Terror Of History
Nicholas Clifford’s piece “Historical Amnesia” (September 27), taking its cue from John Noonan’s A Church That Can and Cannot Change (1993) and Dennis O’Brien’s bon mot—that the church has a strong sense of tradition but no sense of history—is very much to the point. I commend him for focusing attention on a crucial issue at the heart of our current Catholic discontent.
I would add three points: First, the tendency to overlook the reality of change extends not only to matters ethical (like slavery) or other basic issues (like religious freedom), but also to the neuralgic issue of the very nature and location of the church’s teaching authority itself.
Second, the changes involved cannot simply be explained away as routine instances of doctrinal “development.” Instead, some of them are changes that are radically discontinuous with the past. They are instances, in fact, of the sort of “rupture” that Benedict XVI clearly wished to exclude as simply inconceivable.
Third, the manifest inability or unwillingness of our church leaders to face up to such unwelcome facts is not simply (or wholly) to be explained by “memory loss,” “historical forgetfulness,” “ignorance of history” or “history badly taught” (as Clifford puts it). It is also (perhaps rather?) to be attributed to the veritable “terror of history” that appears to have gripped the clerical establishment in the wake of the French Revolution. And that, in turn, would appear to have been grounded in the long-established and idolatrous form of institution-worship that went hand in glove with the notion of a church (semper eadem) that could never change. But, of course, it has changed. To avoid conceding that totally obvious fact, our papal and clerical leadership, embracing implicitly the Orwellian conviction that he who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future, committed itself—wittingly or unwittingly—to a proactive politics of oblivion and to the posture of a collective King Canute impotently bidding the tide of history to stand still.
Were our Catholic theologians somehow able to adopt a clear, consistent, and coordinated position on this important point, it would surely be a consummation devoutly to be wished. Here, perhaps I may be forgiven if I refer the reader to the essays gathered by Michael J. Lacey and me in The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity (Oxford University Press), reviewed in these pages (“Shipwrecked?” December 5, 2011).
Although my views tend to differ markedly from Joseph Bottum’s, I read his article “The Things We Share” (September 13) with interest. If I have correctly understood him, I found myself appreciating several of his points:
First, his public regret for signing Chuck Colson’s Manhattan Declaration and for whatever harm that signature caused (an act that went against his own insight that abortion and same-sex marriage are not morally equivalent and shouldn’t be lumped together as if they are).
Second, his giving the benefit of the doubt to those who advocate same-sex marriage, that marriage is their intention, rather than some anti-Catholic plot to destroy the church. (My views are much stronger. I find the nonstop preoccupation with “those out to get the Catholic Church” harmful to the church. Many read it as paranoia or as an un-Christian and unhealthy focus on the self, the opposite of what evangelizes and attracts others, such as the church’s outreach to the poor and suffering.)
Third, his understanding of how the bishops’ fight against same-sex marriage is ineffective and harms the church at this point in time. (Pope Francis’s interview may help the bishops let go of this.)
Fourth, his openness to the possibility that something good, even if “small,” might come of same-sex marriage. I especially like this point because it allows experience—what same-sex couples make of their marriages and family life as the public perceives them—into the church’s and society’s assessments of how “good” the practice is or isn’t. (Bottum does not mention the thousands of same-sex couples and families in the United States and in other countries that should be factored into the moral discernment process.)
Fifth, his insistence on a need for theological coherence among Catholics regarding moral questions. I am no Aquinas scholar, but I appreciate the space Bottum finds in Aquinas’s writings on marriage (he mentions an openness to polygamy) and his awareness that such a space possibly could be opened to include same-sex marriage.
Finally, his inclusion of Pope Francis’s restatement of Catholic teaching on marriage, defined as between “a man and a woman.” This definition is, in my view, what could and should be opened up to include others. I won’t try to mount any argument for that here, but will express appreciation for the author’s putting his finger on the most critical theological point. That isn’t as obvious as it sounds. Many critics of same-sex marriage go straight to the physical inability of same-sex couples to procreate “naturally” without a donor sperm or womb. Proponents point out that the church marries couples who cannot conceive children—those over the age of fifty, for example—and that same-sex couples have already shown their ability to be loving, faith-filled parents. More theological reflection is needed on the generative character of marital love, in ways other than the conception of children.
Far from wishing to injure the Catholic Church, I look forward to the day when its theologians will make the case that God’s love is reflected in same-sex marriages too. And that those whose first marriages fail can find a way to acknowledge that failure and try again to make an “indissoluble” bond.
Karen Sue Smith
New York, N.Y.