A man in Roman collar who called American bishops “mitered birdbrains” tends to draw attention. The Rev. Andrew Greeley’s death last week at 85 silenced a Catholic boat-rocker not only against his church’s hierarchy but its take on faith, one held, ironically, by many atheists as well: Religion involves unquestioning devotion to sacred (or nutty) dogmas and moral teachings.
The alternative, plugged by Greeley and others, has conquered not just most American Catholics, but a surprising number of evangelical Protestants. Call it the religion of doubt — questioning everything from church social teachings to the existence of God, while remaining devout.
A trained sociologist, Greeley stumbled on this religion studying laypeople in the pews, whose faith, he found, was often divorced from the teachings and creeds handed down from the Vatican and insisted upon by traditionalist Catholics. This from his New York Times obituary:
“Before religion became creed or catechism, he said, it was poetry: images and stories that defy death with glimpses of hope, and with moments of life-renewing experience that were shared and enacted in communal rituals. ‘The theological voice wants doctrines, creeds, and obligations,’ Father Greeley wrote. ‘I reject none of these. I merely insist that experiences which renew hope are prior to and richer than propositional and ethical religion and provide the raw power for them.’”
Greeley believed sex was ground zero in this schism between leaders and led — he himself wrote racy novels — with the canyon separating the camps being “Humanae Vitae,” the 1968 encyclical affirming the church’s ban on artificial contraception. Ignoring can-the-ban advice from a study commission he’d appointed, Pope Paul VI argued that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” Doubting Catholics saw how the pope undercut his assertion in the same encyclical (though he claimed not to) by allowing couples to throw procreation out the window if they used natural family planning. We don’t see how that severing of sex and procreation is rendered suddenly sinful by the introduction of latex, jelly, a pill, or other man-made items. And we know that at least some ban supporters didn’t want to call the church’s authority into question, regardless of the wisdom of the contraception teaching. One priest on the commission asked: If we discard the ban, “what, then, of the millions we have sent to hell?”
Doubting the church’s magisterium (teaching authority) dismays traditionalists like writer George Weigel, who lamented that the laity no longer gives church teachings the benefit of the doubt, exercising their individual consciences instead — ”a do-it-yourself Catholicism in which claims of conscience, however ill-formed, trump all.” The problem with the benefit-of-the-doubt, the Jesuit and Notre Dame ethicist Richard McCormick pointed out, is that it rests on an “unacknowledged and historically unsupportable triumphalism, the idea that the official teaching authority of the church is always right, never errs, is always totally adequate in its formulations.”
It’s possible to exaggerate Greeley’s iconoclasm. The Times reported that he supported the priestly celibacy rule. But he was ahead of the curve when he condemned pedophile priests more than a dozen years before The Boston Globe revealed how pathologically protective of predators a cardinal could be.
Even before that scandal sucker-punched the church’s moral authority, a majority of American Catholics famously disagreed with the Vatican on contraception and other matters. (Developing world Catholics are more Weigelian.) And in fairness, the Vatican is hardly the brainless authoritarian its less informed critics depict. For example, it has given its doctrinal blessing to Catholic scholars’ musing that maybe, possibly, Jesus’s virgin birth didn’t happen. The book “Gospel Truth” quotes one who wrote, “The infancy narratives are primarily vehicles of the evangelists’ theology and Christology” rather than history, and another who threw in the towel on reaching “a final decision on the historicity of the virginal conception.”
In a Times column headlined “Belief Is The Least Part Of Faith,” a Stanford anthropologist found this sort of doubt among some conservative evangelicals, too. She quoted one woman on God’s existence: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.” Far from a fanatic, that congregant, the columnist wrote, made the practical choice “to experience the world as if she was loved by a loving God,” doubts notwithstanding. How many people could save on therapy bills with a similar outlook?
Traditionalists might fairly ask, why be religious? What’s left to believe? Ex-priest and liberal columnist James Carroll notes several areas where doubting Catholics’ individual consciences dovetail with the church’s modern interpretation of Jesus’s life-affirming message (opposition to most abortions, support for peacemaking). We cherish the church’s work with the poor and with immigrants. With two millennia of brilliant minds having polished it, the magisterium should always be consulted, if not always agreed with. Our biblical hero is doubting Thomas, a good man who, presented with news of the impossible, quite sanely requested proof.
The wise priest who married my wife and me observed that Thomas wasn’t drummed out of the apostles for his doubt. Indeed, Father John said, if you have doubts about God’s existence and other doctrines, church is exactly where you belong, to wrestle with those doubts, in a community of fellow searchers on a lifelong hunt for meaning.
Greeley is to be buried on Wednesday. His brand of faith lives on. If you want to see it, do what he did. Go to church and look at the faces in the pews.
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