Hi. Though I am not Christian nor specifically Catholic, I have found this presentation from the blog "Integral Catholicism" quite, well, integrative, Integral.
It was a nice surprise for me to feel the call for and a written demonstration of allowing for a plurality of perspectives with then the challenging work of integrating them. I was particularly surprised, probably partly due to my uninformed and skewed knowledge and biases regarding the bible, how biblical quotes did do justice to the integral challenge. Excuse me.
To try to bring this post of mine into alignment with the postmetaphysical theme, I will make a perhaps token pointing to an honoring of the subjective, and of the need to make space for "also"s and the naturally messy "sortof"ness that comes when many diverse perspectival bits are considered.
Human beings have the right and the duty to follow dictates of their conscience. “Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person”. [CCC 1738] Freedom of conscience is an essential aspect of free will and a key component of the divine plan of salvation. “God willed that man should be left in the hand of his own counsel… By the working of grace the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom in order to make us free collaborators in his work in the Church and in the world.” [CCC 1730, 1742]>>
As a Roman Catholic Eucharist Minister and prayer group leader I feel compelled to write this open letter expressing deep concern over the troubling evidence of a profound schism and deepening conflict within the Church. In light of recent events there is now little doubt that the Church is in deep crisis. It is in precipitous decline in Europe and shows the beginnings of a similar decline in the United States. Traditional Catholic monasticism (and the rich contemplative tradition it cultivated) is dying out and being reborn outside of the Church. As more and more Christians find themselves rejecting traditional Christian moral teachings on many issues, the Church hierarchy has redoubled its efforts to reassert its authority in civil policy judgments and reign in free thinking Catholic Ministries. Many Catholics, feeling disillusioned and disenfranchised, have left the church, stopped attending mass, or stopped listening to Catholic clergy. Many of us have recently suffered through inflammatory sermons over civil policy issues in our parish churches. This schism is feeding into the polarization of our larger society that has crippled our government and incited incendiary rhetoric throughout the nation’s media and pulpits. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is trouble brewing within the Church- a house divided against itself cannot stand.
The emerging schism is typically framed as a conflict between absolutism to the right of the schism and relativism to the left. Absolutism asserts that there can be only one authoritative standpoint in moral discernment. This standpoint is based upon universal, eternal, non-negotiable laws as interpreted by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Relativism asserts that our moral principles are social constructs that can and should change over time, reflecting evolving societal values and worldviews. This conflict has erupted into a raging battle in the arena of civil policy deliberation. Given the severity of this escalating battle it is important to examine the implications of the Church’s teachings on these matters. In the process we will discover that both mindsets yield important insights, and that the roots of the conflict can be illuminated by a deeper investigation of the rational thought process.
The Church’s claims to absolute moral authority on civil policy issues is based on the belief that the “natural law” -universal, non-negotiable principles, established by God- can clearly and unambiguously guide moral determinations in the domain of civil policy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states: “The natural law states the first and essential precepts that govern the moral life… (it) expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil… The natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, because it is human reason ordaining him to do good… (it) is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It provides the necessary basis for the civil law with which it is connected, whether by a reflection that draws conclusions from its principles, or by additions of a positive and juridical nature” [CCC 1954-1959].
The church makes a clear distinction between the domain of natural law and the domain of civil law. Natural law is the universal and eternal “light of understanding placed in us by God at the Creation” [St. Thomas Aquinas]. Civil law is a historical domain ruled by the affirmations of the U.S. constitution, the multi-faceted morass of legal statutes, and the multicultural diversity of ethical beliefs of U.S. citizens. Application of natural law within the domain of civil law requires a process of discernment that depends upon many factors that differ from one individual to another. In order to discern the will of God “man strives to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy Spirit and his gifts.” [CCC 1788] The process of discernment is, first and foremost, a rational process, and as a rational process it is rooted in each individual’s personal knowledge and “data of experience”. “Application of the natural law varies greatly, it can demand reflection that takes account of various conditions of life according to places, times, and circumstances” [CCC 1957], confronting us with a “situation that makes moral judgments less assured and decisions difficult.” [CCC 1787] The guidance of the Holy Spirit is constrained by the rational thought process which is biased by our knowledge, experience, beliefs, attachments, values, ideals, and prejudices.
