Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

The Catholic church has been in the news a great deal of late, and predominantly for unfortunate reasons.  The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued an unfavourable doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) some weeks ago, and last week it censured Sr. Margaret Farley for her book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (I have not read this book).

These two actions, coupled with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' continued focus on the issue of religious freedom (an issue many associate, rightly or wrongly, as being an argument about contraception), has led many within and without the church to raise questions about where the church is going, about the role and purpose of the hierarchy, about what it means to be church.

I don't intend here to articulate a position one way or another regarding the church's actions.  But I do want to express my concern about the level of discourse that takes place whenever issues such as these actions arise.  In the case of the LCWR, there's a segment of the American Catholic population who immediately assume the worst about the nuns and who question the validity of any who propose ideas that might stretch the boundaries of official church teaching.  On the other hand, there are those who immediately assume the worst about the Vatican, who characterize the actions of the CDF as being nothing more than an attempt to subjugate women.

In the midst of this polarization, I've very much appreciated the perspective of Fr. James Martin, S.J., a contributing editor for America magazine.  Over and over he has insisted to his readers that they give everyone - from the pope to Cardinal Levada to women religious themselves - the benefit of the doubt.  His sentiments were so clearly expressed in a prayer he posted on his Facebook page the evening before the LCWR meeting with the CDF, a meeting that occurred yesterday.  His prayer read as follows:
Dear God, tomorrow in Vatican City the leadership team from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will meet with Cardinal William Levada and Archbishop Peter Sartain at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. God, I know that all of the men and women at this meeting are devoted to your Son and want to serve your church as best they can. As they discuss the future of the LCWR, and of the tens of thousands of generous women religious in the United States, give them the spirit of "mutual understanding" that the Vatican spoke of today. Most of all, pour out your Holy Spirit on them so that they may all discern wisely, listen carefully to one another, and be aware, awake and attentive to the workings of grace. Help them make each decision in a spirit of love, respect and charity. Amen. [my emphasis]
What Fr. Martin emphasizes continually is that the people involved in these issues - all the people involved - are people who are endeavouring to serve and love God.  They all desire what is best for God's church, even if they have differing visions.  To give someone the benefit of the doubt is simply to understand that, first and foremost, these are people made in the image and likeness of God, immensely loved by God, who possess a surpassing value and limitless worth.  Simply to dismiss them is not an option, nor is such a dismissal compatible with the development of a well-formed conscience to which the church calls us.

Fr. Martin's call to thoughtful and charitable dialogue as well as to the careful development of conscience needs to be heeded, and I look forward to reading more of his editorials and his books.

Fr. Martin's contributions to a blog on the America website can be seen here.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Well, I disagree with both to be honest. As a catholic, I really feel that the roman church is failing to live to the standards of the carpenter we all love, however the LCWR is wrong by teaching all those new age stuff that only damage the christian faith and teaching immorality, even though they care for the poor and needy and give much more importance to helping people, just like JC would want. So I think both can learn from each other and a rational conversation between the CDF and the LCWR can yield good results.