A Teaching Moment
The Kennedy/Tobin flap has revealed the rank opportunism of those who, like the Kennedy’s and so many other politicians, fall back on their Catholic heritage when it comes to getting votes from one segment (older Democrats who remember Jack) or excoriate the Church when it is advantageous to get them from another (pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage progressives). They’ve been allowed to have it both ways for so long–thanks to priests and bishops of the Church willing to turn the other way, no less–that they seem a little surprised that someone–Bishop Tobin–is finally calling them on the carpet.
In essence, the argument–both between the primaries and those who support them–has laid bare the fact that many Catholics don’t abide by several of the Catholic Church’s teachings. These Catholics, like Patrick Kennedy and the majority of Rhode Island Catholics (including myself), are basically cultural Catholics who have come to view Catholicism more as heritage than a religion with strict rules that should be followed.
For many of us, being Catholic is a fundamental part of our identity (much like being Jewish). It provides the form for our practice of religion, regardless of whether or not we abide by or believe the entirety of the catechism. We go to church as often as possible (or convenient) and strive to hit all of the milestones: baptism, first communion, confirmation and a Catholic wedding.
Yet, whether we Catholics like to admit it or not, there are rules and the church hierarchy–parish priests, bishops, cardinals, the pope–is charged with explaining and enforcing those rules. If we don’t like the rules, then there are several other denominations that may be more in tune with both our personal beliefs and how we’d prefer to practice your faith. It is not up to the Church to change to fit us.
Recognizing that, there are many Catholics who, like myself, can’t see being anything other than Catholic, especially when it comes to our religious expression. We were brought up in The Church: we know when to hit all of the cues and are used to the rhythm of the mass. The notion of becoming a mainline, much less an evangelical, Protestant strikes us as, well, almost cultish! Thus, has our faith transformed–by varying degrees–from being based on sincere belief practiced according to a dictated form and under prescribed rules into being an outward expression of our (religious) culture that is separate from our internal, personal beliefs. We think what we think, but still go through the motions.
So what if we disagree and ignore the Church’s teachings on several–mostly procreational–matters. We don’t necessarily buy into the idea that disagreement equals sin, you see. Well, mostly. Which is why the “hypocrisy” charge that is thrown out against the Church regarding priestly pedophilia too often seems to be an attempt to hide hypocrisies all our own. For, while I too believe that the church has failed grievously in the way they have handled the various sexual abuse controversies, it is pure sophistry to proclaim that its other moral teachings are rendered moot because of human failings in this area.
As Justin wrote, in so many words, we can’t have our cake and eat it, too. Even if, up until now, that seemed to work pretty well. Whether one is inclined to side with the Bishop or Kennedy, the most important aspect of this episode is whether or not it has inspired all Catholics, full-fledged or cultural, to take a closer look at the true nature of their relationship with the Church.