Thursday, May 21, 2009

being Catholic

I'm right out here with the truth in labeling, y'all. If you're not interested, you have been duly warned!

However. Leah asked a question about what I really think in terms of moral theology (OK, she didn't put it that way), and I have not forgotten! At first, I thought, why would she ask that question? Surely if it weren't inherently obvious, my SA post would have made it all ABUNDANTLY clear. Then I read my SA post again.


So I am going to try, so so hard, to be concise but still clear. And I think this answer is in three parts, plus an application bit:

1. Why do I talk (write) like this?

This is what I figured out when I re-read my SA post. I'm going to try to explain this without making any unwarranted assumptions about how other people think. But the thing about Catholicism is, it's got strong elements of a culture, and even stronger elements of being a coherent theory. I am sure there are other groupings that have this too. (I'm thinking any hierarchical church would - I bet Mormons do? And probably non-religious groups as well.) This is super-handy, but in a way that causes the problem in my post. Namely: there's a whole lot of theory out there. And that's just what I know. It's at least standardized, if not normative. I.e., you can look it up. There are theologians who will argue about this and that, and any individual Catholic may choose to take or leave any part of it (normatively it's an all or nothing proposition, I'm just saying that's what people do). I can't fit all that even I know about Catholic, well, stuff, into every post. Or a book. Several books. And I'm not an expert.

Fortunately for everyone innocently surfing the web, it wouldn't occur to me to try, because I tend to simply communicate as if everyone had about the same assumptions that I have, or meant about the same things by the same words. Rationally, I know this is not true. So where I'm aware of differences - I've learned that the Catholic approach is distinctive - I'll try to point that out. Sometimes, I think my approach is distinctive when it is not. So I put caveats with things that don't need them. But I think there are lots of distinctive bits that escape my notice, so I end up saying things that don't make total sense to other people.

Which brings me to...

2. Procedure

Now I'm invoking lawyer-speak. Out of the frying pan, you know...

Anyway, Leah's question was, I think, what I really believe, deep down, as opposed to what the Church teaches. I'm thinking that as a neutral observer, if I heard someone cite an external authority all the time for definitive opinions, I would think that person couldn't think for himself. Which I'm guessing is the impression I give. It's not how I see it, though. This is where the procedural part comes in.

I was baptized Catholic, but "lapsed" in my teens, then returned to going to church on Sunday, then went to college and continued - but grossly undereducated about my faith. It's always struck me as odd - and I've taught confirmation classes and supervised high school youth group - that kids who are expected to learn calculus and read Shakespeare are considered too tender to learn the definition of sin, or the teaching on the Trinity, or the tradition of Catholic mystics. I think most Catholic twelfth-graders know more about Buddhism than Catholicism, and how can you make a mature decision about the faith in which you were raised when you don't know even the most basic things about it?

At any rate, I was no exception. My parents knew a pretty decent amount of theology, but somehow this didn't all make it to me. I was basically committed to most of what I did understand - but even that I didn't try very often to apply to my life. A good friend pointed out at one point that if I believed what I myself claimed to believe, then my life ought, logically, to look a little different. I gave this some thought, and realized it was true. I was living a schizophrenic life. There began a long period of soul-searching, tons of reading, prayer, and a lot of thinking. I came conscientiously and informedly to the realization that I did, in fact, believe what I had been saying I believed. Among other things, I believed that the Catholic Church was in fact institutionally entrusted with proclaiming the truth on matters of faith and morals. If this was true, it followed that any individual thing the Church proclaimed authoritatively (see here on magisterium) as teaching was true. Certainly a handy reference point for new moral questions.

3. Substance

Of course, being an adult Catholic also requires being an adult, period (though many, Catholic and non-Catholic, appear to regard this step as optional). Parroting the teachings of the Church mindlessly won't get you very far, for at least two reasons: first of all, principles don't always translate automatically into decisions on actual events in your life. You generally have to extrapolate (although some things are pretty clear). Second, if you make no effort to understand and own an idea, it's not really a conviction, per se. I think morals and faith have to be the conviction of your heart. Which means they have to be examined, weighed, pondered, lived in, and made your own. Stridency is only a substitute for sincerity in the very young - and I know whereof I speak, because I did that, too.

I was fortunate enough to have in my path a lot of writing and information on a lot of Catholic moral principles before I actually had to apply them, so a lot of the moral questions that would affect - say - fertility and fertility treatment, were comfortably broken in by the time I started down this path. What this also means is that in addition to having faith in the Church institutionally, I also agree specifically with the teachings I actually know about, and confront and use in my life. They make sense to me, I think I understand their implications, and they seem to me to proceed necessarily from first principles that I believe are solid.

