My Take: Catholicism is a dialogue, not a monologue
The Holy See should be engaged in a dialogue not a monologue, author argues.
June 8th, 2012
08:50 AM ET

My Take: Catholicism is a dialogue, not a monologue

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN)–Whenever I write about Roman Catholicism, as I did earlier this week in a post about the Vatican’s condemnation of Sister Margaret Farley’s Just Love, traditional Catholics write to tell me to shut up.

The most common complaints are two: First, that because I am not a Catholic I have no standing to kvetch; second, that Catholicism is what the hierarchy in Rome says it is, so no one, Catholic or Protestant or otherwise, has any standing to criticize what it has to say.

The tone is not always Christian, or even civil, but I have to admit my critics have a point.

I live in America’s most Catholic state (Massachusetts), so as they say, some of my best friends are Catholics. But I was raised in the Episcopal Church, and I have not yet converted to Catholicism. So shouldn’t I restrict my grumblings to faiths closer to home?

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Moreover, the hierarchy in Rome has traditionally claimed its right to speak authoritatively on Catholic theology. Since the First Vatican Council of 1869-70, it has even claimed that the pope can speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals.

Regarding the first complaint, I am reminded how the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. responded when a consortium of clergy from Montgomery, Alabama, told him to butt out of the private affairs of their city. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King rejected the claim that he was an outside agitator who should confine his grumblings to his home church in Atlanta.

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,” King wrote, before going on to speak so eloquently about the “interrelatedness” of all of our communities. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” he wrote. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

It must be added on this score that the affairs of the Roman Catholic Church are by no means private. In fact, it is hard to imagine a more public institution. Here in the United States, Catholic priests, nuns and laypeople staff Catholic schools and hospitals and food banks. And Catholic thinkers weigh in regularly on matters of national importance, including capital punishment, abortion, just war, gay marriage and, most recently and prominently “Obamacare.”

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In other words, Catholicism affects us all. So all of us have standing to criticize it on any public matter to which it lends its voice.

The second criticism — that when the Vatican speaks, people like Sister Farley and myself should shut up and listen — betrays a severe misunderstanding in my view of how any religious tradition works.

Catholicism is not a monologue; it is (and has always been) a dialogue. Sister Farley’s Just Love is part of that conversation. So is the Vatican’s condemnation of it. But after the book and the condemnation and the defenses and attacks that follow it, that conversation continues.

In the comments section to my Farley piece, “DearbornGuy” writes,

It is simple. Really. The good "sister" is preaching/teaching/writing the opposite of long-standing Church teaching. The Vatican says this "teaching" does not represent what the Church teaches, and publicly says so, so as not to confuse those who see this woman as a "sister," and presume that what she is selling is what the Church teaches. What's wrong with that? If so-called "sister" does not like it, there are plenty of "religions" she can be. She just can't call herself Catholic.

“J” echoes him:

So this guy is basically applauding this nun for having secular beliefs instead of those of the Catholic Church and God's teachings, which she commmitted [SIC] her life to.

What these criticisms miss is Catholicism’s ancient and venerable tradition of disputation and debate. They assume that the issues at hand are settled. They assume that the pope is Catholic and Farley is not. That he is religious and she is "secular." But isn’t that precisely what is at issue here?

In a Facebook exchange, Tobias Winright, an associate professor at Saint Louis University, told me he sees “creeping infallibility” here — “the view that anything and everything that comes out of the Vatican is right and true, and that any Catholic who questions or dissents from it is wrong and bad.”

But the Roman Catholic Church itself has never gone that far. Infallibility extends only to very specific proclamations of the pope. The rest of it is up for grabs, shaped over time by give-and-take among bishops in Rome, nuns, priests, lay Catholics and "outside agitators."

Those who see me as an anti-Catholic bigot may not believe this, but one reason I write fairly regularly on Catholic matters is because I have long valued the important role the Roman Catholic Church has played in American public life. I particularly value the loud “NO!” it can offer to American culture at times when we need to be told to put on the brakes.

Over the course of U.S. history, the Vatican has used its ancient storehouse of moral and spiritual capital to say "no" to abortion and capital punishment and preemptive war. I don't agree with its position on all these questions, but I know our national conversation about all these questions has been much the better for it.

