A growing feature of the modern world is the disconnect between members of the Church and the teaching of the Church. A recent New York Times article noted a deep divide between what American Catholics believe and what their hierarchy teaches. It’s not just a Catholic phenomenon – it’s a feature of the modern Christian landscape. There is no lack of blame in this growing disconnect. Individualism, relativism, post-modernism – pretty much every possible modern philosophy and cultural trend (including my own favorite hobby-horse, secularism) can be pointed to as a culprit in the chasm between the teaching of the Church and the beliefs of the faithful (sic).
The New York Times piece focuses rather strongly on the social teaching of the Catholic Church, viz. abortion, same-sex unions, etc. Western cultures have recently embraced the cause of same-sex unions, with the Church left twisting in the wind. Though there is a continued debate in Western cultures surrounding these issues, public opinion has clearly shifted, with the strongest pro-union sentiments being among the young.
The position of the Church has been deeply undermined by very high-profile scandals within the ordained clergy and hierarchy alike. It is difficult for hierarchs to speak authoritatively about the teaching of the Church on sexual matters when they have been so publicly compromised in their own behaviors. Of course, it is true that scandals represent the actions of only a few. But the weak response to such scandals over the past number of decades has tarnished the entirety of the hierarchy. While the Church is changing (it would seem) and addressing these crimes in a more open and forthright manner – it is still the case that the Church had to change – and that the change was brought about through civil suits and insurance claims. It is hard to see this change as a triumph of the gospel.
I have heard this growing disconnect described as a break with the Church’s teaching. It is easy to point to the deposit of the faith (which is generally quite clear on matters of personal conduct) and demand that people accept the Church’s authoritative teaching. But the teaching office of the Church can never be restricted to the passing on of information. The teaching of the Church is either embodied or it is no teaching at all.
You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart (2 Cor. 3:2-3).
Orthodox priests in the Russian tradition, are given a cross at their ordination. On the back is inscribed 1 Tim. 4:12:
..Be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.
Without such an example there can be no teaching.
I have written before that Christ Himself warned that scandals were bound to happen. He also offered dire warnings for those by whom the scandals come.
It is less than clear to me (as an Orthodox priest) that Rome is currently able to make the case for a celibate priesthood. In many ways, its removal of celibacy from the context of monasticism has changed the context of the original canons concerning celibacy. Monasticism may have existed from the earliest days of the Church. It is clear that it became a significant phenomenon only the the latter half of the 3rd century. Celibacy as a rule for bishops does not become a fixed canon until the 7th century. But even then, its context (in the East) is that bishops will also be monks. To this day, a priest, whether widower or simply unmarried, cannot become a bishop without first being tonsured a monk. It is many times only pro forma, but the form at least preserves the intention.
It is not a mystical cult of celibacy that informed the early canons. The practical questions of unencumbered freedom (no young family to care for) and fears of property rights (heirs demanding Church property), as well as the well-formed life of piety nurtured within monasticism that gave rise to the canonical institution of monastic bishops. It is certainly the case that the canon did not intend to create a career of institutionalized unmarried men apart from monasticism.
In the Church’s scandal-weakened condition, it is very difficult for it even to make the case against same-sex unions or abstinence outside of holy matrimony. Indeed, it is difficult for the Church to teach on the subject of sex at all. None of this is the fault of the teaching (I’ve expressed my reservations regarding priestly celibacy above), when viewed from the realm of content. But the scandal which we now endure (in the original sense of the word) is not found within the teaching: it is found within our lives.
My mind wanders to conversations with teenagers. There adults are often confronted with questions of “why?” when we seek to offer guidance or issue rules. “Because I said so!” is the weakest of all responses, followed closely by, “Do what I say, but don’t do what I do!” It is difficult to understand (for a layman) why a priest who has molested children should be slapped on the wrist and simply transferred, while a divorced and remarried layman is forbidden the cup (except he gain an ecclesiastical annulment). Explanations will and do fall on deaf ears.
The integrity of Christ’s teaching requires integrity of its teachers. This is the case universally, regardless of what group of Christians is being described. No group of Christians is free of scandal. We live today under the withering gaze of an indifferent and frequently hostile public. Early Christians gained converts through the integrity of their martyrdoms. Modern Christian groups are hemorrhaging members through the failure of integrity. Civil suits and insurance rules are the wrath of a culture brought down upon the heads of Christians for misplaced institutional loyalties and the refusal simply to do what is right.
And in the midst of this, the Catholic Church elects a Pope. I wish them well and pray for grace that we may all embrace the integrity of the gospel. There is no “good of the Church” apart from the commandments of Christ. Despite the differences among Christians, we swim in the same small pool watched by the same school of sharks. May we learn to swim well – or even to walk on water!
Note to readers: I do not wish to engage in a discussion of the pro’s and con’s of the Church’s teaching on sexual matters. It is beside the point of this article.