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Egopapism and the Arlington Five Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 20 July 2012

The Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Virginia has recently drawn national attention because it has asked its catechists to sign a profession of faith that asserts that they believe the catechism that the Church has commissioned them to teach and are committed to the Church as the guardian and custodian of that faith.

In short, they are being asked to admit that they are Catholics and that they believe in Catholicism. This, apparently, is so controversial that five out of the 5,000 diocesan catechists (including parochial school teachers) have resigned over this request. Five, by the way, is the number of popes that have served the Church over my lifetime.

At least one of the five catechists, Kathleen Riley, who is 52, is, like me, a Catholic child of the 1970s (I am 51), which means that we were part of the first generation of Catholics who were spiritually and intellectually formed “in the spirit of Vatican II.”

There was, of course, nothing wrong with Vatican II; its deliverances were a natural development of prior Church teachings. The problem was with how these changes were implemented and understood by clergy and religious who had a different agenda in mind.

As I noted in my 2009 memoir, Return to Rome, the lack of theological seriousness that flowed from this agenda is what pushed me and many others into the arms of Evangelical Protestantism.

When I was in Catholic high school, to provide but one example, I took a mandatory religion class in which Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach was one of the required texts. This was fairly typical of the catechetical infidelity that dominated the era in many parishes and schools in the United States.

Instead of introducing us to great Catholic literature, we were given this sort of tripe (from Bach’s book): “We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly!”

That’s quite a descent from “for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You,” or even, more contemporaneously, “the modern critics of religious authority are like men who should attack the police without ever having heard of burglars.”

Ms. Riley is a computer scientist. Because she is trained in computer science, and is a professional in the field, she can speak authoritatively on matters concerning computer science. This is because computer science, like numerous other fields of study, is a knowledge tradition.

Over time that tradition, like all others, develops standard practices, ways of assimilating new discoveries and insights into already established understandings, and a hierarchy of expertise that grounds the authority of those in the profession.


            Buy it. Read it. Teach it.

If, for example, a non-expert such as myself were to tell a computer science authority, such as Ms. Riley, that I feel in my heart of hearts that the operating system of the iMac on which I am writing this essay is “no different” than the most recent version of Microsoft Windows because it seems to me that they “do the same things,” I would suffer no injustice if she were to correct me.

If I were to complain that her correction violates my autonomy or “right to dissent,” she would, I hope, gently tell me that in fact she had contributed to my intellectual flourishing by imparting the truth to me.

She would insist that if I continue to harbor any doubts about the deliverances of computer science that there are established means by which I may voice my dissent and perhaps change the trajectory of the discipline.

I can, for example, submit articles to peer-reviewed publications and deliver papers at professional conferences. If the leading lights in the profession, its authorities so to speak, do not find my arguments compelling or too inconsistent with the body of knowledge that the profession considers nearly indisputable, then perhaps I should reconsider my dissent and begin to reflect on the possibility that the flaw lies with me rather than with the profession.

All that the Church is asking the Arlington Five is that they treat the Church’s theology and its development with as much respect and deference as Ms. Riley expects others to treat the knowledge tradition about which she is an expert.

Just as she and her peers correctly require those who dissent from the dominant understandings in computer science to offer their case within the confines of practices, an established body of knowledge, and methodological constraints that have developed over time for the good of the profession, the Church requires those who dissent to offer their case within the confines of practices, an established body of knowledge, and methodological constraints that have developed over time for the good of the Church.

So what are the Arlington Five’s arguments? How do they ground their dissent, and how is it consistent with, and a natural development of, the deliverances of the Church’s theological tradition?

To simply say – without any regard to argument, precedent, or established norms of theological engagement – that “the Holy Spirit gives us the responsibility to look into our own consciences,” as Ms. Riley asserts, is in fact to embrace an anti-intellectual and fundamentally irrational position.

The Arlington Five, like many American Catholics and Protestants, have assimilated a contemporary understanding of theology that is intrinsically hostile to the faith they claim to embrace. It is an understanding that sees theological beliefs as irreducibly personal, private, preference driven, and non-cognitive.

This is not intellectual freedom. It is solitary confinement in an egopapist prison.

 
Francis J. Beckwith, the fifty-seventh President of the Evangelical Theological Society, is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is the author of Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic and one of four primary contributors to Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism.
 
