Easter is a time for initiating people into the Church. In many Catholic parishes this happens through RCIA: the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
But what do you have to believe to be Catholic? There’s a lot of confusion about this in public discussion. Current popular opinion says that under Pope Francis the Church is more open, more welcoming, more willing to offer full communion to people who diverge from Church teaching.
If Pope John Paul II was known for his opening exhortation “Be not afraid!” Pope Francis’s most repeated (and misconstrued) quote is “Who am I to judge?”
This supposed openness has an ironic flip side. Liberal Catholic pundits will defend giving communion even to Planned Parenthood award winners. But those same liberals are busy heaping up more and more “teachings” that they say Catholics must believe, or else.
The recent death penalty debate is a good example. Conservative Catholics will make the case that the death penalty can be permitted, and even why it is a good idea. But very few conservatives will say you are a bad Catholic if you oppose the death penalty.
The liberals are the ones being unwelcome and exclusivistic. They insist that being Catholic necessitates opposing the death penalty. The Patheos Catholic portal’s anti-death penalty statement repeats, as if it forces a conclusion, the mantra “We are Catholic” “We are Catholic” “We are Catholic.” That’s not an argument, it’s a bludgeon. It repeatedly suggests that if you don’t agree with them on this issue, you are not really Catholic and maybe not even Christian.
It’s true that on some fundamental policy issues, the Church’s moral teaching requires that we take a position. For example, “don’t kill babies” (abortion must be illegal). Or, “male and female He created them” (marriage is between a man and a woman). Or, Christians must be free to follow Christ’s teachings (the state must respect religious freedom).
But on most other policy issues the Church allows the laity freedom to figure those out.
So to help guide you through what you will not be required to affirm and profess at this year’s Easter Vigil Mass, here are my “Top 10 Things Catholics Don’t Have to Believe”:
1. The death penalty must be abolished. Take it from then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict: “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
Note that he was talking about who may receive Holy Communion, which is the ultimate measure of being a Catholic in good standing.
2. All gun control must be enacted. The Church teaches that families have a right to defend themselves including by use of arms, and it teaches that guns should be subject to “reasonable” limits by the state. But the Church leaves it to lay policy makers to decide what limits are reasonable.
Although many bishops have supported gun control, no Church teaching has attempted or intended to bind Catholics to support local gun control measures. Even gun control advocate Cardinal Dolan admits that his judgment on this issue is limited: “I will never be an authority on the number of bullets that should be in an ammo clip, or the proper way to conduct background checks before selling someone a firearm. That’s the proper responsibility of our legislators, and, should constitutional questions arise, of our courts.”
3. The government must redistribute more and more of your money to the welfare state. Catholic social teaching says that we need to care for the poor. But how to do that exactly, and what role the government must play, is left up to the laity work out. The Church does not require Catholics to support the government taking increasingly more money from citizens to expand the welfare state, stagnate the economy and leave future generations with crippling debt.
When Congressman Paul Ryan came under criticism from a Catholic bishop about proposed restrictions on federal spending, Bishop Robert Morlino of Rep. Ryan’s home diocese defended his standing as a good Catholic who seriously seeks to apply the Church’s social teaching.
4. The Internet must be transformed into ObamaNet. Recently Bishop John Wester of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops praised a vote by the Federal Communications Commission to impose “Net Neutrality” and therefore more government regulations on the Internet.
Bishop Wester’s statement focuses on his view that the FCC will protect religious speech. Nevertheless, Catholics are free to take different views on the merits of increasing FCC regulation of the Internet, or on the idea that the FCC has statutory authority to do so in the first place, or on the idea that giving this administration more regulatory power is likely to protect religious speech.
5. The Supreme Court should impose its views on the country. Recent Catholic statements against the death penalty went so far as to invite the Supreme Court specifically to abolish the death penalty.
But even Catholics who oppose the death penalty, like Notre Dame Professor Rick Garnett, oppose achieving this goal by means of “unsound court decisions or possibly-overreaching executive actions.”
