I’ve asked friends who are practicing Catholics how they reconcile their personal actions with the positions of their church when those things are in conflict. Since the Catholic Church is pretty clear that holding conflicting opinions in certain areas can lead to a very hot afterlife, it always struck me as strange that they could be devout Catholics and yet feel no need to adhere to every pronouncement made by their church.
This conflict is especially glaring in the area of reproductive issues. I know very few Catholics who do not practice birth control. I know even fewer who think they will go to hell for doing so. In today’s world, they see contraception as a simple and effective way to create the healthy family they want without creating undo stress and strain on their families or marriages.
The days of 10 children in 15 years seems to be a quaintness of the past in most developed countries. People who still have large families are viewed with awe at their ability to handle such a large responsibility. But most Catholics I know view that as a conscious choice now, as opposed to the days when there was no alternative.
Many Catholics I know also believe that the love shared by homosexuals is not inherently bad, that there is no real reason why women can’t be priests, and that the child sex abuse scandals of the recent past are proof that the church’s hierarchy would benefit by an infusion of females into their midst. The fact that their church forbids Catholics from holding these opinions simply does not faze them. They go to church, receive communion, have their children baptized and are buried after a Catholic mass for the deceased. They see no conflict, no real need to reconcile what the people leading their church says versus what they believe to be right.
And that’s probably a good thing because the church would be playing to pretty empty pews if it deleted all the people who don’t buy everything they’re selling.
Having grown up in the Catholic Church, I know just how hierarchical and unyielding it can be. If the pope speaks “ex cathedra”, there can be no arguments. If the bishop or archbishop or cardinal tells you something you must do or believe, the issue is not up for debate or discussion. So most Catholics have pretty much learned to nod their heads politely at the statements and demands made by their church. They then continue on worshipping and loving their god without necessarily paying any attention to what those in authority require.
When you have an all male dominated hierarchy based on a system of rule put in place over 1000 years ago, it’s not surprising that the church finds itself in its current position in which it has little credibility when it comes to the vagaries of everyday life in the modern world. Many Catholics view their church with deep respect and affection while still seeing no problem in following their own conscience.
Yes, it’s a dichotomy that some might find difficult to reconcile. But let’s not forget that this is a religion that requires you to believe that a man who demanded his followers leave all their possessions to follow him in a life of poverty would actually recognize St. Peter’s Cathedral as the ultimate culmination of his preaching. Try reconciling that in your mind without your eyes twirling in opposite directions.
The hierarchy of the Catholic Church tends to sputter and get all defensive when the differences from what they preach to what the majority of their congregation actually believes is pointed out. They circle the wagons and declare that issues like contraception or female ordination are not up for discussion. They speak and their congregation’s only job is to listen and obey.
The thing is, that might work in 10th Century Europe, and it might even work for current Ayatollahs. But the rest of us think we have the right to use our critical faculties to question seemingly ancient rules that hold no meaning in today’s world. So while the hierarchy of the church may rail away at birth control coverage in health insurance plans, the majority of their female congregants will be found at the pharmacy picking up their prescriptions.