Over the last several weeks, media headlines have highlighted significant controversies which have emerged in the Roman Catholic Church. These controversies, though different, are intricately related to one another. In one situation, the Vatican has expressed grave concern that the leadership among religious sisters (nuns) in the United States has espoused an agenda of what church leadership has termed ‘radical feminism’, a situation in which these sisters have, in fact, endorsed positions which run contrary to official church teaching. In another matter, church leadership has declared that Sister Margaret Farley’s 2006 work Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics includes conclusions that run contrary to Catholic teaching on a number of issues related to human sexuality. Sister Farley’s text, according to the Vatican, is in effect unfit for use in Catholic courses in moral theology.
These two situations have stirred up significant reaction within the Catholic community. Many Catholics, individuals who consider themselves as active within the church, have spoken in support of both women religious as a group and Sister Margaret Farley as an individual. Others within the Catholic Church have supported what they see as the hierarchy’s attempt to insure that orthodox Catholic teaching is proclaimed both within its institutions and to the wider world.
In my recent book Crossing the Street (Energion, 2012), I explore the ongoing tension within the Catholic Church between those who seek to hold on to ‘traditional’ teaching (often on matters of sexuality) and those who, while remaining Catholic, are more willing to explore dimensions within moral teaching that may lead to what they perceive as legitimate conclusions of conscience that fall beyond the parameters of Catholic orthodoxy. I also explore data which indicates that the so called ‘dissenting’ positions often represent the current state of thinking among American Catholics who consider themselves committed to the church. In fact, the data to which I refer in my book indicates that the active Catholic community is closer to Sr. Margaret Farley’s conclusions on matters of sexual ethics than they are to the official teaching of the church as promulgated both in the church’s encyclicals and in its universal catechism.
It is important to frame this current reality within a historical context. Both recent struggles have precedent within the Catholic Church. As a matter of fact, one could argue that the tension between ‘official teaching’ and theological exploration has simply been historic reality within Catholicism. In other words, there is a long history of Catholic theologians raising questions and floating proposals for different teachings to emerge within the church. Doing what Sr. Farley has done and utilizing knowledge gained from the social sciences, from Biblical study and from world culture and science, theologians have approached theological tasks from different starting points from that traditionally used by those theologians who have already accepted ipso facto that the official teaching of the church remains unchangeable. Those holding this position understand these teachings to be fixed either in natural law or as part of the historic authoritative teaching of the church which human beings have no right to alter.
Others, and in this category I would name such theological giants as Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Hans Kung, Charles Curran, and Teilhard de Chardin, among many others, operate from a different starting point and see the theological task as illumined by the best available material from a wide variety of disciplines. In her work Just Love, Sr. Margaret Farley draws from a studied exploration of relevant disciplines in shedding light upon the pressing moral issues of which she writes, issues that are legitimately within the interest of the church.
Likewise there is a long standing tension in the church between those who are serving in pastoral situations and who see unnecessary inflexibility in how the official church teaching deals with moral questions. A brief exploration of the history of religious sisters in the United States indicates that they have been in the forefront of working with women who have suffered from inadequate health care and who have borne the burden of unhealthy relationships which have often led to unplanned pregnancies. The pastoral experiences of these women, multiplied exponentially by those of their colleagues in some of life’s most problematic situations, coupled with their profound commitment to Christ’s call to truly love one’s neighbor, has led many to question both the universality and the sensibility of particular teachings of the church.
As I note in Crossing the Street, American Catholics faced this disconnect in the late 1960’s as the church hierarchy reaffirmed church teaching on birth control. What we see happening now is what we saw happening then: We are looking at the ongoing tension in the Catholic community when the authoritative decisions of the church run contrary to the decisions individual Catholics must make in the privacy of their consciences. How one handles this as a Catholic has been an important issue in my life, an issue in which one will find a variety of possible responses. It is an issue most certainly present in these controversies that have found their way to center stage in these recent days.
(Robert R. LaRochelle has a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from Chicago Theological Seminary. He is both pastor of the Congregational Church of Union, UCC, and a high school counselor. He has published many articles and conducted workshops throughout the country. In addition to his recent work, Crossing the Street (Energion 2012), he has written Part-Time Pastor, Full-Time Church [Pilgrim Press, 2010].)