The Diocese of Arlington has made the news by requiring catechists to sign a profession of faith that concludes with the jarring-to-American-ears promise to “adhere with religious submission of will and intellect” to the teaching authority of the Church. I don’t live or work in the Diocese of Arlington, and this forum is not the place to play backseat-bishop. But it’s important for catechists to understand what such an expression means — and doesn’t mean — in light of Catholic teaching, because you can be sure sooner or later someone’s going to ask.
Imagine you’re invited to a dinner party. We’re just pretending, I’m not going to make you fish out your one good shirt from under that pile in your closet. But pretend you picked out your clothes, decided all on your own whether to bring flowers for the hostess, and whether to arrive on-the-dot or fashionably late. You’re the picture of free-thinking autonomy.
So you arrive at the door, and your hosts invite you inside. And from there? It’s one big festival of obedience.
Oh, sure, they give you some choices — would you like root beer or seltzer? Care to try the cheese plate? But in all, you spend the evening doing what your hosts dictate: Sitting in the room they’ve chosen, eating the foods they’ve prepared, relieving yourself in the bathroom they lead you to, no matter how eager you were to find out if it’s true they really do have three sinks in the master bedroom. Don’t care for the pasta? That’s not your invitation to rummage through the fridge and heat up your host’s leftover carry-out. Obedience is all so . . . normal. So normal we don’t even notice it.
But there are limits, too. Your hosts cracks a racist joke? You have every right to walk out — or to say you’re offended, or to refuse to laugh along. They try to talk you into insider trading, or watching a sleazy slide show? Off you go home. Game over. An illegal order is no order at all. Still, no matter what absolute creeps your hosts turn out to be, you still don’t get to take a nip from their bottle of single malt unless they invite you to do so.
Legitimate authority always has boundaries. We can obey God without question, because God is inherently good, always and in everything. Men? We take it as an article of faith that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We know that every church official — lay or religious — from the Holy Father to the cleaning guy telling you keep your hands off the Lysol in the janitor’s closet — every single one is going to sin. And there is always, always, a risk that this one or that one will try to draw you into his sin.
And when that happens? We Catholics have an obligation to refuse. It is a tenet of our faith.
So we know that whatever the Diocese of Arlington’s profession of faith means, it can’t possibly mean, “turn off your brain and obey like a robot.”
What does it mean, then, to submit your will and intellect to Church teaching authority?
It means we accept a very fundamental teaching of the Catholic faith: Our Lord chose His Church to be the means through which truths about faith and morals are revealed.
This is a hard teaching. We know that human teachers err — not always, but sometimes. Today’s scientific theory is tomorrow’s busted-myth. The idea that God might possibly use human beings as the channel through which to reveal himself? Bold. That the process would be so clunky and obnoxious and amazingly sloooooow as the Catholic Church? Preposterous.
We worship a God who thinks up stuff we’d never do if we were in charge, that’s for sure.
But ultimately it is a tenet of the Catholic faith that there exists this teaching authority, and that it has the ability to teach definitively on certain matters, in certain circumstances.
As a catechist, I’m free to hold any number of theological opinions on matters which the Church has left open (for now or indefinitely). And the Church has no opinion at all on matters outside her realm. But where the Church has the right to assert a definitive teaching — the way my party host has a right to decide what drinks to serve, or whether to move out to the patio for dessert — I do have to yield to that legitimate authority.
As a catechist, I have to decide: Do I believe the Church is who she says she is? If yes, I need to act on that faith. I have to choose (using my will) to accept (using my intellect) what the Church definitively proposes as our faith.
This is not an easy faith. We who are comfortable with this kind of profession of faith should be patient with our fellows in the pews who don’t “get it” so easily. The Catholic Church is a universal Church, and all are invited to participate in the practice of our faith as much as they are able — and not to be coerced into practices or beliefs they do not accept.
But it is reasonable for the bishops to ask that those who teach the faith in an official capacity believe and practice the faith, however uneasy at times that may be.