Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Come out with your hands up, and nobody gets hurt! Frank Bruni thinks the Catholic Church should negotiate Church tradition

Frank Bruni thinks the Catholic Church should stop talking so much about sex. In an op ed essay that appeared in last Sunday's edition of the NY Times, Bruni argued that the Church has lost its moral authority to speak on sexual morality and is wasting its breath by continuing to do so.

Bruni believes the Church's positions on a range of sexual issues--a celibate priesthood, homosexuality, contraceptives, and divorce--have enraged and alienated a lot of lay Catholics, many of whom believe that Church doctrine on these issues is neither "wise, kind or necessary." Bruni also repeats an argument he has made before, that Church policy on a celibate priesthood has "winnowed and sometimes warped" the priesthood.

Let's negotiate
Bruni concludes his essay by saying that "[t]he Church's stubborn attachment to negotiable traditions and unenlightened positions has distanced [lay Catholics], but they're not entirely gone." " He thinks some disaffected Catholics might come back into the fold if Pope Francis makes the right moves. "It will be interesting to see," Bruni writes, "how, and if Francis can bring them back."

I have three comments to make on Bruni's latest attack on Catholic doctrine. First, it is Frank Bruni, not the Catholic Church, who should stop talking so much about sex.  In recent weeks, Bruni has attacked Church doctrine repeatedly in the op ed pages of the Times, and most of his criticism has focused on the Church's stance on sexual issues.

Second, Bruni's insinuation that a celibate priesthood has contributed to warping the priesthood is simply not true. Celibacy does not hinder a person's ability to live a healthy and holy life. Dorothy Day, an orthodox Catholic, devoted her life to social justice and serving the poor without a hint of scandal, yet she lived a celibate life after she converted to Catholicism (Coles, 1987).

Dorothy Day: Orthodox
Finally, Bruni criticizes the Church for its "stubborn attachment to certain negotiable traditions," which can and should be changed.  Bruni did not say with whom the Church should be negotiating. Perhaps he believes the Church should negotiate Catholic doctrine with various dissident  groups that claim to be Catholic while rejecting Church dogma on fundamental moral issues.

These Catholic traditions that Bruni thinks are negotiable form part of core Catholic doctrine; and this doctrine is simply not negotiable.  It is derived from three sources: scripture, tradition, and the writings of the early Church Fathers and the Doctors of the Church (which include three women). Of course Catholic doctrine may change and evolve over time. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Pope and the Vatican may certainly make changes. But Church doctrine will not change because its faultfinders think it should, no matter how many op ed essays Frank Bruni writes.

Bruni's suggestion that the Church should negotiate its traditions reminds me of a scene from the movie True Grit. U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, played by John Wayne, has cornered a band of hapless outlaws in a cabin deep in Indian Territory. Cogburn demands everyone in the cabin to throw down their weapons and come out , and he promises the outlaws he won't hurt them if they follow his directions. The outlaws comply, and Cogburn begins shooting as they come out the door.

In my opinion, for the Catholic Church to negotiate Church doctrine with its dissidents would be something like negotiating with Rooster Cogburn.  Even if the Church did everything its carping critics demand--abandoned its stances on gay marriage, abortion, contraceptives and divorce-- it would still get ambushed. 

Why? Because many of the Church's critics have no love or devotion to the Church at all. In fact, they are enemies of the Church who will not be satisfied until the Church is destroyed or transformed into a neutered house cat. But of course, our postmodern culture already has plenty of neutered house cats; most of the Reformation-era Protestant churches have endorsed or acquiesced to many of the so-called "reforms" that the Church's critics demand.

I am not saying Frank Bruni is an enemy of the Catholic Church.  His criticisms may be sincere and heartfelt. But I think everyone who cares about the health of our Church should follow the example of Dorothy Day. She clearly saw the Church's flaws--the lavish lifestyles of some of the bishops, a seeming indifference to the poor, its failure to address the sins of corporate capitalism. Dorothy would certainly have had plenty to say about the sex abuse scandal had it occurred when she was alive and active.

Dorothy strove to overcome the Church's flaw by working with the poor as her own faith witness. But as she herself proclaimed, Dorothy was an orthodox Catholic. And--as far as I know--she never criticised or rejected any element of fundamental Catholic doctrine.

So let us work for a better Church, one more in keeping with Christ's spirit, and let us do all we can to root out scandal and abuse.  But we can do that, I believe, while remaining obedient to Church doctrine and tradition, until--in God's good time--Catholic doctrine and traditions evolve and change.


Frank Bruni. Beyond the Bedroom. New York Times, March 17, 2013, Review Section, p. 3.

Robert Coles. Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Georgetown, MA: Da Capo Press, 1987.

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