The Rule of Doctrine
Citing studies and polls, Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism notes that much of the lay faithful disagree with the Catholic hierarchy about the morality of birth control, abortion, and same-sex marriage. “It’s the tiny handful of Catholic hierarchs, and their apologists, who are out of step with everyone else and who remain stubbornly stuck in the past, refusing to give up archaic doctrines that are now widely recognized as immoral and rejected by everyone else,” he writes.
Lee is right to the extent that many Catholics openly dissent from their church’s teaching on these matters, in some cases strikingly so. Reasons vary. Many don’t believe that the teachings on sexuality and nascent life are essential to Catholicism. Others just don’t care about doctrine. Lee’s analysis falls short, however, by not accounting for the role of doctrine in Catholic thought and belief and particularly in the teaching office of the hierarchy. The pope and bishops are not as dictatorial as he makes them out to be. After the resignation of Benedict XVI, Lee wrote:
The Roman Catholic church is not a democracy. The church hierarchy isn’t elected, doesn’t have any checks or balances, and it doesn’t solicit or care about the opinions of ordinary churchgoers as to how things should be run. On the contrary, the Catholic church is an absolute monarchy! It’s run by a dictator-for-life who’s not accountable to anyone, who can’t be overruled, and who effectively chooses his own successor.
It’s not a democracy, true, but the teaching authority of the hierarchy is neither absolute nor without any checks and balances. If Pope Francis were to surprise us tomorrow by proclaiming, in the most certain terms and with the full authority of his office, that the Resurrection of Jesus never happened, he would cause an uproar, but he wouldn’t change church doctrine. His proclamation wouldn’t be taken as legitimate teaching even if he said it was and demanded all the faithful give assent to it. Instead, he’d be ushered out of sight and hearing. The Pope must bow to the deposit of faith–to those doctrines that are fundamental to the faith and to those that follow logically from them. The Resurrection certainly qualifies.
Do the teachings on sex also fall among these essential doctrines? Progressives and traditionalists debate this question. The latter point to the constancy of teaching over the centuries and passages in the Bible that imply, in their reading, a revealed, morally-binding purpose to sex. The former argue that the church’s historical understanding of human sexuality owes more to cultural convention than to true ontological and moral insight. Even if the progressives are correct, the hierarchy cannot change these teachings with anything approaching haste because a development here would logically necessitate significant changes to the church’s understanding of the human person, Sacred Scripture, its own development of doctrine, and the scope and degree of its teaching authority. In short, a major hermeneutic overhaul.
The whole of Catholic doctrine is complex, holistic body of belief and thought. Change is sometimes possible because doctrine has aspects that rely on presuppositions about the world that are not, strictly speaking, a part of divine revelation. With developments in culture, philosophy, and science, the church has developed the formulation, interpretation, and application of its doctrines, but this process takes time and care because tinkering in one area has consequences and repercussions for other areas. The hierarchy values consistency as well.
Conceivably, the majority of the hierarchy, the pope included, could believe that Church ought to embrace birth control and a more progressive understanding of human sexuality, but that shared belief doesn’t enable them to change doctrine. A hierarchy that doesn’t develop church teaching isn’t necessarily refusing to do so. Established doctrine limits their authority.