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Is Catholicism becoming a Sect?

The Atlantic has an interesting interview with Richard Sparks, a Chicago priest and bioethicist, who worries that conservative factions in the Church might be leading us out of the public sphere by insisting on being allowed to storm into the private.The background:

Emily Herx was a popular literature teacher at St. Vincent de Paul School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, until she used her medical leave for in vitro fertilization. Herx lost her job and says a church official called her a "grave, immoral sinner." When she appealed to Fort Wayne Bishop Kevin Rhoades, he told her IVF was "an intrinsic evil, which means that no circumstances can justify it." The federal government saw things a bit differently. Herx filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and won -- paving the way for a civil lawsuit.

Some questions after the jump...

Sparks: But with all of these questions, what's right in God's eyes and what's right in terms of civil law wouldn't necessarily be identical.Atlantic: Do you mean the laws of the United States aren't always in line with the Catholic worldview?Not exactly. Here's an example. There are some sexual activities, like anal sex, that used to be considered criminal by civil law and no longer are. Does that mean the majority of people in the state of Georgia think those activities are moral? Maybe not. But the way you'd have to police those activities would be like the Gestapo. It would mean looking into people's bedroom windows with cameras. And we don't want to get into that.Or look at capital punishment. There's a concern that people of color seem to end up on death row more often than white people. That may be because the system is prejudiced against them. So if we can't apply capital punishment fairly, should we apply it at all? Many would say no.If a woman had a spontaneous miscarriage and was living a raucous life, we wouldn't say she'd committed murder. It's partly a question of what's right and wrong. But it's also a question of how we would enforce such a law. What would the implications be of implementing it?In the Emily Herx case, the school did take an official stance against what she was doing and actively enforce it.That's right. And it seems to me the issues going on here are less about IVF and more about how that Catholic school handled someone on the borderline. The question would be, was this handled well pastorally? Was this handled well legally? Some people would say probably not.The school might argue that it has the right to uphold its own values in any way it chooses.Certainly. If you're going to work for a church, or for the Boy Scouts of America, any organization that has values, it's one thing to say that if you don't uphold them they don't want you as a leader. But when they get around to policing people's sexual lives, what is that organization doing?Let's try a few of these. If you have married couples using contraception, does St. Vincent check their medical cabinets? They wouldn't think of doing that. If some people aren't paying their taxes fairly, does the Church fire them? I don't think anyone ever does. What if they're pro-capital punishment? No.Similarly, if you hire a gay teacher who doesn't have a partner, is that okay? What if he does have one? Should he get fired? What if he doesn't have partner, but once in a while he goes to gay bars? Should he get fired then? If there's a Jewish teacher who doesn't believe in Jesus, can she be thrown out? For that matter, what about a Tea Party Republican who doesn't seem to care much about the poor? Do we fire that person from a Catholic faculty?The Catholic Church has always been a kind of universal church. Catholic means broad-minded and sympathetic. But now we're starting to act more like a sect. My worry is that applying these kinds of purity tests can lead to witch hunts.

About the Author

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious StudiesĀ at the University of Washington Tacoma.



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Fort Wayne Bishop Kevin Rhoades is probably not going to be pleased with the Reverend Richard Sparks for his comments in this published interview in ATLANTIC. I wonder if Bishop Rhoades will undertake some form of retaliation against Fr. Sparks.

I know less than most here about Richard Sparks. Based on this piece I do believe he would be quite the debate team partner. All one would be required to do is take responsiblity for ensuring sufficient drinking water was on the table. And the occassional, Yep!, of course.

Haven't we always been a sect in the U.S.A.?Aren't we treated like all the other denominations in the U.S.?I'm not disagreeing with this article that these aren't sectarian behaviors. I'm just wondering what exactly makes the Catholic Church not a sect, other than our saying we aren't one.

Since a sect usually begins as a splinter group or a protest group from within a religion, it would probably not be accurate to refer to the Roman Catholic Church as a sect. That does not mean, however, that the RCC has not adopted some characteristic elements of a sect, rendering it sectarian in some ways. For example, a sect usually draws sharp boundaries between itself and the larger entity or entities that it opposes. It has an "us" against "them" mentality. It also adopts insider/outsider language and tries to identify who is in and who is out. Sects also insist on the absolute fidelity and conformity of its members to what it holds and believes and is unwilling to compromise on those tenets. Often sects are egalitarian a criterion which the RCC does not meet. Also they usually depend absolutely on an individual leader who may be the inspiration for the sect. On some questions like the religious liberty issue the hierarchy does seem to have adopted sectarian language in the way it invokes the battle metaphor and exaggerates the threat from outside. Rallying the American Church against the government on this issue certainly makes the RCC sound sectarian.So the issue is a bit more complex than is the Church a sect or isn't it. The issue is compounded when you consider that, despite the official rhetoric, the RCC is not monolithic and is made up of Catholic of different stripes. Perhaps the various self-identifying groups should be considered as sects within the RCC.

