October 6, 2012

A response to Katherine Infantine

Here on Sardonic Ex Curia, I post links coming from a variety of perspectives, from political scientists to philosophers, laypeople of all sorts, theologians, writers, artists, musicians - you name it. I have not, until this point, responded directly to a writing by another person.

Today, that changes, as I respond to a writer named Katherine Infantine, who blogs at the First Things blog entitled "First Thoughts", is a Junior Fellow at First Things, and graduated with honors from Gonzaga University in 2010, where she edited a collegiate Catholic magazine. She has also served as an Intercollegiate Studies Institute fellow and a missionary. The article to which I am responding is located here -  it is intelligently written, as one might expect from her list of accomplishments. In considering her article (and her own comment) at length, I believe that there are two things that need to be expanded upon and corrected in her thoughts. First, she correctly identifies a problem in the modern mind with definitive Church teaching, upon which I would like to expand. Second, she conflates a request to the individual Catholic to act in a certain way as a request to leave the Church, to which I respond and attempt to explain below.

Ms. Infantine has written what is, in essence, a two-part blog post. The first part consists of her main argument, and is entitled "Don't Believe? Don't Receive." Taking her inspiration from a posting on the legal blog "Mirror of Justice", Ms. Infantine opens with the question:
Is the Catholic Church showing a sincere and admirable respect for the free will of individuals and encouraging personal responsibility or is she unnecessarily turning away her members who suffer a great degree of doubt about certain Church teachings?
Her concern revolves around a recent statement issued by the Archbishop of Newark, John Myers, which discusses a variety of positions taken by the Catholic Church on issues related to marriage and sexuality. As part of that (sixteen-page) letter, the Archbishop noted that:
I urge those not in communion with the Church regarding her teaching on marriage and family (or any other grave matter of faith) sincerely to re-examine their consciences, asking God for the grace of the Holy Spirit which “guide [us] to all truth” (John 16:13). If they continue to be unable to assent to or live the Church’s teaching in these matters, they must in all honesty and humility refrain from receiving Holy Communion until they can do so with integrity; to continue to receive Holy Communion while so dissenting would be objectively dishonest.
I would like to note before proceeding that, in and of itself, Archbishop Myers is not breaking new ground here. There are many documents that indicate that one should abstain from the Eucharist when disagreeing with the Church on certain critical matters, and they run from the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church to the Fathers of the Church. For example, in his First Apology of 155 - 157 A.D. , Justin Martyr stated:
We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [i.e., has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined.
After setting the stage, Ms. Infantine proceeds to argue that by requesting that those who disagree with the Church on fundamental teachings on moral matters related to marriage and sexuality refrain from receiving the Eucharist, the Church is essentially failing to respect the free will of such individuals, and that this amounts to, in essence, asking those who dissent to leave the Church. In Ms. Infantine's words:
How are those members of the Catholic Church who now reject Church teaching on contraception, same-sex relations, women ordination, etc. ever to come home again if we kick them to the curb?
Ms. Infantine was challenged very quickly by multiple commentators to more clearly define why she so easily equated "please refrain from the sacrament" to "please leave the Church". After reviewing the several challenges, Ms. Infantine replied to them in a length comment on her original piece, which she began by admitting:
I do concede that I have perhaps conflated the caution not to receive holy Communion with kicking members of the Catholic Church (permanently marked by the Sacrament of Baptism) to the curb.
And added:
I also do acknowledge that members are still obligated to attend Mass while not receiving Communion, as I saw much of this in my time in Ecuador.
She proceeded to clarify her argument and original remarks by noting that she is concerned that the cautions to refrain from accepting the Eucharist will be seen by Catholics who disagree with such teachings as an invitation to disengage with the Church. In other words, while the statements themselves concerning refraining from the Eucharist are not, ipso facto, a demand of departure, the effect of such words on a dissenter will be  for them to depart the Church. As Ms. Infantine summed up:
All this being said, I completely agree that we must take all precautions not to take for granted the merciful and mysterious gift in which God gives himself to us in the Eucharist, not to make ourselves one with Him while really only living a lie. I just think that these messages of caution need to be accompanied by more talk of the immense love that Christ and his Church have for each member and the great pain that is caused by each dissent and each sin. If it comes across as merely “If you don’t believe a Church teaching then you can’t have Jesus,” it will push people away rather than point out the urgency and necessity of working through these dissenting ideas until they find the truth about these doctrines and more importantly unity with Christ and his Body, the Church.
A thorough reply to Ms. Infantine is difficult for several reasons, but two seem to be particularly important. First, she does correctly identify a difficulty confronting the teaching mission of the Church, particularly in modern culture - how does one set forth difficult teachings (such as the teaching against homosexual marriage) without simultaneously alienating members of the Church? And, in the modern world, is such even possible?  In the second place, her argument seems to suffer from a very modern difficulty - namely, placing in opposition "respect" and "permissiveness". Both of my responses, I set forth in greater detail below.

