San Francisco Protesters Redefine Catholicism

The dispute between Catholic high school teachers and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone continues. After protests, rallies, and full-page ads printed in metropolitan newspapers, opponents of the seemingly common-sense proposal that Catholic school teachers teach Catholic teaching in Catholic schools have now moved to the time-honored tradition of the “open letter.” Jim McGarry, an organizer of the group Concerned Parents and Students, has written an open letter addressed “to the administrators at the Catholic High Schools in the San Francisco Archdiocese” which was published in the National Catholic Reporter.

The letter is dotted with the same language we have seen heretofore: Archbishop Cordileone is using a “rhetoric of judgment and selectivity” to enact “the imposition of contested teachings” which will allegedly “lethally damage our students, our teachers, our schools, and our mission.” After calling the assertion that the archbishop is authentically representing Catholic teaching “incorrect,” Mr. McGarry states: “Our opposition to the Archbishop’s language comes from inside, indeed from the very core of the Catholic tradition.” And it is here that Mr. McGarry makes an incredible leap: the teachers’ position represents not dissent, by development of doctrine.

Mr. McGarry asserts that in the Church now such a development is taking place in the changing attitudes of some toward homosexual acts, and that this change must take place through a dialogue: “Church teaching does not occur by fiat, but by argument,” he writes. Yet though Mr. McGarry claims he wants dialogue and argument, he presents no arguments for his position, but merely declares it to be the case that homosexual acts ought to be accepted as morally legitimate. Even if he were to set forth an argument, it must be understood that while Church teaching is indeed explicated and deepened through argument (think of the scholastic disputatio), the determination of whether the conclusion of a given argument is in accord with the deposit of faith is made by declaration, by definitive statement, either given in ecumenical councils (“anathema sit”), by solemn papal pronouncement, or when the bishops dispersed throughout the world teach consistently in unison with one another and with the pope—this is the teaching of Vatican II in Lumen Gentium (para. 25).

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In another ill-advised move, Mr. McGarry invokes the name of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, whose seminal work An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine laid out the principles by which the proposed changes in Church teaching could be evaluated and authentic development of doctrine could be identified. Mr. McGarry claims that the shift in attitudes of some toward the morality of homosexual acts constitutes a development of doctrine of the type that Newman describes. Is this so? Fr. Dwight Longenecker has treated this topic at his blog here, clearly spelling out that the answer is “no.” Not wanting to step on his toes nor repeat work already done well, I encourage the reader to read his piece.

The author claims there is an internal contradiction within the Catechism, alleging that the document’s assertions both that homosexual acts are disordered and that homosexual persons ought not to be discriminated against is incoherent, and thus that “the true teaching of the church must emerge from the tension inherent in these two paragraphs and that is what is happening now.” Mr. McGarry considers it incoherent that one would distinguish between one’s attitude toward a person’s actions and one’s attitude toward that person as a person, a view all too frequently encountered in society today and indeed one of the main arguments that proponents of same-sex “marriage” employ: “How can you say you love me if you don’t approve of what I do?” But no one would accept as a general premise, “If you approve of all my actions, then you love me,” lest they also accept the conclusion that parents do not love their children when their children misbehave. The divide between love and approval is created by the realities of human nature: there are some actions that are not good for human beings to do and that do not lead to their flourishing and fulfillment; and when we see others doing such actions, it is precisely our love for them, our desire for their fulfillment, that causes us to disapprove of those actions. Our love for others both creates this distinction and makes it coherent.

Yet Mr. McGarry presses on with his claim of doctrinal development in our midst, and the example for the sort of development he has in mind is the issue of slavery. McGarry, citing a book by Judge John Noonan, recounts the story of a report given by Vatican officials to Pope Pius VII advising him not to speak against the practice of slavery for political reasons. Here is implied a series of tendentious arguments: that the silence of Pius VII amounted to an endorsement of slavery; that this constituted the official magisterial teaching of the Church on the issue; and that the Church’s subsequent condemnation of slavery amounts to a reversal of previously established Church teaching—precisely the sort of “development” McGarry would like to see. If this were an accurate recounting of events, Mr. McGarry would have a strong case.

But it is not, and there is no analogue to the question of homosexual relationships. Even if we take the strongest argument and point to a few early modern popes who issued documents allowing for the slave trade by the Portuguese and Spanish in aid of their attempts to defend Christian Europe from the Ottoman Turks (certainly a scandalous action), such allowances could not be said to be constitutive of definitive Church teaching on slavery, neither as exercises of papal infallibility nor as representative of universal and consistent Church teaching; yet there have been such consistent condemnations of homosexual acts throughout the Church’s history. And while there was a strong streak of abolitionism in the tradition, from St. Paul’s “there is neither slave nor free … in Christ” to Fathers such as St. Patrick and St. Gregory of Nyssa advocating abolition to St. Thomas positing that slavery was opposed to the natural law, which would be brought to the fore in later times, no such thread of acceptance of homosexual acts can be found. There is no seed from within the deposit of faith from which this thought could grow, and thus its introduction into the faith would be a violent one.

Mr. McGarry is representative of a type increasingly seen in recent years: the self-defined Catholic. These are the sort who see Catholic identity as a tribal designation as opposed to being rooted in a relationship with God in Jesus Christ through his Church and holding to certain beliefs about him. For these, what makes one a Catholic is being born into it, and thus “what Catholics believe” because transformed from “the beliefs that constitute one’s being Catholic” to “the beliefs that those who call themselves Catholic happen to hold.” Under this latter understanding, Church teaching would indeed “happen by argument,” or more likely, as Mr. McGarry’s actions betray, by emotional appeals and peer pressure tactics to “not be a hater,” “be on the right side of history,” and so on, and to hope for a pope who would change Church teaching—by fiat, naturally—to fit their views. This is not the Catholic faith, and it is not heading that way.

(Photo credit: John Bare)


  • Nicholas Senz

    Nicholas Senz is Director of Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, Texas and a Master Catechist. A native of Verboort, Oregon, Nicholas holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. He is on Twitter @nicksenz and his own blog, NicholasSenz.

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