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Tom Scharbach responds to a web-visitor who is critical of our site

The following is a slightly edited version of a letter originally sent to the Vatican2 e-mail network on Sat, 27 Jan 1996 at 10:53:55 -0500 by one of our subscribers, Tom Scharbach, who considers himself a Catholic "centrist" and is not a member of ARCC. Tom is responding to a message critical of the web-site and the goals of ARCC by a cyber visitor named Andy:


These are some of my thoughts regarding your post concerning "Real Catholicism," interspersed with your message.

    As an orthodox Catholic

I'm not certain about how you are using the term "orthodox Catholic." I hope you are using the term to mean "an active, practicing Catholic who believes the Creed, word for word, and accepts Church teaching, subject to the role of individual conscience articulated by CCC 1780-1802, and differs on nothing basic." If that is how you are using the term "orthodox Catholic," then it applies to me.

But so that you will have a sense of where I am coming from: I am a Roman Catholic, male, 48, living in Chicago, active in the life and ministry of my parish. I minister as an RCIA inquiry catechist, working with adults, as an "all phases" (inquiry, catechesis and mystagogia) catechist for our children (ages 8 through 18) who seek baptism, as a carpenter/handyman for our parish liturgical arts team, and I work with a group which arranges private adoptions as an abortion alternative.

I have been married for 22 years and Helen and I have 4 children, ages 11, 13, 15 and 17. I practiced law for 18 years and have been the Director of Information Systems for a large international law firm.

Theologically, I am a "centrist." I am not a member of any group of the Catholic left or right (e.g. CTA or CUF). I believe the creed word for word, and have no doctrinal differences with the Church on any essential issues. I have doubts, reservations and differences with the Church on marginal issues, such as birth control (we used mechanical, non-abortive methods of birth control to time and space our children). I listen carefully to the theological views of Catholic theologians, like David Tracy and Ann Carr, both members of my parish, who are trying to articulate a theology for the post-Vatican II Church, as well as to more "orthodox" theologians like Cardinal Ratzinger.

    I am deeply disturbed about the activity of this page and others like it.

We differ there. Because I am a catechist, I try to keep up with both the liberal and traditionalist wings of the Church, so I lurk on, and occasionally contribute to, a number of mail lists and read web sites from time to time. The ARCC page does not strike me as extreme or disturbing, and neither do most of the traditionalist pages. A few of the really extreme traditionalist pages do strike me as being "unCatholic" because the theology there attempts to narrow Catholicism and exclude baptized, confirmed, active Catholics from being "true" or "real" Catholics, but I suspect that the ranting/raving extremists on either side are fringe players -- basically just kooks.

I object to exclusion because "catholic," in one sense, means "here comes everybody." There are more than 1 billion Catholics, of diverse cultures and experience. On any given issue, Catholics have a spectrum of opinion and view. On the essential issues (the divinity of Jesus, for example) the spectrum of opinion is very narrow. On less essential issues (e.g. birth control) the spectrum is much wider. But every Catholic (excepting maybe Ratzinger) doubts, differs and even respectfully dissents on one thing or another. The liberals have reservations about side issue--about whether the Church can ordain women to the priesthood--and the traditionalists have reservations about the scope of unessential post-Vatican II changes, such as the vernacular mass. Being "Catholic" means to accept the universality of the Church, its inherent difference of opinion and resultant messiness.

    Again and again, I hear about the oppression of "average" Catholics by the all male hierarchy of the Church leadership. I see out-right objection and dissent in matters already closed. If this 1000 or maybe 1500 A.D., then this would cause an almost violent reaction.

Dissent, however respectful, discussion and difference have always caused trouble in the Church. Think about all of the issues and commotion raised by and about the Franciscans during the 1300's. The Franciscans were virtually outlawed as heretics because of their insistence on a life of poverty. Yet they prevailed and today who even knows when Pope John XXII reigned?

Dissent can be expressed in terms which does not treat the bishops with charity, and this, in my view, is overstepping. But respectful, prayerful dissent is permitted within the teaching of the Church.

As noted, there is a range of permitted dissent, depending on the issue. The Church recognizes that different teachings are of different importance. The divinity of Jesus is critical; one cannot profess to be Catholic unless one believes this. Whether or not artificial birth control is permitted, who can be ordained, and the language of the mass are clearly less central. The lower down the hierarchy of truth a teaching is, the wider the permitted latitude of individual conscience.

In general, the Creed embodies that which is essential, and the remaining teachings of the Church fall somewhat lower on the hierarchy.

