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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
Catholic “Caste” Distorts Christ’s Gospel

By James E. Biechler

"I wouldn’t have such a problem with ARCC’s agenda, its Bill of Rights and its proposed constitution if they did not put so much emphasis on women priests, remarriage after divorce and the end of mandatory celibacy.  Changing the church’s position on these three matters alone would ruin the church.  How can you think it would still be “Catholic”?"
--J.M., Denver, CO 

At the heart of the problem of church reform lies the reality of “caste.”  I use the term which is familiar to us in describing the social structure of India.  We commonly speak of India’s social structure as a “caste system.”  Indian apologists usually describe caste as nothing more than a system of occupations and professions.  That it is much more is clear from the fact that one is born into a caste and the fact of such birth determines not just one’s occupation but an entire array of social possibilities ranging from commensality to marriage. 

The term “caste” comes from the Portuguese “casta” meaning “race, breed, lineage.”  But that word’s etymology is the Latin “casta” meaning “pure, chaste.”  This is consistent with our understanding of the lower caste groups in India being regarded as unclean or impure relative to the higher caste groups. 

Notice how all of the issues mentioned in your question touch upon sexuality.  Sexuality has commonly been associated with notions of “purity” or “impurity.”  If a Catholic confesses a sin of “impurity” everyone understands that to concern a sexual act.  Strange as it might seem to the modern mind, throughout Christian history, the goodness of sexuality could never be assumed but needed defending.  Unfortunately, that battle has never been won.  Virginity and celibacy are assumed to be states of “purity” with the clear implication that marriage is in the other column.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that we have a social structure in the Catholic church which has clear parallels to the caste groupings of India.  There are those who lead lives of purity and chastity and then there are the married.  For the Christian man “there is no security sleeping next to a serpent,” as the monk Hrabanus Maurus put it (referring to marriage). 

The reason ARCC includes—note that I do not use your term “emphasizes”—the issues you mention, is that, as an association formed after the Second Vatican Council, it takes seriously the council’s “turn toward the world.”  The council did not look upon the world, including human nature, human activity, and marriage, as something to escape from but as goods to which the Christian life can be committed and in which it can be fulfilled.  “World rejection,” the consistent and thoroughgoing spiritual agenda of Christianity for a millennium and a half, had finally run its course.
The theologian Bernard Lonergan, in assessing the impact of Vatican II, spoke of the church’s transition from a classicist to a historical worldview.  This turn to a historical understanding of the institutional church enables us to relativize some of its practices and attitudes.  Chief among these are its attitudes toward sexual activity, toward women and toward marriage.  Once we see these attitudes as essentially “world-rejecting”—because they are attitudes denying the goodness of God’s creation—we can dethrone them from their exalted place in Christian spirituality by recognizing them as alien to the gospel and, in fact, to the Biblical tradition as a whole. 

What these “world-rejecting” attitudes effected in the church was a de facto caste structure with married women at the bottom and the male celibate at the top.  Not only is this structure now without any theological legitimation, we have discovered that it is positively inimical to the church’s mission.  A caste-structured church is antithetical to the gospel and its message is sterile and counterproductive.  Our contemporaries, Christian and non-Christian alike, simply cannot give positive response to any message coming from a society which regards some of its members as second-class.  As Marshall McLuhan put it, “the medium is the message.”  No amount of rhetoric can conceal the social reality that the church’s message of gospel freedom finds practical rejection at the highest levels of its organization. 

In one sense, I suppose you are right.  The Catholic church has been “world-rejecting” for so long that, should it now reject its “world-rejection” it might cause some confusion.  But don’t you think that’s a small price to pay for honesty and authenticity in our preaching of the Gospel?  Wouldn’t it be great if we could put an end to discrimination and structural inequality in our church?  We could then take our place more comfortably alongside those noble souls in our world who are leading the struggle for human rights and equality. 


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 18 July 1999
Last updated 18 July 1999
Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer
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