A most unfortunate Roman intervention

On May 7, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, SJ, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sent a letter to Archbishop José Gomez, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. To all appearances, that letter was aimed at forestalling indefinitely a joint statement by the U.S. bishops on eucharistic coherence in the Church, with particular reference to the reception of holy communion by Catholic public officials complicit in the grave moral evil of abortion: an issue eloquently addressed recently by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco.  

Cardinal Ladaria’s letter includes statements that are not self-evidently clear, in part because they seem inconsistent with what the congregation he heads taught in its 2002 “Doctrinal Note,” entitled The Participation of Catholics in Political Life.

For example, the cardinal’s letter to Archbishop Gomez urges that the bishops of the U.S. undertake a “dialogue” so that “they could agree as a Conference that support of pro-choice legislation is not compatible with Catholic teaching.” Why is such a dialogue necessary? At their ordination, bishops swear a solemn oath to uphold the teaching of the Church. And as the 2002 Doctrinal Note states, quoting John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), “those who are directly involved in lawmaking have a ‘grave and clear obligation to oppose’ any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.” 

Yet the cardinal writes that the bishops should “discuss and agree” to that teaching. What is there to “discuss”? And if, God forbid, some bishops actually disagree with that teaching, why should their rejection of it – or even their muddled understanding of its implications – prevent the overwhelming majority of bishops who accept that teaching from restating it and then applying it? The First Council of Nicaea didn’t wait for the episcopal supporters of Arius to “agree” before it taught the truth about the divinity of Christ. The Council of Ephesus didn’t wait for the agreement of Nestorius and the Nestorian bishops before teaching the truth that Mary can rightly be called Theotokos, Mother of God. Unanimity can never be at the expense of truth, can it?

Once “agreement” among the bishops on what is an elementary truth of Catholic faith has been achieved, the cardinal urges that local bishops “engage in dialogue with Catholic politicians within their jurisdictions” as a “means of understanding the nature of their positions and their comprehension of Catholic teaching.” Perhaps the cardinal is unaware that this has been done. Perhaps the cardinal is unaware that the issue, typically, is not that “pro-choice” politicians misunderstand what the Church teaches but that they reject it – and still insist on presenting themselves as serious Catholics in full communion with the Church. (Such claims are now a regular feature of White House press briefings.) There is little that is unclear here, and further “dialogue” is not going to clarify much of anything. 

The cardinal was also concerned that any “national policy on worthiness for communion” must express a “true consensus of the bishops on the matter.” But that is to say, once again, that the bishops with the least sense of urgency about defending the truth, applying it, and thereby recovering the eucharistic coherence of the Church call the tune for the rest of the bishops. This is not the kind of “consensus” that Pope Paul VI sought when he worked to have Vatican II adopt its Declaration on Religious Freedom by the largest margin possible. Pope Paul knew that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and other intransigents would never accept such a declaration, but he was not prepared to grant them veto power over it in the name of “consensus.” Why should such veto power be granted to the few intransigents in the U.S. bishops’ conference today?

The prefect’s call that “every effort …be made” to “dialogue” with “other episcopal conferences as this policy is formulated” is also puzzling. Does Cardinal Ladaria really believe that a “dialogue” with a German episcopal conference unconcerned about apostasy and careening into schism is going to produce fruitful results in the United States? If so, it would be instructive to know how that’s going to happen.

The strategy Cardinal Ladaria urges in his letter replicates key elements in the McCarrick approach to pro-abortion American politicians. I trust Cardinal Ladaria was unaware of that, but in any event the sluggish, tepid approach to a crisis that he urges on the U.S. bishops is badly misconceived.

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash