November 13, 2013 (crisismagazine.com) –A recent Quinnipiac poll found that some 53 percent of Catholics who attend Mass weekly, and some 65 percent of those who attend Mass less frequently, would favor a law legalizing so-called same-sex “marriage” in spite of the Church’s clear teaching that any true marriage must always and necessarily be between a man and a woman. The same poll cited almost identical percentages, 52 and 66 percent respectively, favoring the ordination of women, even though Blessed Pope John Paul II foreclosed that option in his 1994 Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which confirmed that the Church’s teaching forbidding female ordination was “definitive,” and was “to be held by all the faithful.”
The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue questioned the honesty of this poll, primarily because among those who attend Mass less frequently than weekly, it did not distinguish those who no longer attend Mass at all, and hence could no more represent “Catholic” opinion than, in Donohue’s comparison, a teetotaler could be considered a drinker. Bill Donohue has a PhD in sociology and understands polling; he pointed out that “every poll ever taken” verifies that Catholics are more likely to agree with the Church’s teaching in the degree that they actually practice their religion and attend Mass faithfully.
So we can perhaps question whether these startlingly elevated figures in favor of gay marriage reflect valid Catholic opinion. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a considerable gap today between what the Church teaches and what some Catholics apparently believe and follow. We know from other sources, anecdotal as well as statistical, that there is a divergence, sometimes wide, between what the Church teaches, and what many self-identifying Catholics are prepared to accept and affirm today. The really disturbing number of Catholics whom other polls show rejecting the Church’s teaching against contraception, for example—many of whom evidently resort to the use of it as well—represents a notable case in point. Open dissent from the Church’s teaching on birth control has been a regrettable feature of the Church’s life for nearly a half century now; and since this dissent has rarely been corrected by Church authority, but rather has been typically passed over as if it didn’t really exist, the same attitude of dissent has sometimes extended to the denial of other doctrines—which Church authority has again usually not gotten around to correcting.
There is, for example, the now quite notorious phenomenon of the pro-abortion politicians or public figures who readily and cheerfully identify themselves as Catholic while blandly declining to admit that their public support for such contemporary moral evils as legalized abortion, government-subsidized family planning, or gay marriage could in any way be in conflict with the Catholicism they claim to profess. Today we have before us practically an entire generation of “Catholics” who apparently think that no moral teaching in particular any longer attaches to the profession of the Catholic faith. They feel able to espouse and promote virtually any or all contemporary moral aberrations and evils as if this had no bearing whatsoever on the authenticity of their profession of Catholicism.
In recent years, for example, the two Catholic lay people in immediate succession of the U.S. presidency, Vice President Joseph Biden and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, could regularly be counted on to go along with practically every new manifestation of the culture of death being adopted by the government—as if such an attitude somehow came right out of the old Baltimore Catechism. Vice President Biden once even threatened mayhem with his Rosary towards anybody questioning his Catholicism.
Similarly, Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy, who with his majority opinion recently opened the door to the recognition of same-sex unions legalized as marriages by various states, betrayed not the slightest hint of concern that his position might represent any kind of contradiction with his baptismal faith. Then there are the cases of New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley, both of whom are frequently mentioned as possible 2016 candidates for national office, even while both of them pointedly and proudly promote grave moral evils as public policy. The same supposedly amoral attitude can unhappily be predicated of scores of contemporary Catholics, who evidently sincerely do believe that being a Catholic no longer entails the acceptance of Catholic moral teaching; somehow that teaching is no longer supposed to apply today.
In this atmosphere, what Pope Francis said in his recent interview published in various Jesuit publication thus really does not apply to the real situation which confronts the Church in today’s decadent society and culture. The pope’s remarks inspired worldwide sensational media reports claiming that he thought that Catholics and the Church were currently “obsessed” with combating the contemporary evils of abortion, contraception, and gay marriage; and the idea was that Catholics should soft-pedal these “obsessions.” What the pope actually said—in the context of discussing how the faith should be proclaimed to the world today—is that “we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods” (emphasis added). That is certainly true enough in the context of evangelization.
But what quickly got lost in the controversy stirred up by the pope’s statement was the truth about the extent to which Catholics and the Church were in fact insisting “only” on these issues in today’s typical public discourse. Certainly the Church does oppose abortion, gay marriage, and contraception—they are objectively evil. But they are most distinctly not “only” what the Church mainly “insists” on today. The “obsession” concerning them, in fact, seems to be rather one belonging not to the Church but rather to today’s secular media people themselves, who almost never fail to raise these same issues whenever they are reporting on practically anything concerning the Church. Apparently they can neither understand nor abide that the Church should actually continue to condemn what the world has instead decided to condone and even to celebrate; and so the media reports were almost bound to treat any mention of these issues at all by Pope Francis in the way that they did treat them. Clearly, for them the retrograde Church has simply got to reconcile herself and come to terms with the modern world!