If the ever-advancing emphasis on strict orthodoxy by church leaders and their conviction that rigid adherence to doctrine decidedly trumps pastoral concern each and every time begin to distinguish it more as a "sect," then so be it. Sects, by experience, are usually short-termed structures that fail to engender sustained membership. And with good reason. Despite all apparent evidence our leaders may be trying to tighten their ecclesial grip, the Church's 2,000-year history has indeed been universal and inclusive. And it will continue to be if we allow the Spirit to lead. This too shall pass.

The complaint and comments on it at various news sites make it clear that the bishop's concern was about scandal (in the technical theological-canonical sense), i.e., that the issue had become public, because she informed various people at the school about it, not so much about her private sexual choices. So:Msgr. Kuzmich told Herx that this situation would not have occurred had no one found out about the treatments, and that some things were 'better left between the individual and God.'Also, she was under a one-year contract. The diocese chose not to renew the contract. It's been a while since I dabbled in employment discrimination, but non-renewal of a contract doesn't sound, to me, like the kind of "termination" that could warrant an employment discrimination suit (notwithstanding the EEOC's involvementbut then the EEOC isn't always right, and their job isn't really to adjudicate the merits of cases). That's just how at-will employment goes (for the record, I'm not a fan of our system, since it subjects employees to the whims of employers with very little protection available to the employees, but I also recognize that that's our system, and it doesn't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon).That said, it would help to have a definition of "sect" before we try to apply the term to anyone. It's unhelpful to assume that everyone is operating with the same understanding of the word.

JC --About being a sect --I come from an area, south Louisiana, where the founders (Cajuns and Creoles) were Catholics. I see a very different attitude towards government in the people here from the attitudes of Catholics in areas where the founders were Protestant. There was terrible prejudice against Catholics in some areas (especially the Northeast), and the hurts and suspicions naturally still linger. I think that explains a lot about Cardinal Dolan. Cardinal George is from the midwest, I believe, but he worked in Mississippi, so he knows how terribly unfair an American government can be. Archbishop Chaput is part American Indian, so I'm sure he could tell us all some terrible tales about American government. But justified wariness and paranoia are two different things. Why are they behaving like this? This can only damage the Church.

Yes, a definition of sect would help. Collins:sect 1. (Christian Churches, other) a subdivision of a larger religious group (esp the Christian Church as a whole) the members of which have to some extent diverged from the rest by developing deviating beliefs, practices, etc.2. (Non-Christian Religions / Other Non-Christian Religions) Often disparaginga. a schismatic religious body characterized by an attitude of exclusivity in contrast to the more inclusive religious groups called denominations or Churchesb. a religious group regarded as extreme or heretical3. a group of people with a common interest, doctrine, etc.; factionThe SSPX fit the description, but the Catholic church doesn't. Although, maybe, one might try to argue that the bishops are becoming a sect of the Catholic church!

Claire:By (1), the Catholic Church is a sect. By (2), it's not. By (3), it both is and isn't, depending on what we're talking about specifically when we say "a common interest, doctrine, etc.; faction."That's my point. We have to decide which definition we're using, otherwise we end up saying, "The Catholic Church both is and is not a sect," which isn't very informative.

The bishop apparently publicly called her a "sinner." I though we spoke about "sinful actions" but for alll the usual theological reasons did not proclaim poublicy that someone was a sinner? Would he have had said that if she had divorced and remarried without annulment? And all the other examples...

David Pasinski:Pretty sure it was a priest who said that, and it was in a private meeting between her, her husband, and the priest. The bishop said that IVF is intrinsically disordered, gravely sinful, and thus not justifiable under any circumstances. I'm not sure whether he actually said, "You, madame, are a sinner." But even if he did (and I hope he didn't, because that would be kind of gross), it was in a letter in response to her appeal to the bishop.So, in short, not in public.

