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TEXAS FAITH: What happens when the pew and the pulpit don't see eye-to-eye?


The following ran on the Dallas Morning News Texas Faith blog on Feb. 21, 2012. Dean and Theology Professor William Lawrence, and Political Scientist Matthew Wilson, provided expertise for this story.

February 29, 2012

By William McKenzie

In this essay from the Washington Post's On Faith blog, Robert P. Jones drew several conclusions from polling data about the flap over Catholic institutions being required to provide contraceptives.

Among his conclusions was this observation:

 "The Catholic bishops appear to be gearing up for a long fight against the mandate itself, but the Obama administration's compromise seems likely to satisfy lay Catholics' concerns, without losing younger women's support in the process. Obama' support among Catholics appears to have remained steady as the controversy raged last week."

What he suggests is that there is a difference between the pew and the pulpit on this matter. Of course, that is not the first time a divide has been seen between the leaders of a religious tradition and those who adhere to that faith.

What I would like to hear from you all this week is how such a divide gets resolved in your tradition. I recognize that sometimes they aren't resolved, but I would like you to elaborate upon this question:

What happens in your tradition when there is a divide between the pulpit and the pew?...

MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, SMU

In my own tradition of Roman Catholicism, there is a clear mechanism for resolving theological and doctrinal disputes: appeal to the bishops, who are heirs to the apostles, and ultimately to the Holy Father, who is heir to Saint Peter.

Much more than is the case with any other major religion, one can find definitive, authoritative articulations of Catholic doctrine in the various conciliar documents, papal encyclicals, and the catechism. The extent to which these doctrines are "popular" with people in the pews in any particular country is really beside the point. The Church does not pretend to be a democracy; it takes as its model the Kingdom of Heaven, not the Democratic People's Republic of Heaven.

Catholic teaching is not shaped by referendum -- if it were, we doubtless would have voted out that unrealistic "love your enemies" mandate years ago. In the spirit of Jesus himself, the Church seeks to proclaim the Truth, no matter how inconvenient, unpopular, or counter-cultural it may be. To do otherwise, to bow to pressure from the laity to change or relax core teaching, would be rather like Moses editing the Ten Commandments because the Israelites really wanted that Golden Calf.

Of course, the Church could make these instances of divergence between pew and pulpit less frequent and less severe if it did a better job of religious education and catechesis. Rather than just presenting the "bullet-point" rules that are the end result of ethical and theological reflection, the Church could and should do a better job of helping the faithful to understand why certain behaviors, practices, and attitudes are at odds with a truly Christian life.

The generally poor state and intellectual barrenness of Catholic religious education in America accounts for a lot of these misunderstandings. It is not enough for the Church's reasoning to be laid out in a Vatican document somewhere; it needs to be promulgated in a forum that lay Catholics are actually likely to access and understand. This is a tremendous challenge, no doubt, but it is one that the Church must take seriously if its teaching is to be seen as a loving attempt to elucidate the Truth and not a series of arbitrary, imperious pronouncements.

Ultimately, however, there is no question about the legitimate source of Catholic teaching, or about which view should be seen as authoritative when there are disagreements between pew and pulpit. Acceptance of the teaching authority of the bishops on fundamental questions of faith and morals is a core part of being Catholic.

To be sure, there are plenty of Christian people of good will who accept much of what the Church teaches, but who choose to go their own way on other key elements of doctrine -- they are called Protestants. Such divergence on core teachings should not be mistaken for an authentic expression of Catholicity....

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins Theological Seminary, Southern Methodist University

Every religious community has its own system of polity. Within Christianity, there are congregational systems like the Baptists where every local church is free to structure its own practices, there are hierarchical systems like the Roman Catholics whose bishops speak for the whole church, and there are connectional systems like the Methodists where networks of conferences have the authority to establish positions on matters that become publicly discussed.

But the truth is that individual believers ultimately make their own decisions. Most of the Baptist churches with whom I am acquainted are firmly opposed to the consumption of alcohol, but plenty of individual Baptists enjoy a drink. The Roman Catholic hierarchy is very clear in its opposition to contraception and to capital punishment, but individual Catholics make their own private decisions about the former and their own political decisions about the latter without feeling coerced by the Bishops to choose a certain path. The divide is not between pulpit and pew so much as it is between persons.

In my Methodist tradition, there are plenty of options for handling disagreements over public issues and social policies. The official position of The United Methodist Church on abortion, for example, is a moderate one. It has echoes of anti-abortion sentiments but affirms the fundamental freedom of an individual woman to make a choice and to have access to safe as well as legal abortion services when they are needed. In another matter, the official position of The United Methodist Church is to oppose capital punishment, but it would be difficult to find a large number of United Methodists in Texas who agree with that position.

At best, the authorities in religious matters -- voting majorities in Baptist congregations, episcopal decrees in Roman Catholic synods, or conference actions in Methodism --make pronouncements. But individuals within the ranks and files of those traditions exercise their own private choices. On some matters, all of us are like Quakers, listening to the inner voice of the Spirit guiding us toward discernment.