Roman Catholic theology declares that, in matters of faith and morals, the church is infallible; guaranteed free from substantive error by The Creator of the Universe himself. The church, in turn, maintains that abortion is a sin. What, then, does the church make of Catholics for a Free Choice, a national organization promoting the oxymoron that Catholics ought to be free to decide for themselves the morality of abortion?
Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of the Lincoln Diocese in Nebraska has an answer: excommunicate its members. As of yesterday, Roman Catholics in the diocese who remain in any of 12 prohibited groups — including Planned Parenthood, The Hemlock Society (which supports suicide), Call to Action (a group that supports the right of priests to marry) and even Masonic organizations — are excluded from the sacrament of the Eucharist and from the full privileges of the church. Excommunication. Wow. It seems so extravagant, so “middle ages.” I like it — though not for any religious or even ethical reasons.
I’m not a Catholic so I don’t labor under delusions of anybody’s infallibility, much less that of a bureaucracy as vast as the Roman Catholic church. Besides, the church itself didn’t recognize the pope’s infallibility until the First Vatican Council in 1870. That decision was no piece of cake, either. The notion was hotly contested, albeit by a minority of opponents. Nevertheless, the final decision was a 433-to-2 blowout and Pope Pius IX walked away with the prize. The doctrine has its limits, of course. Only under certain conditions is the pope considered endowed by God with perfect judgment, and only in matters of faith and morals. In the opinion of even the strictest Catholics, then, the pope is no better than the least of us at predicting, for instance, the outcome of horse races.
Nor do I have strongly partisan feelings about any of the issues addressed by the organizations in question — other than that they are far too complicated to be resolved to my satisfaction by dogmatic prescriptions. For instance, when it comes to abortion, I don’t have a particularly belligerent attitude one way or the other. I’m not persuaded by the hyperbolic proposition that it is the contemporary moral equivalent to the holocaust. On the other hand, despite the foaming of some doctrinaire activists, obliging adolescent girls to get permission from their parents before having an abortion is not an unmitigated assault on women’s reproductive rights. Like many people, my opinion of abortion is subject to innumerous variables such as the viability of the fetus, the reason for the procedure and the feelings of other principal players in the drama. Making the distinctions can be as messy as a full blown hysterotomy. For instance, is using abortion to avoid certain genetic or congenital defects merciful, or does it set the grinning ghost of Hitler to dancing his famous little victory jig in celebration of our cold-blooded use of technology? Hint: it’s not a yes or no question.
Despite my near absence of earnest feelings about the Roman Catholic church, abortion, assisted suicide and, most of all, Masonic organizations, I still find the Bishop’s solution beguiling. The logic behind excommunicating public skeptics seems orthodox enough. Catholics clamoring for the right to moral self-determination are heretics. They are an irritating foreign substance inside the organism of the church. It’s no surprise the church would spit them out like a cat gagging on a fur ball. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against heresy. Insofar as it derives from the Greek hairesis, meaning, among other things, to decide for one’s self. I’m all for it. But for a Catholic, constructing one’s own moral imperatives is a prohibited extravagance. Catholics who assert their right to choose for themselves what they believe about moral issues are like meat eaters who call themselves vegetarians. They are mistaken.
It all boils down to a matter of faith. By definition, Catholics accept the infallibility of the church and, therefore, all the rest of the church’s dogma. They have my sympathy. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard described the faithful as theological long-jumpers who leap across the abyss separating faith from reason. I’ve never enjoyed that kind of metaphorical athleticism. To me, the virgin birth of Christ and his resurrection from the dead represent yawning gorges of insurmountable breadth. Perhaps, though, the most difficult Catholic doctrine for me to swallow is “transubstantiation:” the belief that, when ingested, the Eucharistic bread and wine are actually transformed through the power of God into the body and blood of Christ. I can imagine what would happen if I tried to take communion. The priest would give me a swig from the chalice and then remind me, quoting Christ, “This is my blood.” My eyes would bug out and I would involuntarily spit, spraying the priest with a pink mist.
I understand that faith is difficult. It’s clearly too much for me, but then, I don’t call myself a Catholic. Catholic members of Planned Parenthood, Catholics for Free Choice and the other groups in conflict with church doctrine also appear to lack the requisite faith. They practice a cafeteria Catholicism, picking and choosing from what they see as a canonical smorgasbord. Bruskewitz’s message to them is, if you don’t swallow everything the church dishes up, you’re not a Catholic. He has a point. Faith isn’t meant to be convenient, or even always appetizing. In the early days of the church, it could get you roasted on a stick or fed to lions. But that was a long time ago. To members of contemporary, politically progressive groups, faith in the infallibility of a white male hierarchy must seem hopelessly obsolete and unfashionable. I suspect many of these people are less interested in submitting to some antiquated dogma than they are in pushing the church toward becoming a “progressive” social and political force. Otherwise, they would do what countless other groups and individuals with heretical notions have done throughout history: start a new church. Where do they think Protestants came from?
Charles Foster’s column appears in the Daily every Thursday.