‘You can’t pick and choose in Catholic moral teaching’

By Greg Watry

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The church must evolve with the times, and the clergy must stand by their faith in the face of animosity from the secular world, a Catholic philosopher said.

John Rist, a philosopher and professor at The Catholic University of America, said in the latest edition of Vatican Voices that in order for Catholicism to flourish the clergy “have got to be visible, they have to be unpopular in many cases.  If they don’t, they’ll be failing their job.”

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(CNS Photo)

Rist recognizes the risks the clergy take when promoting Catholic philosophy.  “If you say you’re opposed to abortion you don’t get your head cut off, but you get abused.  You might be called a pedophile or something like that.”

But young people, who are idealistic, are drawn to morally brave behavior, he said.  Priests set a good example for the laity by defending their faith.

In order to defend the faith, Rist said, one must learn what secular culture says and why.  By not engaging with the secular world, the church alienates itself and “the outside world gets further and further away, and you get less and less chance to have contact with it or even understand what it’s doing.”

The church addressed the issue of secularism during the Second Vatican Council.  However the council fathers didn’t understand “the problem they were trying to solve,” Rist said.  “They knew somehow the church was out of sync with the modern world,” he said, but not why.

During Vatican II and still today, he said, the problem of disconnection with the modern world lies in stagnant thinking.

Theologians don’t understand that the church is allowed to evolve, Rist said.  “They think that if we open the door to thinking and considering change, we’re going to lose everything.”

The truth is the church is always in a state of flux, Rist said.  Dramatic changes, as those that occurred during Vatican II, have happened throughout the history of the church.

In the New Testament, Rist said, Jesus claims, “’I will lead you to all truth,’ not I’ll give it to you right now on a plate.”

29 Responses

  1. The curious title quote has the appearance of running contrary to the basic theme of evolution in the church. What am I missing here, Professor Rist?

  2. Some of us think the problem comes down to this: Priests and the hierarchy want to be liked. Rather than upset some people and, thus, not be liked, they do not lead.

    This same phenomenon appears in much of the American political world as well. Long-established political principles are abandoned because the politicians holding them fear being disliked by some of their colleagues in Washington and by some of their constituents. Rather than fight for principle and risk their political careers, they choose not to take that risk.

  3. I have spoken to some of a different faith who point to their acceptance of homosexuality as a lifestyle and “a woman’s right to chose” as an “evolution in my faith” and have read the websites of others claiming to be Catholics say the same thing. In fact I sat in a pew as a left wing priest declared, “Jesus had a whole lot more to say about caring for poor than he ever did about abortion or marriage”. The priest had just been confronted for his lack of support for a constitutional amendment preserving marriage and pro-life activities and he was angry about it. Still another priest publicly called for the resignation of Archbishop Nienstedt for similar reasons.

    In his message for the 2013 day of world peace Pope Benedict has a different perspective:

    …….”The precondition for peace is the dismantling of the dictatorship of relativism and of the supposition of a completely autonomous morality which precludes acknowledgment of the ineluctable natural moral law inscribed by God upon the conscience of every man and woman.”..

    …”Peacemakers are those who love, defend and promote life in its fullness
    4. The path to the attainment of the common good and to peace is above all that of respect for human life in all its many aspects, beginning with its conception, through its development and up to its natural end. True peacemakers, then, are those who love, defend and promote human life in all its dimensions, personal, communitarian and transcendent. Life in its fullness is the height of peace. Anyone who loves peace cannot tolerate attacks and crimes against life. …

    ….There is also a need to acknowledge and promote the natural structure of marriage as the union of a man and a woman in the face of attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different types of union; such attempts actually harm and help to destabilize marriage, obscuring its specific nature and its indispensable role in society. ”

    Pope Benedict is engaging the secular world but it is a different type of engagement than the surrender many of us find in our parishes. Most Catholics are disengaged for the lack of leadership at the parish level.

  4. Norm:

    I think the obvious way to reconcile the two ideas is to say that the church must evolve IN ORDER TO defend its beliefs and moral principles. If you listen to the podcast, it is clear that Professor Rist does not mean by “evolve” that the church should adopt the moral principles of, say, the Left. Rather, he’s an academic, and he most probably means that certain categories of thought that were in vogue during, say, Trent, are no longer popular, so the church ought to update its language and even its “thinking” so as to be able to connect, not compromise, with the world today. That was, in fact, the point of the Council, but Rist rightly says that the Council fathers weren’t very successful in bridging the gap.

