Just today I came across something in The National Catholic Reporter that implied that one bishop's assertion that there is only one Catholic viewpoint on the nature of marriage was dismissive of other "Catholic" viewpoints. The author of the article, Michael Clancy, also appealed to the fact that "the majority of Catholics now support same-sex marriage"
Clancy's appeal to the majority brings up two issues. The first has to do with the graph of the poll he cited. If there is no distinction made between those who practice their Catholic faith and those who do not, especially as measured by the frequency of Sunday Mass attendance, such research demonstrates nothing shocking or earth-shattering. Especially when it comes to hot-button social issues, the views of the majority of practicing Catholics are usually 180 degrees out from those of the majority of non-practicing Catholics. The second is a philosophical/theological point that the truth about such matters, especially when it arises from natural law and revelation (in both modes Scripture and Tradition), is not overturned by popular vote.
The occasion for Clancy's implication that there is more than one legitimate Catholic viewpoint concerning the nature of marriage was an exchange that took place in Phoenix last weekend between Bishop Joseph Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, IL and Sr. Jeannine Grammick, who has been the subject of formal Church discipline regarding her stance on this and other issues surrounding homosexuality.
Let's get beyond the equivocation about what constitutes a Catholic view on the nature of marriage. It is certainly true that individual Catholics hold more than one view concerning the nature of marriage. This brings up some rather fundamental issues that go to the heart of what it means to be a Catholic. Because it invokes such fundamental matters, a few bishops have urged those who dissent from what the Church teaches regarding marriage to refrain from receiving Holy Communion. Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit put it this way: "For a Catholic to receive holy Communion and still deny the revelation Christ entrusted to the church is to try to say two contradictory things at once: 'I believe the church offers the saving truth of Jesus, and I reject what the church teaches.'"
While I certainly have my opinion, as a deacon it is not my place to issue public statements about who is, or is not, to receive communion. But all of this brings to the fore two fundamental questions: Who speaks for Christ? The Catholic answer is, The Church. Who authoritatively speaks for the Church concerning matters of faith and morals? The Catholic answer is the Roman Pontiff and the bishops, who are the successors of the apostles, in union with him. While individual Catholics undoubtedly hold differing views concerning the nature and purpose of marriage, Bishop Paprocki is correct to assert that there is "only one authentically Catholic" view of marriage.
You can agree or disagree with the authentically Catholic view of marriage, but you are not free to assert a different view and insist that it is Catholic.
Looking at this matter through a pragmatic lens, many would assert that by changing her position on the nature marriage (if such a thing were even possible- it is not), or soften its teaching on contraception, co-habitation between the unmarried, pre-martial sex, etc. many people who have left would return. This is not the experience of various mainline Protestant denominations who have done these very things and yet continue to shrink, several to the point of extinction in the near term.
More importantly, if one believes the Church's teaching authority, given to her by Christ, can be so badly mistaken about such an important matter, how could that person trust the Church's authority at all on any matter? Some may respond by saying the credibility of the Church's hierarchy, who possess Christ's teaching authority, is already shot. While I understand this argument, I am not convinced by it. Those areas where the Church's witness has been compromised, as with the sexual abuse of children and the horrible way it was mishandled in far too many places, are instances wherein members of the Church, including cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and priests, miserably failed to live up to the Church's constant teaching. Hence, one cannot point to a defect in Church teaching, but a massive, horrendous, and sinful failure to live up to it, to apply the Church's discipline, to seek justice for the victims, and to protect the innocent.
My point was summarized well by Stuart Reid, writing about Mel Gibson for the U.K.'s Catholic Herald newsweekly three summers ago, when, referring to Mel's alleged, but unproven, sedevacantism, he wrote that he could find no evidence that Gibson had either questioned or rejected "any part of Catholic teaching." As an example, he compared that with the fact that "most Catholics in the comfortable West do not accept" Church teaching with regard to contraception. Most notably he points out, "They don’t just ignore it – the way we all ignore moral teaching from time to time – they believe the Church is in error." To believe such a thing should bring up the issue Archbishop Vigeron sought to invoke, which is not about adhering to rules externally imposed, but about one's own conscience and integrity.
In my estimation Msgr. Luigi Giussani was correct when he asserted that the crisis of authentic Christian faith in today's Western culture is not due to formal atheism but to secularism, in which the human being becomes the measure of all things (hearkening back to the invocation of polling data and how secularized the view, even of many Catholics, has become regarding marriage and a whole host of other issues). This results in moral freedom becoming untethered from objective truth, making freedom, the multiplication of choices, an end in itself rather than a means to the very end for which we exist. In effect, many Catholics are content to stand, as did Pontius Pilate, asking, "What is truth?" Or, worse yet, simply assert their own "truth."
I would like to take this opportunity to draw your attention, dear reader, to yet another very well-done post by Francis Phillips: "How do we combine love and truth in the same-sex marriage debate?"
Maria, Mater Ecclesia, ora pro nobis