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…

Bishops, Oaths, and Conscience

Catholic bishops joining in the Nazi salute.

Today’s Washington Post reports on a highly troubling story (Arlington Diocese parishioners question need for fidelity oath) about a rising trend in Catholic dioceses to require workers — including volunteers who teach religious education — to affirm some sort of “fidelity oath” in order to continue their work or ministry. The story ends with this:

The Rev. Ronald Nuzzi, who heads the leadership program for Catholic educators at the University of Notre Dame, said many bishops “are in a pickle.” They want Catholic institutions to be staffed by people who not only teach what the church teaches but whose “whole life will bear witness.”

Nuzzi said he keeps a photo on his desk from the 1940s that shows all the German bishops in their garb, doing the Nazi salute.

“I keep it there to remind people who say to do everything the Church says, that their wisdom has limitations, too.”

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. What is more troubling, however, is the perspective expressed by some — both clergy and laity — who see no problem with such a practice.