 
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Comments (24)Add Comment
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, July 20, 2012
The basic question is between those who believe, like Plato, that the Divine reality is something given, or, like Aristotle, that it is something inferred.

For the former, doctrine is an attempt to express this ineffable experience and an attempt that is, necessarily, culturally conditioned. As Mgr Knox says, “Your Platonist, satisfied that he has formed his notion of God without the aid of syllogisms or analogies, will divorce reason from religion” And, again, “the emphasis lies on a direct personal access to the Author of our salvation, with little of intellectual background or of liturgical expression.”

Often, they will embrace a debased form of Kantianism: there are “truths of fact,” the realm of science and history and “truths of value,” which can only be experienced.

Much modern Protestantism is of this type - They feel certain that something has happened to them, and they invite you to let it happen to you.
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written by Frank, July 20, 2012
Well, I think Dr. Beckwith has covered the waterfront on this one so all I have left to say is...
BRAVO!
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, July 20, 2012
Here is yet another example of how quickly matters pertaining to the faith and its practice can degenerate in the hands of those who simply "exercise their own consciences." It also illustrates the maxim: "lex orandi; lex credendi."

Back in 1969, a few short years after Vatican II had closed and while matriculating at a Catholic men's college in NYC, we "hosted" a Mass in our (Catholic) college dorm on a Sunday morning. We climbed over bodies not yet awakened from Saturday night's baccanalia, and washed out some glasses that smelled of musty brew from the night before, had a few left over slices of Silvercup sliced white bread and, along with some wine were now prepared for the Eucharist. We also needed inspirational readings of our own devising and conscience formation. So excerpts from Erick Fromm's "The Art of Loving" and Kahil Gibran's "The Prophet" were chosen for the first two of the Sunday readings. We did manage to select a Gospel from Holy Scripture. All the while sitting on the floor in communal style. We were self-fashioned liturgists; after all, we had taken a few theology courses. We were the 'practicing Catholics" who bothered to get out of bed that morning.

Now fast-forward almost 45 years and you have the same self-styled Catholics and their offspring who survived this disaster filling up our pews, lectoring at Mass, distributing Holy Communion and running our RCIA, catechetical, and sacramental preparation programs.

Anyone who thinks that a signed statement attesting to belief in what the Church actually teaches is not warranted should be considered certifiably insane.
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written by Walter, July 20, 2012
There is nothing canonical or sacramental about the oath. It is simply a reaffirmation of the relationship that already exists (or should exist) between the episcopate and teachers of the faith. Seems like a no brainer. It is being asked for because there was insufficient catechetical formation over the last 40 years, because some teachers strayed from orthodoxy, and because clarity is a virtue when teaching about the faith.

Perhaps this is a template to restore confidence among the laity after the child abuse scandal. Bishops should take a public loyalty oath to the laity at their episcopal ordination not to protect child abusers. New pastors would take a public loyalty oath to their lay congregation to uphold their celibacy vows and not molest children. It would simply be a reaffirmation of what already exists (or should exist), and for exactly the same reasons listed above: a minority strayed, there was insufficient teaching on the subject over 40 years,, and clarity about dealing with child abuse is a virtue.
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written by Christophe, July 20, 2012
Prof. Beckwith makes the assertion: "There was, of course, nothing wrong with Vatican II; its deliverances were a natural development of prior Church teachings."

