Not everything is true-and-false

In a recent column at National Review Online, Catholic commentator George Weigel criticized the media’s tendency to view most Catholic issues through a lens of conflict between “liberals” and “conservatives.” He cast blame for this flawed narrative upon the late Fr. Francis X. Murphy, whose New Yorker magazine columns of the early 1960s provided American readers with a fascinating window into the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council almost as they happened.

Mr. Weigel insists Murphy “concocted the cowboys-and-Indians hermeneutic” of the Church for the sake of engaging his New Yorker readers, but then goes on to confirm in the same piece that it was indeed an important dynamic at Vatican II.  (Fr. Robert Barron, no drinker of mainstream media Kool-Aid, recently explored the same Vatican II dynamic here, distinguishing “the keepers of the traditional, scholastic form of Catholicism” from the “‘progressive’ council fathers” who propagated the ideas that are now “commonplace and the permanent achievement of Vatican II.”)    

Weigel not only acknowledges the reality of this conciliar conflict after chastising Murphy for conconcting it. He also confirms it as a reality in our own day, and strongly reinforces it, by his insistence that the Catholic left—or, in his mellifluous term, “the party of ultimate fungibility”—is inconsequential, defeated, and dead. (He makes these observations so frequently in print nowadays that one wonders who he is trying to convince.)

Exacerbating still more the conflicts in today’s church is his assertion of “the fact that the Catholic Church is about true-and-false, not liberal-and-conservative.”  In many ways, that statement is more wishful thinking than reality. And I empathize, in the sense that it would be nice to be able to declare without doubt that anyone who does not see all things the way I see them are clearly wrong. But the more challenging reality is that the Church is, and must be, both “true-and-false” regarding many important matters and “liberal-and-conservative” (though more helpful terminology might be chosen) regarding many other important matters. One problem in contemporary Catholicism is that too many fail to acknowledge the two and distinguish them properly. 

Certainly there is bedrock truth, which is revealed by God and demands our assent, and it’s the role of the Church’s magisterium to proclaim and defend it. In a culture riddled with relativism, this is not an enviable job. But not every answer, even within Catholic faith and life, is true or false. Moreover, there are many questions that surely do ultimately have true or false answers upon which the Church’s magisterium has not definitively weighted in. In cases such as these, discernment of the answers is left open to the faithful.

The Washington Post article to which Weigel refers provides an obvious example of such a circumstance. Reporting on the Arlington Diocese’s move to begin requiring catechists to sign a profession of faith in order to carry out their ministry, the article notes that “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.” (The “top doctrinal official” goes unnamed, though one presumes the reference is not to the diocesan bishop, who, of course, would in fact be that.)

Now, denying the divinity of Christ, his real presence in the Eucharist, or the Immaculate Conception of his mother surely does make me an unorthodox Catholic. One might even say such convictions would make me not Catholic. But Archbishop Lori’s reading of the First Amendment and its interpretation by federal courts absolutely does not fall under the category of truths divinely revealed, and disagreement with them should cause no one’s orthodoxy, faithfulness, or love for the church to be questioned. 

There are a multitude of issues and questions about which one could say the same. For example,

  • Catholic teaching leaves no question that an unborn fetus is a living, human being that has a right to life that ought to be respected by its parents and by society and protected by law. But what is the best strategy for fostering such respect and protection in the circumstances in which we find ourselves today?
  • The Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II have made clear that there are important elements of truth and grace in other religions, and that non-Christian believers can and do draw closer to God through them. But how does God’s grace work through these religions in which Christ—who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life—has no explicit place, and what place do they have in the will and the plan of God for the salvation of the world?
  • Christ’s own teaching and prayer, and so much more of what makes up God’s revelation to humanity, makes clear that God reveals himself as Father. But what precisely does God want us to understand about himself in this way, what understandings would be inappropriate and off the mark, and in what ways might God be understood as mother? 

In each bullet point above, the first sentence makes a statement about an idea that one could legitimately regard as (to return to Weigel’s terms) a “true-and-false” matter in the mind of the Church. But the second sentence in each point draws out questions that the magisterium does not answer definitively and about which faithful Catholics might legitimately have differing ideas (ideas which might well be considered more “liberal” or “conservative”). 

And yet in each case, some prominent Catholics, even members of the magisterium in some cases, have insisted that those who fail to see things as they themselves see them fail in their orthodoxy or love of the Church. (We see evidence of this in several of the criticisms leveled at Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God by the USCCB Committee on Doctrine last June.)

George Weigel, in his NRO column, writes that “a Church that insists that its leadership teaches authoritatively is going to be easily portrayed as ham-handed, insensitive, out of step.” And that is surely and sadly true in our day.  All the more reason that our leaders (episcopal or otherwise) should not help the Church’s enemies by actually being ham-handed, insensitive, and out of step in the way they wield or understand that authority.