Thursday, February 16, 2012

Birth Control, Bishops and Religious Authority

The Obama administration’s ruling requiring certain Catholic institutions like hospitals and universities to offer health insurance covering birth control prompted a furious response from the Catholic bishops. The bishops argued that this was a violation of conscience since birth control is contrary to teachings of the Catholic Church, as expressed in Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae.”

What interests me as a philosopher — and a Catholic — is that virtually all parties to this often acrimonious debate have assumed that the bishops are right about this, that birth control is contrary to “the teachings of the Catholic Church.” The only issue is how, if at all, the government should “respect” this teaching.

As critics repeatedly point out, 98 percent of sexually active American Catholic women practice birth control, and 78 percent of Catholics think a “good Catholic” can reject the bishops’ teaching on birth control. The response from the church, however, has been that, regardless of what the majority of Catholics do and think, the church’s teaching is that birth control is morally wrong. The church, in the inevitable phrase, “is not a democracy.” What the church teaches is what the bishops (and, ultimately, the pope, as head of the bishops) say it does.

But is this true? The answer requires some thought about the nature and basis of religious authority. Ultimately the claim is that this authority derives from God. But since we live in a human world in which God does not directly speak to us, we need to ask, Who decides that God has given, say, the Catholic bishops his authority?

It makes no sense to say that the bishops themselves can decide this, that we should accept their religious authority because they say God has given it to them. If this were so, anyone proclaiming himself a religious authority would have to be recognized as one. From where, then, in our democratic, secular society does such recognition properly come? It could, in principle, come from some other authority, like the secular government. But we have long given up the idea (“cujus regio, ejus religio”) that our government can legitimately designate the religious authority in its domain. But if the government cannot determine religious authority, surely no lesser secular power could. Theological experts could tell us what the bishops have taught over the centuries, but this does not tell us whether these teachings have divine authority.

In our democratic society the ultimate arbiter of religious authority is the conscience of the individual believer. It follows that there is no alternative to accepting the members of a religious group as themselves the only legitimate source of the decision to accept their leaders as authorized by God. They may be wrong, but their judgment is answerable to no one but God. In this sense, even the Catholic Church is a democracy.
Read the rest here.

Wow. This is a pretty breathtaking article. The state should cease to recognize the Pope as the head of the Catholic Church and basically overthrow its 2000 years of doctrine and ecclesiology.


Ben said...

Reading that and the comments made me want to vomit. . . I'm seriously considering purchasing 1 way tickets out of this country to somewhere that isn't going to kill my children for believing in God. You think it can't happen here. . . that's what they said in 1916.

mjl said...

Sarcastic much, John?

Anonymous said...


Who decided that icons were legitimatly Orthodox, the bishops or the people?

gabriel said...

Truly worrisome. We are witnessing the rationalization of religious oppression at this moment. Obama is taking the populist angle, and liberal intellectuals to frame sophistical structures to provide a facade of rationality.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Don't even know what to say to this.

Commendable to reject the alleged authority of pope and RC bishops, mistaken to suppose that authority vested simply in "the people".

This is what happens absent the indwelling and leading of the Holy Spirit. Confusion reigns!

Anonymous said... do you decide the "authenticity" of authority?

In the past, the State, ( in whatever form from empire to aristocratic power), had coercive power in tandem with the hierarchy.

Nowadays, the State has no interest in using its coercive power to buttress the hierarchy, ( outside of Russia).

Post-Constanian reality.

Not force but persuasion, something the hierarchy is lousy at, is called for.


Anonymous said...

I thought there was already a word for those who reject the teaching "authority" of the episcopate... "Protestants."

Of course, we Orthodox do believe in the need for the "reception" of doctrinal decrees by the faithful, over time. But so far as I can tell, this is applicable only to new teachings that contradict or water down the received tradition. In that sense, the acceptance, not the rejection, of birth control and significant changes in sexual morality are the novelties and, therefore, need to stand the test of "reception" by the whole People of God. Yet, this in no way implies that authority derives from the "people," rather than from God.

Secular authority in the American view does derive from the consensus of the governed; but such a claim is nonsensical in a religion that claims to be "revealed" and founded on the Apostle's teaching and fellowship. To confuse the two and seek to impose the secular understanding upon the Church (Catholic or otherwise) is, in effect, to blur the difference between state and church.

Anonymous said...

All Protestant churches opposed contraception until 1930, and it took the Orthodox 2,000 years to get rid of this.