A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Shrugging toward St. Peter's.

Last August, just five months after Pope Francis was elected, Damon Linker emerged from the balcony of St. Wieseltier's to dump a vat of cold water on the gathering masses anxiously awaiting the doctrinal liberalization of the Catholic Church. Progressives who thought Francis's pastoral gestures heralded the end of the celibate priesthood, or the reversal of church teachings against contraception, birth control, and sex outside of marriage, were deluding themselves, Linker argued. "Even an analyst normally as sober and sensible as John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter," he wrote, "has gone so far as to conclude that nothing less than a Vatican 'revolution' is underway. It isn’t."

Perhaps the New Republic's editors thought Linker's observation that a new pope wasn't about to upend Catholic doctrine amounted to big news. For my part, I don't know anyone who's expecting Francis to abrogate Humanae Vitae. So I found the piece largley unobjectionable, apart from Linker's misperception of the extent to which a pontiff can remake the Curia in his preferred image. "A new pope," Linker claimed, "has comparatively little freedom to remake the ideological cast of the Roman Curia." He "must choose new appointees solely from the existing ranks of cardinals and archbishops, all of whom will have been promoted to their positions by his predecessors." Well, yes. But that doesn't mean the world's bishops are carbon copies of the popes who appointed them. After all, the man who made Bergoglio archbishop of Buenos Aires was John Paul II.

Of course, Linker's TNR piece was written five months ago. Today at the Week, he's back with a reassessment of liberal Catholic hopes for the new pope. Have the past five months changed his opinion of them, or of Francis's pontificate? The shakeup at the Congregation for Bishops? The Vatican's attempt to get parishioners to weigh in on controversial church teachings like gay marriage and contraception? The fact that almost none of Francis's first cardinals are professional theologians, and most are from the global south? What about that time he baptized the baby of a couple who were married outside the church--a first for a pope? Not really.

"Nothing in the past few months...has led me to change my mind or revise my analysis — except in one respect. After reading an endless stream of gushing commentary by liberal Catholics on Pope Francis, I'm beginning to wonder if they ever really cared about reforming doctrine in the first place." You see, Linker appeared on Boston's NPR affiliate in September to discuss the pope, and when it came time to take calls, one listener challenged Linker's assessment of the progressive-Catholic agenda.

Describing herself as a progressive Catholic, she dismissed my skepticism about the likelihood of Francis reforming church doctrine. "Doctrine for a Catholic, now, is not even an issue," said Trish from Kentucky (you can listen to her beginning at 24:43). "Catholics do not care about doctrine," she said, adding, "It's irrelevant. It's a non-issue for Catholics."

Linker hadn't considered that possibility. He "had assumed all along that liberal Catholics wanted to liberalize Catholic doctrine." But here comes Trish, shaking up Damon's liberal-Catholic assumption matrix by saying she wasn't expecting doctrinal reform, and had no intention of skipping Communion.

For Linker, this is "an interesting development that raises important questions for the Catholic Church in the United States." Because, he writes, Trish "could have said that she feels a tension between the pope's warm and welcoming statements and the church's doctrines on contraception and divorce," and that she'll be praying for the church to revise those doctrines to be more welcoming to Catholics who find them unpersuasive. "But Trish doesn't hold this view," Linker says. "She's completely indifferent to what the church teaches across a range of topics, and she thinks her fellow American Catholics agree with her."

Please do listen to Trish. She's talking about contraception mostly, and then throws in divorce and annulment for good measure (an issue Francis happens to be looking at). Is she offering a nuanced description of the problem? Not so much. Could her understanding of doctrine use some help? Of course. (Thank goodness the program wasn't about the hypostatic union.) But does it sound to you like she's dismissing all doctrine? Apparently it does to Linker, because his dramatic walkaway line is "When does a church without a doctrine cease to be a church at all?"

Give me a break. Does Linker--one-time editor of First Things--really not know that large majorities of Catholics disagree with church teaching against contraception, even practicing Catholics? According to a February poll, just 27 percent of weekly Mass-goers say it's "morally wrong." Thirty-three percent of weekly Mass-goers agree that contraception is "morally acceptable," and 30 percent say it's "not a moral issue."

In both his Week article and his TNR piece, Linker confuses two kinds of Catholic: the activist and the average Mass-goer. Yes, among the Catholic chattering classes you'll find no shortage of advocates for this or that doctrinal position--some liberal, some really not. Lots of practicing Catholics are members of, say, Call to Action or Catholic Advocate. But most Catholics who show up every Sunday are basically with Trish: the morality of contraception doesn't weigh on them. They probably don't have a problem with the idea of married priests--until, perhaps, you ask them to pay for it. Women priests? Fine by them. Gay civil marriage? Live and let live. But are many of them pining for the day the church changes its teachings to suit their positions, eagerly expecting Francis to grab the wheel and jerk it left? No. They're Catholic. They know the bark of Peter doesn't turn on a dime.

In other words, they are ecclesiastical realists. Damon Linker should pay more attention to them. He might learn a thing or two.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

There's a big difference between Catholics becoming comfortable with the idea that parts of the Catechism are wrong but unlikely to be changed soon and deciding that the Catechism is completely irrelevant. This isn't a great situation, but it doesn't have to lead to disaster.

What Francis does is put these issues (abortion, contraception, divorce) into a larger context: the sacredness of every life, the deep spiritual growth and love that can grow from the lifelong commitment of marriage, the importance of forgiveness.  He shows us the way to a Church that listens and guides, rather than one that rules and condemns.

I don't expect doctrine to change under Francis, but I do expect it to be more deeply understood so that it enriches our lives with the mysteries of who we are and what our relationship with God is.  Then our decision regarding abortion, contraception, divorce etc will be made with much more gravity and thought.  And these decisions will be made freely (without the threat of eternal fire or excommunication held over them).

I can respect why US Catholics are okay to be patient in waiting for doctrine to change, but what about Catholics in places like the Philippines where the church’s ban on contraception is literally a life or death issue? For years the church has impeded the Reproductive Health bill from taking effect, and as a result, new mothers are kept from adequate maternal care and parents are forced to send away children that they cannot afford to feed. For the sake of alleviating their poverty and suffering, shouldn’t we push for the bark of Peter to turn more quickly?

I understand what Trish means and I think you captured it very well, Grant.  Now I admit that I actually do expect that we will see some doctrinal changes, though over time and not all at once.  I can imagine a modification to divorce, that makes it less a legal process, and more of a pastoral one.  And that understands that just as in anything, human beings sometimes fail and are looking for forgiveness and a clean start, not to determine that a "true marriage" never existed.  Most, though not all, divorced couples I know actually did love each other at one point.  And did enter into marriage with every intention of keeping their commitments.  For some reason or some combination of reasons, they failed.  On subjects like contraception, it is just not an issue.  to most Catholics, good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones, contraception is about as relevent as the old question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  That's not what calls them to the Church and the Eucharist.  On gay marriage, its pretty much the same thing.  It is largely a case of live and let live.  We, in the pews, have found that gay couple care about the same things we care about.  Keeping them in the tent and their kids in the tent is important.  Which leads me to one more point.  Trish didn't say it, at least I don't think she did, but among the average, run of the mill Catholics, this idea of a smaller purer church that some have advocated, never made much sense.  I think Francis absolutely has changed that vision.

I do hope for real doctrinal change under Francis, though I'm not sure how realistic that hope is.  Doctrine on stuff like contraception and divorce are almost completely ignored by lay Catholics.  I sincerely doubt that any reframing of those issues will cause Catholics to stop using birth control or  to apply for annulments.  German theologians recently made a ststement in response to the Vatican's survey, saying that real change is needed in these areas  ...

Does Linker--one-time editor of First Things…

I don’t see the relevance of the First Things reference, nor do I think that assertion is quite correct.

How about Trish. I remember, a seminarian when moral theological thought was changing on contraception, eagerly sharing with our families this new thinking. The response? "We have taken care of that a long time ago." So there. 

At the same time for those more in touch with the clergy, this has been a grueling question. Bernard Haring, perhaps the most famous Catholic moral theologian of the 20th century, took care of them with his belief that there was no sin in contraception when done in a generous attitude. The censuring of Haring and Humanae Vitae sent this kind of Catholic away. 