  5. We can’t pick and choose what to believe. We aren’t protestants!

  6. “You can’t pick and choose on Catholic moral teaching”…but then the church must “evolve” (mumbo jumbo to justify changing in conformity with the world secular culture). Cannot have it both ways professor.

  7. Stephen:

    Why does “evolve” mean that one must be able to “pick and choose in Catholic moral teaching”?

    It seems to me that it’s not that the good professor can’t have it both ways, it’s just that you can’t have it your way.

  8. You should use lines of evidence to arrive at what makes sense. The church has made many errors in what it teaches over the centuries They taught the “faithful” to believe nonsense, such as the earth was the center of the universe, and the church waged wars and murdered thousands of people in God’s name, and so on. You would be severely punished if you didn’t believe the “party” line. It is just another political system that is trying to move to the conservative backwoods of the 1950s, interested mostly in preserving the power and wealth of the church. Catholic moral teaching is no more correct than anyone else’s teaching, nor is it always the truth. Question authority, as it is rarely right.

  9. Most of the Catholic Church’s moral teaching comes from “old” men who are firmly ensconced in Rome. Take the church’s teaching that sexual intercourse must always be for the procreation of children. Aside from extreme conservative Catholics, no adult Catholic follows that teaching. The absence of the once prevalent large Catholic family is proof. Today’s better educated Catholics want a say in the number of children they have. They no longer want Rome making family decisions for them.

  10. The old men of Rome are killing the church. The parish we used to attend is now devoid of younger families. The bright open windows that looked out over a beautiful tree lined area behind the altar have been covered up with old traditional motifs from an old church long torn down. The Latin mass is regularly celebrated with a few very old conservative Catholics in a now nearly empty church, that once was filled to overflowing.

  11. John (I am assuming the same John wrote both commentaries):

    In Matthew 16:18, the Lord said “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”

    The Lord built the Church, NOT Peter nor the old men of Rome.

    I very much doubt anyone or anything can kill off the Church — if Peter for all his cowardice and treachery failed to do so in her beginnings. And let us not forget that her founder also was nailed to a cross.

    All of us entered the Church as sinners and we will all die as sinners. The survival of the Church cannot depend on us and I believe Jesus knows this.

    The challenge of the Church is NOT to change the message to fit the audience, but rather to change the DELIVERY of the message to fit the times.

    The message is really about magnifying GOD’s love in the Church, not magnifying OUR love for humankind. For HOW (in heaven’s name) can our puny, individual loves compare separately or combined (even if evolved) to HIS?

    By all means, question all HUMAN authority. Language, after all, is a human invention (and, therefore, subject to human evolution). The TRUTH (which is GOD) is NOT.

  12. Many of the church’s teachings do not come from Christ, but from the hierarchy. Many of these teachings are antiquated, and were used for the fear factor that always kept the sheep in line. The “yes Father, no Father” era is pretty much over.

  13. Dave, of course many of the Church Teachings comes from the hierarchy, that is what Jesus intended Peter, the Apostles and their succesors to do. If this is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church it can not be your interpretation or my interpretation that counts but rather that of the teaching authority of the bishops as the successors to Peter.

    On human sexuality, please take an opportunity to read Humanae Vitae. It is short and in my opinion full of insight (IMO at least). I think if the church teaching would get a fair hearing, the selfishness of the world would change.

  14. To Anonymous, on December 19, 2012 at 10:18 am, Thanks, I finally figured out how to access the podcast and I agree. Professor Rist is on solid ground.

  15. MY RESPONSE to Miriam.
    Strong’s Concordance states that the “rock” is translated as a physical place (stone, rocky ground) whereas man, (the church), has turned it into a metaphor for Peter’s firmness and strength of soul (he was human, too, not infallible). The term Christians is about people who are followers of Christ (like republicans or democrats). The message of Christ was to pave the way to a relationship with the Father thru the sacrifice of his death as payment for sin.

    Mariam states, “All of us entered the Church as sinners and we will all die as sinners.” Are you saying that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross was for naught? If so, then what good is the church?? The purpose of the church should not be to “magnify god’s love” but to show people that the way to a relationship with the Father is by accepting the sacrifice of Christ. Once the sacrifice is accepted then the relationship to the Father is secured.

    Catholicism demands a relationship with the church when the relationship SHOULD be with the Father, not even to Christ, but with the Father. The church is NOT “magnifying God’s love” when it terrorizes people about birth control, (you pick a few here…), homosexuality, etc. God’s love is inclusive, not exclusive, as witness Jesus protecting, feeding, comforting, disciplining (vs punishing, and there is a difference). Whereas the church (catholic or otherwise) seems to be clearly excluding those with differing points of view (liberals, intellectual thinkers, gays). Case in point – the church condemns birth control but no where is the instruction that “magnifying God’s love” is demonstrated by adopting the children who are presently in protective custody. Instead, bystanders ridicule the “sinner” instead of looking in the mirror to see their own sin and acting the way Jesus did when he was trying to teach us what it means to magnify (demonstrate) God’s love. After all, there but for the grace of God go I.