Above, I say "particularly in modern culture", because the challenge in our times is that the locus of authority has shifted from any external source to the individual person. It is not simply that moral questions are often answered with the shrug of subjectivity, but the yardstick for morality is solely the feeling of the individual. The modern asks for no other authority and respects no other authority save the individual himself or herself. The Dominican Father Servais Pinckaers notes (in his "Morality: The Catholic View", even while affirming the importance of conscience), that in the modern Catholic,
[P]ersonal conscience tends to become the ultimate judge in the moral life, without one being sufficiently attentive to the ambiguity that arises when one so closely associates conscience with one's personal opinion, which is often self-justifying.....In such an atmosphere we are very far from the view of conscience described by [Cardinal] Newman: a conscience that makes judgments in the prescience of God by listening to his sovereign voice, or perhaps more accurately a conscience that lets itself be judged by God and guided by his law through a fruitful, open, and intelligent obedience.
Even more so in our time than in Cardinal Newman's, the modern demands that his or her personal opinion be the ultimate measure of value. Indeed, "value" is the ultimate determinant of the morality of any given action. When a modern is faced with a statement from the Church that challenges one of their own beliefs, the modern is likely to become angry, for what is challenged is the correctness of the modern's own morality, which in the modern mind, reigns supreme. How could the modern not become angry or upset? Ms. Infantine correctly notes that such a morality must be approached with love and caring.

If that were all Ms. Infantine were saying, then both her blog and my response (if at all) must be both pregnant with meaning and succinct in statement. However, she takes a step further, and simultaneously reveals a hint of the same modern mind at work in her argument. The modern, faced with the morality of Christ (for such is the morality of the Church for all time), must grow angry and upset, and even consider separation from the Church, for the idea of a morality separate, apart, and above individual value is stunning to such a person. The statement by Fr. Pinckaers, above, is meaningless, or even less than meaningless, being written in an incomprehensible language.

Ms. Infantine reveals the modern mind at work in her own argument when she equates a cautionary note to refrain from the Eucharist when one is in disagreement with Church teachings with a request that the individual in disagreement leave the Church. It is clear that attending Mass, engaging with the Church and one's own parish, and other ways are completely separate from receiving the Eucharist. For, as St. Justin Martyr hinted, those who disagree with the teachings set forth do not receive the Eucharist. And, to add to this, many other Church Fathers and St. Paul himself note that receiving the Eucharist unworthily results in drawing down greater sin upon one's own head. It is clear, however, that from the earliest of Catholic writings until now, separation from reception of the Eucharist is not separation from the body of the Faithful. The question is, how could the Church respect the autonomy of the modern more than to respect the modern's conscience? The Church does not say, "Whatever you believe is nothing - accept the Eucharist because the power of Christ is greater than your free will!" Nor does the Church say, "The Tradition we have been handed has moral content so flexible that whatever you believe, you are welcome to the Body of Christ" - such would be an insult to the life of Christ, whose words and deed defined the very nature of morality. Even as noted by St. Paul, if the Church were not to make a request to refrain from receiving the Eucharist, She would be permitting without plea the desire of a dissenter to receive the Eucharist unworthily, something that the Church, concerned as She is with the salvation of souls, could not do.

The request to abstain from the Eucharist is an invitation for dissenters to engage with the Church and work through their difficulties. They are not, and cannot be, a demand for the dissenter to leave the Church, for Christ himself made no demands. When the dissenter chooses to separate himself or herself, even as Judas did, they are exercising their own free and autonomous will to depart. Free will is so great a gift that, even as God desires the dissenter to be saved, He will make no forcing gesture to save the dissenter's soul but will leave the dissenter to their Will.

1 comment:

  1. Great response. I do wonder though: if the parish priest spent every homily truly explaining the truth and beauty behind the Church's teaching, would we even need to be having this discussion?