The Church teaches that all human beings are subject to “errors of judgment” in moral discernment. One of the principal sources of error is the “assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience”, [CCC 1792] which is the assumption that one’s knowledge is complete and impartial and one’s vision is all encompassing so that there is no need to seek the “advice of competent people” or to factor the discernments of others into one’s personal deliberations. As we live in a society of ever increasing complexity, the moral discernments we face in the civil domain are becoming increasingly complex and difficult, making the “advice of competent people” ever more crucial to the discernment process. True discernment is impossible without the desire for complete and impartial knowledge. For example, a discernment of the morality of new auto emission standards would have little value without consultation with a scientist who, having studied the available data and mathematical models, can give a competent estimate, to the best of human knowledge, of the magnitude of the human impact of the projected reductions in carbon loading of the atmosphere. Any discernment based on misinformation, even with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is invariably nonsense. Unless one has achieved the station of prophethood, even the Holy Spirit cannot circumvent the law of “garbage in, garbage out”.
We live our lives embedded in increasingly complex networks of political, sociological, and environmental systems. Every civil policy declaration has repercussions that propagate throughout this intricate network, generating positive and negative impacts in the lives of countless individuals. For a complex civil program such the Affordable Care Act (ACA) there are possibly hundreds of factors to consider and carefully weigh (guided by the Holy Spirit) if one is to make a proficient moral evaluation . There are no universal principles that dictate how these various factors must be weighted- all decisions will be rooted in one’s own knowledge and experience. Because each person’s knowledge and experience differ (constituting that person’s unique point of view), each person, guided by the Holy Spirit, can be expected to arrive at a unique discernment when applying natural law in the complex realm of public policy. Even small changes in perspective can, by shifting the weighting of the various considerations and values, result in large variations in the final judgment. Each of us is like one of the proverbial blind men in a room with an elephant, attempting to determine the nature of the beast. One feels the tail and cries, “it’s like a rope!” Another feels the leg and cries, “it’s like a pillar!” Another feels the belly and cries, “it’s like a barrel!” Clearly all of the viewpoints arrive at different discernments, and none are definitive.
The issues that face us today are so complex, and the volumes of information at our fingertips are so vast, that acquiring full knowledge of all the important considerations involved in any moral judgment of civil policy is virtually impossible. This process of efficiently weighing a multitude of considerations and values with an overabundance of information is very challenging- so challenging that most Catholics balk and simply cherry pick one or two factors that suite their disposition and rest their case. By ignoring all contrary considerations and focusing on a single facet of the deliberation one can fabricate the appearance of straightforwardness and the illusion of certainty.
For example, in order to “ensure that Americans nationwide get the high-quality care they need to stay healthy”, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandates that most private health plans cover important preventive health care services. These services include estrogen-progesterone treatments which, in addition to their application in preventing pregnancies (which for many women can be life threatening due to pre-existing conditions), are the most reliable and effective treatment for cervical cancer, ovarian cysts, menopause complications, and a host of other women’s health issues. In light of the Church’s teaching that it is the “moral responsibility of nations to guarantee access to health care for all of their citizens, regardless of social and economic status or their ability to pay” [Pope Benedict XVI], many Catholics, guided by the Holy Spirit, have discerned that support for this aspect of women’s health care is consistent with natural law, and that the ACA’s wall of conscience protection surrounding religious institutions is adequate to allay the moral concerns regarding contraception. The Catholic Health Association has endorsed this position. On the other side of the schism a group of bishops led by archbishop Timothy Dolan arrived at a very different discernment by ignoring all human health issues surrounding this health care mandate and focusing exclusively on theological principles concerning contraception. As a result they have declared that the ACA mandate represents an unprecedented attack on religious freedom, called for a “great national campaign” of political and legal protest, and instigated a flurry of federal lawsuits, despite the fact that the Obama administration continues to work with the Catholic Health Association to address the remaining moral concerns of fellow Catholics. Outrage at the bishops’ apparent disregard for women’s health, wisdom, and conscience has ignited widespread “war on women” allegations, helped alienate many churchgoers, and exacerbated the emerging Catholic schism. The ongoing conflict has inflamed acrimonious attacks from the Church’s pulpits and the national media. Incited by the bishops’ call to arms, the Knights of Columbus and various Catholic priests on Fox Network News have called upon Catholics to rise up in defense of religious liberty, implying the need for armed conflict and martyrdom. Moderate Catholic bishops were “very upset” by archbishop Dolan’s “headlong rush to litigation”, expressing concern that certain groups “very far to the right” are co-opting the contraception rules debate in pursuit of a right wing political agenda. An increasingly large number of Americans are viewing archbishop Dolan’s campaign as election-year partisan rabble rousing, undermining the Church’s credibility on moral issues.
