Sunday, March 31, 2013

Has Cafeteria Catholicism become fashionable? Professor Gutting writes for the Times

If you are a disgruntled Catholic college professor waiting for an invitation from the  NY Times to write an op ed essay, please be patient. It may take awhile, but the Times will eventually get around to you.

This week, the Times spotlighted Gary Gutting, a heterodox Catholic professor who specializes in modern French Philosophy at Notre Dame. In a Sunday op ed essay, Gutting expressed his displeasure with the Catholic hierarchy but vowed not to abandon the Church to its leadership or its "conservative core."

Gary Gutting
So what's Gutting's big problem? Gutting thinks the Church's "greatest danger is the loss of membership whom the hierarchy and the rest of the conservative core want to marginalize." The Church's best hope, Gutting believes, is to adopt "the liberal drive for reform."

And what exactly should the hierarchy do, in Gutting's opinion, to heed the liberal drive for reform? Apparently, Gutting believes the Vatican should turn the Catholic Church into a sort of doctrinal cafeteria, where Catholics would be free to affirm the doctrines that appeal to them and reject the others.

In an earlier Times essay, Professor Gutting wrote that he does not believe the Catholic hierarchy has the authority to determine doctrine for American Catholics. Rather, "[i]n our democratic society,  the ultimate arbiter of religious authority is the conscience of the individual believer.”

Most Catholics, Gutting observed approvingly, "now reserve for themselves the right to reject doctrines insisted on by their bishops and to interpret in their own way the doctrines that they do accept."  This is especially true, Gutting contends," in matters of sexual morality, especially birth control, where the majority of Catholics have concluded that the teachings of the bishops do not apply to them."

I have a couple of comments to make about Professor Gutting's essays and his views. First, Gutting is simply wrong to suggest that the Catholic Church is doomed unless it heeds what he calls "the liberal drive for reform."  The Catholic Church is not on its last legs.  After all, there are 71 million of us in the United States and more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide. 

I find it disingenuous for Catholic critics to hint darkly that the Church is falling apart because it won't abandon its traditions. Surely Professor Gutting  knows that it is the liberal Protestant groups that are imploding, not the Catholic Church.  The Episcopalians, for example, numbered 3.5 million members in the 1960s. They heeded the "liberal drive for reform," and there are less than 2 million of them today.  

G.K. Chesterton
Second, if Gutting really believes that "[i]n our democratic society, the ultimate arbiter of religious authority is the conscience of the individual believer," I don't see how he can call himself Catholic.  It seems to me that what Gutting is really advocating is a religion to fit what G. K. Chesterton called the "modern mood."  Such advocates, Chesterton observed, "merely take the modern mood, with much in it that is amiable and much that is anarchical and much that is merely dull and obvious, and then require any creed to be cut down to fit that mood."

But Catholic faith was not constructed to fit the modern mood, a democratic mood or any other mood.  Rather, it is a faith , as Chesterton put it, that "binds men to their morality when it is not identical with their mood."

This faith is the same the world over, and Catholic obligations are the same the world over. Just because (to use Chesterton's phrase) "our political system still rather pathetically claims to be democratic," does not mean that American Catholics can determine the contours of their religious obligations based on their personal preferences.

Faith derived from personal preferences, democratic principles, or even an individual's sense of conscience is not Catholicism--it is Sheilaism; that is, Sheila believes what Sheila wants to believe.   Or in Gutting's case, I suppose his religion is Guttingism.  And Guttingism is an appropriate aphorism for the benighted form of Catholicism that Professor Gutting is espousing in the op ed pages of the New York Times.


G.K. Chesterton. The Catholic Church and Conversion. San Francisco; Ignatius Press, 1926.

Gary Gutting. Birth Control, Bishops and Religious Authority. New York Times,  February 15, 2012.

Gary Gutting. On Being Catholic. New York Times, March 31, 2013, p. 3.

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