In determining what weight to give a teaching, its manner of promulgation needs to be considered as well. The CDF recognizes five classes of teaching: (1) "of the Faith" ("de Fide" -- a doctrine authentically defined by pope or council, e.g. the divinity of Christ, defined at Nicaea in 325); (2) "potentially of the Faith" ("proxima Fide" -- what is generally considered of the Faith and lacks only the legal formality of an official declaration, e.g. the Assumption of the Virgin Mary before it was officially defined in 1950); (3) "logically necessary from the Faith" ("sententia certe" -- a belief that follows logically from the Faith, e.g. Christ's Blood is truly human blood, which logically follows from his being truly human); (4) "a near universal opinion" ("sententia communis" -- a belief that is not defined and is not directly implied by the Faith, but which nearly every Catholic has always accepted, e.g. that Mary died before she was assumed into heaven); and (5) "a tolerated opinion" -- "opinio tolerata" -- an opinion which is consistent with the faith but not formally declared, and perhaps held by only a few people -- e.g. the doctrine of Limbo, as to which the b formal statement of the Church is a papal declaration that it is not heresy to believe in Limbo).

Sorting all this out is not a task for cowards or for the lazy. It is much easier to set aside all doubt and reservations. But that is a way of avoiding intellectual growth in the faith (more on that subject later).

    Yet, in today's "enlightened" society, religion is now more of a closet activity to such a degree that homosexuals feel more at home with popular society than an orthodox Catholic.

As an aside from your main point, living in a rather "liberal" neighborhood (the University of Chicago neighborhood of Chicago, called Hyde Park), I haven't noticed a great deal of tolerance toward gays and lesbians. At least in this neighborhood, and at work, it remains very much "don't ask, don't tell," which is hardly tolerance. Merely denial.

But on the broader question: I suspect that there has always been a tension between the teachings of the Church and popular culture, in every society from the time of Pentecost.

I know that there always will be tensions between the Church and American culture, as long as the teachings of the Church are and remain true to the teachings of Jesus. Look at other areas where the teaching of the Church flies directly in the face of popular American culture: the Church's reservations about capitalism, the Church's opposition to capital punishment, the Church's concern for the poor, and so on.

Even a cursory review of the Pope's statements concerning American culture, and the US bishops' statements over the last decade, show how wide the gap is between "Catholic" and "American."

And I have not even touched on the wide difference between Catholic teaching and the teachings of the predominant religious group in this country, the "religious right."

So, Andy, I am not surprised by the fact that you find the society at odds with the teachings of the Church. I would be surprised if you did not. I know I am absolutely drop-jawed about the way in which the "religious right" seems to have confused flag waving with religion, and the values of secular, conservative America with the teachings of Jesus.

    My point, which I do have, is that somewhere that the American idea of rights and freedom have someplace in Catholicism much less any religious system. As Catholics, it is our duty to serve the Church and worship Jesus as the Church teaches. I once had liberal leanings toward birth control, euthanasia, and (God forgive me ) abortion. These ideas conflicted with the Church. One had to go. Synthesis is not possible in any way shape or form.

I believe that our duty is to be disciples of Jesus rather than to "serve the Church." Most of the time, of course, the two are not in conflict. At other times, serving the Church, as popularly understood, may be inconsistent with our call to be disciples of Jesus. At these times, the Church is best served when men and women remind it of that fact (e.g. I urge you to consider the lives and struggles of St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis, and others who set up "reform" movements, sorely needed, against great opposition from the hierarchy).

Please reflect on conversion to Jesus as a process rather than an event. We Catholics believe that conversion is a lifelong process of growth. The same is true of accepting Church teaching. Each of us has had the experience of confronting some teaching of the Church or other and initially thinking -- "Yikes, this is nuts!" Over time, as we pray on and struggle with the issue, we come to see where the Church is coming from, and, in time, we may even come to agree with the Church. I know that this has been my trajectory on the abortion issue. Ten years ago, I was strongly pro-choice; now I am persuaded that abortion is wrong. All of us need -- and have been given by God and the Church -- the freedom to grow and change over time.

    It is not our duty as laity to even try to tell the bishops and the pope what is right or wrong or how to run the Church. Despite any theological training by any one person, if you truly believe in the divine authority of the Church, you must abandon these beliefs and follow the Church in way they approve of.

Two thoughts:

First, consider, as I noted above, the long history of "reform" within the Church. Few of the great reform movements, if any, were started by Popes or bishops. Reform begins when the Holy Spirit invades the people of God and inspires them to remind our servants in power that the entire Church serves in discipleship. This is not to deny that the teaching authority of the Church rests in the bishops; it is to posit that teachers need to listen as well as speak.

Second, consider the ancient and consistently taught Catholic doctrine of "sensus fidelium," which holds, in essence, that "a thing cannot be true unless all of the faithful accept it as true." As recently formulated in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, n 12: "The body of the faithful as a whole . . . cannot err in matters of belief . . . when it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals." The faithful are the acid test of whether or not the formulations of the bishops are right or wrong. If the faithful accept the teaching, it is right; if the faithful do not accept the teaching, it is not right.

