Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Freedom of Conscience--All Depends On Whose Conscience It Is

Bishop Loverde of Arlington
teaching children the faith
My last posting concerned a “fidelity oath” that the Diocese of Arlington has imposed on teachers in Catholic Schools and Religious Education programs throughout the diocese.  This oath allegedly requires teachers to “believe everything the bishops characterize as divinely revealed and Arlington’s top doctrine official said it would include things like the bishops’ recent campaign against a White House mandate that most employers offer contraception coverage…” 
Well we have some problems, here, don’t we boys and girls?
In the first place, is the problem of oaths.  Let us look at paragraph 2155 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church
The holiness of the divine name demands that we neither use it for trivial matters, nor take an oath which on the basis of the circumstances could be interpreted as approval of an authority unjustly requiring it. When an oath is required by illegitimate civil authorities, it may be refused. It must be refused when it is required for purposes contrary to the dignity of persons or to ecclesial communion.
Now I will be the first to say that it is extremely important that those charged with teaching the faith teach the faith as the Church teaches it, no problem.  I will also agree that a priest being given the charge of souls as Parish Priest (the canonical term for a pastor) may be required to take an oath to teach the faith in its fullness and without alteration.  Even more would this be true for a man being installed as bishop of a diocese.  No problem.  But an oath requiring complete assent of intellect and will to be in conformity to all Church teaching for a man or woman teaching seven-year olds?  Or—for that matter—teaching seventeen year olds?  I think the pastor needs to meet with the teachers and explain the importance of teaching what the Church teaches.  I think teaching needs to be—to some extent—monitored to make sure the children are getting the faith of the Church and not the private opinions of a teacher presented as the teaching of the Church.  But an oath!  I would think that it is funny—somewhat like a cartoon of a man going after a horsefly with cannon—were it, if not a violation of the 2nd commandment at least skirting its violation. 
Secondly, in taking an oath, is the person being required to admit the right of
diocesan authorities to require such an oath and do the bishop and his officials  have the moral right to require religion teachers to take an oath that extends their authority over “intellect and will”? 
According to the catechism we should not take an oath that is being imposed unjustly lest the taking of that oath be interpreted as approving the unjust exercise of authority.  Do Diocesan authorities have the right to call in individuals and make them swear that not only in the public forum—i.e. in what they say in the classroom—but in the internal forum—i.e. what they believe and practice in their conscience—that they give complete assent to whatever the bishop(s) determine is divinely revealed.  This is very complicated as it involves authority over the internal forum—the conscience of the individual.  Now, under certain circumstances, the Church has imposed the obligation on certain people to give assent both internally and externally to certain doctrines, including the teaching on contraception.  I have no problem with the Church requiring priests and those who teach in the name of the Church to promise that they will not teach contrary to Church doctrine.  I do have a problem, however, when you talk about requiring internal assent if that extends to conscience.  While I believe that we must form our consciences according to the teaching of the Church, I also believe that the conscience is sacrosanct and that even an erroneous conscience must be listened to by the person to whom it belongs. I have been taught that this too is a fundamental principle of Catholic moral theology.  What authority then does the Church have to make a person hold in conscience what they do not in fact hold in conscience?    
Now up to this point we have been talking about issues like contraception or same-sex relationships and these are certainly within the area of the Church’s teaching competency, but this Arlington “oath” extends not only to such grave matters but to agreement of intellect and will that the HHS mandate that most employers offer contraception coverage is a violation of religious freedom.  We have crossed a line here from faith and morals (contraception) to Constitutional Law (that the mandate is an infringement of the First Amendment).  Can such a principle justly be required to be accepted in “intellect and will?”  Would not taking such an oath involving a constitutional question with political overtones be a validation of the authority of the Church to impose itself beyond the area of faith and morals?  Or perhaps the catechism is saying that the requirement to resist an unjust oath only applies to civil authorities but that the Church has such a right over its members? Hmmm.  No it seems to be that this oath is wrong in the first place because the matter is not sufficiently grave to require an oath.  Secondly it is wrong because it tries to exercise an absolute jurisdiction over an individual’s conscience.  Thirdly it seems to be to be wrong because it admits the validity of the diocesan authority to impose its weight beyond the competency of the Church’s magisterium.  Let me conclude with an email I recently received from a friend of mine.  It just repeats part of the Washington Post article—but a significant part
Loverde, who called for the oath, was not available for comment. Catholic bishops have broad authority in their dioceses, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said there is no churchwide requirement for such oaths.
Some experts said the oath embodies the intense struggle in Catholicism today to define what makes someone a true follower. What teachings are core? What authority do laypeople have?
The Rev. Ronald Nuzzi, who heads the leadership program for Catholic educators at the University of Notre Dame, said many bishops “are in a pickle.” They want Catholic institutions to be staffed by people who not only teach what the church teaches but whose “whole life will bear witness.”
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.”     
Let me repeat
“I keep it there to remind people who say to do everything the church says, that their wisdom has limitations, too.”     

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