Francis will not pronounce on contraception. But by the time he is finished there will be no need. It will be a fait accompli. 

Doctrine is an important component of the Christian faith, but not the only one. Our doctrinal beliefs distinguish Christians from Jews and Muslims. They also distinguish Catholics from Mormons. To be dismissive of doctrinal beliefs is to assert a belief system of one's own making. There's a lot of that going around if you haven't noticed. The pope as we know is a Catholic who espouses catholic doctrine. But by placing such an emphasis in his own actions on the love of God and neighbor, some are left to wonder about the place of other doctrines but not folks like Trisha who opines that Catholics don't care. But when I notice the pope's loving, merciful, and compassionate actions my principal concern is about how well I'm living the law of love. In facing this challenge I also can't help but notice that all other teachings must be understood in the context of that law. The church has already changed because of the witness of Francis. Laying unrealistic expectations aside, I'm waiting to be surprised by what comes next.

Thanks, Grant.  Would suggest that Linker and company miss what Francis is doing and, in fact, have turned the journey of faith upside down.

Some thoughts:

- "Be disciples; not followers"   (there is something *wrong-headed" about putting *doctrine/dogma* at the core of our faith journey)

- Discipleship requires a community based upon conversion and encounter  (note - these are two words that Francis repeatedly uses in various forms, stories, images, etc.)

- Who do we encounter?  (not a doctrine; not a dogma - but the person of Christ)

- The encounter leads to *conversion* and conversion leads to *mission*  (note - there is no reference to doctrine or dogma here)

Thus, Vatican II or take Francis stating that the most important papal document over the last 50 years was Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi (on mission).  Paul/Francis summarize what VII recognized - that the 500 years of the Trentan catechecism approach failed to reflect the journey of faith.  (it isn't a contest on memorizing a list of doctrines/dogmas; it is about living life with faith, passion, that moves one to serve, go on mission, be generous & loving).  Evangelii Nuntiandi led to Medellin and later, Aparecida (strongly influenced by Francis)

The model was that *encounter* involves both teaching and listening - they are equal (as opposed to a classroom approach filled with doctrine/dogma).  VII defined the teaching role of the magisterium as also one of starting by listening to both the people of God on a journey but also encountering the culture (not in a negative way but in a positive way)

Thus, VII/Paul VI saw the faith journey method best achieved in RCIA - we are lifelong learners.  Yes, it starts with baptism but that commits us to a lifelong journey of encounters and conversions as we live our mission. It calls for *full, active, conscious* participation in liturgy, in mission, in everu stage of faith.  This journey and encounters are intuitive, emotive, not just academic.   (note - there is no list of doctrines or dogmas here - conversion is about God; not church.  An over-reliance upon lists creates a church that is a *country club with rules, entrance regs, passwords, exclusions)

This is what Francis lives; it is what he reveals by his own life experiences.  His focus is not on *fallen away* catholics but on all of us and all of the world.

It is not the usual liberal vs. traditional intermural war.  It sees the *parish* as the new school that teaches via liturgy, scripture, church teachings, and mission.  This journey is not limited to a barren list of doctrines/dogmas.  (interestingly, this way of looking at things was formulated by Josef Jungmann, SJ, pastoral theologian in the first half of the 20th century (and the author of The Mass, History of the Roman Rite).

If anything, in a western world where the second largest group are indifferent or unengaged catholics, Francis' approach makes sense.  Linker lives in the past and is fighting the previous war (he just doesn't know it).


If doctrine doesn't actually get changed, but the only change is in the stule with which it is addressed, then the discrepancy between what's on the books  (that same-sex attraction is disordered, that divorced/remarried people can't take communion, etc.) and the way Catholics actually live will be a testament to the irrelevancy of doctrine.  Francis cannot just side-step this problem .... yes, Ignatian spirituality is about an encounter with Jesus and the missioning that flows from that encounter, but creating integrity of doctrine and peoples' lied lives is part of what mission is all about.

George Weigel writes, pretty cogently in my view, about Pope Francis and the possibility of doctrinal change here.  

I largely agree with Bill deHaas that Pope Francis is focused on mission and conversion.  I would add that doctrine does have its place in that approach - it has its role to play in discipleship.  Discipleship is more than cultivatng a relationship with the person of Jesus.  It also requires that we follow what Jesus taught.  Otherwise, we're left with an emotional and experiential faith with no content to guide how we live our lives.  In such soil hypocrisy is sown.  The man who has an intensely emotional conversion experience but doesn't reform his life is almost proverbial - in fact, it's scriptural, cf James 1:22-25.   We need both dimensions in our faith life: a personal relationship with Jesus, and a commitment to live as Jesus taught us.  Jesus was a teacher and we who profess to be his disciples need to follow his teachings, as mediated to us by the church.  

Jesus will also return as judge.  We will be judged.  Some of the things on which we will be judged, Scripture tells us, are 'social justice' things: did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned?  The church's social doctrines help us to follow these teachings - and needless to say, many of us have 'gaps' in how we live our lives in regard to these social doctrines.  But that list from Matthew's parable isn't exhaustive.  We will also, Scripture informs us, be judged on how we conduct our personal lives: do we lead lives of lewdness, debauchery, evil desires?  Do we pray?  Do we practice hospitality?  Are we good stewards of the gifts God gave us?  Doctrines that pertain to our personal moral conduct are also areas where many of us have 'gaps' in our lives.  I expect that some of the hot-button issues mentioned under this topic - contraception, illicit marriage, et al - fall into this category.

If we don't see these teachings and this eventuality of being judged as unbridled Good News, that may say a good deal more about us than it does about doctrine or the church, and brings us right back to what Pope Francis is exhorting us to: mission and conversion.  These 'gaps' in our lives, brought to light by the church's doctrine, are conversion opportunities for us.  We need to repent of our sins, to convert, to reform our lives - but to what?  To the things that Jesus taught us - to the doctrinal truths that the church teaches.  That to which we need to convert is a holy life.  Church doctrine gives us the signposts for such a life.


the way Catholics actually live will be a testament to the irrelevancy of doctrine.

​Actually, I think Francis would refer to it as the devil leading God's people astray.

"Discipleship is more than cultivatng a relationship with the person of Jesus.  It also requires that we follow what Jesus taught.  Otherwise, we're left with an emotional and experiential faith with no content to guide how we live our lives.  In such soil hypocrisy is sown."

Jim P. --

Right!  To think that we can dispense with doctrines is to think that Jesus didn't teach us anything abou how to live our own particular lives.  Sure, "love" is most important, but what does that mean??  Without specific answers, your guess is as good as mine.  The problem is to discover what Jesus meant by His more specific teachings, and that's doing theology and doctrine.  Otherwise the Church is just a network of people who happen to know each other and enjoy the same hymns.

The contraception question is divisive, It pits (95% of) Catholic women against the official teaching and against those members of the Catholic church, usually of the hierarchy, who are vocal supporters of the official stance.

Trish is right that the doctrine does not matter in the couple's bedroom, but it matters for other reasons, because of its impact on church life. It gets in the way of unity and of recognition of authority. It weakens the magisterium's  credibility and wastes people's time, discussing contraception instead of more important questions. It's a distraction. It's been subverted to a political tool against Obama. It puts the people who are in between (say, clergy who are supposed to teach the magisterium but who do not support the ban on artificial contraception) in a difficult position and encourages hypocrisy among the clergy. It turns people away from the sacrament of confession, since how can one confess as a sin what is officially claimed to be sinful but not believed by people to be sinful? Every time a couple uses contraception, they express a choice to go against the magisterium, so it trains people to ignore official teachings. 

In France it is never talked about and even active, committed young Catholics are unaware of Humanae Vitae and do not know that artificial contraception is condemned (they think HV has to do with abortion.) That is not such a bad solution. If the official teaching is not known, then it won't have the negative consequences that I listed above. To get there, the Catholics who support artificial contraception  could just decide that it's not open for discussion and drop the topic.

Jim P, your comments about church teachings about contraception, etc (what do you mean by "ilicit" marriage BTW?) imply that you believe that these are teachings from Jesus himself rather than being teachings from men who are simply reaching one set of interpretations - interpretations that are not be accepted by all - not accepted because it's very likely that they are wrong.

