For a Catholic reader of the Post, it was a pretty stunning story to see so prominently on the July 12 front page. With the print headline “Parishioners question need for fidelity oaths,” one is made to wonder whether some parish priest somewhere is exacting supine obedience from the hapless folks in the pews. To Catholics who accept the teachings of the church (should that really be redundant?), the oath, it turns out, is a welcome return to orthodoxy.
The story concerned a small number—just five, it seems—of the 5,000 Sunday school teachers in the half-million-strong Catholic diocese of Arlington, who decided to hand in their resignations rather than take an oath, promulgated by Bishop Paul Loverde in May, that they affirm their own personal belief in the religious teachings they were responsible for passing on to their young charges.
From the first lines of the story, one could tell that Bishop Loverde had done the right thing. We immediately meet one of the former teachers: “Kathleen Riley knows her beliefs on the male-only priesthood and contraception put her at odds with leaders of her church.”
If Ms. Riley knows she is “at odds” with her church’s central doctrines on such matters of faith and morals, then she should not be at all surprised to find herself no longer a Sunday school teacher. Bishop Loverde’s oath is not an “alarming effort,” as “liberal Catholics” believe, to “stamp out debate” in the church. It is an effort, by the prelate responsible for the teaching of Catholic doctrine to half a million people, to control the curriculum and pedagogy when that doctrine is taught to impressionable children.
Ms. Riley is quite right that “the Holy Spirit gives us the responsibility to look into our own consciences.” This is just the responsibility the bishop is exercising. But if Ms. Riley has looked into her own conscience and concluded that the church is wrong about the male-only priesthood and contraception, she does not have the right to teach those contrary conclusions as though they are part of Catholic doctrine, or a valid alternative to Catholic doctrine, or a meaningful contribution to the Catholic conversation, in a doctrinal curriculum for children learning about the faith.
This does not mean she should leave the Catholic Church. It does not mean anyone is casting her into a lower circle marked “bad Catholics.” It does mean that the dissenting view of Ms. Riley, which she is of course welcome to discuss with her pastor at any time (and not just in the confessional) has no place in the Sunday school classroom. What happens in that classroom belongs to the church, as the body of Christ, not to Ms. Riley, and the bishop is the man responsible for the integrity of the body of teachings that inform the body of Christ.
(Editor’s note: The catechists said in interviews that their issue is not with conveying official church teaching to students, but with being required to sign a fidelity oath.)
Professor Rosemarie Zagarri of George Mason University, another former St. Ann’s teacher who would not take the oath, takes particular offense at the idea that catechists must (as the bishop’s “oath” puts it) “adhere with religious submission of will and intellect” to everything the church authoritatively teaches (which is not the same as every memo from the diocese). She calls this being “willing to go against the dictates of her conscience.” But in fact she is simply being screened regarding the contents of her conscience, which is not the same thing.
Again, the conscience whose activity matters here is the one belonging to the bishop, representing the whole church. Catholics do not believe that the conscience is mere “intuition” or “gut feeling” about what seems right to us. It is a well-formed moral sense, partaking of both reason and faith—very heavy on the reason, in fact. And it is not something that should, in the Catholic view, vary widely from one individual to the next. A well-formed conscience is formed by, and is in accord with, the two-millennia-old Magisterium, the “deposit of faith.” This is what is meant by the “religious submission” referred to in the “Profession of Faith” required by the bishop. (See Bishop Loverde’s letter, and the profession of faith, here in an On Faith follow-up blog.) Some parts of the church’s teaching are harder for each of us than others are. But the church asks us to set aside our doubts willingly, and to express our solidarity with what the whole church declares itself to believe.
It’s notable that most of the Profession of Faith required by the bishop to be said aloud by the catechists, in public at a Mass, consists of the text of the Nicene Creed, which is said on most Sundays by everyone in the pews. Everything in the rest of the signed oath for catechists is simply an inference from one of the lines in that creed: “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.”
The “apostolic church”—that’s a reference to the Catholic belief that our bishops are successors of the Apostles who were the first members and leaders of the church. As one of the successors of Peter and the other apostles, Bishop Loverde has acted conscientiously, and all of Arlington’s catechists must do likewise. If one can happily say and sign the profession, one is a catechist. If one cannot, one is not. No one is imposed upon. Are people who cannot say “I do” to the church screened out? You bet. That’s the point, and a very good one it is.
Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.