Pastorally, I think the church at the grass roots has been quite timorous over the last few decades about supporting/promoting some of the more difficult and counter-cultural of church teachings. There are a couple of reasons for that: one is that many pastoral leaders don't relish the prospect of stirring up controversy and creating difficulties or even crises in people's spiritual lives. The other is that a number of pastoral leaders don't actually accept various of the church's hard teachings, and find that they can't in good conscience promote them.I think there are many, many Catholics in the pews who genuinely don't know that the church would frown on IVF. It's not something that they would ever hear about in a homily or read about in a bulletin. There are no biblical passages that explicitly condemn IVF. There are people in their community that utilize IVF. So what could be the problem?I'd say that there isn't enough information here for us to know whether Ms. Herx should have lost or job or not. I am strongly against firing a church worker for a sin like abortion or IVF if the person repents of it and agrees that he can promote church teaching on that topic with a clear conscience. If we fired everyone who sins once, then we wouldn't have any teachers or pastoral leaders.On the other hand, if Ms. Herx thinks that what she did is right, thinks that church teaching is wrong on this point, and can't in good conscience teach her students any differently, then perhaps it isn't the right position for her.

The church can no longer fail to address the nuances in the advancement of science as regards reproduction. I have my own set of what I think is right or wrong regarding IVF. For instance, if a man and woman want a child and have failed to have one, I see no moral reason why the egg from the woman cannot be mechanically fertilized by her husbands sperm, and thereby implanted in her. However I do have a moral problem with sperm donors who father children they know nothing about. The list of what can be moral and immoral can go on and on. The church has FAILED to teach the membership about its stances on any of these subjects from the pulpit. Therefore, it is no wonder most (younger) people plead ignorance of the church's stance. Guidelines for a moral stance should be given by the church on some of these topics, and then the people must be allowed to exercise their own conscience. Ultimately, it is an individual's own conscience (responsibility) that is going to make or break him or her, and that should be their own call.

Why are we so obsessed with sects?

According to the article in ATLANTIC, Fr. Richard Sparks holds a Ph.D. in bioethics. This helps explain why he is as fluent as he is in explaining these issues.But most diocesan priests do not hold doctorates in bioethics.I do not think I ever heard a priest speak from the pulpit about IVF.However, I did hear priests discuss IVF in classroom courses.

jbruns: I would criticize Eric Bugyis a bit for singling out the word "sect" in the caption on this dotCommonweal thread in the way that he did. To be fair to Eric Bugyis, his question in the caption is indeed based on something that Fr. Richard Sparks says in the article.In the article and even in part of the article that Eric Bugyis quotes, Fr. Richard Sparks is clearly trying to set up a contrast between what he characterizes as a universal church, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a church that has purity tests and witch hunts. Yes, to be sure, Sparks himself uses the term "sect," which Eric Bugyis then picks up on in his caption.Clearly Sparks is going well beyond the case that he had been discussing and is considering other recent developments that he sees as related in spirit.But I don't think that Sparks was trying to prompt a discussion about how to define and explain a sect.Instead, I think he wanted to prompt Catholics, including Catholic bishops, to reflect on their attitudes about other Catholics, especially when there are differences in people's views of certain church teachings.Of course we can disagree with Sparks. We can take the side of the hardliners who seem to want purity-of-thought tests. But Sparks is asking us to reflect on the views and attitudes of such hardliners and on our own views and attitudes, even if we are not hardliners.

Somebody who knows more theology than I do, butt in here. Isn't "remnant theology" more accurate than this concept of "sect" that people are having trouble with? Of am I way off base?

The RCC may not be a sect - yet - but it is full of sects (" has purity tests and witch hunts"): the Orneryariates, Opus Dei, Cdl Newman Fdn, Legionnaires of Christ & Regnum Christi (almost any group with a Latin name), Catholic League (there MUST be someone in it other than Big Bad Bill), Catholics United for the Faitn (CUF), Confraternity of St. Michael, Keep the Faith, Inc., the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP), the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (ICRSS), the Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer, the Institute of the Good Shepherd (IGS), the Servants of Jesus and Mary (Servi Jesu et Mariae, SJM), the Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem (CRNJ), American Life League, National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the Canons Regular of Saint John Cantius (SJC), the Fraternity of Saint Vincent Ferrer, and the Personal Apostolic Administration of Saint John Mary Vianney (PAASJV).and - more and more - the USCCB.