As mentioned in the article, the evidence is overwhelming that THE church (the 1.2 billion not the few thousand male celibates who define teaching) rejects the teaching on contraception, and in the west at least, several other teachings are rejected - as in not "received".  This lack of reception of selected institutional doctrines is not a rejection of God's teachings, but of men's. The church is not God, nor can the church "read" God's mind perfectly. The church has erred in the past and it would be pretty surprising if it is not erring today on some matters, especially when it fails to "consult the faithful on matters of doctrine", as advised by Newman.

But, even though some issues are non-issues as far as most western Catholics are concerned , such as contraception, there is still a need to change the teachings. This is because the institutional church expends enormous resources - time, money, influence (and attempts to influence) fighting contraception. In the US it is squandering what little moral capital it has left after the sexual abuse scandal on the contraception battle. It's such a waste.  The US situation is well known, but the institutional church also wastes scarce resources in other countries and in the world to deny women the (God-given) gift of modern contraceptive methods. The battle against contraception in the Phillipines costs lives, as Jamie Manson has pointed out - not just in contributing to the poverty level conditions that lead to higher rates of maternal and infant/child mortality there and elsewhere, but in an increase in illegal abortions - which, the way they are done there, also lead to higher death rates among women.  The church has opposed the distribution of condoms in poor countries, both for contraception and HIV/AIDS prevention. In a couple of nations, the maternal mortality rate due to complications of pregnancy and/or birth for women is as high as 1 in 8.  Too many unsafe pregancies for too many women who lack good medical care and whose malnourished bodies cannot handle too many pregnancies in close succession safely nor bring about healthy births and healthy babies.

Then there is HIV/AIDS and the church should really hang its head in shame for its wholesale attempts to obstruct condom distribution and education where it is most needed. At least some of the millions of deaths from AIDS, including of children who contracted the infection in the birth canal, would have been prevented if condoms and education could have reached enough people. Yet the church's opposition led to tying the hands of many groups who were trying to help prevent some illnesses and deaths  - Catholic Relief Services among them, but also many other programs funded by USAID who were forbidden to provide condoms and education during some of the Bush administration years. I am very close friends with a woman who has spent more than a decade in Africa fighting HIV/AIDS, and I sure wish some of those men in their ivory towers in Rome would spend a few hours listening to her stories. Their world is so abstract, so theoretical, so very far removed from the "real" world. They most definitely do need to get off those pedestals and start experiencing real life until they too have the smell of the sheep - and maybe the smell of illness and death - in their noses.  So the rich in the west can simply ignore the teaching, but the damage done by this teaching to the poor is immense and it must be changed. Francis is an advocate of the poor. Let's pray that at some point he wakes up to the harm that the church's teaching has done and continues to do.

The church also needs to open access to all seven sacraments to women. It is shooting itself in the foot by choosing to operate with half a brain. The damage to the church is bad enough, but the wider spread damage is even worse. The Roman Catholic church is by far the largest, most visible, and most influential christian church. It gets press that nobody else, not even the Dalai Lama, gets. And its example is appalling - it teaches that women are inferior to men and may only act in those roles that men "approve" - in the world, in the home, and especially in the church. Its example is a sort of permission ship for millions of men to justify how they treat women also. After all, the model and premier example of teachings and actions that reinforce the notion that women are "less" and women's roles are "properly" defined by men is  none other than the Roman Catholic church. And so men believe they can treat women exactly the same way that the church officially "blesses" as "Truth".


If the important thing is following what Jesus siad in the gospels, then the church is as guilty as anyone else of ignoring certain sayings, from the command to call no one 'father'  to the command to give away all one's money to the poor (when *will* the Vatican sell off all that artwork and real estate?) .

What is left out of this discussion is the reality that dogma/doctrine develops and changes, period.  The basic, core truth is always there but how a specific church time period and cultures *express* a doctrine/dogma changes.  This is what folks such as Linker completely miss or reject - for them, it is either/or rather than both/and.

Thanks to Ann above - reception is also a forgotten or rejected theological concept by folks such as Linker.  Would also suggest that he would not accept the notion that leadership needs to start with listening - not applying doctrines.

Keep in mind - our church dogmas developed - it took decades, if not, hundreds of years for the church to arrive at certain dogmas.  How quickly we forget that.

Jim P, your comments about church teachings about contraception, etc (what do you mean by "ilicit" marriage BTW?) imply that you believe that these are teachings from Jesus himself rather than being teachings from men who are simply reaching one set of interpretations - interpretations that are not be accepted by all - not accepted because it's very likely that they are wrong.


In the specific issues mentioned under this topic: contraception and illicit marriage (I'm using that term as shorthand for "remarrying without first getting the previous marriage annuled") - whether the church's teachings are right are wrong, it seems to me, ultimately is a matter of how much credit one is willing to give the church's teaching authority.  But I think one of the chief reasons these teachings are widely flouted is not that they are wrong, but that they are hard.  The more severe the demands of discipleship, the less likely we are to adhere to them.  That's true of the complex of sex-related doctrines, but it's also true of social doctrines.  How many coats do I need in my closet if there are people who can't keep warm during cold weather?  How much wealth do I need if there are people who run out of money to buy food for their children?

I also think there is an experiential dimension to all this.  If I shoplift, I've sinned, which is bad, but I've also broken a civil law and risk all the civil penalties to which offenders are subject: expenses, jail time, shame, etc.  Using contraception doesn't run any of those civil/communal risks so it doesn't feel like the same sort of thing.  We ask ourselves, "What harm does it do?"  It doesn't seem to harm my neighbor or my community - it seems innocuous.  I believe we're becoming more tolerant of same sex marriage for the same reason: people are looking around and asking, "Who is harmed?".  From a spiritual point of view, it's kind of an interesting phenomenon.  


As mentioned in the article, the evidence is overwhelming that THE church (the 1.2 billion not the few thousand male celibates who define teaching) rejects the teaching on contraception, and in the west at least, several other teachings are rejected - as in not "received".  This lack of reception of selected institutional doctrines is not a rejection of God's teachings, but of men's. The church is not God, nor can the church "read" God's mind perfectly. The church has erred in the past and it would be pretty surprising if it is not erring today on some matters, especially when it fails to "consult the faithful on matters of doctrine", as advised by Newman.

The term for what you're describing is "dissent".  We live in an age of widespread dissent.  I don't use this term as a pejorative; as I've written in the past, there are times when dissent is quite honorable.  



I really like what Bill deHaas wrote last night at 7:43. It seems to track perfectly with the affirmative (and major) part of what Pope Francis has been saying.

If we get that part -- the Way part, or the encounter part or however you want to shorthand it -- right, the rest will take care of itself in time. Bringing doctrine to bear, pro or con, simply misses what the pope is talking about. I'd say if someone feels he or she has to obsess about doctrine these days, she should take it to prayer. And if prayer sounds too simplistic or self-regarding, then he probably has no business talking about doctrine anyway, and he should take that to prayer.

Is it significant, do you think, that in the dispute over the contraception mandate in the ACA, Church leaders always seem to frame the issue as a matter of religious freedom and say little or nothing about the wisdom or societal benefit of limiting access to contraception? As a legal matter, of course, they would have no case at all without the religious freedom claim, so it makes sense to stress it. And they have no duty to defend their teaching to outsiders who think that it makes no sense.

Still, I suspect that in addition to the laity, there are a good number of the episcopate who wish that the whole issue had been decided differently and that it would just go quietly away. But they have put themselves in a box and they can't get out. It's both comical and sad.

How could a man rise to the rank of cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires, then get elected pope, without the support of the most reactionary elements of the Catholic hierarchy???  How could Francesco now turn his back so easily on the very men who just elected him not even a year ago???  How can anyone expect Francesco to now openly embrace doctrinal positions that are considered subversive by the very reactionary hierarchs who now inhabit [or infest, depending on your opinion] the church's hierarchy???  Not going to happen.  

As good a politician as Francesco appears to be, even he doesn't have the capacity to pull-off that kind of Change You Can Depend On.  From the perspective of here on the Bay, it seems that Francesco has focused and dedicated his papacy to turning the Bark of Peter around and away from the cliff over the abyss to which the church has been lead over for now four decades ever since Wojtyla came upon the Roman scene.  Francesco is more about disaster relief mode [i.e., mercy and humility] than restructuring in the doctrinal superstructure of the Catholic Church - not only because this is most natural for him personally, but it is also politically practical. 

