Sincere but Unfortunate
by Dr. Robert LaRochelle
Earlier this week, a piece of writing was brought to my attention which has caused considerable reaction out there in the blogosphere. In his Parchment and Pen blog, C. Michael Patton published an entry under the rather intriguing title of ‘Embracing Doubt’ or Why ‘Roman Catholic scholarship‘ is an Oxymoron.’ Mr. Patton’s position, developed and corroborated in numerous other entries, is that one cannot be a real theological scholar and also be truly Roman Catholic because Catholics must always yield to the authoritative teaching of the church, a teaching which can be invoked as ‘infallible.’
To be honest, I consider this entry to be highly sincere but most unfortunate. In my view, it is important for Roman Catholics and Protestants to engage in respectful, ecumenical dialogue and to look for ways in which we can learn together, pray together and serve together, in Jesus’ name. It is also my conviction that we must search for an ‘ecumenical center’ while recognizing that individuals, in conscience, will make their own individual decisions regarding their own church affiliation. It is my preference that both Catholic and Protestant theologians, educators, and writers look for ways to focus on what we share in common, even to the point of making clear that what we have thought really must divide us, under the scrutiny of closer examination, in fact, actually need not!
The issues Mr. Patton raises are personal ones for me. I am an ordained clergyperson and have served as a pastor for over ten years in the United Church of Christ. For the first forty five years of my life, I was a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Over the course of my professional life, I worked in Catholic parishes and a diocese in such capacities as Theology instructor, Youth Minister and Director of Religious Education. For nine years, I served as a Permanent Deacon, a member of the Roman Catholic clergy, and in that capacity baptized nearly three hundred individuals and officiated at a rather large number of weddings and funerals as well.
My wife, with whom I will be celebrating our thirty first anniversary in just a few days, remains a member of the Roman Catholic Church, as do our three children, one of whom works at a college as a Catholic campus minister. I am the beneficiary of a wonderful education in Catholic schools which includes exposure to magnificent Catholic teaching and scholarship in two excellent Jesuit institutions, Holy Cross and Boston College.
My eventual decision to leave the Catholic Church and my service in a Protestant denomination has really deepened my passion for that ecumenical center I have mentioned. As a matter of fact, I explore this in detail in my forthcoming book Crossing The Street, which will be released this coming Spring by Energion Publications. In my book, I explain my own decision to leave Catholicism, one that did, for me, center on the issue of authority. After much struggling with the multiplicity of issues involved, I made the decision that I am really a Protestant and thus felt deeply that it was time for me to move.
Yet, having said this, I also realize that other people who struggle with some of the same issues I did have decided to remain within the Catholic Church. Where I differ with Mr. Patton is in my strong belief that one can harbor doubt and question authority within Catholicism and yet remain a Catholic. Some of the Catholics whom I most admire are those who either have or do!
In his sweeping assertion that one cannot be scholarly and a faithful Catholic, Mr. Patton, in my view, misses three very important realities:
- Many changes in the Catholic Church were as the result of theologians questioning what was current and historic church teaching. The major changes in worship, ecumenism, Biblical understanding, the priesthood of those other than the ordained, the church’s understanding of the relationship between religion and science, among many others, teachings promulgated at Vatican II and in the workings of the church in subsequent years, came as the result of ‘cutting edge’ work by theologians within the church, individuals such as Teilhard de Chardin, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner and others whose theological positions truly ‘pushed the envelope’ of Roman Catholic convention.
- Even in some traditional ‘authoritative’ documents, the influence of dissenting Catholic theologians is clear. The great church authority test in the late twentieth century was the reaction of Catholic theologians and ordinary Catholics to the church’s teaching on birth control as expressed in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. It should be noted that prior to writing the encyclical, the Pope appointed a commission to study the question. One could argue that, though Pope Paul VI reiterated the traditional position in this Papal decree, the document also included a theological perspective expressed by those ‘ on the other side’ of the Pope’s conclusion. This same dichotomy is notable in the 1976 Vatican Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics. Even more telling, this ‘dissent’ on these questions and others is operative in both the behavior and attitudes of Catholics today who remain members of the church while holding positions different from the ‘magisterium’ on such issues as well as on others, including, yet not limited to, women’s ordination.
- Most importantly, in the personal sense, Catholic teaching has clearly held to the concept of the primacy of the INDIVIDUAL CONSCIENCE in decision making. Church documents, including those of Vatican II, speak eloquently of this reality. I think it is fair to say that there are Catholic theologians who would see their dissent on particular teachings and interpretations as an exercise of their consciences.
So, in summary, as one whose movement into Protestantism and practice of my faith has been deeply enriched and enhanced by bold and exciting Catholic scholarship, I find Mr. Patton’s argument unconvincing. I do admire, however, his strong advocacy of the importance of theology within the Christian community of faith. It is my firm belief that true ecumenical dialogue between Protestants and Catholics really suffers when theological ‘indifferentism’ is seen as the norm. The idea that ‘it makes no difference’ and that all belief systems are ‘really the same’ is both inaccurate and does no justice to the cause of deeper understanding and shared contribution to both Christ’s church and to God’s world.
While I applaud Mr. Patton for his passion for theology, so obviously born of a love of God and a passion for truth, I see this blog entry as both falling short and also doing unnecessary collateral harm to the necessary cause of Christian unity!
Rev. Dr. Robert R. LaRochelle holds a Doctor of Ministry from Chicago Theological Seminary. He is pastor of the Congregational Church of Union, Connecticut, UCC, and is the author of Part-Time Pastor, Full-Time Church (Pilgrim Press, 2010) and the forthcoming book Crossing The Street (Energion, 2012). He writes a blog at http://wwwpastorbob.blogspot.com
I applaud Rev. LaRochelle’s very measured and reasonable response to Mr. Patton’s unfortunate and misinformed claim that a Catholic cannot be a theological scholar. Like Rev. LaRochelle, I also commend that Mr. Patton does not attack theology in order to favor spirituality, something often done these days. Certainly there is ample room for both approaches to our desire to live cognizant of our dependence on God.
This attack on Catholicism is misinformed in two very specific ways. It seems to overlook that the main currents of Western theology have been nurtured by Catholicism, and it seems to ignore the nature of the doctrine of “infallibility” as formulated by Vatican Council I, in 1870. The Council’s declaration makes very clear which declarations of the pope are infallible. Catholic canon law defines very specifically the different degrees of authority in different pronouncements issued by the Vatican. As it happens, since 1870 no statement of the Pope has been issued with “infallible” authority.
Catholic theologians are among the most rigorous and creative theologians around these days. They are continually pushing the boundaries of our understanding of Christian life in the world under God further and further ahead. Theology is never “done”. It is always to be done in attempts to answer the new questions asked by contemporary believers. In these efforts Catholic theologians are among the best. They have no restrictions imposed by “infallible” statements which, as I said, are non-existent.