In his interview the pope himself, however, went on immediately to confirm that the teaching of the Church on the contemporary moral evils he made reference to “is clear, and I am a son of the Church.” He accepts and affirms these teachings. How this added up to the conclusion that he somehow thought that the Church should no longer be so “obsessed” with them was never very clear in the various media reports.
The fact of the matter, of course, is that neither Catholics nor the Church are “obsessed” with these issues in the way that the typical media reports asserted. The grave evil of abortion, certainly, has rightly been opposed by the Church from the time that it got legalized. The American Catholic bishops have regularly issued statements opposing it and have also, admirably, sponsored and promoted events and activities opposed to it; but none of this has ever been a first priority for them; nor has it in any way been an “obsession” of theirs; they have mainly just lent their support to a pro-life movement that grew up and got organized quite independently of them.
And as for contraception, it represents a different case entirely. Far from being “obsessed” with fighting it, Catholics and the Church have rather been largely passive and accepting of it in American society, even if at least some Catholics never resorted to using it. Beginning back in the 1960s, the U.S. government has supported Planned Parenthood and similar organizations with literally millions of taxpayer dollars with no discernible public opposition from Catholics, certainly none from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). During those same years you had to be a Catholic of a certain age ever to have heard a sermon directed against contraception. Virtually any mention of it at all similarly disappeared from confessionals, classrooms, marriage counseling, textbooks, and most Catholic newspapers and periodicals. It was not until 2009 that the USCCB finally got around to issuing a pastoral letter morally condemning contraception by name, thereby reminding everybody that this had been the official teaching of the Church all along.
Only now, with the current U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring virtually everybody and most institutions to purchase and carry health insurance providing gratis contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs have Catholics and the Church been obliged to stand up and fight against contraception. Fortunately, the Catholic bishops and a strong segment of the Catholic people apparently do understand that we do have to fight this government requirement, which obliges us to violate Catholic teaching with a positive act (of payment). It is no longer abstract or theoretical: we have to fight. But in no way is it any “obsession.”
Similarly with same-sex unions legally declared to be marriages, Catholics are strictly obliged to oppose these aberrations, if only because of the penalties progressively being attached to any unwillingness to accept the gross falsehood that these homosexual unions are marriages. At least one Catholic adoption agency has already had to close down rather than accept that children must obligatorily be placed in same-sex households. Caterers, photographers, florists, and such are similarly and more and more being required by law to service these same-sex “weddings,” and this type of abuse will no doubt continue unless today’s increasing recognition of same-sex unions as marriages is effectively stopped.
Thus, as the Quinnipiac poll suggests—even if we do not have to agree uncritically with its very high figure of 53 percent of Mass-going Catholics accepting of gay marriage—not only are most Catholics not “obsessed” with fighting gay marriage; a significant number of them apparently approve of these ersatz liaisons. At the very least it seems plain that many Catholics are prepared to go along with today’s decadent culture in this and in a number of other ways.
What this points to is a deficiency in the Catholic body which has long been evident. Nor is it with regard only to gay marriage (or ordination) that many Catholics today no longer accept and follow what the Church teaches. So-called “cafeteria Catholicism” appears rather to be an established way of life for many Catholics. Pace Pope Francis, the moral teachings of the Church are evidently not “well known”—or at any rate, that Catholics are supposed to believe and follow them does not seem to be universally operative today. Ironically, these Church teachings do seem to be very well known—and bitterly resented—by the media people rushing to exploit the words of Pope Francis. But it is only within the Catholic body itself that they seem to be unknown, or at any rate too often unheeded.
Thus, the task of the Church today in the era of the New Evangelization entails considerably more than just proclaiming to the world the positive truths of the love of Jesus, as Pope Francis has so eloquently proposed. The task of the Church today must also include a revitalized catechesis of her own faithful in her authentic teachings; and this catechesis must not only include treatment of what and why the Church teaches what she teaches in the moral area; it must include and insist on the truth that profession of the Catholic faith requires that those who profess it must accept and follow what the Church teaches.
Far from being “obsessed” with a few moral teachings to the detriment of the whole faith, then, as the sensational media reports on the interview of Pope Francis had it, the Church must imperatively fight those very same evils of “abortion, gay marriage, and contraceptive methods” while not insisting “only” on them!
Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).
Re-published with permission from Crisis Magazine in which this article was first published.