Churchgoing and Moral Commitments

I recently had an conversation with a colleague, and a student about religious belief. The focus of the conversation was on the Euthyphro and religious certainty. Religious certainty led to a discussion of the certainty some Christians seemed to have about their faith, which itself eventually led to a discussion of what it means to call oneself a Christian. As I noted at the time, it is not enough to follow the moral teachings of the bible to be a Christian. To be a Christian is to believe in a set of premises contained in the Nicene Creed: Jesus was the son of God; he was conceived by the Virgin Mary; was crucified; arose from the dead three days later etc.

I’ve previously written about my religious beliefs (or lack thereof). In that post, I focused on faith and belief in general. Although religion and faith go hand in hand, faith and church-going do not. There are other elements of religious experience that many find important. For example, many non or lackluster believers may continue to attend a church for the community experience. They may want to instill a sense of community or charity in their children, or they may simply admire the work the church does. At times I meet Catholics that give these or similar reasons for remaining in the Church. For many years I believed that I would probably fall into this category of church goer. Over time I found this position untenable. Too many of specifically Catholic teachings conflict with my own moral beliefs:

Issue Catholic Church Me
Abortion Morally wrong under all circumstances: “2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” Even if we grant the fetus is a person from conception there are still (as Judith Jarvis Thompson has persuasively argued) morally justified instances of abortion, not the least of which is the life of the mother. No person, and in this case no women should be required to sacrifice her life for another. It may be morally commendable if she does, but is should no be morally obligatory. Abortion, as former president Clinton once said, should be safe, legal, and rare.
Birth Control “2370 Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, ’every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil.’ In 1964 Pope Paul convened a commission on birth control. As Elaine May wrote in a op-ed piece in the Washington Post “In 1967, the commission’s report was leaked to the press, revealing that a significant majority of its members favored lifting the ban, including 60 of 64 theologians and nine of the 15 cardinals.” Outside of the Catholic Church, I know of no Protestant denomination that views contraception as “intrinsically evil”. What makes this position worse is the disproportionate effect it has on the health and well-being of women—particularly women in poverty and those in the third world. Overpopulation in places like India and China, along with AIDS ravaged parts of Africa makes the ban itself an evil. Contraception is not only about preventing pregnancy, but is also about preventing disease.
Divorce 2384 Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery. The Catholic Church is one of few sects of Christianity that makes marriage a sacrament and does not allow divorce. While divorce may in many instances be a regrettable event, in others it may be the only way to remove oneself from a physically or emotionally abusive relationship. It may also be caused by substance abuse, infidelity, or any number of issues. Given the numerous reasons a couple may choose to end a marriage, it seems ridiculous to hold that a divorced spouse that remarries is in a constant state of adultery. I don’t think the divorced people are in some perpetual state of sin, nor do I think divorce is an offense against nature or a plague on society.[1]
Euthansia 2277 Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable. Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgement into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded. Removing a feeding tube, or assisting a person whose palliative care is no longer effective is not immoral, but strikes me as an act of compassion. Of course, we need to consider the psychological state of the individual, and his or her ability to give meaningful consent. But, an absolute ban on such acts seems misguided.
Gay Marriage Opposes gay marriage:“2363 The spouses’ union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple’s spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family. The conjugal love of man and woman thus stands under the twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity.[my emphasis]” Marriages that take place are both civil and religious affairs (with priests/ministers acting as a representative of the state as well as a religious leader) I believe all state sanctioned “marriage” should be redefined as civil unions. Marriage (and it religious connotation) should be left to the churches, mosques and synagogues.[2]
Homosexuality “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity [Cf. Gen 19:1–29; Rom 1:24–27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tim 1:10], tradition has always declared that ”homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." Homosexuality is innate, and is not depraved or disordered. While one can choose to engage in sexual acts with either sex, sexual attraction is primarily genetic. But even if it is not genetic, it seems most arguments against homosexuality are based on aesthetic considerations and not moral ones.
Role of Women Only men may be ordained: 1577 “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.” If men and women were created equally, then they should be able to serve equally in the church. A “universal church” should have representation by both halves of that universal body. Additonally (and perhaps more importantly) I don’t want to attend a church that would instill in my daughter or my son (implicitly or explicitly) the idea that women are somehow second class members of the church.

Now, I know that I am not the only person to be troubled by the formal teachings of his or her church. Many people of good conscience struggle with these sorts of conflicts. They have a gay relative, or know someone who conceived a child under less than ideal circumstances. But I suspect these people remain a member of a church because of a more fundamental underlying faith commitment. They may remain Catholic because they are committed to Marian veneration, or the transubstantiation—things not found in Protestant churches. But once you remove the underlying faith-based commitments, the moral teachings take on a new level of importance.

What this all says to me is that if I should ever decide to return to a church, it will have to be one that shares my values. Fortunately, there are a variety of churches[3], and for that matter religions, that would allow me be part of a community while not sacrificing my fundamental moral commitments.

  1. 2385 Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society.  ↩

  2. Interestingly enough, before the 13th century there was no marriage gay or otherwise  ↩

  3. For example, the United Church of Christ’s open and affirming congregations have moral teachings in line with those I have outlined here.  ↩

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