This firestorm highlights the crux of the growing Catholic schism. One the right side of the schism a group of bishops asserts that their standpoint on the ACA mandate represents the non-negotiable Word of God. On the left side a large group of Catholics who, due to their unique knowledge and experience, have arrived at different discernments and assert that multiple points of view can and should be considered in moral discernments regarding civil policy. A bishop, whose knowledge is dominated by abstract theological principles, and a Catholic health care professional, who is a competent authority with a wealth of personal experience in the realm of health care, can be expected to arrive at different discernments regarding the moral issues surrounding health care. It is crucial for the integrity of the Church for Catholic authority figures to recognize that BOTH of these discernments are expressions of natural law inspired by the same Spirit. Sermons and other public statements that attempt to rally Catholics to support one faction against the other violate the conscience rights of all Catholics and incite division and discord within the Church.
The Church teaches that respect for the conscience rights of others is a cardinal rule of moral discernment. “Faced with a moral choice… charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience”. [CCC 1789] Human beings have the right and the duty to follow dictates of their conscience. “Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person”. [CCC 1738] Freedom of conscience is an essential aspect of free will and a key component of the divine plan of salvation. “God willed that man should be left in the hand of his own counsel… By the working of grace the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom in order to make us free collaborators in his work in the Church and in the world.” [CCC 1730, 1742] This same Holy Spirit -that descended upon the apostles at Pentecost- is working in us here and now, bestowing a diversity of spiritual gifts upon each of us as members of the mystical body of Christ. The body of Christ has many members, and the perspective of every member is important, particularly the forgotten, the rejected, and the downtrodden. “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee… Nay much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: and those members of the body, which seem to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor… that there should be no schism in the body.” [1 Cor. 4-25] Each of us is endowed with unique spiritual gifts and, by virtue of these gifts, offers a unique perspective on the relationship between the natural law and the affairs of daily life. Thus each of us has an important role to play in the education of the conscience faculty of the body of Christ.
Our Catholic beliefs are intended to bring about the communion of the faithful and join us all in intimacy with Christ. “Unity is the essence of the Church” [CCC 813]. Unfortunately the same beliefs can be used to drive a wedge between those Catholics who share our views and those with a different perspective, creating division and discord within the body of Christ. Jesus warned his disciples against getting caught up in moral crusades [Matthew 5:39-48]. The societal “evil” we feel most compelled to fight is typically a projection of that part of ourselves that is unforgiven, so that in fighting perceived evils we are actually fighting the rejected and repressed parts of our own personality [Matthew 7:1-2]. Jesus instructs us to focus on clearing the barriers to our own vision rather then disparaging the viewpoints of others [Matthew 7:3-5]. We are to give the perspectives of others the same respect that we would expect them to give ours [Matthew 7:12]. This lesson appears to be particularly difficult for those in positions of religious authority. Jesus enraged the clergy of his own religion by ignoring their theological principles in order to serve the health care needs of the people [Mark 3:1-6]. As peacemakers we are called to rise above the distinctions and differences that divide us, but all too often we fall back into defending our theological turf, using our beliefs to fortify the ramparts of our self-image.
Although the Church teaches that the natural law is non-negotiable, every proposition of civil law is and must be negotiable. In a democratic nation all civil policy deliberations must encompass many distinct points of view, each with unique knowledge, values, and perspective on the natural law. We are called to be peacemakers in this process, which will require the humility to accept that our point of view is not the same as God’s and the maturity to acknowledge alternate viewpoints without feeling attacked. We must avoid the “assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience” by recognizing that we all “see as through a glass, darkly” [1 Cor. 13:12], i.e. our knowledge is partial and our perspective is biased. Recalling the analogy of the blind men and the elephant, it should be clear that an unbiased and comprehensive discernment requires the integration of numerous diverse perspectives (with deference to competency in the domains of consideration). The Mind of Christ is vast enough to simultaneously embrace a multitude of diverse perspectives, including those that, due to our limited knowledge and perspective, appear to be contradictory.
The escalating conflict and growing schism within the Church is a clarion call for more enlightened leadership. If the Church is to remain whole we must let go of our crusades, turn our swords into plowshares, and once again embrace the wisdom of all members of the mystical body of Christ. The Church’s enemy is not in civil society -it is in ourselves- in our fear, in our defensiveness, in our condemnation of our bothers and sisters in Christ. “Distrustful souls see only darkness burdening the face of the earth. We prefer instead to reaffirm all our confidence in our Savior who has not abandoned the world which he redeemed.” [Pope John XXIII] Fighting to coerce others to conform to our faction’s interpretation of natural law is a disruptive waste of time and energy that feeds the problem more then the solution. Salvation of the world is in God’s hands. “We firmly believe that God is master of the world and its history. But the ways of his providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God face to face, will we fully know the ways by which -even through the dramas of evil and sin- God has guided his creation to that definitive Sabbath rest for which he created heaven and earth.” [CCC 314] Now, more then ever, is the time to refocus, unite the Church, and rededicate ourselves to the eternal Truth of the Word of God revealed to us by Jesus Christ: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” [Matt 25:34-36]