4. So what's the bottom line?

The three above points do, believe it or not, tie in together. Because I believe that Church teaching is actually the truth, I have a bad habit of speaking and writing as if everyone else thought just the same way. So in a given sentence, I'll interchangeably say that "the moral quality of an act depends on intention, nature, and circumstances," and "the Church teaches that subjective culpability can be mitigated even if an action is objectively gravely wrong." I'm actually invoking the same degree of authority with both of those statements - I'm quoting even in the first one, and I'm agreeing even in the second one.

What about when I said that the Church's analysis is insufficient if it takes into account only openness to life in evaluating the moral quality of particular conduct as part of fertility treatment? Well, admittedly, that was a straw man, because that's not the only factor cited even in widely-quoted documents - see, for example, Donum Vitae and IVF (openness to life is not the deciding factor).

And, I don't disagree with the importance of openness to life. In fact, and despite my complaining, I'd probably have poked a hole in the condom myself if I hadn't been told there was already one there; although the gesture is symbolic, in my case, I think symbolism can be important. What my complaint was about, instead (well, other than just venting), was that the Church tends not to provide any further guidance. Now, silence isn't teaching. So it's not that I don't agree. I just think that parish priests have a pastoral responsibility to reach out especially to their parishioners who suffer most greatly, and especially to those most in need of moral guidance. And as far as I can see, they're not. "Don't use IVF" is not comprehensive pastoral care for the infertile. First of all, nobody ever explains why. The theory on IVF is never cited or explained; Donum Vitae is never read or named; and IVF is never addressed as if it were a treatment being prescribed to actual Catholics, including some sitting right in the pews right now! When it is. And, if pastors want their parishioners to avoid it, then they could start by explaining why.

Moreover, even if the obedient parishioner immediately whips out the ol' crackberry to type, Note to self: Should I be unable to conceive, do not use IVF, I just think that's inadequate. OK, me: I don't use IVF. Somehow, my travails aren't over. There's actually more questions out there. And some of them have moral aspects! Shocking.

I'm not suggesting the Church should bury all its members in norms when norms aren't needed. I'm not asking for an encyclical that says I may only visit an RE whose last name begins with an "X" and who can recite the Magnificat in Latin backward standing on one foot. I'm saying that beyond the realm of absolute norms - which I think are pretty close to covered in the IF world - there are many questions that require sensitivity and sound judgment. Some guidance, or even acknowledgment that the issues exist, would be appreciated.

Which brings me to the real culprit here: me. You see, I'm so used to having to dig in my heels and defend what I believe - I was steeling myself for the conversation with the clinic: No, we are not "providing" the sample on-site. We don't do that sort of thing. I don't care if it's more convenient for you. Our faith is important to us, and I have to ask you to respect that - that I'm totally unprepared for problems that come from elsewhere. The condom thing respects all the right boundaries, in theory. So it did not occur to me to tell my (Catholic) RE, Hey, wait. This is frankly grotesque. So what else have you got for me? Because we're not a couple of sex monkeys here, and I refused to be any further dehumanized by my treatment. In fairness (to me!), I have no experience with condoms, and the implications weren't entirely clear until I was presented with them concretely.

But I've learned an important lesson, a lesson that those of you who don't have the blessing/crutch of a church teaching authority probably learned early in the process: I need to keep my brain on "on" at all times during this process, and think carefully about what I really want to be doing. As many of you wisely suggested in the comments, even if my confessor wouldn't bat an eye, I need to say something if I think a particular treatment would be wrong for me and my marriage.


  1. I admire you for standing on your beliefs, even when it's painfully hard.

  2. I gotta tell you, you are one smart cookie. I can tell from your blog that you are extremely intelligent, well versed and standing steadfast in your faith. I applaud you and am in awe of you. I thank you for that post and am glad that you took my comment for what it was. Curiosty. I am glad that you have those boundaries in your life and that no matter what, God comes first. I know it's not easy and I try to put myself in your shoes and find it very difficult. This is definitely a test of faith for us IF'ers. I'm not always graceful and I don't always do the God thing. Of that I am sure. But it's so good to see you fully trusting and not willing to bend on what you truly believe. Blessings!!!

  3. AMEN! Thanks for posting your thoughts on this. I know frome experience that sticking to Church teaching through IF is very difficult. However, I have found a peace in knowing we are being lead through God's will for us.