Will the Catholic Church Split?

In the recent Vatican notification criticizing Margaret Farley’s book Just Love, under the heading “General Problems,” the reader is warned that:

The author does not present a correct understanding of the role of the Church’s Magisterium as the teaching authority of the Bishops united with the Successor of Peter, which guides the Church’s ever deeper understanding of the Word of God as found in Holy Scripture and handed on faithfully in the Church’s living tradition. In addressing various moral issues, Sr. Farley either ignores the constant teaching of the Magisterium or, where it is occasionally mentioned, treats it as one opinion among others.

“[T]reats it as one opinion among others.” That’s a separate issue, of course, from whether, in Just Love, Farley arrives at conclusions that contradict official Catholic teaching. But taking the notification at face value, surely we may ask: is there any coherent opinion of the world in which official Catholic teaching on sexual ethics is not precisely one opinion among others? By any honest reckoning, that is in fact the state of things, no? One could certainly argue that the teaching of the magisterium (i.e. the pope and bishops) ought to be taken as authoritative. But in making that case, such a one would need to begin by acknowledging a range of opinions, of which official Catholic teaching is precisely one?

Well, you might think so. Such would seem to cohere with the approach advocated by David Gibson, writing for dotCommonweal that he will “settle for that deeper, broader, more satisfying—if crowded and complex and maddening—Common Ground, thanks.” Catholic Common Ground, the organization to which he links, has this as their mission statement:

The Catholic Common Ground Initiative, inspired by the call to be one in Christ, invites Catholics with differing views about critical issues in the Church to engage in prayerful dialogue for the sake of building up the communion of the Church.

Differing views about critical issues. Prayerful dialogue. Opinions among other opinions. Maybe this will continue to be possible; that would be a delightful future. But Gibson’s opponents have a point, too. He wrote his post in response to Bill Keller’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which Keller expresses astonishment at his own realization that he agrees with Bill Donohue, “the chronically peeved president of the Catholic League…” Not on most things, but on one crucial thing: Catholics unwilling to fall into line with the magisterium on matters great and small should leave it. Keller writes:

Much as I wish I could encourage the discontented, the Catholics of open minds and open hearts, to stay put and fight the good fight, this is a lost cause. Donohue is right. Summon your fortitude, and just go. If you are not getting the spiritual sustenance you need, if you are uneasy being part of an institution out of step with your conscience—then go. The restive nuns who are planning a field trip to Rome for a bit of dialogue? Be assured, unless you plan to grovel, no one will be listening. Sisters, just go. Bill Donohue will hold the door for you.

So too, I fear, will the door be held for anyone unwilling to see the teaching of the magisterium as one opinion among others. Because what is the alternative of holding an opinion as though it is one among others? Holding an opinion as though the fact of your being right entitles you to a world in which no one has the temerity to contradict you. The difference lies, precisely, in the status you afford to those pesky others. If you attend to others, you make a case for why your opinion is persuasive. You anticipate objections, and address them. You try to imagine why someone might disagree with what you’re saying. To do that, you ask, and listen carefully.

And if the positions you espouse are Christian ones, you operate knowing that, sometimes, earthly Christianity has failed spectacularly and fallen short of anything resembling love and mercy—often with the fatuous perpetrators believing all the while that they were doing God’s will. (If you won’t even concede that point, well, I don’t know what to say except that perhaps you might want to look into the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.) With that in mind, attending to others means going out and checking to see if maybe you’ve missed something—if the implications of your theological position might actually be hurting people, even though that’s the last thing you intended. After all, it’s happened before.

That last bit is not nearly as much fun as offering theological pronouncements. And, yes, that’s true for privileged theological liberals as well as privileged theological conservatives. It’s far more fun just to assert. To give no care to whether you may have accidentally enshrined your own way of being human as the way of being human. To yell “I am a follower of Jesus!” loudly and dramatically enough that it drowns out—if only to yourself and your close associates—the fact that you are also many other things that may sit uneasily alongside the descriptor of “Christian.” 

The only problem is that you will eventually earn the derision and ultimate dismissal of the folks you’ve made a virtue of ignoring. How many people are willing to spend a lifetime sitting through someone else’s monologue, particularly when they have other arenas in which their voices will be heard? Oh, some will, perhaps, as part of an anti-modern and/or anti-capitalist stance. (And certainly, both modernity and capitalism have their depressive and deadly aspects.) But not everyone wants to be a provocateur, let alone a provocateur looking back to a supposedly better past. (The past was not actually better for many groups of people! True fact!)

Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch, a renowned church historian at Oxford, predicts that the Catholic church will split over its ethical and social teaching, but also—and perhaps more profoundly—“the way authority was expressed.” That wouldn’t be unprecedented, of course. But is it inevitable? Well, gosh: on that question, it seems, there is a range of thoughtful opinion.