Unfortunately, Catholicism's moral capital has been squandered in the still festering sexual abuse scandal, so when it stands up today to speak out about just war or poverty, it doesn’t have the megaphone it once had. Moreover, for reasons I can only attribute to a horrible lack of understanding of the world outside the Holy See (and a lack of public relations personnel inside it), the Roman Catholic Church is now squandering the little moral capital it has left on attacks on Girl Scouts and nuns.

The Roman Catholic Church ought to know better than that, and I intend to continue to write about it whenever it loses its way.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Gay marriage • Homosexuality • Same-sex marriage • Sexuality • United States • Vatican

soundoff (215 Responses)
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  2. DearbornGuy

    Stephen – appreciate you quoting me. I concur there can be discussion in the Church, and it can be healthy discussion. The issue I believe with the good Sister, and others like her, is that they represent their thinking as the thinking of the Church. And that is no true. If someone is saying, I think because of the lack of priests, we should have more discussion about married priests, there would not be this kind of outcry. But when you come out and take on long-held beliefs of the Church, and state they are wrong, and do it as someone who apears to be "in authority," then you open yourself up for critics. And when you are asked to not continue to do it, and do, then you are clearly pushing against leadership and know it. If I have a disagreement with the management of my company, I have two choices – I can rip my company in public, or I can work behind the scenes to make my point and try to change things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. But there is much more respect for the opinion. I do not believe "preaching" against Church teaching in public over and over is dialogue.

    June 20, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • Dorothy

      I believe that the fallacy of your argument DearBornGuy is that the only definition of "church" is "the hierarchy. As a long time Catholic and an avid history reader, it is quite obvious to me that most of the embarrassment within Catholicism has stemmed from the actions (or lack thereof) of our hierarchy. Given that, the voice of the Church can be from its faithful as well. A recent poll showed that 59% of us believe in Gay Marriage. Even more of us probably believe in contraception. Just like many people believe the earth rotated around the sun before the Church hierarchy apologized to Galileo, so too with many other issues, the voice of the faithful needs to be spoken, heard, and contemplated. Sister's "authority" comes not from the fact that she is a consecrated religious, but from the fact that she is part of the body of the Church who through her theological studies and a reflective conscience not only has the right to speak publicly, but has a responsibility to do so. We as church have a responsibility to reflectively listen and consider her wisdom along with the wisdom of the hierarchy, and in the end have a personally informed conscience by which we live out our faith.

      June 30, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  3. Jeanne

    Stephen, Tell me when the Catholic church has been in dialogue???? It strongly believes in monologue and for those who don't go along with the mandate from Rome are silenced! Dialogue??????

    June 13, 2012 at 9:30 am |

    IF YOU WORK for a living there are certain company standards that you are expected to adhere to. It goes with the territory whether you like it or not. Even social clubs have rules and bylaws that the group as a whole has agreed to observe.

    If every other type of human gathering has rules we are expected to adopt, why then is church membership expected to be exempt?

    If you want the priviledges and benefits of membership, then swallow your pride and get with the program. If you don't like the way the organization is headed you are free to hit the road. Its the same with employment, social clubs and churches.

    but that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

    June 12, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • shoos

      "IF YOU WORK for a living there are certain company standards that you are expected to adhere to. It goes with the territory whether you like it or not. Even social clubs have rules and bylaws that the group as a whole has agreed to observe."

      What is interesting to me is many of these people (specifically Women Religious) have jobs and give up their wages which are absorbed by the Church and they in turn receive a smaller stipend. So their jobs are more than living out their orders. You make it sound like they are paid to be devout slaves to the mandate of the Holy See. Please, my way or the highway is a bad argument.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • chief

      re richard – comparing work to service to God is blasphemy.... comparing work to working for the catholic church isnt far off.... then its not service....