It is much more likely that Francesco will hopefully spend his papacy setting the stage for his successor - the real legacy of [t]his papacy.  It would appear that he has already begun to unwrap that gift to the church with the recent consistory where his appointments tended to ignore "first world" and careerist hierarchs.  [It is significant that for us Americans that Francesco didn't give Opus Dei hierarchs Vigneron, Gomez and Chaput red hats.]

The necessary revolutionary changes in Catholic life and doctrine will not be achieved by popes or cardinals or bishops, politics, diplomacy, or even councils.  Discussions and considerations of dogma are for the most elitist among us.  The PEOPLE are way ahead of the hierarchs in this regard. 

An inexorable evolution toward a PEOPLES' church has been underway for a very long time.  Francesco seems to understand this.  And, Francesco seems desperate to ignite the fire of the Holy Spirit in the PEOPLE.

early Church doctrine was non-violence. That was thrown out as soon as the Church got property. next? 

Though I'm by no means a theologian, let me offer a few thoughts about "Catholic doctrine." 1. There are the doctrines found in the Apostle's Creed and the Nicean Creed. They are called dogmas. They may not be deniedn without falling into heresy, but they are certainly open to theological reflection and a reformulation in the light of that reflection.That reflection and reformulation find expression in Tradition.

When we get to the moral doctirne of the Church, doctrine that provides direction for how we deal with one another, either personally or through institutions, there is good reason to question whether talk of condemnation is always as appropriate as talk about encouraging or some conduct or other. I take it that the recent responses of some German professors of moral theology and pastoral theology reflect the fact that in some matters, not least of which is sexual conduct, it makes more sense to think about how a person over the course of a lifetime can rightly be instructed. What can be expected of some people cannot be expected of everyone everywhere. For example, consider masturbation. Certainly , it is not to be encouraged, but is it to be denounced as a grave sin in all circumstances. What about 15 year olds? Similarly, one mught not expressly encourage homosexual acts, but must each and eevery one of them be denounced whenever and under whatever circumstances they occur?

There is no good reason, in my view, ever to countenance the dogmatic claim that Jesus is not truly present in the Eucharist. It doesn't follow that one must forever express that conviction in the teerminology of "transubstantiation." In moral matters, there is no good reason ever to claim that we have no obligation to address the needs of the destitute. But in rejecting such a claim, it may well be the case that we resort to persuasion and encouragement/discouragement rather than unmitigated denunciation.

What I try to suggest here is not merely a matter of style or of some sort of kindness. Rather it is an attempt to respec the complexity that we all face at all times in trying to follow Jesus faithfully.

The more severe the demands of discipleship, the less likely we are to adhere to them. That's true of the complex of sex-related doctrines, but it's also true of social doctrines.

Jim, I couldn't agree more.

In the specific issues mentioned under this topic: contraception and illicit marriage...whether the church's teachings are right are wrong, it seems to me, ultimately is a matter of how much credit one is willing to give the church's teaching authority.

With this I have to disagree. To see why, try putting the same formulation in the past tense and switching the variables: "In the case of the church's old teachings about religious freedom, lending money at interest, or the status of the Jews, whether the teachings were right or wrong is ultimately a matter of how much credit one was willing to give the church's teaching authority." Well, no. Either the church was wrong to teach what it did about the Jews or it wasn't. How much credit Catholics gave the church's teaching authority doesn't decide the issue. Didn't decide it.

Jim Pauwels,

The problem that I have with George Weigel's argument is that it has a certainty about the content and definition of the Christian faith that is not supported by the history of the development of doctrine. Things change, sometimes drastically, not because the underlying truth has changed but because our understanding has been refined through ongoing collective discernment.

Our understanding is necessarily incomplete, and when we forget this, we perserve our errors along with the truths.

It seems to me that when we are discussing church teachings we need to be congnoscent of two things:

1)  Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven and,

2) Every judgement of conscience, be it right or wrong, be it about things evil in themselves or morally indifferent, is obligatory, in such wise that he who acts against his conscience always sins

Given those 2 points, I dont see how anyone can proceed without continual anguish and "gnashing of teeth" when there is a disagreement between them.  Certainly, pointing to everyone else's behavior as a guide is largely irrelevant.

Bernard: I was just reading about the hierarchy of truths. It's like a mathematical construct. We start from the axioms, which we believe are true (the axioms are roughly what's in the Nicean creed, I think), and then we use reason to infer other truths, like proving a theorem by logical deductions from the initial axioms. The further a statement is to the initial axioms, in terms of the complexity of deductions, the higher the risk that along the way someone made a mistake. 

For example: Jesus came "for us men (and women) and for our salvation". Since he came for all men (and women), that includes those who were born before him, so one naturally wants to ask how he did that. "He became man" is an axiom, but if he did it to the fullest, that includes dying like men. Put the two together, and (with a little help from tradition) the idea comes to you that when he died he went to the place where men went they they died, in order to rescue those who had died before him: he descended into hell.

That's kind of a fun way to organize dogma, it seems to me, by reducing everything to fundamental truths, and it might be of help to order our beliefs, especially where they differ from official teachings, so as to understand how we came to diverge and to realize the implications of what we do and do not believe, and see whether we are consistent with ourselves.

But maybe everybody else knows that already.

The Sermon on the Mount is "dogma" that all could agree on. The irony is that many have stressed other dogma and consider the Beatitudes suggestions rather than commands. Like they are only for saints. So sure we need the dogma that Jesus taught.  Not those created by opportunists. What Francis has done is  brought the Beatitudes back to front and center. That is dogman with certainty.

Matthew - thanks, you're quite right.  

Claire, I daresay not everyone knows that already, because if we did, Francis would have no need to offer his gentle correctives re: what is truly most important.

This is a great discussion.  Bernard, Bill d, Ryan, Tom, John P, thanks for that food for thought.  Ryan, fwiw, the bit from Weigel that I thought was useful to this discussion is that Francis is situated within a tradition - he is, in Weigel's phrase, "a son of the church", and he is not completely free to say, willy-nilly, that up is down and black is white merely because he says so.  For purposes of our conversation, perhaps we can note that the development of doctrine implies that it is rooted in and grows organically out of what was there before.

Bruce writes, regarding our attempts to reconcile church teaching and our consciences, " I dont see how anyone can proceed without continual anguish ".  I agree.  That is what sort of bugged me about Trish's phone call: she comes across as decisive, maybe even a little angry, but blissfully anguish-free.  One is left wondering if she's attempted the honest engagement so abundantly evident in the comments here.

Francis gives us every reason to hope and expect that any doctrinal development that takes place during his watch will do so by listening, particularly to the poor and those at the margins, and that any rules for living that come from him will be characterized by love and mercy.


“the way Catholics actually live will be a testament to the irrelevancy of doctrine.

​Actually, I think Francis would refer to it as the devil leading God's people astray.”


"You can believe in facts or you can believe in doctrines: you must choose. There never was a doctrine strong enough to shift a single fact. When facts get lost, it's because someone wanted to lose the fact. And where does it get lost? In some doctrine: some set of words. So the fundamental pastoral chore of the church is to remind people that facts are God's language, while doctrine is our language. What is the saying, the Holy Spirit is known by its works?" (Christopher Rushlau 9/13/2013

If you want someone a bit more authoritative ….

"[F]acts, as history teaches, carry greater weight than pure doctrine."   Joseph Ratzinger, HIGHLIGHTS OF VATICAN II, Paulist Press/Deus Books, 1966, p. 17.