Really? How could there be so much bad fruit from Vatican II, if there was "nothing wrong" with it? Instead of repeating the party line, one should make a true, honest evaluation of the Council. And, don't get me wrong, I don't really expect that to happen, at least for some decades.
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written by Jon S., July 20, 2012
Personnel is policy. The bishops should wake up to the fact that no matter what policies of strengthened Catholic identity they put on paper, Catholic identity will not be strengthened if the bishops continue to allow dissenters to implement those policies. Relatedly, the new Theology curriculum for Catholic high schools now being promoted by the USCCB has nothing in it that students must be taught that Catholic doctrine is objectively true! How could the bishops allow this to happen, especially after Cardinal Ratzinger's "dictatorship of relativism" homily (never mind Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind")??? So there will be dissenting theology teachers who will now teach topics they had previously avoided (e.g., the Magisterium, the fullness of the means of the salvation, etc.) but then end their unit or course with "And that's one opinion . . ." and completely undermine the content they are now required to teach. PERSONNEL IS POLICY.
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written by Chris in Maryland, July 20, 2012
The issue is not the unwillingness to take the oath, but the willfulness to assert oneself as worthy to teach the faith while knowing that you were unwilling to uphold it.
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written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., July 20, 2012
Thank you for this great piece, Dr. Beckwith. I have forwarded it to many, for many are in need of it. Being 63 I have clear memories of Pre-Vatican II Catholicism. I write as a wintess to the truth of what Dietrich Von Hildebrand worte in his 1967 book Trojan Horse in the City of God. That Summer of 1967, the year I entered Loyola U of LA (now called LoyolaMarymount U.) was the same year the so-called Land o' Lakes Decaration was issued. From then on it was salvation be damned; we have a war agaisnt Communism to stop, and capitalism,racism, sexism to abolish! And some of this DID arise from evil seeds sown at the Council itself. Those who pushed for the renunication of the teacings agasint Modernism were less interested in a search for truth than in finding ways to advaacne the cause of relativism. Soon there athesits teaching at Catholic colleges and researching like W.C. Fields, that famous ahteists who when asked by visitors to his hospital room what he was doing reading the Bible answered, "Looking for loopholes." And now that we have so-called theologians who have found loopholes that tell us we needn't go to Confession we should not be surprsied that there are many catechists who lap up their lies like little who don't know that the white stuff in the saucier is laced with strychnine.
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written by Luis, July 20, 2012
JMJ

First, good riddance to the five.

Second, this is one of many actions by brave bishops, the few that there are, the few that are not politicians, which will make the Church leaner, as Benedict has indicated might happen.

Third, this is a great article by Beckwith.
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written by skypilot777, July 20, 2012
To jsmitty,
Please re-read the section of the Cathechism on the Holy Spirit (the third person fo the Blessed Trinity). The Holy Spirit cannot lead one into error. The Magisterium of the Catholic Church is promised by Our Lord Himself to be protected from and free from any error. The Holy Spirit would never lead anyone to doubt the teachings of the Catholic Church, human weakness and sinfulness does. Likewise, the Holy Spirit would never lead anyone to leave the Catholic Church for a foray into the "wilderness" of separation from His Church. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit constantly draws one to the Truth and further into faith within the Catholic Church.
Also, I find your blythe dismissal - "an overreaction to the overly formulaic approach in the decades before the council" - of the very real and ongoing disaster that is post-Vatican II catechesis, betrays a lack of understanding of the problems the Catholic Church faces.
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written by Mack Hall, July 21, 2012
Closely reasoned and well said. Thank you.
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written by Graham Combs, July 21, 2012
As an Episcopalian kid attending a Catholic high school in the late sixties and early seventies I recall our religion class text as well. Very McLuhanesque with lots of photos of people doing things people do; very much "the medium is the message" And the message was Me. And dull, dull as a computer manual.

Why oh why didn't they tell me about Chesterton or Newman or Sheen or Benson or Knox? Where were the Church Fathers? Where were the ideas of Augustine and Aquinas? The steady hand and judge of character of Leo XIII or the bravery and thoughtfulness of Pius XII? The historians and their histories of the Church? Eusebius and the Venerable Bede? The Martyrs? The music of the age of faith? The crucial innovations of the Benedictines? I think I learned more about the Church reading Walter Miller's A CANTICLE FOR LIEBOWITZ than I did in the classroom. At least it presented the Faith as both humorous and mysterious. And I'm afraid that Graham Greene, as much as I enjoyed his novels, was not going to bring me into the Church anytime soon.

The Arlington Five attempt to resurrect that time. They are the rearguard not the avante garde. And at the risk of mixing my covenants; I don't want to look back, I don't want to be a pillar of salt. I want the salt of universal faith that as C.S. Lewis wrote brings out that individual flavor of the faith that is in me, but not about me.
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written by G.K. Thursday, July 21, 2012
A wonderfully thought-out post. I would just like to add that it seems a marvel to me that out of more than 5,000 catechists, only 5 placed themselves in the position of opposing the Church with their own egoism (which they wrongly identify as "conscience"). That is fewer than 0.1 % In our present world of exageratted self-esteem and narcissism, that must be the work of the Holy Spirit! Along with the recent news from CARA that the Roman Catholic Church has a much healthier retention rate than most other religious groups in the U.S., this helps liven my sense of hope for our Holy Mother Church!
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written by Tammy, July 22, 2012
I live within the Arlington Diocese and used to be a Catechist and I totally missed this story, so thanks for informing me.