6. All bombs are unjust (unless they are dropped by a Democrat). Catholic tradition has a lot to say in principle about when a war may be justly waged, and how to be just in decisions one makes within war. And there are certainly wars the Church could teach Catholics to oppose: Germany’s aggression in World War II for example. But generally the Church leaves the application of “Just War” principles to Catholics in the secular sphere, as seen above in the quote by Cardinal Ratzinger.
The absurdity of liberal Catholics insisting that the faithful agree with them on war issues is obvious under this presidency. We were all told we must support Obama instead of McCain and Romney because of Republican war-mongering, only to see Obama drop more bombs on Afghanistan, open new Middle Eastern wars like in Libya (which has lead to such wonderful results), and perfect his own personal video-game-like drone strike program.
7. Man is causing global warming and must stop burning fossil fuels. Whether man is causing global warming is a scientific issue, not a philosophical, theological or moral issue. The Church will sometimes teach on the moral implications of a scientific issue, like the fact that since science overwhelmingly says human life begins at fertilization, those human beings must be recognized as having personal human dignity.
But the Church doesn’t bind Catholics to specific scientific facts. (And where theologians are wrong on science, like when St. Thomas Aquinas believed a human being didn’t exist until later in pregnancy, then the moral implications they draw from the proposed fact need to be adjusted.)
Nor does the Church say Catholics must agree with a particular way to deal with environmental problems—for example by taxing fossil fuel use or regulating it through international bodies. United Nations elites who fly the world in their private jets are not authorized, morally or otherwise, to tell the rest of us how to heat our homes. Catholics are free to disagree on the policy issue of what to do about so-called climate change.
8. National borders must be eliminated for immigrants. The Church recognizes both the right of migrant people to seek places where they can make a living for their families, and the right of nations to protect the common good by imposing reasonable conditions on their borders and on people they admit.
The Church does not negate either of these principles, such as by requiring Catholics to support relaxation of all immigration restrictions. The precise level and management of immigration is not a matter of binding teaching. Which points to another misconception…
9. That everything any bishop says is binding teaching. Bishops can issue binding teaching on faith and morals. But often bishops don’t intend to require their flocks to strictly adhere to what they are recommending. They may just be offering their opinion for respectful consideration, and we should give it respectful consideration. Or they may be offering general principles while leaving it to the faithful to decide how those apply in society.
Likewise the statement of a bishops’ conference is often intended to express a view on a policy, but not to require Catholics to agree with that view. And as Bishop Robert Vasa has pointed out, quoting then-Cardinal Ratzinger, individual bishops can teach with Christ’s authority, but “episcopal conferences have no theological basis, they do not belong to the structure of the Church.”
There are even statements in papal encyclicals which don’t intend to announce binding Catholic moral teaching. Cardinal Ratzinger again explains: if a teaching is not announced by Magisterium as being divinely revealed (like the Creed) or to be held definitively (like opposition to euthanasia or fornication) then in order for us to know if the statement is binding, and in what sense, and with what weight, we have to measure “the nature of the documents,” “the repetition of the same doctrine,” and “the tenor of the verbal expression.” These can vary widely.
10. That all issues have the same weight. “Agricultural subsidies for the poor” are neither of the same kind nor of the same degree as laws about whether it is OK to kill over 1.2 million preborn babies each year in the United States.
A politician’s support for increased welfare spending does not offset his enthusiasm for insisting on abortion on demand without apology paid for by tax dollars. A pro-life Republican candidate’s hawkish policies do not justify us in voting for a pro-abortion Democrat, especially when she is likely to drop just as many bombs in the Middle East anyway.
The U.S. Bishops summarized it well when they pointed out that human dignity is like a house: there are foundational issues, and non-foundational ones. They were just restating the basic virtue of prudence. Some issues weigh more than others, and some intrinsically flow from Church teaching while others leave room for disagreement.
Jesus wore a “seamless garment.” Left-wing Catholic magazines do not. They often appear not to be wearing any clothes at all.