This leads me to an interesting question: should a Church teaching which is rejected by a significant number of the faithful (e.g. the ban on non-abortive mechanical birth control) be taught as if it were a litmus test? And what do the faithful do, when it is clear that this is the case?

Let me give you an example: most Catholics who respectfully dissent from the teaching of the Church on the birth control issue are not defying the Church so much as we are saying, in a nutshell, "If the Pope and the bishops were called to the sacrament of marriage, and had experience living in that sacrament, the Church would teach differently. Catholic laity, called to the sacrament of marriage and procreation, can tell the difference between having each sexual act open to conception and having the marriage as a whole open to conception, and have made a discerning, faithful choice for the latter."

    If this sounds like "intellectual captivity," I am sorry. But can you truly say that people like Mother Teresa are trapped? She lives the Christian ideal which includes recognizing the authority of the Church.

    If truly following Jesus means abandoning my intellectual background (which I do have, being a physics/chemistry major at [a major university] . . .) , I am more than happy to do it.

    The Catholic tradition is a tradition of "informed assent" and great intellectual power. The Catholic tradition is the intellectual highlight of Western civilization and the intellectual light of Christianity. Nothing in Church teaching suggests that exercise of the human intellect is in conflict with discipleship. In fact, the Church teaches that "the human intellect and will cooperate with divine grace: "Believing is an act of intellectually assenting to the divine truths by command of the will moved by God through grace." (CCC 155). You might want to take a look at CCC 153-165, which discusses the characteristics of faith, and makes clear that intellectual assent is an essential requirement, not something which can be in opposition.

    Given the intellectual sweep of the Catholic tradition (the Church fathers, the doctors, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thomas Moore and so on) I wonder at your statements, which seem so "unCatholic," or at least uninformed given your education, and have two thoughts: (1) Are you confusing intellectual arrogance, a form of pride which denies God, with intellectual activity? (2) Are you responding, perhaps, to "Bible Belt" fundamentalism, which is anti-intellectual, and sets up mind and faith in opposition?

    Whatever the case, Andy, I urge you to embrace, rather than reject, the Catholic intellectual tradition. It has served the Church well for 2,000 years, gave birth to Western Civilization, and sustains the light of Christ in a world which is increasingly secular. Jesus came to save us from our sin, not to save us from our minds. The Catholic tradition has never shirked its duty to bring intellectual clarity to the faith.


      In conclusion, look to the Scriptures to see that is was the over-intellectualism and rationalizations of the scribes and pharisees is what lead them to deny Jesus.

    There is nothing in these passages which conflicts with Catholic teaching concerning intellect and faith. Jesus, when he took after the Scribes and the Pharisees, condemned them for empty actions, for lack of understanding. Thinking about the words you use, "over-intellectualism and rationalizations," I gather that you understand this, Andy, but I urge you to make a careful and discerning distinction between intellectualism and "over-intellectualism."

    Of course, your point is one that cuts both ways: I have a simple rule-of-thumb to tell me when a statement is "over-intellectualized" -- if my head continues to spin after I've studied and prayed on a statement for a while, and the subject matter is something that is supposed to be accessible to ordinary, intelligent human beings without special training (not, say, astrophysics) then chances are the statement makes no sense. I use this as a bellwether for the statements of our bishops, as well as the writings of Nietzsche and the blatherings of Pat Robertson. It is a crude test, but it works reasonably well. Maybe it is sensus fidelium in action ...

    Andy, the Catholic Church is not a monolith, with clear, black and white teaching on everything, leaving no room for individual conscience or paradox. Being a Catholic Christian is NOT a matter of lining up what the Church believes (as promulgated, say, by the CCC) and lining up what the individual believes, and then saying "Well, there is a 95% correlation, and so I should be Catholic ..." or "I only believe 75% of this stuff, so I shouldn't be Catholic." Being Catholic is first and foremost, and everything and always to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, in all its inherent messiness.

    Reflect on St. Peter. How many times did Jesus tell "Pete, you are so far off base it isn't even funny . . ."? At one point, Jesus called Peter a "satan." But Jesus chose Peter to lead the Church and gave him the keys to bind and to loose. That should tell us all something about the improbability of our version of "truth" being 100% correct, and the need for it. The Church is alive because Jesus is with us, not because we, as Catholic Christians, do anything except stumble around tripping over our own shoelaces.

    My best to you in your journey in faith. Please keep me in your prayers, and I will do likewise for you.


    In Christ,
    Tom Scharbach
    St. Thomas the Apostle Parish

Other voices

Another Voice

Questions From a Ewe

Challenges Facing Catholicism
(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in converation with Dr Ingrid Shafer)

Edited for posting on the ARCC Web Site 28 January 1996 by Ingrid Shafer.
Hypertext version (c) 1996 Ingrid H. Shafer

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