Catholicism Isn’t All or Nothing, and That’s That


Published: March 4, 2010

For a long time, conservative Catholics complained that bishops didn’t do enough to defend Church teaching. This has started to change recently as a result of the reforms of the late Pope John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI. John Paul, who was uncompromisingly orthodox but at the same time very concerned with the image of the Church, appointed numerous conservative bishops. Benedict, who is perhaps less concerned with image, has also been promoting conservatism, though he has been more diplomatic than expected. I have happily observed the increase in conservatism in the Church due in large part to these two popes. The Church has been gentle but rigorous in upholding Catholic values: standing fast against abortion, birth control, liberation theology and gay marriage, to name a few. The word of the Church is “yes,” not “no:” yes to life, yes to human dignity and autonomy and yes to family. I like this “yes” approach, which I think is Christ-like.

This is why my brow furrowed when I read this recent headline: “Cardinal: Catholic Politicians Who Support Gay ‘Marriage’ are Not Catholic.” The Italian Cardinal, Archbishop Carlo Caffarra, has made a statement against homosexual unions, saying, “It’s impossible to consider oneself a Catholic if that person in one way or another recognizes same-sex marriage as a right.” To me, Caffarra’s statement is a big, fat “no,” and I don’t like it.

The way I’ve always understood it, if someone is baptized a Catholic, he is always a Catholic unless he chooses to leave the Church. I certainly know a lot of Catholics who pick and choose what teachings they acknowledge, and I can’t imagine declaring to one of them, “Well, you aren’t a Catholic, then!” As a Catholic, I welcome people who want to be Catholic. I just think their Catholic faith serves them best when they embrace it fully. My approach, however, has always been to hope that these Catholics will come to understand that the truth of the Church extends to each one of its teachings. Of course, this may include a lot of debating on my part. But it would never occur to me to tell a person that he or she wasn’t Catholic. I don’t think this would have been John Paul’s approach either. Cardinal Caffarra’s position as a cleric does not entitle him to do this.

In this rise of conservatism, bishops have started coming out and saying that they will deny communion to Catholic politicians who openly support abortion, gay marriage or other issues the Church takes a hard line against. In effect, these politicians are being excommunicated, though not officially. The point is not to scold them, but actually to protect them from the even more serious sin of receiving the Eucharist in a state of sin. It’s a prime example of the Church taking a parental role.

In his statement, Cardinal Caffarra explained (perhaps harshly) why same-sex relationships lack the sanctity of marriages between men and women.  He declared (even more harshly) that, should gay marriage become legal, “one of the pillars of our legal order—marriage as a public good—would crumble.” As a bishop, he is right to try and clarify Church teaching, and also right to say that Catholic politicians must take stances that are consistent with the Church. But what Cardinal Caffarra forgot (and wouldn’t have forgotten were Pope John Paul II still living), is that, first and foremost, the Church needs Catholic politicians. Rather than pushing Catholic politicians away with fighting words, he should have used his pastoral role to gently reprimand them for their inconsistency and suggested a dialogue with them and a skilled apologist to fully explain to them the importance of remaining consistent with the Church.

In a recent interview with New York Magazine, Archbishop Timothy Dolan commented on the different approaches of John Paul and Benedict: ‘“Ratzinger and Wojtyła would spend a lot of time arguing about that,” he says. “They said that Ratzinger,” who became Pope Benedict XVI, “would be more about the church of the catacombs, and if we lose people, so what? Because he used to love to quote, ‘It’s when you prune that you have growth.’ And Wojtyła”—Pope John Paul II—“would say, ‘Joseph, my brother, no. Are we not best when we stand high and stand tall and try to be a light to the world and salt to the earth?”’

Benedict doesn’t seem to have been doing too much to alienate people (most of his work has been to improve external relations and welcome new Catholics), which suggests that he was influenced by his friend. Hopefully he will try to tone down attempts to “prune” within the Church, because we truly are best when we stand high and tall. The spiritual work of mercy is “instruct the ignorant,” not “shun the ignorant.” By gently and patiently guiding the faithful, bishops will strengthen the Church from within, which should be the priority.