The Bishop administering Confirmation in
the Arlington Diocese
Some years ago I was in Rome for a meeting of a committee of which I was a member and a colleague of mine, an Italian priest who teaches Moral Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University (though he isn’t a Jesuit) asked me why I had chosen to do my doctoral studies in history and not theology. I told him that while theology interested me, I would be reluctant to take the oath required of theology professors. History lies outside the jurisdiction of the magisterium and it is better that I stick there. While as a faithful Catholic, I would not knowingly teach anything contrary to the teaching of the Church, I found it demeaning that it would be presumed that I or any Catholic professor would violate our sacred trust and present ideas contrary to the faith of the Church as if they were in fact part of the deposit of faith. It is demeaning to one’s human and professional dignity to presume that he or she would betray the trust given them. If one betrays this trust—ok, then act but the oath given to theology professors on Catholic faculties unprovokedly calls into question their commitment to the faith.
This moral theology professor poo-pooed my reservation and said: of those oaths—“they’re given in bad faith, take them in bad faith.”
I have often told that story and always gotten a laugh. And I can see how others could be so cavalier about an oath “given in bad faith,” but for me an oath is an oath and it calls upon God to be my witness.
The Diocese of Arlington is asking Catholics to stand up and swear with God as their witness, that they hold everything that is taught not only by the universal magisterium (the Pope alone and the College of Bishops acting in concert with the Pope but by the bishops collectively (The USCCB) and by the local bishop. This is a tall order. OK—they want the catechists to hold—not just publically but in their conscience—that abortion is morally evil, that contraception is morally evil, that same-sex relationships are morally evil. OK—we got that. But they also want Virginia Catholics to swear that they abide by the Church’s teaching on capital punishment. They want Virginia Catholics to swear that they abide by the Church’s teaching on just war. They want Virginia Catholics to swear that they abide by the Church’s teachings on the rights of people to migrate. They want Virginia Catholics to swear that they abide by the Church teachings on economic justice. Now I realize these teachings are nuanced—as is the teaching on contraception and, in fact, are all doctrines—but do you really think that the person-in-the-Arlington-pews supports the teaching on the Death Penalty and the very limited circumstances in which it can be used? No one who is going to vote for Ken Cuccinelli this autumn would qualify. Do you really think the person-in-the-Arlington-pews think that the Presidents Bush, I and II brought us into an unjust war in Iraq? And if they do, did they think it at the time and would they still think it if the circumstances were repeated today? Do you think the person-in-the-Arlington-pews agrees in intellect and will with the Bishops’ 1983 pastoral on nuclear weapons or 1986 letter on Economic justice? These documents have never been repealed and still constitute part of the teaching required by the proposed oath.
No this oath is going to bring people of good faith who have legitimate reservations about Church teaching to either forsake the ministry of teaching or to call on God to witness a lie. People of integrity will walk away from the oath. People who do not take God seriously will step up and perjure themselves before God.
There is no need for such a moral quandary. The oath is being arbitrarily imposed. Canon Law does not require—nor support—such an oath. There are alternatives. Catechists can, at the annual mass installing them in their ministry, be called on to stand in Church, recite a profession of faith, and promise the pastor and the congregation that they will teach the faith of the Church as the Church teaches it. The same end is attained without the lèse majesté of an unnecessary oath.