Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
The other day a reader wrote:
It seems crazy to me to believe that God supernaturally protects the church against errors in faith and morals in very narrowly defined cases, but allows an almost unimaginable culture of abuse and corruption. That makes for a very very weird, legalistic conception of God, IMO.
And the idea that we should defer our opinions on sexual morality to a church whose abuses and corruptions are in precisely that area .... That seems even more crazy.
The depth and extent of the sex abuse crisis is simply astounding. Not in the percentage of priests who were wicked, but in the way the institution covered it up, attacked the accusers, and enabled the abusers to abuse again. It shows that something is horribly, deeply, disastrously wrong at the core of the RCC.
And we’re supposed to believe a bunch of tortured moral analysis from those same guys?
Humanae Vitae would have us believe that there is an important moral distinction between a married couple temporarily delaying conception through NFP and the same couple doing the same thing with some barrier method. It rests on a very weird set of assumptions and arguments. And we’re supposed to accept that from these guys?
It strains credulity beyond the breaking point.
There seem to me to be several notions blended together here. Let’s tease them apart.
First, is the (to me, baffling) claim that saying that the Holy Spirit guarantees that we idiot humans do not muck up the content of the gospel is “legalistic”. I have no reply to that, because I cannot grasp what my reader means. Legalism is the notion that one can be saved by keeping the law, rather than relying on grace. What that has to do with anything here I cannot fathom. Certainly, as Catholics we do not believe that a Pope who transmits the Tradition accurately is automatically bound for heaven. They’ve all done that. They can’t help it: they have been given the charism of infallibility. But they can still be scoundrels and fail to practice what they preach. So how this amounts to legalism, I simply don’t know.
Second, there is the notion that the Church’s teaching stands or falls with the faith and morals of the Pope and bishops. That would be true—if the teaching of the Church was their personal invention and private property. But, of course, it’s not. It’s a Tradition: a thing they are handing on from others which they themselves did not invent and can neither add to nor subtract from. Bishop, including the Pope, are not prophets speaking from some personal revelation or charism of sanctity. They are merely custodians of the Tradition, regurgitating stuff that the Church has always said. They may not believe, practice or even understand it fully to do that.
Exhibit A: the first Pope, Peter. The guy promulgates the Church’s teaching that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ and not by works of the Mosaic law, one of the absolute pillars of the Catholic faith. In short, he is the guy who tells us that you can’t be saved by legalism. Next thing you know, he’s chickening out on his own inspired teaching at Antioch and Paul has to chew him out and get him back on track (Galatians 2). A Judaizer of the first century could have (and some probably did) say, “It seems crazy to me to believe that God supernaturally protects the church against errors in faith and morals in very narrowly defined cases, but allows the teachers of faith and morals to then ignore their own teaching and avoid eating with Gentiles.” Ironically, such an objection would bind us to… legalism since it would “prove” that we shouldn’t listen to an unstable two face like Peter and his weird teaching!
Paul, in contrast, believed that when the Pope and the Church in council taught something, that something remained true even when the Pope wimped out on it later on due to the fact that he was, in the words of Chesterton, a coward, a shuffler and a snob: in a word, a man. And, of course, we believe the same about bishops who fail to uphold the Church’s teaching.
Humanae Vitae is an expression of the Church’s teaching. It is not Paul VI’s personal opinion. It is basically a restatement of the same thing the Church has always said: God is the author of nature and we can cooperate with the nature he has created, but not thwart the nature he has created. It’s the same logic which says, “If you are fat, eat less and exercise more, but don’t try to lose weight by reinstituting the Roman vomitorium.” The former cooperates with how God made you. The latter tries to strip mine pleasure while defying what God created the body to do.
In short, grace perfects, not destroys or defies, nature. This is not something Paul VI invented in 1968, and though every bishop in the world were in a state of mortal sin it would not change that fact one iota. You won’t get an argument from me about there being something rotten in the Church—just as long as you don’t mean “In those people over there, not me, of course.” The something rotten in the Church is, precisely, seen whenever any one of us finds an excuse to reject what the Church teaches when it touch on something dear to us. That’s not something confined to bishops who ignored revelation and the sense God gave a goose to protect pervy priests. It’s also something we righteous laymen participate in when we use the sins of bishops as an excuse to pretend that some piece of the Tradition we dislike can be safely ignored. The old-fashioned term for that is ad hominem. Ad hominem works when the argument rest on the personal sanctity of the person making the argument. The used car salesman who says, “Trust me” can be refuted if you produce his rap sheet. But the math teacher who says that 2+2=4 is not refuted when you show him to be a drug dealer. The truth that bishops hand along does not depend on their personal holiness, any more than the truth of our salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ was disproven by Peter’s chickenhearted failure to live by his own preaching at Antioch.
A useful thing to recall on the evening our entire Church remembers Peter’s cringeworthy declaration: “Though everyone else deny you, I will never deny you!” Paul’s advice is still sound: “Let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:13)