Voice of Orthodoxy?

Your page, however noble in its intention, has missed the mark on many points. You have tipped your hand with regard to your "political" stance within the Church and have presented views in many cases so unbelievably biased that they do NO better in explaining the Catholic and Christian reality than the ungrounded, uninformed, and heretical "liberals" whose views you seek to refute. A great theologian once commented that orthodoxy lies in the tension between the poles. The image he used was one of a chariot being pulled by wild horses, some in entirely different directions. The point? Any one of the "horses" itself may not be "orthodox," but rather the dialogue between all of the camps, the pushing and pulling, the ebb and flow of debate and serious pursuit of reasoned discussion will provide for the voice of "orthodoxy." One of the gravest dangers in theology is to present one's views as THE absolute truth-- this goes for any camp, liberal or conservative. There must be a balance, otherwise your credibility is at stake. Another grave danger, witnessed to by liberals and conservatives alike, is the danger of presenting one's agenda and views in artful sophistry to a theologically uneducated and unsophisticated audience as THE truth. Citing encyclicals, the Catechism, or the Bible without contextualization is proof-texting at its worst. Credibility is out the window, at least for those who have been exposed to the spectrum of debate on certain difficult issues in our Church. I did say spectrum. For example, your discussion on birth control does little more than point to Paul VI and say, "it's right because he said so." While I personally believe in the merits of NFP you have glossed over the more difficult theological issues of "Humanae Vitae." The teaching of that encyclical, employing an outdated worldview and understanding of the human person (e.g. ignoring the relational aspects of human life and focusing on the physical and biological aspects of human sexual intercourse) failed to adequately address its audience, hence the widespread dissent. Theology must always be mindful of its audience. A shifting worldview, already acknowledged (if implicitly) by the Vatican in such documents as "Lumen Gentium," required that the new encyclical take heed of this and act accordingly. Paul VI did not do this, and reverted to the classic, hierarchical paradigm, one based on the aforementioned limited and classical understanding of the human person in terms of action and biology. People are not simply agents of action, operating in a moral world of black and white. People are more complex than this, and so is our world. The morality and fertility of a marriage cannot hinge on a single sexual act where intentionality has no role or significance (so that the morality of the individual sexual act depends on whether or not there is something to impede conception, and intentionality has no place). Fr. Ford, who as you know headed up the minority group in the Papal Commision on Birth Control, readily conceded that the method and form of argumentation employed by his "side" was outdated and ineffective-- he did so publicly. He hoped to achieve the same teaching, but with, perhaps, a more updated and sophisticated argument. This was not the result. The majority group, contrary to the portrait you have painted, was not fighting for free love and permiscuity. Rather, their goal was to put forth that there might be (the mere possibility) an instance where the use of contraception was licit and morally justifiable, though not by any means the norm. We are talking about a sexual ethics without exception vis-a-vis one that does admit exceptions. Surely the shift from the classicist paradigm to the modern and communal one indicated the Church's greater appreciation for the uncertainty of life. The hierarchical paradigm depended on certainty and absolute power. The modern one admits uncertainty. ambiguity, and contingency. Further, the hierarchical paradigm depends on a certain measure of institutional credibility-- does the institution have such credibility today? Not like it did in the 50's. Catholic social ethics does not maintain an exceptionless norm, so why does sexual ethics? This is a question that needs to be explored. One last thing that bothered me was your suggestion that Paul VI's siding with the minority view in the encyclical demonstrated that the Church is not a democracy, that something isn't right just because most of the people believe it to be so. While I believe that being a simple majority does not necessarily constitute "the truth," I must ask you what role the "sensus fidelium" has in our Church? Historically one can see that this "sensus fidelium" has contributed to the development and reception of doctrine in our Church.

I have gone on long enough, so I will end here. The point in my writing here, and in particular in writing with regard to "Humanae Vitae," is not to push my own agenda but rather is to point out that the debate goes far deeper than you have indicated. You have presented material in this web page that, while persuasive and full of quotations from authoritative sources, has not taken on the challenge of presenting more than one, extremely biased position. I would say the exact same thing for someone writing from the other pole. There must be a measure of balance to preserve integrity and credibility. Otherwise, those who have spent much time considering these issues will scoff at the attempt. The great Pope John XXXIII was a student of history, mindful that indeed in "updating" our Church we needed to make sure that in a theology of mutually critical correllation we needed to be faithful both to our tradition and to our life and experience in our own time and place in history. We need to listen to the many voices in our church and theology, but must be careful not to present our own views (even if "substantiated" by the Catechism) as THE rule of orthodoxy. The matter is far more complicated than that. To suggest otherwise is to ignore that we are in the middle of a major paradigm shift that started many years ago. While some, mainly Cardinal Ratzinger and the C.D.F., have tried to restore the awe and fear, and indeed the total submission of the faithful to the every utterance of the Vatican (without critical reflection), I believe that our goal ought to be more along the lines of dialogue and patient conversation with those we disagree with. This precludes stomping on them and smothering them. I applaud your effort to be the voice of orthodoxy, certain and true, but I have to disagree with your one-sided and misleading presentations. On either the liberal or conservative side this is a grave mistake, and if we are to have any credibility we must step up the game and dialogue critically, constructively, and with humility.

Best wishes,
Michael Kelley
Essex Jct. VT


Dear Michael,

Thank you for your e-mail. I appreciate you visiting my website and taking the time to write, even tho not in agreement with everything there. It does give a chance clarify things that I may have expressed poorly.

First of all I am not trying to be "the voice of orthodoxy." What I represent is simple Catholicism, neither liberal or conservative, but rather attempting to explain as best I can Jesus' teachings as presented authoritatively in the Catechism. When I miss the mark, I welcome correction. I do not consider myself the last word, but at the same time I recognize that Jesus founded a Church to which he did give the "last word."

About the chariot analogy for orthodoxy, I like it a lot. The source of the analogy is G.K. Chesterton (certainly a "great theologian" as you say). But what he describes are the horses swerving unexpectedly, not pulling against each other. Permit me to quote the entire passage:

"Last and most important, it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair's breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfilment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious. The smallest link was let drop by the artificers of the Mediterranean, and the lion of ancestral pessimism burst his chain in the forgotten forests of the north. Of these theological equalisations I have to speak afterwards. Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.

"This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom -- that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect." (From Orthodoxy)

G.K. Chesterton by the way had some comments about birth control. He abhorred the practice. One of his epigrams about it was: no birth and no control.

Having said that, I do want to acknowledge, Michael, that you bring up important and complex questions regarding the morality of birth control. They deserve a more in depth response than what I can give in an e-mail. Have you read the compendium of essays entitled Why Humanae Vitae Was Right?

God bless,

Fr. Phil Bloom