Jim P said:  “there are times when dissent is quite honorable.”  I would go one step further from “honorable” and say “required”:

Discussing Vatican II, Benedictine Bishop B.C. Butler acknowledged that if a teaching "failed in the end to enjoy reception on the part of the church, this would prove it had not met the requirements" for enforcement. And in 1969, the theologian Joseph Ratzinger  spoke about even infallibly proposed teachings: "Where there is neither consensus on the part of the universal church nor clear testimony in the sources, no binding decision is possible. If such a decision were formally made, it would lack the necessary conditions and the question of the decision's legitimacy would have to be examined." What Butler and Benedict are getting at is the very real possibility of legitimate non-reception.  (Robert McClory, November 17, 2011,


How many of us know priests and lay people, active in parishes and dioceses, who compromise their core beliefs so as to carry on the good work they are doing within church structures? Whether the issue is Eucharistic inclusivity, option for the poor, a thinking laity, married clergy, women’s ordination, homosexuality or contraception, our church fosters a culture of keeping quiet so as to keep going. Sometimes the pressure from above is quite blatant, but we are all subject to that subtlest form of institutional intimidation which everyone registers without it having to be articulated. We watch the few who persist in standing against it being marginalized or pushed out altogether; their whole lives can be taken apart. Many, both young and lifelong churchgoers, can no longer accept it and are walking away. Meanwhile those who slip into capitulating to it progressively deform their spiritual integrity. Of course, the Protestant tradition and secular society have long picked up the tenor of hypocrisy about Catholicism. After Vatican II, though, many of us felt we were on the way to being freed from it. But the volume now seems to be ratcheting up again. How can we commit to the Church we love without dancing to this particular tune?

Well said, Jim...thanks.  And thnaks to Mr. Boudway - helpful clarification.

Ecclesial reception is perhaps more evident today than ever before.  Even canon law acknowledges the subject:  Canon 749.3 - "No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident."  Canon 750.1 - "...proposed as divinely revealed...which is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful..."  Canon 750.2 - "...which is proposed definitively..."  Adult learning is a two-way street, especially with better educated and informed laity and modern communications technology.  Whether they like it or not, the hierarchs are learners.  The laity, with access to modern communications technology, are teachers.  CCC-1785 notes that we are "guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church."  A guide is a resource, not a mandate.  As a COMMONWEAL writer put it years ago, to be informed of church teaching is not necessarily to be conformed to such teaching.

I agree with Jim McCrea.  At the expense of perpetuating a cult of dogma and doctrine, it really all comes down on the personal level to living with integrity.

Reminds me of the testimony of former Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral Mike Mullen before the Senate Armed Forces Committee [in 2012] regarding the need to change the US military's infamous "doctrine" of DADT - Don't Ask Don't Tell - regarding the service of gays and lesbians in the US military forces.  I think he says it best: 

MULLEN: A lot of commanders on the ground don’t want the chairman to get so close to the fight. I understand that. But I tried to push as far into their world as I could. I also sat down with retired or former military members who were gays and lesbians and just listened to them, to their views, to what they’d been through. All that work got me to a position where it was fundamentally an issue of integrity. Since June 30, 1964, when I went to the Naval Academy, I’ve been taught that honor and integrity define who we are—our core values. How could I reconcile that with the fact that we were forcing men and women who would give their lives for the country to lie every day about who they are?

Claire, I'm not happy with your suggestion that we think of our dogmatic heritage on the model of a series of mathematical deductions. Rather, I suggest that the Creeds are summations of the crucial points of the long story of Salvation found in Scripture. Each dogmatic proposition states a part of that story. Like every story, the Scriptural story has some parts that are more "central" to the story as a whole than other parts may be.

In teaching and explaining this foundational story, people have naturally used the language resources available to them and their audiences. But languages resources are constantly undergoing some alteration. So some terms that were once quite appropriate cease to be of much use. Other terms better serve this pedagogical or explanatory function. Examples might be the terms 'transubstantiation' and 'indefectability.'

When we come to moral teachings about conduct, there is another, but related, issue. Do we exclusively talk about specific acts that are forbidden, approved, commanded? Or do we talk about lifespans, relationships with other people as well? If we do both, it is likely that we will be less confident about definitive judgments and more likely to lisgten to particular circumstances. It doesn't follow that we can't make any strong, even definitive judgments. But it is likely to follow that we make fewer of them and make even these more humbly. Take for example, Bill's reference to the Beatitudes, specifically the call to serve the poor. No question, nobody can rightly deny that we are called to practice paverty of spirit. But what that call amounts to for any particular person is fiendishly hard to be precise about. We generally can do no better that make recommendations and offer encouragement. If I'm not mistaken, this is the general thrust of the "Preparatory Document" prepared by 17 Geerman moral theologians and pastoral theologians in response to the pope's call for opinions concerning sexual matters in preparation for the upcoming Synod. I take it that the approach of these theologians is applicable to other matters of morality and pedagogy.  I doubt, though, whether the would be equally of use in discussions about dogmatic qhestions, questions of belief rather than of conduct.

As always, I'm sure that I haven't said the definitive word. But perhaps I'm not totally all wwet.


The core doctrine is the crucifixion and resurrection. There is no compromise there. The "anguish" many feel is because a hierarchical structure has implanted in us a mandate to believe what the magisterium has declared. They even go so far as it must he even mentally held. Never mind that the hierarchy has erred too often. 

Why do we stay. In many things this corrupt hierarchy has  maintained some essentials. More than any other component of Christianity the RCC has maintained the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Notwithstanding the deviation into other areas which offset the meaning of the Eucharist. The fact that the structure has always been there has been helpful. It is the reason people like Trish stay because one can  still find the Lord in this church. There is certainly not the constant variation that one finds too often in the Separated Brethren. 

So there is certainly a lot of good in the church. Useless stess on unproven dogma is not one of them. We have to grow up and work through the anguish. 

Living the law of love or by "freedom's ideal law" is hard for us Catholics.  We seem to need or want instead concrete don't-do-this laws.  Our goal, though, is to get beyond a legalistic observance -- to loving and caring for others as Christ did.  Church doctrine can certainly get in the way of this, can limit us in following Christ.  The Pope is trying to help us in this, like with remarks about easing our obsession with abortion, same-sex marriage and birth control, help us lift our focus beyond what we can't do to what we can do to enter the kingdom of God right here and now. 

But, boy, it's hard to shift this focus.  Getting a glimpse of freedom's ideal law does help, though.  Bless Francis for his encouraging and challenging words. Challenging, because if we get beyond legalistic observance, we will hear more clearly the call to truly live as Christ. And that isn't easy, or possible, without Christ at our side.  He always is, but we can't see him because of our legalistic focus.  Such a deal these many years for me, these many centuries for the church.     

In late November, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, Vatican ambassador to the United States, reminded the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that Pope Francis prefers shepherds who smell like the sheep, not ermine. The speech was remarkable for its directness. "[Francis] wants 'pastoral' bishops," Vigano told the USCCB, who were preparing to vote for their next president, "not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology." What's more, Vigano cited a text well loved by liberal Catholics, Pope Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975): "It is primarily by her conduct and by her life that the church will evangelize the world, in other words by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus — the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity."


That Vigano chose to lean on Evangelii Nuntiandi is even more interesting because of its history. The document was written in response to the synod of bishops on evangelization, and it conceives of the church not only as teacher but also as learner.

The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself. She is the community of believers, the community of hope lived and communicated, the community of brotherly love, and she needs to listen unceasingly to what she must believe, to her reasons for hoping, to the new commandment of love.

In advance of next year's synod, Pope Francis has asked the world's bishops to ask their parishioners about a range of issues, including gay marriage and contraception, and report back. He wants to know where his people are. "For the church," Paul VI wrote, "evangelizing means bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new." Sound familiar?


From that same media report - here is the money quote:

"For more of Pope Francis's commentary on the missionary character of the church, and the kinds of bishops required to carry it out, see his recent message to Guadalupe pilgrims: "The attitude of the true shepherd is not that of a courtier or of a mere functionary, focusing principally on discipline, rules and organizational mechanisms."  (or dogmas/doctrines)

"The attitude of the true shepherd is not that of a courtier or of a mere functionary, focusing principally on discipline, rules and organizational mechanisms."  (or dogmas/doctrines)

Bill - I think if he had meant to include your parenthetical addition in the speech, he would have done so.  I don't think dogmas and doctrines are the same as discipline, rules and organizational mechanisms.  

Dogmas and doctrines were true before the US bishops came up with the ad hoc committee on religious liberty, and they continue to be true since the creation of that committee.  That committee is an organizational mechanism - one that sucks up a lot of time and resources for the bishops and garners a lot (a disproportionate?) amount of media attention.  