GK, you make a good point. This is a very conservative Diocese...after living al over the US, it is the ONLY place where I have heard Homilies about Birth Control and other controversial topics. After a few years here, going to Mass in San Francisco left me incredulous.

Chris makes a good point - wasnt it wrong for them to present themselves to teach this content if they couldnt promise that they trusted it in its entirety? I dont wish these 5 ill in any way, but maybe there us a better volunteer opportunity than this one.

Thanks for the attention, but worry not about us here. We Arlingtonions are a faithful group of people, we can barely fit ourselves into our Churches on Sundays
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written by Questionsfromaewe, July 22, 2012
Your analogies with the field of computer science are curious. The computer scientist in question is treating the church with the same respect customary in her field. I too am a computer scientist. There is no one supreme body of knowledge on the topic nor one supreme hierarchical authority. Anyone can explore this field or contribute to it. They don't need anointing from others. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did not need to write academic papers reviewed by peers to produce Windows and MacOS. Yet their contributions to the field of computer science are tremendous. (And, in a broad sense, Windows and MacOS do the same thing - they are operating systems differing in the ways in which they approach being an operating system and some variances in operating system function.)

In computer science, anyone can question. Indeed, computer scientists learn that questioning strengthens one's product. The more ways people try to unravel your offering, the more you see its weaknesses and are able to fix them. Good computer scientists seek people who will stress their assumptions so they can either be affirmed or amended. This is greatly valued. It is quite different from the Catholic Church's hierarchical culture.

Finally, upon what facts do you slander the five people's characters? The 8th Commandment against bearing false witness is important to keep in mind when presenting one's opinions as facts, especially when speaking of other humans. What specifically have these five people done that is "hostile" to their faith? Asking questions is allowable per Canon Law so that seems an invalid foundation for your claim if your sole concern. Or, do you make your claims against their character based upon your assumptions of their lives and thereby violate the 8th Commandment?
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written by Louise, July 22, 2012
@Questionsfromaewe: are you saying the Post is misrepresenting the situation? If not then "hostile" is a mild word. The letter linked in the Post basically says only an idiot would sign a Profession of Faith such as this (in so many words). Since this Profession merely describes what it means to be Catholic the letter writer has just slandered all who assent. And to what end is this being argued in the press? I'm wondering, though, if people might need more help in understanding the meaning of the profession of faith.

The Vatican website has a handy page which lists the Profession of Faith (it looks like this is what Arlington is using), an oath of fidelity on assuming an office to be exercised in the name of the church, JPII's apostolic letter Ad Tuendam Fidem and a doctrinal commentary on it by the CDF. I would post the link but the site asks us not to. I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn't already read these documents. The doctrinal commentary alone is a gem and I would recommend it especially to anyone who wants to better understand what the profession means.
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written by mcewen, July 23, 2012
This idea that the Holy Spirit guided her to reject the Churches teaching, looks more like the Protestant idea of the Holy Spirit. In Acts the Holy Spirit came with the sound of a mighty wind, and crowns of fire danced on the Apostles, God always gives physical signs of a spiritual event. Sorry to say I believe the Holy Spirit is for the Church and for its teaching. I am like the Eithopian in the chariot, "Unless I have someone to teach me how can I understand. There are 39,000 protestant churches who claim that they are guided to knowledge by the Holy Spirit, is God a God of confusion, if you say 'No', then this spirit is not of God, nor God,it just maybe heartburn. The God that the Catholic church teaches does say we are gifted the Holy Spirit, the question is now much. If we have the Holy Spirit of the Apostles, then we would have all knowledge of what Jesus said,We don't. But we need to be taught to have an informed conscience so we do not have the Apostles gift of the Holy Spirit. As an ex-protestant and a convert to the Catholic church I don't believe in the Holy Spirit of Protestants,since they can always find a bible verse to prove everything they believe, if everything is true, then nothing is true. There is no truth outside the Church a hard saying, but a harder truth is the Eucharist The Body and Blood of our Lord, If it is true then the Church is true. I believe the science and I believe the Church. If you do not trust the Church then like those who turned from Christ when he said you must eat my body, and drink my blood, you also must turn and go to find another Christ.
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written by c matt, July 23, 2012
The computer science analogy may be a little difficult. It is not so much being able to question or not, but an issue of honesty in advertising. If a computer scientist agrees to teach you authentic Microsoft Op System, but then actually teaches you Apple (while representing it is true MS), then that would be misleading. If he refuses take the "oath" to teach MS, then he shouldn't teach it. At least it seems the A-five are resigning rather than lie about the oath, so I give them kudos for their integrity on that point. But if they refuse to take the oath, what were they doing teaching it in the first place?
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written by Alecto, July 24, 2012
Ms. Riley states that the Holy Spirit gives us the responsibility to look into our own consciences? I find my own to be a completely unreliable source given my own flawed nature. I find I have to rely on outside authority many times when the wicket gets sticky.

