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Fidelity Oaths in Arlington

The decision by the diocese of Arlington to require “fidelity oaths” from Sunday school teachers is deeply troubling. This morning’s Washington Post has the story. But, let me point out at the outset that the issue is troubling for both those who support the idea and those who oppose it.

Let me also point out at the outset that while I do not know Bishop Paul Loverde well, I consider him a friend. We both grew up in the diocese of Norwich, Connecticut, and he was very close to a priest there who exercised a profound and enduring influence on me, the Rev. Joseph Kugler. Joe, unlike Bishop Loverde and myself, was an unreconstructed sixties liberal, but he was a fine priest who loved the Lord and His Church. When Bishop Loverde first came to Arlington, I hosted a dinner party in his honor and he completely disarmed my guests, some of whom were not exactly sympathetic to the Church, for the same reason I was drawn to Fr. Joe in my teens: Bishop Loverde’s love for the Lord and the Church shines through, even in a dinner conversation. Let me also acknowledge that one of the teachers who has declined to take the oath, and who is quoted in the Post article, was one of the best professors I ever had, Rosemarie Zagarri, who then taught at Catholic University and now teaches at George Mason University. I wish Archbishop Lori had been in Professor Zagarri’s class so that he would have read Patricia Bonomi’s “Under the Cope of Heaven” which details the anti-Catholic roots of the ideology of the American Revolution. Such study might make him a bit less eager to canonize the founding fathers. Zagarri is razor-sharp smart and also someone with a deep love for the Church.

I am all for fidelity. I am less keen on oaths. They do not have a happy history in the life of the Church. In the first decade of the last century, Pope Pius X required an “oath against modernism” from all teachers in Catholic schools. Modernism was a “catch-all” term to cover a variety of positions held suspect. In the effort to combat it, Pius instituted a series of witch hunts, and dossiers were opened to monitor those deemed suspect. Two future popes had such dossiers warning about their orthodoxy, Giacomo della Chiesa, who succeeded Pius X to the papal throne as Pope Benedict XV, and Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII. The effect of that “crackdown” on dissent was to stifle the intellectual life of the Church for a generation. Perhaps, in the mind of God, the Church was not ready for intellectual growth and so the crackdown had a positive effect, but there is no denying it was grossly unfair to those who were trapped in its snares. The ways of the Lord are mysterious indeed.

The Post article states: “The Arlington ‘profession of faith’ asks teachers to commit to ‘believe everything’ the bishops characterize as divinely revealed, and Arlington’s top doctrine official said it would include things like the bishops’ recent campaign against a White House mandate offer contraception coverage.” Hmmm. I have not had time to search the entire canon of the Scripture this morning, nor dust of my decrees of the Councils of Nicaea, Trent and Vatican II, but I am pretty sure that there is nothing “divinely revealed” about the First Amendment and its interpretation by federal courts. As regular readers know, I have been quite outspoken in my support for the bishops’ opposition to the HHS mandate, but I have also heard foolishness from the pulpit during the last few months, and sometimes more than a whiff of the heresy of Americanism as well. This unnamed official is well advised to consult the Holy Father’s speech to the Bundestag in which Pope Benedict XVI clearly affirmed: “Unlike other great religions, Christianity has never proposed a revealed law to the State and to society, that is to say a juridical order derived from revelation. Instead, it has pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law – and to the harmony of objective and subjective reason, which naturally presupposes that both spheres are rooted in the creative reason of God.”

On the other hand, I must quibble with Professor Zagarri’s words too. She is quoted in the Post article as saying, “This is not in the spirit of what people go to a Catholic church for, which is community and a loving, welcoming environment. It’s exclusionary, a suppression of dissent, let’s all line up and be the army of God.” Your neighborhood café or pub can provide “community” and a “loving, welcoming environment.” And, yes, any dogmatic Church excludes certain beliefs because it holds certain other beliefs. Dissent is not, per se, a good thing and there are times when it should be suppressed although the manner of the suppression is a matter for discussion. The Church exists not only to provide a welcoming sense of community, but to proclaim Jesus Christ, crucified yet alive. It exists to pass on, authoritatively, the teaching of the Apostles, and to separate truth from falsehood regarding the revelation we have received in Jesus Christ. Authority in the Church, as distinguished from power, is liberating. This is something we Americans, bred in an anti-authoritarian culture, have great difficulty understanding let alone accepting.

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But, Professor Zagarri is absolutely spot on, and her comments should cause the bishops to think about how their words and deeds are perceived, when she states she feels like she is being recruited into an “army of God.” There are more than a few people who now openly wonder if being a Catholic is now to mean that one must vote Republican. Bishops invoke their latest political penchant as if it, too, shared in their apostolic authority. I recall the public statement issued by Bishop Olmsted when he announced the excommunication of Sr. Margaret McGuire: A multi-paragraph statement that did not once mention God nor quote from the Scriptures is the work of someone who has confused authority and power, or who misunderstands the nature of his authority or who, at any rate, in incapable of explaining such vital distinctions to his flock.

Distinctions matter. So does catechesis. When you read the article in the Post, you see how much catechesis needs to be done and not just among the educated laity like Professor Zagarri but among some of the senior staff at your local diocesan curia. Not everything that anyone happens to think is Catholic is, in fact, “divinely revealed” and if the chief doctrinal official of the Arlington diocese thinks the bishops’ campaign against the HHS mandate is divinely revealed, he should not be the chief doctrinal official in the diocese. The article also quotes the diocesan spokesman, Michael Donohue, as saying, “I can’t imagine there are many [teachers] who have issues with the church’s teachings on faith and morals.” Really? And, what planet is this man living on?

More than catechesis, we need evangelization. I do not envy any bishop in America today. I do not know how we go about rekindling the sense of faith without which the kind of misunderstandings we see throughout this article will only be more common. Yes, there is such a thing as divinely willed authority and yes, in the Catholic Church, that authority rests with the bishops in communion with the Pope. Vatican II taught that quite explicitly. But, no bishops are called to be shepherds of the flock as well as defenders of the faith. Fidelity oaths are not, per se, a bad thing. I can imagine cultures and times in which they could be effective. But, in this culture, and at this time, they are counter-productive because they do not advance the propagation of the Gospel, they impede it. The Church needs to bring wonderful people like Professor Zagarri closer to the heart and mind of the Church. This is not the way forward.

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