      June 18, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  5. Omar

    and just wait to they impose Sunday Rest (Mark of the Beast) on everyone through the USA

    June 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • JCCopeland

      In reality, the 666 "mark of the beast" holds as much water as a black cat walikng under the ladder you are on. even a lay student of the bible can point you in the right direction of "666". As for the catholic Church in its entirety, Constantine established the Roman Catholic Church, along with 2 others, to try and keep the church coffers (money pans) full after jesus and his disciples started pulling $$ away from his church. The disciple Peter was not "the rock" upon which the 1.9 billion catholics today base their faith, but the "rock" of the true Christian faith. As one can see in our beautiful American society, there is a move away from the Catholic Church as well as the Catholic Priests running out of little boys to imrpress their "faith" upon much like their Greek Catholic forefathers have done down through the pages of history. People in America are getting very smarter andlook at the Catholic Church oath much akin to going to the bathroom. There will come a day when a small boy will look at Catholicism and state "the Pope is not wearing any clothes".Hopefully we will wake up and see the same as does he. Simon Peter was not sent forth to be the first Pope. Jesus used him as an example of the carrier of his faith......

      June 11, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Ah, I see we have a 7th Day Adventist in our midst.
      Have you become a total vegetarian yet?

      June 15, 2012 at 12:41 am |
    • chief

      re b4bigbang.... – your comment shows your catholic ignorance.... most ALL Christians (no catholic) and even most catholics would agree with the comments.... see you in mass on sunday

      June 18, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  6. Joe

    After over a thousand years of the church's being at what point have you ever heard a dialogue from the vatican. At what point did they change what they think to appease the people? Not something that is going to happen. You say catholic thinkers weigh in on todays issues. These catholic thinkers are in no way the church and more often then not are asked to weigh in on todays issues. Not bursting onto the scene expressing what they think. The catholic church is 100% a monologue and if you don't like what it says you are free to leave.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Omar

      "At what point did they change to appease the people?" Well, they brough in idol and sunday worshio to papease the pagans. They brought in evolution to appease the agnostics. They bend like rubber for anything and everything. The Harlot which is in Rome (as described biblically) is the worse offense to mankind.

      June 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  7. catholic turned athiest

    I always wonder why athiest, who hardly force their beliefs on anyone, are so vilified by Catholics. One thing I learned while working for the church, is that it is nothing more than a buisness. Buy your salvation, and while your at it, show a complete lack of respect or understanding to people of other faiths. There is nothing wring with being an athiest.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Joe

      I know of one time where the catholic church has brought a law suit against the government about infringment of their beliefs. But when you think about how many law suits Atheists have waged against the people of the united states so that everyone has to live by their standards you couldn't even count them in a day. So who really is trying to force their views on others?

      June 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  8. delos

    No I don't want a dialog with or capitulation from your church, What I want from your church and all church's is that you keep your crap to your selves.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  9. Scott

    Make no mistake – catholicism is by definition a monologue. It is the edicts of the papacy over time. Christianity is also, by definition, a monologue. It is the edicts of God over time and is separate and apart from catholicism. Religion is an attempt to understand and apply Christianity in an appropriate manner and often (but not always – see catholicism above) involves dialogue between various individuals concerning God's monologue.

    June 11, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  10. ex-Catholic

    Whatever the Church does or says is totally fine, as long as they keep it within the Church. But they don't. They try to impose their rules on EVERYONE, and that's where I do have the line to stand up and protest them!

    June 11, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      What have they imposed on you?

      June 11, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  11. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    June 10, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • spoddney

      To: Atheisim is not healthy for children and other livings – prayer changes things.

      I would like to comment by way of an anecdote in response to your statement "prayer changes things"
      I have been a lung transplant physician in Australia for the past 15 years (I was an intensivist for 5 years prior to that)
      Last year a 15 year old girl with cystic fibrosis presented to my unit in severe type II respiratory failure secondary to chest sepsis. The girl had been deteriorating for several weeks. Her parents (who were christian scientists) had decided to not seek medical attention and instead relied on prayer alone to get their child well. She deteriorated despite maximal therapy and died 2 weeks after admission before she could receive a lung transplant.

      And you tell me prayer changes things...

      And that case is not the only case I've seen were adoption of religious based thinking/approach can adversely affect outcome – Jehohovas witness's can be real challenge due to their position on using blood products.

      June 13, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  12. Aristocles

    The liberals don't want dialogue, they want capitulation. They want the Catholic church to surrender.

    June 10, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      That is the definition of dialogue to a liberal

      June 11, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Slave of no God

      Speaking only for myself, I'd like to see all religions and the sheep the feed at their teats raptured up to whatever cartoon character you people believe in.
      The human species is doomed in the hands of the religious. Nice going idiots....

      June 11, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.