    God’s love and grace are boundless, and flows throughout the entire universe, and is not subject to regulation and disbursement by the Catholic or any other church. The Catholic church is still around because it reinvents itself over time.

  16. “Take the church’s teaching that sexual intercourse must always be for the procreation of children.”

    No, the Church’s teaching is that sexual intercourse must always be open to the procreation of children. In other words, we cannot do anything that would frustrate the possibility of this end. It must also be unitive as well. It goes without saying, that we should not do anything to frustrate this end either.

  17. 1. “Strong’s Concordance states that the “rock” is translated as a physical place (stone, rocky ground) whereas man, (the church), has turned it into a metaphor for Peter’s firmness and strength of soul (he was human, too, not infallible). ”

    Strong’s Concordance was written for the King James version of the Bible. It is more useful as an Index than as an exegesis. At any rate, the Catholic Church does not recognize this translation nor any exegesis based on it (e.g. “physical place” or “metaphor”). As a Catholic, I agree with the Church. If you are NOT Catholic, it would be pointless for us to discuss this in this forum.

    2. “The term Christians is about people who are followers of Christ (like republicans or democrats). The message of Christ was to pave the way to a relationship with the Father thru the sacrifice of his death as payment for sin. Mariam states, “All of us entered the Church as sinners and we will all die as sinners.” Are you saying that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross was for naught?”

    To Catholics, Christians are NOT merely “followers of Christ (like republicans or democrats).” To Catholics, “Christians” believe Christ IS God; the only begotten SON of God; who died for our sins; rose and ascended into heaven and sits on the right-hand of the Father. In this context, your question is UNINTELLIGIBLE. A non sequitur.

    Christ’s death and resurrection do NOT mean we are NOT born sinners nor does it follow that once baptized we do NOT die as sinners. The Catholic Church teaches the Augustinian doctrine of “Original Sin” and administers the Sacrament of Extreme Unction to the dying precisely because we sin. We may become saints LATER in heaven. BUT we are sinners in need of forgiveness as long as we breathe on this planet.

    And exactly WHAT is our sin (especially at birth)?

    The sin is idolatry. All sin is idolatry. We commit idolatry when we don’t LOVE God FIRST. With the exception of the Blessed Mother, we don’t start life loving God. We may not end life loving God. And it is highly questionable that we love God in between.

    This is the main reason why the Catholic Church teaches repentance and makes available the Sacrament of Reconciliation — to raise OUR own awareness of our sins. Our sins are NOT news to God. God has forgiven our sins long before we were conceived. God LOVED us FIRST. God will LOVE us LAST. And God LOVES us in between.

    For God IS Love. And LOVE begins with GOD.

    However, our love for GOD, on the other hand, begins necessarily with repentance.

    For we begin to know of God’s LOVE for us only when we realize how very little indeed we love HIM in return — in spite of His many gifts and sacrifice, in spite of the fact there in none more deserving of our puny love than HIM.

    3. ” If so, then what good is the church?? The purpose of the church should not be to “magnify god’s love” but to show people that the way to a relationship with the Father is by accepting the sacrifice of Christ. Once the sacrifice is accepted then the relationship to the Father is secured.”

    Jesus’ sacrifice is just ONE of many evidence of God’s LOVE for us. And even Jesus admits in His parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) that rising from the dead is not compelling enough evidence to convert the nonbeliever.

    The message of Jesus Christ is that God LOVES us. God loves us even as He suffers us to reject His perfect LOVE — even as Jesus LOVED us and suffered for us when hanging on the cross. Thus, OUR own puny love for GOD begins necessarily with repentance.

    Christ’s MESSAGE finds in the Catholic Church its medium of delivery like light finds a lens. God’s LOVE is magnified in the Catholic Church (her laity and her religious) through the Church’s teachings and her sacraments. Of course, all lenses are imperfect mediums for light at best. But history has shown, God builds on human weakness.

    4. “Catholicism demands a relationship with the church when the relationship SHOULD be with the Father, not even to Christ, but with the Father.”

    Love for the Church cannot take precedence over our love for GOD.

    Catholic Teaching is very clear on this point — whether one looks it up in the Catholic Bible, in the Catholic Magisterium, or in the traditions of the Catholic Church.