I suspect many of us here would be happier if the bishops would disband the committee and go back to teaching us doctrines and dogmas, trusting us to sort out the politics.


Jim P.,

While I agree that the pope cannot arbitrarily change doctrine, I'm not sure that many people want him to make arbitrary changes. Most people who call themselves Catholics see their views as being founded in the Catholic tradition albeit with different interpretations, emphases, and understandings of the world.

One thing that surprised me when researching a paper about the development of a particular doctrine was the diversity of thought that existed within the tradition. While I could see the common threads that united these views and an arc of development, this diversity far exceded that what I expected from reading modern sources. The official view is mostly just an average view, which can be useful but becomes misleading when divorced from a sense of the variance.

What worries me is that lately there has been an effort to artificially reduce the variance by condemning deviation not on the basis of whether it is more true or less true than the official view but solely on the basis of its deviation. This creates an appearance of consensus and definitiveness that many find comforting but that is more wrong than what preceded it because of its false certainty.

Bernard: I agree, the analogy with math is too impersonal. But it's not without use. Here's another example: I talked to several friends about the Immaculate Conception a few months ago, and they all said the same thing: It does not seem necessary, but it does not bother them either. In other words: it is neither a "core belief" nor implied by any of them, but it does not introduce any inconsistencies either. So, the ones who attempt to listen to the Magisterium say "Why not? If we are told by authority that that's how it is, ok, I'm willing to believe it." That is, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is stand-alone, and in the "hierarchy of truths", its importance is minimal. One could say, zero.

I like the idea of thinking of dogma as summaries of the main points of a story, the story of the relationship between God and humanity. As we watch history playing itself out, the story continues to develop. It keeps the focus on people and on facts, and avoids the risk of constructing something disconnected from reality.

Bill M.: actually the page I looked at proposed a list of five "core beliefs": 1. The Trinity, 2. The Incarnation, 3. The Salvation - crucifixion and resurrection, 4. Something about the church and the sacraments that I didn't quite get, and 5. the Church as Body of Christ. What do you think?

I don't remember reading Jesus saying anything about contraception, abortion, gay marriage and a host of other "teachings". In fact, some of these "teachings" are based on "natural law" or some other philosophical position.  The 19th century notion of Papal infalllibility managed to paint the Church into a corner and unfortunately, recent Popes dug a deep hole in that corner. What to do? The entire structure of the Church is modeled on past political structures from the Roman emptire to the Medieval courts and the modern states. One can truly be a Catholic in the fullest sense, follwers of Jesus, while shrugging off the cultural biases and political preferences of the Hierarchy. I once believd the centralization of authority in Rome was the main problem of the Church but the result of that centralization under the last two Popes left us with a national problem of bishops and Cardinals who have made the Church a wing of the Republican Party. Of course, politically conservative Catholics and those of an authoritarian personality find this Church comfortable, but others simply look in sadness at what has been done and either leave or ignore. Which solution is better?

"Bill M.: actually the page I looked at proposed a list of five "core beliefs": 1. The Trinity, 2. The Incarnation, 3. The Salvation - crucifixion and resurrection, 4. Something about the church and the sacraments that I didn't quite get, and 5. the Church as Body of Christ. What do you think?


3 and 5 are the core beliefs. The Trinity was the first declared feast that is not a salvation event. I am not sure whether it is a good idea to get into Trinitarian theology. But I will say that to place it number 1 in core beliefs is absolute nonsense since Jesus placed little or no significance on that doctrine.Many have talked on this thread about anguish. This is something so many of us experienced (many still) after Vatican II. When "fresh air" came into the church and the lying about doctrine had to stop. Having been brought up on the Council of Trent I had deep anquish as I tried to figure it out. This anguish is what many conservatives endured. Especially when they were unable to reconcile Vatican II with Trent.  I studied assiduosly to the point where I could put it all together with such lights as Bernard Haring, Shillibexx, Kung, Congar and others. Now I know that Jesus Christ is more important than the hierarchy and that the hierarchy is not the whole church. And that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow despite the corruption of his message by too many of his official messengers.

Vatican II attempted to put an end to the church of dogma. Francis is working on bringing the beatitudes back and Matthew 25. There is plenty of dogma there.  

Here's another example: I talked to several friends about the Immaculate Conception a few months ago, and they all said the same thing: It does not seem necessary, but it does not bother them either. In other words: it is neither a "core belief" nor implied by any of them, but it does not introduce any inconsistencies either. So, the ones who attempt to listen to the Magisterium say "Why not? If we are told by authority that that's how it is, ok, I'm willing to believe it." That is, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is stand-alone, and in the "hierarchy of truths", its importance is minimal. One could say, zero.


Maybe yes, maybe no. Emphasis on "maybe." All of the so-called Marian doctrines are supposed -- in doctrine -- to point to Jesus. If you have, like most of us, been subjected to years and years of "gentle woman, quiet dove" preaching, the point may well be lost on you. (If Mary were as quiet and gentle as her most devoted homilists wish, the neighbors in Nazareth would have eaten her alive.) If you think of the Immaculate Conception -- as, alas, so many urge you to do -- as a Marian doctrine proving that gentleness gets you Special VIP Seating in heaven, yeah, its importance is minimal. And a little embarrassing.

If, on the other hand, you tie the Immaculate Conception to both the humanity of Jesus and the cross by which he redeemed the world, you have ample fodder for meditation. As a trigger for meditation, the Immaculate Conception is helpful, and its doctrinal status certifies it, in a sense, as safe for such meditation. So maybe it has zero impotance to you where you are in your (I don't like the phrase that much but here it is) faith journey, or maybe it is something neat the Church has on offer.

A priest was speaking to a group of Catholic women in a seminary setting. Some in the group were challenging the liberal priest whose orthodoxy was suspect. They asked him, "Do you believe in the Immaculate conception"? His answer was "Yes, whatever that means." Really, are we to believe in "virgo intacta" who bore a child without breaking the hymen. Of course Buddhists were taught that Gautama was born from the side of his mother who was impregnated by an elephant. Some Catholics were pictuing a dove , but really how was the baby delivered -- from Mary's side so she could remain "virgo intacta". Metaphors might be inspiring but they might also be destructive of women's sexuality. Yes, "whatever it means".

Paul said the law exists for man, man does not exist for the law. The moralists would have us believe otherwise.

Paul told slaves to be obedient to their masters and women to their husbands. The Church later justified slavery. We now know tht Paul was preaching a pernicious moralilty as regards slavery; His teaching that women obey the presbyters, remain silent in the Church and cover themselves is no less pernicious. Paul's moral teachings and his teachings on the role of women were colored by his cultural situation.

As has been mentioned the Church's teaching on sexuality is based on Gnostic influences subjecting female, matter, body, moist, earth to male, spirit, soul, dry, and sky. I feel for all the adolescents who carried heavy guilt about masturbation and for all the adults whose joy in their body and humanity has been poisened by irrational and even sick teachings

"Natural law" is in the eye of the beholder. Homosexual acts are disordered because they don't fit the norm of biological ends.  Morality is based on biological models?

Time to get back to the simplicity of the Gospels, and yes, the Sermon on the Mount and James teaching that religion is caring for widows and orphans. All the rest is social control by a Church that aspired to contol governments and social behavior in the Middle Ages and is now stuck in their institutional infallible foolishness.


@ George McGuire:  AMEN! to your analysis of the causes that has lead to the present dismal state of the Catholic Church.  The only quibble I have with it:  It didn't start in the "Middle Ages."  It all began much earlier in the church's adolescence.

Things have been going wrong ever since the church was co-opted politically by the Emperor Constantine's embrace of Christianity as the state religion in the early 4th C.E.  It's been all downhill since then.  Before Constantine, the church was counter-cultural.  The church lost touch with its apostolic and charismatic origins [as you put it, the Beatitudes] and has been hopelessly infected with the terminal disease of perserving its temporal political power, to this very day - we're talking millennia.

Because of this betrayal of our true apostolic origins, the church has piled hurt upon grievances:  Inquisitions, pogroms, military crusades, and as we have sadly learned in recent decades, the wanton rape, sodomy and sexual exploitation of children by unaccountable priests and complicit hierarchs.

