As I continue this exploration of the nature and effects of Roman Catholic authority, it should be remembered that the very idea is sometimes an attraction to those outside of the Catholic church. Protestants who are poorly catechized on this topic find the bold claims of Rome to be a safe harbor in a world of change and conflict. But, as we saw in my previous essay, Rome cannot come clean with regard to the very locus of its own authority. And, worse still, the historical record makes clear that the contradictory nature of Rome’s claims along with its claims to consistency render any assertion to authority moot on Rome’s own grounds.
Now we turn to how the authority of Rome actually harms the church. We will look at how the exercise of authority by Rome has virtually elimiated one of its own sacraments. We begin with what used to be referred to as Confession, later the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Professor Leslie Woodcock Tentler of the Catholic University of America has done extensive primary research in the dioceses of the United States. One of her specialties is inquiry into the practice of sacramental confession in American Catholic parishes. Professor Tentler notes that at the turn of the twentieth century it was common practice for American Roman Catholics to “go to confession” annually. This changed in 1905 when the pope issued a decree that the faithful should receive communion as frequently as daily. Because Catholics have historically tied the reception of the Eucharist with a previous visit to the confessional, the number of confessions heard in American parishes blossomed.
The next momentous event with regard to this sacrament in the United States, at least, was the 1930 promulgaton of the encyclical, Casti Connubii, by Pope Pius XI. Here, the pope sought to address the matter of Christian marriage and what he perceived as the faithful’s ignorance of the matter. The growth in the frequency of confessions mentioned aboved provided a natural means by which to effect his new emphasis.
Why was Casti Connubii so important? Precisely because the pope’s anxieties were well placed: like their European brethren, American Catholics prior to 1930 heard relatively little about birth control, even in the confessional…. Casti Connubii signaled an end to the era of “good faith ignorance.” Confessors were suddenly expected to be proactive: to question married penitents who gave reason for suspicion (or, for a time in the Archdiocese of Chicago, simply because they were married) and to condemn the sin in unyielding terms when it was confessed. i
Professor Tentler notes that this had two deleterious effects on the faithful: it made the practice of going to confession “excruciatingly difficult” for those Catholics practicing contraception and it made devout Catholics into subversives so as to to get past the priest’s demand for a “firm purpose of amendment”.
It further had the consequence of distancing the priests from their local flocks. Only those priests who were well known for toeing the papal line would be tapped for advancement. And those who knowingly allowed for the exercise of a congregant’s conscience in the matter were ostracized.
However, the situation was to change in a few short years with the beginning of the Second Vatican Council.
Several cataclysms erupted the details of which are beyond the scope of this writing but they should be well know to Catholics. The first was the juxtaposition of raised hopes and a heavy handed encyclical. During the Council, the pope had established a committee of devout, lay Catholics to make recommendations on the Church’s practice. There was apparently great hope in the work of this group. However, they were unserriptiously co-opted by bishops and cardinals toward the end of their tenure and their work was made void with the proclamation of Humanae Vitae. Many Roman Catholics felt rightly betrayed by Roman authority.
The second convulsion that occurred simultaneously was the result of the more “pastoral” approach of this new council. There came to be what Professor Tentler calls “a personalist theology of marriage”. This meant that the everyday Catholic could engage her conscience when deciding whether or not to confess her use of contraception to her priest. Previously the confessor was to “enforce” the Church’s teaching but the times. The whipsaw effect of this now-the-priest-is-enforcer vs. now-he’s not simply drove the stake deeper into the heart of this “sacrament”.
There also was the matter, to educated Catholics at least, of how the rhythm method of contraception could be promoted by a church that for centuries had condemned the practice as a matter of grave sin.ii
The amalgamation of these factors and others showed Roman Catholics just how capricious their Magisterium was. Further, their exaggerated claims to constancy in teaching over time having been disproven by the very contradiction that the rhythm method had laid bare the false claims of Rome’s authority.
Professor Tentler, once again,
Church authority, our leaders seem to believe, is credible only if one can point to a history of changeless teaching. One must at all costs maintain the fiction, which everyone knows it to be, that the teaching church is never wrong.iii
Roman Catholic authority with respect to the very sacrament of confession has rendered itself irrelevant. And, “Irrelevant institutions, by definition, lack authority.”iv
Even though exact statistics are unavailable, some today think that as few as ten percent of Roman Catholics in the U.S. go to confession – and then only monthly.v
What we have seen in this brief expose, is that Rome’s authority, far from being a safe harbor of certainty in a world of change is a destructive force. In the matter under examination, we have seen how the contradictory teachings and the contradictory manner of applying those teachings has had the effect of nullifying a sacrament of the church.
What more needs to be said to dissuade those considering joining Rome?
Soli Deo Gloria
iTentler, Leslie Woodcock. “Souls and Bodies: The Birth Control Controversy and the Collapse of Confession” in The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity. New York. Oxford University Press, Inc. 2011 Pages 293-316. Kindle eBook.
ii See John Noonan’s work on contraception where he gently describes this contradiction as “topsy turvy”.
iii Tentler, ibid. Kindle loc. 6621
iv Ibid. Kindle loc. 6633.