In light of the upcoming presidential election, the divisions inherent within Catholicism have begun to sharpen. At Notre Dame, the Catholic division appears to be between two main groups of Catholics: the social conservatives and the ‘social justice’ Catholics. A typical member of the socially conservative Catholic group would be a regular participant in the Notre Dame March for Life and perhaps even a member of the Militia of the Immaculata. ‘Social justice’ Catholics might be more involved at the Center for Social Concerns or Habitat for Humanity. (A point of clarification: the divisions are generally not this cut and dry, but this oversimplified comparison highlights the fundamental differences.)
Nowhere is this dichotomy better illustrated in Catholic divisions on a broader scale than in Christina Pestoli’s article in the Huffington Post, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Christina: Why This Catholic Girl is Praying for a Schism.” Pestoli, whom I would classify as a ‘social justice’ Catholic, cites her disagreement with the Church’s recent “crackdown” on the Leadership Conference of Religious Women, framing the Vatican’s censures within the context of the Church’s ignorance on issues of women’s equality.
Bearing these emphases in mind, Pestoli writes about her prayers for the social justice aspect of the Church to separate from the portion that was “on the wrong side of so many issues.” In response to her prayers, Pestoli claims that “God sent [her] an angel…named Melinda Gates.” Gates, a practicing Catholic, advocated for her charity to provide contraceptives to 120 million of the world’s poorest women. When questioned on the matter, Gates drew upon the “social justice I had growing up and belief that all lives…are of equal value” and she stated that she and the Church were “not going to agree on everything, but that’s OK.”
Pestoli further enlightens everyone on how the social justice portion will differ, “everyone will be treated equally—men, women, gay or straight. And everyone will be allowed to marry, even priests…no one will be disqualified from being [a priest] based on gender or sexual orientation.” Pestoli’s vision of Catholicism, needless to say, would bear little resemblance to the one, true Catholic faith.
While Pestoli succeeds in accurately delineating these informal divisions within the Church, her attempt to place what she understands to be ‘social justice’ priorities above alleged ‘conservative doctrines’ undermines the very fabric of Catholic orthodoxy. The Church’s teachings are especially compromised when a self-proclaimed “devout Catholic” adheres to beliefs in opposition to the doctrines of the Catholic Church—in this instance, the promotion of artificial contraception, gay marriage and women’s ordination. If indeed the Catholic Church was instituted by Christ to serve as a guide for earthly life, then one must believe that the Church reveals the Truth of morality in its teachings. To believe otherwise would mean that God, in the person of Christ, was not Truth Himself or at least did not leave (or want to leave) Truth to guide us in the Church. Belief in the Magisterium’s legitimate authority to uphold and affirm the moral teachings passed down by Christ is essential, and unique amongst Christian churches, to Catholicism. If one does not believe that what the apostolic successors teach is worth heeding or obeying, why self-identify as Catholic?
All political stances aside, the approach taken by Gates and Pestoli is indicative of a deeper problem afflicting Catholicism: cafeteria Catholicism. Cafeteria Catholicism often results from a lack of education in the faith. It also commonly is the expression of willful rejection of Church teaching. Catholics everywhere—including here at Notre Dame—often treat Catholicism as a “pick and choose” religion, taking the parts they like (i.e. solidarity for the poor) and rejecting the parts that they do not (i.e. Church teachings on birth control or abortion). It is a two-way street, however, and those conservative Catholics who fail to practice faith in their good works are equally as guilty, though the ‘social justice’ Catholics seem to be more outspoken about their dissent from the moral teachings of the Church. Nevertheless, rejecting parts of the Church’s standard for morality while still claiming oneself a member of the Catholic Church quickly leads to a subjectively determined Catholicism, at odds with true Catholicism. Contrary to Gates’ belief, it is not “OK” to be at odds with the Catholic Church while professing the Catholic faith. When the opinions of dissenters, like Pestoli and Gates, are mistakenly perceived to be the teachings of the Church itself, an unfortunate misunderstanding of Church doctrine is cultivated among those who do not know better than to look past prominent ‘public Catholics’ for their moral cues.
For this reason, Pope John Paul II stated in a 1987 speech, “It is sometimes reported that a large number of Catholics today do not adhere to the teaching of the Catholic Church on a number of questions, notably sexual and conjugal morality, divorce and remarriage. Some are reported as not accepting the clear position on abortion… It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the Magisterium is totally compatible with being a ‘good Catholic,’ and poses no obstacle to the reception of the Sacraments. This is a grave error…” Thus, authentic Catholicism and cafeteria Catholicism are truly at odds. This is not an issue of political alignment or interest; the labels of ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ Catholic are inappropriate because they confuse the reality of the moral choices which they seek to justify with mere political ideological difference. There is no such thing as a ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ Catholic. There are Catholic liberals and Catholic conservatives, but whether a Catholic accepts and lives by the teachings of the Church is nothing other than a matter of that individual’s orthodoxy, or dissent. One must either accept all the Catholic teachings or accept that their Catholicism has, in some meaningful way, been damaged.
Returning to Pestoli’s prayer for the schism, it is fairly obvious that there is a much better solution for those Catholics who disagree with specific fundamental aspects of the Church’s moral teachings: they can leave the Roman Catholic faith. It is a simple matter of intellectual honesty – one should not identify with a communion of faith whose beliefs one does not actually believe. When Luther nailed his 95 Theses to Castle Church in Wittenberg, he dissented from many Catholic beliefs, eventually beginning the first of many Protestant churches. Perhaps one of these faiths would better suit the beliefs of Pestoli, Gates and many cafeteria Catholics. Furthermore, there would be no need for a schism, because the Church would no longer be divided. Pestoli was right about praying for a change, but a schism is too extreme – all that is needed is a little dose of intellectual and spiritual honesty.
Bob Burkett is a senior political science and anthropology major who currently resides in Dillon Hall. His role model is the Brave Little Toaster, because he, though not as little, hopes to someday be just as brave. For further discussion on classic cartoon movies from the late 80s and early 90s, he can be contacted at email@example.com.