Fidelity Oaths Revisited – part 1

Last week I wrote briefly about the rise in so-called “fidelity oaths” in which Church workers are being asked by local bishops to pledge their belief in and support of positions put forth
by Church office-holders.

As I concluded my comments I wrote this: “Anyone who fully understands and values the breadth and depth of Catholic Christianity must be appalled by this trend, especially when such oaths appear to be written in ways that clearly are contrary to Catholic teaching.”

I realize that this broad declaration needs further clarification, not only for those who may be less familiar with the “breadth and depth of Catholic Christianity,” but also for those who may be wondering why, precisely, might such oaths be “contrary to Catholic teaching.”

Here are three reasons:

  1. First, they offend the principle which respects the primacy of the well-formed conscience in moral decision-making.
  2. Second, they can exemplify a type of creeping infallibility that seems to be a growing trend in some quarters of the Church.
  3. Third, and most important, they seem to usurp the fidelity oath that we already have as Catholic Christians, i.e. the Creed or Profession of Faith we profess at every Sunday liturgy.

I’ll write about each of these over the next week or so. But in order to understand the first point in particular, as well as to set this in a specific context, it would be helpful to look specifically at an example of what one such “fidelity oath” states and demands. As referenced in the Washington Post article, the former bishop of the Diocese of Baker (Washington) included the following in that diocese’s 201-page Pastoral Guidelines from 2006 (full text here). (These Guidelines, by the way, go so far as to include the Archdiocese’s of Los Angeles’ list the vintages and vineyards of wines – California produced, of course – that are “approved to sacramental use.”).

Lest I be accused of taking something out of context, here are three relevant sections:

25. The Affirmation of Personal Faith asks candidates for ministry to state unequivocally: “I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church teaches, believes and proclaims to be revealed by God.” This carries with it the affirmation of specific teachings of the Catholic Church. A non-exhaustive list of these is provided in the form of individual affirmations. They include statements on the inviolability of human life, the sinfulness of contraception, the evil of extra-marital sexual relationships, the unacceptability of homosexual relationships, the wrongness of cohabitation before marriage, the significance of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the legitimacy of Marian devotions, the existence of hell and purgatory, the uniqueness of the Catholic Church, the legitimacy of the Holy Father’s claim to infallibility and the moral teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

26. It is hoped that no one who presently serves will be excluded from future ministry as a result of this insistence on a clearer Affirmation of Personal Faith but if anyone is unable in good faith to make the Affirmation then this indicates a need to study and understand the Faith more thoroughly before seeking approval for public ministry. In the event that someone indicates that they cannot make the required Affirmation no public announcement will be made about the reasons for their end of service. An inability to make this Affirmation does not necessarily exclude someone from the possibility of receiving Holy Communion but it would indicate a need to look at his or her own life more carefully and consider, before God, the acceptability of his or her moral status.

27. While there is a possibility that someone may object that such a policy is an unjust infringement on an individual’s right and duty to follow their own conscience such an objection is invalid. Conscience is not something which exists in a vacuum. No one can claim a legitimate right to follow a conscience which is clearly not formed in a fashion consistent with the very clear teachings of the Catholic Church. The following of one’s own conscience is a strict moral obligation but that obligation is preceded by the obligation to assure that the conscience one is following is properly formed. When that conscience leads to judgments which are diametrically opposed to the clear and consistent teachings of the Catholic Church then the conscience has established itself as a new and individual, infallible personal magisterium which far exceeds the definition of conscience. Furthermore, it is one thing to claim a right to follow one’s conscience, even if it is erroneously formed, it is quite another to insist that one be afforded certain privileges, to which one has no right, while following that manifestly ill-formed conscience.

to be continued…

Joseph Ratzinger on Conscience and Papal Authority

“Over the Pope as expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there stands one’s own conscience which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority [emphasis added]. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even the official Church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism.”

Joseph Ratzinger in: Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II ,Vol. V., pg. 134 (Ed) H. Vorgrimler, New York, Herder and Herder, 1967.

Bishop Richard Malone and Spiritual Abuse of Power

Richard Malone is the bishop of the Diocese of Portland, Maine. One of his predecessors, William O’Connell (1859-1944), eventually left the backwaters of rural Maine to become the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston. O’Connell pulled off this promotion because of his close friendship with Vatican officials involved in making the selection and because, as secretary to the group of New England bishops putting forth recommendations, he played loose with the facts and the truth, somehow managing to get his own name at the top of the list when he forwarded the bishops’ recommendations (which did not include O’Connell) to Roman officials.

Looking at the statements of Richard Malone on the Portland diocesan Web site — statements that include a “Referendum Alert to Faithful Catholics” (see below) and a 12-minute video in which Malone calls same-sex marriage a “dangerous sociological experiment” — one wonders if Malone has inherited from O’Connell more than just a title, a cathedral, and a diocese.  Malone’s “Alert” quotes Cardinal Ratzinger in stating that Catholics have a duty to oppose civil efforts to recognize same-sex marriage.  Ratzinger’s statement certainly deserves respect and consideration — but neither this nor any particular statement by a Church leader on any particular issue can ever supersede what the Church has always taught is the ultimate norm — the individual’s well-formed conscience.

Malone’s statement is an abuse of his episcopal  role, an example of spiritual abuse causing great harm to the thousands of good and faithful Catholics who, having used the many tools that go into forming one’s conscience, have come to a conclusion different from his. The role of any bishop is to help people form their consciences — it is NOT to be their consciences, telling them what their conscience alone can tell them.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states that “…conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” Catholic moral teaching is unequivocal in stating that, “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience,” (CCC, 1800). Bishop Malone (and Cardinal Ratzinger, for that matter), in this instance would usurp this sacred place of the human conscience, standing between the individual and his or her relationship with God, saying that “I have the truth” on the issue of same-sex marriage, and all you need to do is listen to us and do what we say.

Sadly — Malone’s strong-arm tactics with the good people of Maine have contributed to a temporary setback for those seeking justice and civil respect for God’s gay and lesbian children. Voters in Maine yesterday approved a referendum repealing earlier legislation granting same-sex couples the right to marry. I know in the depths of my heart that this setback is indeed temporary, that this example of the “tyranny of the majority” to deny a minority its rights will one day be relegated to the wrong side of history. I had hoped that yesterday’s vote would bring that day closer. While not yet fully within sight, that day will indeed come and one day not only civil society but even the Church and leaders like Bishop Richard Malone will see their gay and lesbian neighbors as the children of God we are.

Posted on the diocese of Portland, Maine prior to the vote on November 3, 2009:

A group of self-described Catholics who have chosen to dissent publicly from established Catholic doctrine on the nature of marriage as the union of one man and one woman recently published a paid political ad entitled “Statement of Conscience by Maine Catholics Regarding Marriage Equality.”The evidence for their dissent runs through the statement and is crystallized in the following sentence: “…we find disturbing any suggestion that formal Church teaching obligates all Catholics to oppose marriage equality.”In contrast, please let your conscience be formed by these clear and authoritative words of Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger): “In those situations where homosexual unions … have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty.” (Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, July 2003)A Catholic whose conscience has been properly formed by Scripture and the teachings of the Catholic Church cannot support same sex marriage. Please vote YES on question 1.

Most Reverend Richard J. Malone, Th.D.
Bishop of Portland