I think the word "cult" is more loaded, and the word "sect" doesn't really seem to convey what he means, although far be it from me to put words in his mouth. I would say that the descriptive context to his use of the word sect was (1) the widening chasm between what the culture and Catholicism accepts/condones/tolerates and (2) the willingness of Catholics to snoop on and discipline members who "stray" into the mainstream. This would make the RCC more like, say, ultra-Orthodox Jews who not only very obviously reject mainstream values, everything from dress to hairstyle, use of contraception, etc., but who demand compliance with religious courts and such for matters like divorce, if someone wants to be a member in good standing. It's way more rigorous than being educated and preached at to observe values, and it is extremely and publicly judgmental at instances of failure. No doubt F. Sparks is abjured by members of his own church to call out others. It's not the same kind of church, and at least as far as the Amish and the Orthodox Jews are concerned, they long ago gave up (if they had ever tried) any effort to change the wider world to conform to their own narrow views.

Fr. Sparks has written for American Catholic on sexuality and has a book on the subject too ....Human Sexuality: 'Wonderful Gift' and 'Awesome ResponsibilityContemporary Christian Morality: Real Questions, Candid Responses

Jimmy Mac has got the right idea. Ask yourself this question: Have you heard of any Catholic bishops or priests do anything that could be characterized as a purity test or a witch hunt? Next, how about certain lay Catholics?

For the varied meanings of "sect" and short histories of the major ones, check out "sect" at the online etymological dictionary. It will tell you more than you probably want to know.

I think Barbara is onto something here where the church is becoming divided between Roman Catholics and Catholics. The former adhering to the morals dictated by the Pope, and the latter adhering to the Faith but with a smorgasboard of values. The word "catholic" then becomes a contradiction in terms. This concept has large implications for Catholic institutions and their hiring practices, as seen in the article that is being referenced. With the recent flap covered on CNN last night concerning the nuns in the US being called on the carpet by the Pope; this division seems almost inevitable.

Denise PhillipsIn 1978, Karl Rahner gave a lecture at the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, MA. In it he traced the development of the Church from its inception as a Jewish Church to a Gentile Church, then to a Roman Church and finally to a World Church, with Vatican II. Rahner went on to develop the idea in later writings. It did not occur to me until I read your post that Benedict's obsession with returning to a Roman Church may be a reaction to his old rival Karl Rahner, in whose shadow he himself had worked as a German theologian. A comparison of Ratzinger's ecclesiology as a hierarch to Rahner's ecclesiology would make an interesting doctoral dissertation.

Alan: Since I am not a theologian, I am unaware of that history. However, it does sound interesting and plausible. I agree that it would make good research. Thanks.

Thirty years ago I spent the spring semester in Rome. Archbishop Jadot, former Apostolic Delegate to the U.S. and then Pro-President of the Secretariat for Non-Christians, once invited me for lunch. He spoke excellent English with a slight Belgian accent. In the course of our conversation, he told me that the Vatican was going to be sponsoring a colloquium on sex. Seeing my surprise, he said something like: "Yes, there's a general agreement that we need a whole new approach to sex." We then discussed the matter for about fifteen minutes when something he said made me realize that he was talking, not about sex, but about sects! Up til then everything either of us said could as well apply to sex as to sects. It was a very funny experience, but I didn't tell him about my confusion until much later.

Rev. Komonchak: I can see where both topics could have common elements! Thanks for the story!

JAK: That's a good story. I had an experience like that once. I had used the word "sects," but the other person that I had said "sex."

Alan C. Mitchell: I don't know if anyone would want to write such a doctoral dissertation.However, I myself would commend you for pointing out Ratzinger/Benedict's "reaction to his old rival." I have long been fascinated by male rivalry. As pope, Ratzinger/Benedict is now king of the hill, at least until he dies or resigns. So as pope, he can make his mark in life against his former rival(s).But will the spirit of his former rival(s) live on despite Ratzinger/Benedict's mighty efforts to vanquish the spirit of his former rival(s)?

Correction to my post above to JAK: the other person thought I had said "sex."

Not a sect. A sect's leaders can deliver the 'goods' .The bishops have mentioned a two week marching season about religious liberty. before July 4th.. A sect could deliver at least 50% of its members to a life/ death action. Anybody expecting 35 million Catholics to march with the bishops in the next two months? I bet the religious sisters could out draw the bishops 10-1

By only 10-1?I'm not a betting man, so I won't take your bet.

By Ed's definition above, let me add the Knights of Columbus to my list of internal Catholic sects.

Postscripts:+ What is a cult? Cults: questions and answers Cults in American society: a legal analysis of undue influence, fraud, and misrepresentation Is Texas group a religious sect or clear-cut cult?

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