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written by Francis Beckwith, July 24, 2012
@Questionsfromaewe. It's clear you're missing the point of the analogy. What I am saying is that theology, like computer science, has its own rules, and those that engage in these respective disciplines do so within the parameters of those disciplines. In the same way, Major League Baseball has its own rules that are not replicated in the NBA. This is why no one says that it is an injustice that MLB does not have a 24-second clock.

The fact is that you just can't just "say anything" in computer science, just as you can't "say anything" in biology. In the latter, for example, one would have a very hard time finding a position as a faculty researcher at a Tier1 university if one embraced young earth creationism. This is because in all disciplines there is an intellectual tradition in which one finds oneself, and within those traditions there are a variety of practices and assumptions to which one must be committed in order to remain a legitimate practitioner. If that were not the case, then we could not distinguish computer scientists from gourmet chefs.

Finally, I did not say that the A-5 did anything that was hostile to their faith. What i said was that their posture toward the diocese's request revealed that they had "assimilated a contemporary understanding of theology that is intrinsically hostile to the faith they claim to embrace.It is an understanding that sees theological beliefs as irreducibly personal, private, preference driven, and non-cognitive." I was referring to ideas that they, like most of us, have unconsciously assimilated. The word "hostile" refers to the ideas and not the persons.

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written by Lucy, July 26, 2012
Many more than 5 have resigned, and most Arlington catechists did not even know about the new requirement until they saw the Post article (distribution of the document was through the parish, not the diocese). THese catechists were devout and faithful Catholics who would have been more than willing to sign a document attesting that their teaching would conform completely to church teachings. Good catechists teach history and doctrine, not opinions. As a catechist, I was always prepared to answer any question on church teaching accurately and thoroughly, whether or not I had private reservations or concerns of my own (“The Church teaches that…” ). The DRE was always available to help if I had any difficulty. As a representative of the church, I took my responsibility to communicate correct church doctrine very seriously, and I lived my life in a way that was completely consistent with those teachings. However, I believe firmly that I may not, as a Catholic, promise “submission of will and intellect” to anyone but God. This oath does nothing to improve understanding of doctrine among catechists and nothing to seek assurance that the catechists will refrain from bringing personal, private opinions into class. Those catechists who have no idea that what they are teaching is wrong -- for example, the catechist who told my son's class that Catholicism endorsed capital punishment due to the biblical "eye for an eye" -- will cheerfully sign the oath and continue their incorrect teaching, yet those who can very clearly articulate Inter Insigniories (the Vatican document which lays out the Church’s argument for a male-only priesthood), but who harbor private doubts which they would only share with a spouse or close friend, know that they cannot in good conscience sign a document pledging unquestioning “belief” and “submission of will and intellect.”
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written by John Switzer, PhD, July 31, 2012
According to Mr. Beckwith, the catechists "are being asked to admit that they are Catholics and that they believe in Catholicism." They presumably shouldn't be offended by the requirement of signing a profession of faith.

But what are the bigger implications here. Professing the Nicene Creed at eucharist isn't enough? Living the faith, worshiping in the faith, being part of the community isn't enough? When does this heresy hunt come to an end? How long must we lay Catholics be hounded as we live the legitimate apostolate of the priesthood of the baptized? Where is the mutual trust and respect which is to be given to the laity by the hierarchy?

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