    The Catholic Church exhorts ALL of us (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) to LOVE GOD FIRST.

    All other loves (whether it’s love for one’s self or love for others) come second.

    5. “The church is NOT ‘magnifying God’s love’ when it terrorizes people about birth control, (you pick a few here…), homosexuality, etc. God’s love is inclusive, not exclusive, as witness Jesus protecting, feeding, comforting, disciplining (vs punishing, and there is a difference). Whereas the church (catholic or otherwise) seems to be clearly excluding those with differing points of view (liberals, intellectual thinkers, gays). Case in point – the church condemns birth control but no where is the instruction that “magnifying God’s love” is demonstrated by adopting the children who are presently in protective custody. Instead, bystanders ridicule the “sinner” instead of looking in the mirror to see their own sin and acting the way Jesus did when he was trying to teach us what it means to magnify (demonstrate) God’s love. After all, there but for the grace of God go I. God’s love and grace are boundless, and flows throughout the entire universe, and is not subject to regulation and disbursement by the Catholic or any other church. The Catholic church is still around because it reinvents itself over time.”

    How does an UNARMED Church terrorize “people about birth control, (…), homosexuality, etc.”? The threat of eternal damnation cannot compare to the immediate threat of gunfire (which is what governments use to enforce the LAW.)

    And how exactly does exposing perfectly healthy female bodies to the unnecessary risks of oral contraceptives pass for LOVE — much less God’s LOVE?

    And why do you assume the “bystanders (who) ridicule the ‘sinner'” are all necessarily Catholic?

    How is it even possible to contemplate the “regulation and disbursement” of GOD’s LOVE?

    And it’s oxymoronic to accuse the Catholic Church of re-inventing itself and failing to evolve at the same time.

    Regardless, I would NOT worry about the Catholic Church being a church made up of sinners. Though one cannot begin to magnify God’s LOVE if one does not LOVE GOD FIRST and love for GOD makes repentance inescapable, I trust God has built-in margins for error. So, rejoice in God’s LOVE always and PEACE be with you.

  18. Norm, no one is questioning dogma or doctrine, but church teachings are a different story. Take the recent presidential election where some Catholic prelates were very open about how Catholics should vote. Some went as far as to imply Catholics voting for President Obama could be placing their souls in jeopardy. Thirty years ago that sort of religious intimidation might have worked. I am well aware of Peter and his successors, but what some in the hierarchy are trying to sell as church teaching especially in matters of contraception and gay marriage will be met with resistance by the laity.

  19. Dover, the disappearance of the once prevalent large Catholic family clearly indicates Catholic couples are using contraceptives. Today’s Catholic couples want to decide how many children they have, not the church. That is the reality of the times.

  20. Dover, the disappearance of the once prevalent large Catholic family clearly indicates Catholic couples are using contraceptives. Today’s Catholic couples want to decide how many children they have, not the church. That is the reality of the times.

    What question could this possibly be answering?

  21. Duh, that Catholics use birth control, and are not overly concerned about doing so.

  22. Dover_Beach, I agree with you. The comments of Dave Schwartz are unintelligible in the context of FAITH in God’s LOVE.

    First of all, the Roman Catholic Church is NOT against ‘family planning’. There are ‘family planning alternatives’ to oral contraceptives that are acceptable to the Roman Catholic Church — sexual abstinence for one.

    Secondly, the disappearance of large Catholic families does NOT mean NECESSARILY that Catholics use oral contraceptives as their exclusive method for birth control. As one with a graduate degree in Statistics, I am sorely tempted to ask him to support his statements. But I will resist because there will be no way to verify the data. How does one even propose to define ‘Catholic’ for the count?

    As for the Catholics who used oral contraceptives in the past and now want to return to the Church (there is always the Sacrament of Reconciliation), do we count these Catholics for or against the teachings of the Church?

    So, WHY the NEED to change the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church at all?

    But there is really no point in continuing this discussion with Mr. Schwartz because he will NOT be persuaded merely by facts or reason, which are coached necessarily in language. After all, language (including mathematics) is a human invention and the TRUTH is not. The TRUTH (which is GOD) may be entirely lost on Mr. Schwartz.

    I suggest we leave him in PEACE.

  23. Miriam

    Duquesne University is a private Catholic institution that sued it’s health insurer for a million dollars and change. It seems the insurer paid out claims to Duquesne’s employees for over a million dollars covering a one year period for contraceptive medications and devices. The university claimed that by doing so, the insurer violated Duquesne’s Catholic principles. I have no way of knowing, but i am guessing most of those employees are Catholic. Point being, more proof Catholics do use contraceptives.

