I was listening to a call-in show on the local Catholic radio station where the topic had to do with confronting atheism. The guest was demonstrating the existence of God by looking at the Big Bang and other aspects of cosmology and physics. The show was only accepting calls that day from atheists, agnostics, and skeptics. One atheist called in with a long string of objections that went something like, "You Catholics claim to have an infallible Pope, but you are anti-science, you know: Galileo. And there's the whole clergy sex abuse scandal." In a matter of seconds he cataloged a list of common objections to the Catholic faith that all fall under a similar category. They are all beliefs that on the surface seem contradictory, but with some careful study can be seen to actually be consistent.
Here are a few of the issues that are commonly raised. I will only state the briefest of explanations, though I may venture a fuller explanation someday in my theology blog.
- The Pope is supposed to be infallible, but Popes have clearly made mistakes or have done evil things. In fact, the Catholic claim for Papal Infallibility is very limited. We do not claim the Pope is sinless or never makes a mistake. We claim that in a special circumstance of specific teaching on faith (what we believe) and morals (how we should live) to the Universal Church (not some specific case), the Pope speaks infallibly. People who have studied this doctrine have found less than a dozen times in the 2000 year history of the Church where they believe this has happened. Therefore, of the 265 Popes in the history of the Church, less than 5% of them have said anything that Catholics claim is subject to the Papal Infallibility doctrine.
- The Catholic Church claims to support science, but look at what they did to Galileo. The Galileo incident is very complicated, and reflects many human problems, including politics, fear of change, and personality clashes. Church authorities made mistakes, as did Galileo. There are plenty of reasons behind the trouble Galileo got into without positing that the Catholic Church is inherently anti-science.
- The Church claims to teach love, yet hates gays. The Catholic Church has a very consistent moral theology rooted in the idea that humans are created by God, and that God has revealed the best way for them to live. The most loving thing for the Church to do is to share these moral teachings so that people do not follow a path to self-destruction. This moral teaching touches on all aspects of life, but the area of sexual morality is one where the Church is at odds with changing values of the last 50 years. If the Church believes adultery, divorce, pre-marital sex, homosexual acts, and contraception are harmful to individuals as well as society as a whole, it would be unloving to keep this teaching a secret. In confronting these practices, Christians are taught to "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). However, even when Christians take great care to be loving in their presentation of their beliefs, any opposition to all forms of sexual freedom is labeled "hate speech" or an attack on women, gays, or some other group.
- What about the clergy sex-abuse scandal? The scandal is a horrendous moral failure of individual priests and bishops, and exposed a system that was ill prepared to handle these kinds of problems. However, the scandal is not a result of Catholic beliefs, but is an example of what can happen when those in the clergy depart from Catholic beliefs. There are two reasons I believe this. The first is that the increase in incidents of abuse correspond with a weakening of traditional moral teaching in the seminaries. The second is that the proportion of abuse cases to clergy (at least in the United States) is no higher in the Catholic Church than it is in other churches or in state institutions that deal with children, such as public schools. I admit that the scandal in the Church is more serious because of the position of moral leadership that priests are supposed to uphold, but when looking for the root cause, the statistics do not point to this being a uniquely Catholic problem.
These are all cases where there is an apparent contradiction or problem due to an insufficient understanding of the actual circumstances or content of Catholic practice and teaching. A little bit of research into the facts can clear up all of them. In my next post, I will addresses the areas of Christian belief, Catholic and otherwise, that are not so easily cleared up.