in question happens to line up with what they already think. When it’s not, it’s no longer mere dissent, it’s signs of extremism.

    Likewise, no one is saying the teacher should not ‘think independently’. She’s more than welcome to, just as pro-life Democrats are welcome to be pro-life. But apparently, the DNC doesn’t want them to speak at national conventions, or have much of a presence in the party – they will, in fact, muzzle them. Simlarly, the LGBSA and similar groups have no tolerance for members in leadership positions being open to the possibility that same-sex acts are a sin – the “insitutional authorities” walk you out in that case, or marginalize you.

    Now, maybe you think all these institutions are wrong as well, and therefore are very upset about the monolithic message coming from these and other groups. But when you only support and encourage dissent in a very narrow selection of cases (‘whenever I agree with the dissenters’), you’re not really distrustful of institutional authorities, or a great supporter of independent thought. You’re a supporter of merely different institutional authorities, and different thought.

    If conservative evangelicals, like Mr. Gilson, don’t share this gratitude, it’s likely because they just happen, in this instance, to side with the church authorities on the specific issues.

    Or perhaps Tom believes that organizations have the reasonable right to expect their teachers and leaders are on-board with their message. If, say, the Episcopalians wish to support gay marriage as a matter of institutional religious belief, such that they’d not allow dissenting teachers or even clergy, that’s their prerogative. I’d disagree with them entirely, but they can make those calls.

    See, allows other groups and organizations to run themselves the way they seem fit seems a lot more like ‘tolerance of independent thought’ than supporting dissent whenever you agree with the dissent, and opposing it whenever you disagree.

  13. I don’t think Crude was implying this exactly, but I would like to be sure to clarify here: the Episcopal Church has not expressed support for gay marriage as a matter of institutional belief.

    Rather, it has authorized a period of trial use for a specific liturgy for the blessing of same-gender unions. And the Episcopal Church has taken great pains to make space (both officially and practically) for clergy & laypeople who disagree with this practice, ensuring that no one is required or forced to use this liturgy if their conscience dictates otherwise.

  14. For me the intersting point surrounding this topic is that the separation of church and state apparently seems to trump any other “separation” in the minds on many.

    What I mean is that the same folks who step in and say “Hey wait we cannot have prayer in school. It’s unconstitutional!”,are ready and willing to push their own agendas and force them to be mandatory in schools.

    For instance here in Los Angeles – there is legislature being pushed to have ALL schools add “the contributions of gay and lesbian individuals” to their ciriculum. So, on the one side of the coin being flipped, it’s “HEY! You can’t do any praying in school”, but then on the other side of the coin the same folks who don’t want the church’s agenda involved in anyway form or fashion – decide that it is ok to go ahead and implement their agenda. And, not only that but also make it mandatory. I think there’s a word for that…hypocrisy…

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