    Abstinence….I doubt that is very popular. Other family planning methods that do not use medications or devices are likewise not popular and quickly abandoned. You may consider it offensive and sinful, but it is reality.

  24. Dear Mr. Schwartz,

    If “(you) have no way of knowing, but (are) guessing most of those employees are Catholic”; why do you claim proof? You may be able to claim ‘evidence’, but NOT proof. Or don’t you KNOW the difference? However, your own admission of ignorance undermines the credibility of the evidence you have on offer.

    Even if ALL Catholics (without exception) USE oral contraceptives, the evidence cannot be taken as an argument against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are NOT based on statistical surveys of current practices of the laity (or for that matter, of even the religious.) The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are based entirely on the Church’s discernment of the teachings of Christ in the light of FAITH.

    It also follows that what I “consider offensive and sinful” is of NO material consequence to the Roman Catholic Church.

    So go in PEACE. We have no common ground on which to hold a discussion.

  25. Miriam

    There is no need to be insulting, this is just a discussion about Catholics and contraceptives. Yes I was guessing about Duquesne University’s employees being predominantly Catholic, but it was based on prior experience with other Catholic institutions. Your points are well taken about church teachings, but Catholics do pick and choose.

    According to church teaching, not attending mass on Sunday is a sin. According to a fairly recent Wall Street Journal report, only 30% of Catholics attend mass on Sundays. I don’t condone missing mass or using contraceptives, but it is what it is.

  26. Many on these blogs want to discuss issues with only those who agree with them. The church loves to make rules. For centuries the church excommunicated those who believed the earth was not the center of the universe, like a corrupt government they taxed members for 30% of their gross incomes to build cold and gigantic cathedrals to nothing, punishing with excommunication and jail those who did not conform. The church does not speak for God, only themselves, as they continue the effort to control the papacy and future agenda.

  27. Dear Mr. Schwartz,

    In what way did I insult you? By calling you to task about your comments?

    Regardless, no offense was intended. However, I reserve my right to challenge your assertions, as you have a right to challenge mine.

    I’m sorry my response is so late. I just returned to this blog this afternoon (1:32 PM 1/20/2013).

    Apparently, wishing you to “go in PEACE” is meaningless. So, good-bye.

    PS Please feel free to have the last word. But this is the last response from me with regard to this thread.

  28. Dear John,

    How can “excommunication” mean a material loss to any honest atheist?

    Unlike Islam and the Jewish religion or even the Mormons, the Roman Catholic Church was not and is not constituted to be a theocracy.

    In Matthew 22:19-21, Jesus said “Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

    With regard to taxes, one needs the backing of an army to collect taxes. The Roman Catholic Church NEVER had a standing army and NEVER taxed under its own volition. HOWEVER, the Roman Catholic Church has worked WITH governments (when these were not actively persecuting Christians) and these governments had the armies and the jails to enforce tax laws as well as the means to mete out capital punishment to those found guilty by the Roman Catholic Church’s inquisitions.

    Read history (any country’s history and feel free to EXCLUDE the history of the Roman Catholic Church).

    The collusion between the Roman Catholic Church and the governments caused much of the corruption that we read in history books. This does NOT excuse the Roman Catholic Church for allowing herself to be used by these governments or to use these governments for her own agenda. But it does challenge your assertion that the Roman Catholic Church ever collected taxes or burned witches or imprisoned scientists WITHOUT the brute force necessary and made available by the governments of those countries at the time.

    But you are CORRECT in saying “The church does not speak for God” for GOD speaks for HIMSELF.

    However, the Roman Catholic Church as instituted by Jesus Christ is the single REPOSITORY of our human knowledge of the one, true GOD (when HIS WORD became flesh).

    Your sheer hatred for the Roman Catholic Church condemns you from ever getting to know her. We cannot know what we do not LOVE FIRST.

    BUT as a Catholic, I believe one can only know the TRUTH by knowing GOD. TRUTH does not exist outside of GOD. When one loves the TRUTH, one cannot (will not) escape GOD. And it is only when one truly loves GOD FIRST can one put one’s love for anything else in its proper place — whether it is the love for one’s government or religion (paganism), the love for one’s countrymen or the poor (humanism), or the love for one’s own self or sexual partner (narcissism).

    So, love GOD FIRST and leave the Roman Catholic Church in PEACE.

  29. You have to stop believing in evolution, then you can have a right view of God and theology: http://www.kolbecenter.org/the-traditional-catholic-doctrine-of-creation/

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