Tuesday, May 25, 2004
Perhaps as a signal of its support for a new constitutional right of "sacramental access," the New York Times has suddenly become very protective of the right to receive communion. In an editorial, the Times cautions that "things get sticky fast when religious leaders try to dictate public policy to their church members who hold elective office." Unintentionally, the editorial underscores how the emerging secularist take on the recent spate of bishops' pronouncements is more dangerous than even a skeptical reading of the pronouncements themselves.
After making the obvious point that certain bishops could be criticized for not paying more attention to Catholic office-holders' positions on the death penalty or the war in Iraq, the Times dramatically expands the criticism, supporting the notion that the Vatican lacks the moral standing to condemn the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal because of its own problems with clergy sexual abuse. Indeed, the Times implies that this democracy thing would be a whole lot easier if the Church would just keep to itself, or at least speak in a non-binding, consent-inviting way. In the Times' view, "any attempt to make elected leaders toe a doctrinal line when it comes to their public duties" is problematic.
Apparently, then, there is no doctrine of sufficient significance to warrant the Church exercising its religious authority over its members once they enter the public square. Support abortion? Fine. Support euthanasia? Fine. Support genocide? Fine. What we're left with is a Church consisting only of loosely affiliated individuals, with no communal identity apart from members' ongoing, voluntary decisions to submit themselves to the Church's teachings. Pope Paul VI's caution in Gaudium et Spes looms large, as he warned against contenting ourselves "with a merely individualistic morality." Certainly some of the bishops' statements are properly subject to criticism, but we should also keep in mind where that criticism seeks to take us. If the bishops are to censor themselves from speaking authoritative truth to those in the Church who wield public power, the Church's authority will be of the thinnest sort, and the relentless march of individualism will have made significant inroads into our most fundamental conceptions of religious community.