It will take more than one Franciscan papacy to climb out of this hole.    

The Immaculate Conception is a granddaughter doctrine, descended from the doctrine of Original Sin, which in turn arose to explain the perception, and thence the doctrine, that we live in a Fallen World. The IC was a harmless pious belief that any Catholic might use without danger as the subject or starting point of meditation. It did not need to become a doctrine that all the faithful must hold, as if they were not already called upon to accept and aver many more difficult teachings.

But Original Sin is hardly harmless. The idea that sin and guilt are passed from the original perpetrators down the generations to every descendant is rightly rejected in the modern world as the basis of genocide and all its horrors. Elsewhere the Church teaches that sin is an act of the individual will for which the sinner alone is answerable. And that surely is sufficient to account for the state of our world. May it not be that Mary was conceived immaculate because every baby is so conceived? Her distinction is that, unlike the rest of us, she remained without sin.

As for a Fallen World, that doctrine derives from far too narrow and self-regarding a focus on our own sweet selves. Yes, we've done some damage, killing off other species, poisoning the air and the water, racing to exhaust in two hundred years resources produced over two hundred million, and of course being utterly horrid to each other. But the universe spins on in all its creative-destructive glory, unaware of our centrality. We've scarcely laid a glove on it.

Paul said the law exists for man, man does not exist for the law. 

While the law exists for man, man does not create the law.  Man, using his intelligence can discern the law, but it exists outside of man.  If man creates the law, then it exists inside of man and cant exist for man, but rather because of man.  

Paul said the law exists for man, man does not exist for the law. 

While the law exists for man, man does not create the law.  Man, using his intelligence can discern the law, but it exists outside of man.  If man creates the law, then it exists inside of man and cant exist for man, but rather because of man.  

Jim Jenkins,

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step...perhaps climbing out of a deep whole begins with a Franciscan papacy. 

The Trinity was the first declared feast that is not a salvation event. I am not sure whether it is a good idea to get into Trinitarian theology. But I will say that to place it number 1 in core beliefs is absolute nonsense since Jesus placed little or no significance on that doctrine.

I think the Sciptures show us that Jesus placed enormous significance on the reality of the Trinity. 

"And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased." 

The Trinity is present in the baptismal accounts of Jesus. It is again present at the Transfiguration (Jesus, the Father's voice, and the Spirit in the form of the enveloping cloud).  Jesus tells Philip in the Gospel of John that He and the Father are one; when we look at Jesus, we see the Father. And then we have John's account of Jesus promising to send another advocate who will lead them into "all Truth." 


The Trinity is a foundational dogma because God is Love (I John 4:8) and love must be expressed between persons. Before He loved His creation, the Lord loved Himself perfectly in the Trinity. Jesus' participation in this eternal communon of persons is seen in his statement "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am."  "I am" is how God identifies Himself to Moses in Exodus, "tell them I AM sent you." 


To paraphrase Dorothy Sayers "the drama is in the dogma".  That is to say, the immeasurable love of God can be better appreciated when we plumb the richness of our Faith. 


@ Jim Dunn:  Perhaps.  We'll see ...

Today's media reports of the appearance before the U.N. panel in Geneva by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi and Bishop Charles Sicluna to answer pointed questions regarding the church's handling of clergy sexual abuse of children [despite Sicluna's claim that "The Holy See gets it"] do not give us any confidence, or evidence, that the boys in the Vatican curia really do "get it."  

For better or worse, Francesco's papacy will judged ultimately on his ability to bring humble service and justice for the survivors of sexual exploitation by priests.

Bruce. On what ethereal plane or in what quadrant of the galaxy does the "law" exist if it "exists outside of man." Law exists as an entity? I it in the Platonic realm of the Eidos? Seriously! One must get real and get down to earth with head out of the clouds and use common sense rather than try to justify the "latent pattern maintenance" imposed over generations and introjected in childhood.


Something that exists for me, has to be outside of me, else it is not 'for' me but part of me.  A car can exist for me because it is outside of me.  My heart cannot exist for me, because it is part of me.  I think thats common sense.  

Once more the confusion of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception with the dogma of the Virgin Birth has reared its ugly head and right here at dotCommonweal.  NOTE WELL;  The dogma of the Immaculate Conception (Mary's not being scarred by Original Sin)  has NOTHING to do with the dogma of the Virgin Birth of Jesus (Jesus' birth miraculously did not alter Mary's bodily integrity, to put it prudishly).  

ALSO NOTE WELL:   (theologians please correct me if I'm wrong) the literal interpretation of "Original Sin" is no longer the interpretation of Genesis favored by the official Catholic Church.  As I under stand it, the story of Adam's Original Sin is now interpreted as a primitive attempt to explain the obvious fact that human beings are prone to sin.  It follows that we are not born saints who act only for our own good and the good of others, and given the weakness of our wills we need help (grace) to measure up to our best potentials.  In a theology which does not admit the reality of sin -- only the reality of "mistakes" -- this interpretation also makes no sense.  The crux of the problem is:  are we prone to sin or not?  

"Paul told slaves to be obedient to their masters and women to their husbands. The Church later justified slavery. We now know tht Paul was preaching a pernicious moralilty as regards slavery; His teaching that women obey the presbyters, remain silent in the Church and cover themselves is no less pernicious. Paul's moral teachings and his teachings on the role of women were colored by his cultural situation."

The words of Paul on women are interpolations. Otherwise that Epistle makes no sense. In one paragraph he is saying women can teach and prophecy and in another he writes that she should be silent. Further given the cultural situation no one treated women better than St. Paul.

Ann Oliver, Thank you for pointing out the distinction between the two Marian dogmas in case the theologically sophisticated readers may not have been aware of the difference.

I shortened the story of the liberal priest being quetioned at the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, New York. The second challenge was ,"Do you believe in the Virgin Birth. His answer was the same, "Yes, whatever it means." I should have separated the paragraph or otherwise made it clearer. The point I was making, however, stands.

When I spoke to a distantly related Domincan who was teaching theology at Providence College about an article in a Jesuit publication quetioning the notion of "virgo Intacta", the Dominican's response was "all those Jesuits are heretics." Not surprisingly, the Dominicans are associated with the Inquisition.

Unfortunately, most lay Catholics have the theological interpretations given to them in grammar school or r"released time" instruction. The Church doesn't seem to foster continuing adult education about Scripture or theology, particularly if it would lead to a more nuanced understanding or to questioning,  nor are they willing to tolerate probing discussion even in theology faculties in Catholic Universities. The "official Church" seems to appreciate ignorance or shallow understanding of these issues among the laity.

Ann, you are certainly correct in noting that the current liberal interpretations of much of scripture, morality and indeed of doctrine are no longer the interpretation "favored by the official Catholic Church." For example, some Jesuit professors in the theology department at Fordham University have taught that there is no such thing as a mortal sin (cannot give full consent of the will to an unknown) since without knowing God (without the Beatific vision), one cannot reject God irrevocably. The Professor posited that rejection and "mortal sin" can only occur after death and after adequate knowledge of God.

Bruce correctly mentioned the primacy of conscience and indeed one must attempt to inform conscience, but when "official teaching" violates human nature, human rights and full human development, these warped teachings cannot be relied upon to inform conscience.

Bill Mazzella, Your position in regard to women is much appreciated. A question, however. Many modern techniques can distinguish later interpolations in extant writings, but cannot know what the original text was. If there was a proto-gospel, for example, on which Matthew, Mark and Luke were derived, we have no knowledge of this text. Who knows what the original texts of Paul's epistles were, and in fact, who the original authors were -- not Paul in all cases.

Frank Gibbons, 

Saying God is love does not make the Trinity a foundational dogma. Jesus is one with the Father. One cannot conclude divinity from that. Jesus wants union with us just as he and the father are one. This does not make us divine. Though some writers have gone as far. No one has ever given a satisfactory explanation of the "Third Person." Your conclusion of a picture of a dove is a large stretch. Though others have made it.  Augustine has made the most elaborate supposition about the nature of the Trinity. But he well noted that"Others may differ" Knowing how much his theory was speculative.  Further, this was such a source of confusion that the issue was only "settled" by the sixth century. The period of Niceans and Arians was marked by conflict and bloodshed. "Great marks of a foundational dogma."

