The Obama administration’s ruling requiring certain Catholic institutions like hospitals and universities to offer health insurance covering birth control prompted a furious response from the Catholic bishops. The bishops argued that this was a violation of conscience since birth control is contrary to teachings of the Catholic Church, as expressed in Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae.”
What interests me as a philosopher — and a Catholic — is that virtually all parties to this often acrimonious debate have assumed that the bishops are right about this, that birth control is contrary to “the teachings of the Catholic Church.” The only issue is how, if at all, the government should “respect” this teaching.
As critics repeatedly point out, 98 percent of sexually active American Catholic women practice birth control, and 78 percent of Catholics think a “good Catholic” can reject the bishops’ teaching on birth control. The response from the church, however, has been that, regardless of what the majority of Catholics do and think, the church’s teaching is that birth control is morally wrong. The church, in the inevitable phrase, “is not a democracy.” What the church teaches is what the bishops (and, ultimately, the pope, as head of the bishops) say it does.
But is this true? The answer requires some thought about the nature and basis of religious authority. Ultimately the claim is that this authority derives from God. But since we live in a human world in which God does not directly speak to us, we need to ask, Who decides that God has given, say, the Catholic bishops his authority?
It makes no sense to say that the bishops themselves can decide this, that we should accept their religious authority because they say God has given it to them. If this were so, anyone proclaiming himself a religious authority would have to be recognized as one. From where, then, in our democratic, secular society does such recognition properly come?
In our democratic society the ultimate arbiter of religious authority is the conscience of the individual believer. It follows that there is no alternative to accepting the members of a religious group as themselves the only legitimate source of the decision to accept their leaders as authorized by God. They may be wrong, but their judgment is answerable to no one but God. In this sense, even the Catholic Church is a democracy.
But, even so, haven’t the members of the Catholic Church recognized their bishops as having full and sole authority to determine the teachings of the Church? By no means. There was, perhaps, a time when the vast majority of Catholics accepted the bishops as having an absolute right to define theological and ethical doctrines. Those days, if they ever existed, are long gone. Most Catholics — meaning, to be more precise, people who were raised Catholic or converted as adults and continue to take church teachings and practices seriously — now reserve the right to reject doctrines insisted on by their bishops and to interpret in their own way the doctrines that they do accept.
The bishops’ claim to authority in this matter has been undermined because Catholics have decisively rejected it. The immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope Paul VI meant his 1968 encyclical, “Humanae Vitae,” to settle the issue in the manner of the famous tag, “Roma locuta est, causa finita est.” In fact the issue has been settled by the voice of the Catholic people.
– Professor Gary Gutting in the NYT, February 15, 2012
Dear Professor Gutting,
A quick Google search discovers you are a professor of philosophy at the ostensibly Catholic institution of Notre Dame. I will say this about your editorial — you are right about one thing — the bishops’ claim to authority will continue to be ignored by the Catholic faithful if they continue to allow Catholic institutions like Notre Dame to employ so-called philosophers like you. Of course, given the reasoning on display in this atrocious opinion piece, if I was running a secular philosophy department I would run into your office and demand your resignation letter.
Here’s the deal — just because folks choose to ignore or disobey a particular rule or teaching of an institution like the Catholic Church doesn’t mean those rules suddenly don’t exist or that the teaching is no longer valid. It just means…hmmm…how do I say this tactfully…it means that folks simply choose to ignore or disobey a particular rule or teaching of the institution. To put this in the Catholic context, here are the wonderful words of my own Bishop, Cardinal George: “What isn’t always understood is that the Bishops of the Church make no attempt to speak for all Catholics; they never have. The Bishops speak for the Catholic and apostolic faith, and those who hold that faith gather around them. Others disperse.” Now apparently you really want to disperse — that’s fine, but don’t claim in a NYT column that you are Catholic and implicitly suggest (using your authoritative position at Notre Dame) that you know anything about basic Catholic doctrine. Otherwise, you wouldn’t write howlers like “since we live in a human world in which God does not directly speak to us, we need to ask, Who decides that God has given, say, the Catholic bishops his authority?” I mean really, couldn’t you go visit a basic Catholic apologetic website for a primer before sitting down at your computer and beginning to type? You don’t have to agree with the arguments, but you don’t, in fact, “need to ask” who has decided that God has given the Catholic bishops (and the Pope) final and authentic teaching authority when it comes to questions of Biblical morality.
This is obviously inconvenient for many Catholics, but then so is the Lord’s command to forgo lust and to love your enemies — but that is why the Church in her wisdom established the Sacrament of confession and why Christ died on the cross for our sins in the first place — we all fall short of God’s commands. I also like the bit about “in our democratic society”. What silliness — as if the Church’s moral teachings shift from one nation-state to another depending on its form of government (‘well, back in the day in England, when we lived under Kings, it was O.K. to listen to the Pope, but now we have to listen to our ill-formed consciences!’) It is an oxymoron to say that Catholic who are serious about their faith (“people who were raised Catholic or converted as adults and continue to take church teachings and practices seriously”) can simultaneously “reserve the right to reject doctrines insisted on by their bishops and to interpret in their own way the doctrines that they do accept.” We have a different word for those people (who “reserve the right to reject…”) — they are known as Protestants or more formally in the Catholic Church as heretics.