This may not be a scholarly  way of putting it. But the fact that there is such a lack of explanation and idenity of the third person shows that the dogma is severely in trouble. But I guess the dogma was so important that people like Augustine, Bernard, Charlemagne and others could blithely ignore the beatitudes and extoll the magnitude of the trinity by having Christians kill others for the expiation of their sins. 



My comment is a reference to your comment about selling the artwork,  They can't.  The artists who did the work initially---signed agreements with the Vatican that this would remain within the Vatican (and as the artists decendents are still living and desire this as well---it will remain).


Secondly, just how do you expect to scrape frescos off the walls?  Can't be done.  The Vatican does not charge (donations are accepted, though) to enter the museum to see these works.  No other museum would do that---they ALL CHARGE fees to see their exhibits.


Finally, no museum would (or has the place) to put all of this pieces.  Finally, if you have the pieces of artwork---one has to have the real estate, as well.




Bill Mazzela,

The Holy Spirit is present in the Scriptures from the first chapter of Genesis ("and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters" to the last chapter of Revelation ("The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come.'") John the Baptist said that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus Himself explicitly mentions the Holy Spirit in his admonition to the pharasees about blaspheming the Holy Spirit. And, of course, the Acts of the Apostles is replete with the work of the Holy Spirit.

Pope Francis has talked about the necessity of being guided by the Holy Spirit -

“Being Christian means allowing oneself to be renewed by Jesus in this new life. ‘I am a good Christian, I go to Mass every Sunday from 11 til noon, I do this, I do that’. . . as if it were a collection. But the Christian life is not a collage of things. It is a harmonious whole, harmonious, and the Holy Spirit does it! He renews all things: He renews our heart, our life, and makes us live differently, but in a way that takes up the whole of our life. You cannot be a Christian of pieces, a part time Christian. Being a part-time Christian simply doesn’t work! The whole, everything, full-time. The Spirit accomplishes this renewal. Being Christian ultimately means, not doing things, but allowing oneself to be renewed by the Holy Spirit – or, to use the words of Jesus, becoming new wine.” 

Bill Mazzella,

I don't see how you can explain the final discourse in John's Gospel, specifically Chaps. 16 and 17, without the Trinity or its functional equivalent. I am not saying the Trinity explains it because then you would have to explain the Trinity, and I can't. But you can't explain those two chapters either unless God is a Trinity.

Crystal, I know that the idea of selling the riches of the church comes up periodically. I don't know what would be gained from taking the result of the work of Christians of the past and putting them in the hand of our wealthiest contemporaries. I find that short-sighted, not respectful of the wishes of the people of the past who did the work, neither of the people of the future who will want to admire the art. It's like a state selling its assets, castles, museums, etc., so as to balance its budget at a time of an economic crisis. 

I might be in favor of the Vatican charging for entry and using that money for charitable work.


If "the law is for man" and, by definition, exists outside of man, who perceives the law?  If one man (a pope, for instance) perceives artificial contraception to be contrary to natural law, and if most Catholics perceive otherwise, who is correct? 



'Most Catholics' seems a little hubristic to me. The church has taught that contraception is immoral throughout its entire 2000 year history.  Despite the belief of some, contraception, even chemical contraception, is not a new invention of humanity. 


This website has some history on the church and contraception

Sorry, Bruce, your statement is incorrect factually and historically in terms of condemnation of contraception.



Some highlights:

-  a new name likewise was needed for what till then in moral theology had been called onanism.  

-  From secular society, where Margaret Sanger’s cause of Planned Parenthood was advancing, the name contraception was taken.  (this concept emerged only at the beginning of the 20th century)

- For the church, then, the ethical question about contraception is not whether it is morally right. It is rather: What kinds of human control of fertility (description) fulfill a person’s moral responsibility and duty to exercise such control (evaluation), and what kinds act against the natural good of conception (evaluation)? Put differently, what control of fertility is an expression of spousal love and responsible parenthood, and what control is contraceptive?in, of course, the Catholic, evaluative, not the popular, descriptive meaning of this term.

- Contraception, however, is not the only term in the theological discussion that needs clarification: Birth control is another. This is not synonymous with fertility control. Abortion is a very common mode of birth control, but it is essentially different from fertility control. The use of the term birth control to refer to fertility control obscures the fact that the ethical question of abortion is radically different from that of fertility control. Such use makes it easier for abortion to be seen as if it were on a continuum with means of limiting or preventing conception and had no more ethical significance than a last resort when these have been neglected or fail.

- Contemporary theology, however, presents a quite different understanding of marriage. Seeking a more adequate and profounder truth of marriage than that attained by the earlier theology, it understands marriage primarily not in terms of legal realities but in terms of persons and their interpersonal relationships. This deepening of the theology of marriage has transformed church law itself so that it now reflects rather than molds theology. According to the revised Code of Canon Law (1983), marriage is a covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, one that of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children. This unique covenant and partnership of lives is, of course, not something to be used but an interpersonal relationship to be lived.


Bill, I had never realized you questioned the Trinity and did not, apparently, believe in the Holy Spirit!

It's funny because I can just picture you filled with the Holy Spirit. When you go on and on about the Beatitudes, and when in real life you clothe the naked or feed the hungry or whatever you do, what is it that compels you in that way, what is that inner strength that drives you? 

In the Acts of the Apostles, we repeatedly hear about the disciples being "filled with the Holy Spirit". My guess is that your irresistible urge to be an advocate for and help the poor does not come from you; it transcends you: it's the Holy Spirit in you. 


Your comment is about words, not the underlying ideas and behaviors.  Even if Sanger came up with the word contraception, the goal of sex without conception is as old as mankind. 


Marriage in itself merits esteem and the highest approval, for the Lord wished men to “be fruitful and multiply.” He did not tell them, however, to act like libertines, nor did He intend them to surrender themselves to pleasure as though born only to indulge in sexual relations. Let the Educator (Christ) put us to shame with the word Exechiel: “Put away your fornications.” Why, even unreasoning beasts know enough not to mate at certain times. To indulge in intercourse without intending children is to outrage nature, whom should take as our instructor (Paedagogues, 2, 10; 95, 3, GCS, 12, 214).

Clement of Alexandria, (150-215)


Bruce, there's no hubris on my part. 

I wrote that "most Catholics" do not share Rome's view that artificial contraception is contrary to the natural law.   

Fact is, most Catholics (in the USA) do not subscribe to official church teaching on contraception.  This is common knowledge.  The Pew Research Center's findings support my assertion. 


Catholics in the US are a small group compared to all Catholics alive today, and you also need to include all those who have gone before us...  In addition, Truth is not defined by popularity. 

I limited my comments to the thinking of U.S. Catholics.  I have no idea what Catholics elsewhere specifically think of church teaching on contraception.  I do not include all those who have gone before us:  Tthey are dead, products of their own time and place.  The only "Truth" (upper case) is "God is Love". 

For those who might worry about being morally and spiritually tainted by visiting his site, Andrew Sullivan has kept the story going at said site:

The Church doesn't seem to foster continuing adult education about Scripture or theology.


In some circles an educated laity is a questioning laity.  A questioning laity can be a dangerous laity because it wants to know "why," not just "what."


Too many "whys" leads to a lack of control.


I believe in the Holy Spirit. It is God's Spirit or God herself. God is spoken of in many ways in Scripture. As the Holy Spirit (of God) it is probably the most powerful way. Your guess is right Claire. Praise God.

Frank, I agree with you about the Holy Spirit. We do not have to be complicated with the Trinity to regale in God's Spirit. See above. I usually participate in the 11AM Eucharist also. Don't assume that I do not live and pray to the Holy Spirit as I do not say you do not.

Tom B.

We get into genre and the times when we come to John's gospel. Jesus is the personifcation of God in earth. The Father sent him to dwell among us. John is in the fashion of his time when writing about this. He has to show that Jesus is way above all those false gods that were floating around. 

Come O God, let your Spirit renew the face of the earth. 

George. Can you state your question more clearly, perhaps. I know that Paul did not write all the Epistles. Appears that it is only 7. The text about wome is obviously tampered with. Otherwise he looks schizoid. 

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment