“Progressive, rational, independent”… and wrong

Tony Smith (who “holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities including the University of Sydney”), in the October 15 edition of Eureka Street writes a piece about the religious beliefs of New South Wales Premier, Kristina Keneally. I wouldn’t know Ms Keneally from Eve, so what I say here is no reflection on her. It is a reflection, rather of Dr Smith’s praise for a kind of “Catholicism” which has one main fault: it isn’t Catholic.

Dr Smith says that “Keneally’s faith makes an interesting study”. He contrasts her “Catholicism” with Tony Abbott’s “great enthusiasm for Catholic orthodoxy” (although, it should be said, for all that “enthusiasm”, Mr Abbot is no less of a politician than Ms Keneally). He writes that “by contrast Premier Keneally represents a growingly assertive Catholicism which might be described as progressive, rational and independent”.

So, what are these “progressive, rational and independant” beliefs? Let’s look at them (please note, I am commenting on Dr Smith’s assessment of what comprises “progressive, rational and independant” beliefs – I am not judging Ms Keneally’s faith):

1) “Keneally has stated plainly her belief that Catholic women should not be excluded from ordination.” Progressive? Depends what you mean by “progress”, I guess. Rational? Depends what your premises are. Independant? Independant of the Catholic Magisterium, that’s for sure.

2) “In explaining her decision to support a bill to remove anomalies from the Adoption Act so that same sex couples would be eligible to adopt, Keneally noted the importance of allowing all MPs a ‘conscience vote’. She described how her conscience was informed by Catholic teaching about the ‘primacy’ of conscience and the importance of actively developing the conscience.” Is the example here her ideas about “same sex adoption” or her ideas about what “primacy of conscience” might mean? If in regard to “same sex-adoption”, again it depends on what you call “progress” and what your premises are. In regard to “primacy of conscience” this isn’t an accurate application of the doctrine.

Dr Smith says that “Keneally has not compromised her religious faith”. Fair enough. But if what Dr Smith says is true, her witness to her faith cannot be held up as a shining example for Catholics to follow. (Not that I am saying that Mr Abbott’s example can be). It is possible to be “progressive, rational and independant” AND wrong at the same time.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to ““Progressive, rational, independent”… and wrong

  1. matthias

    Schutz,we have had to out up with thsi type of crap in protestantism for along time. Look at St michaels uniting and the psychobabble that is pedalled from there. appeals to people’s belief that sin is really negative thinking,God is fun Guy and that tolerance replaces the Ten Commandments

  2. Peregrinus

    “It is possible to be “progressive, rational and independant” AND wrong at the same time.”

    Well, yes. But it’s equally possible to be “regressive, irrational and utterly dependent” . . . and still wrong.

    The issue is not whether Keneally (or Abbott) is a “good” Catholic – or, for that matter, whether Kevin Rudd was a “good” Anglican or Julia Gillard is a “good” Atheist. These are not judgments we need to make.

    If I don’t think that gay couples should be considered as prospective adoptive parents, then I probably won’t vote for Krista Kenneally. I can arrive at that conclusion without making any judgment about the quality of her Catholicism. Similarly if I think that the criminal law should restrict abortion, then I won’t vote for Tony Abbott. I can arrive at that conclusion without making any judgment about the quality of his Catholicism.

    I think the point is that in the past, where religious identity was to a significant extent a matter of cultural heritage, a particular denominational label could be associated with a particular political stance. That, of course, told us little or nothing about the faith of the people involved; we didn’t need to know about their faith in order to predict their politics; we just needed to know about their denomination. These things came as a package.

    OK, that’s an oversimplification, but there was a measure of truth in it. Today, though, there is very little truth in it. Cultural and social pressures to belong to, and identify with, a particular denomination have all but evaporated. Abbott and Kenneally take Catholicism seriously not because they are required or expected to, but because they choose to; because religious faith does in fact matter to them.

    One of the consequences of this is that the working out of their faith in their political stances is very much a matter driven by them, and by their beliefs and priorities.

    Is there a tension for Keneally in engaging with Catholicism, while questioning or rejecting some of what Catholicism teaches? Of course there is. Nevertheless to question beliefs and teachings seems to me a much more desirable attribute in a politician – and indeed in a Christian – than not to question them.

    And I think Smith’s point is that Keneally’s combative engagement with the church that she belongs to – her “independence” – points to a highly desirable attribute. The mindset which prevents her from subordinating her judgment to that of her bishop also prevents her from subordinating her judgment to that of the faction leaders and power brokers who wield so much authority and influence in her party.

    • The issue is not whether Keneally (or Abbott) is a “good” Catholic… And I think Smith’s point is that Keneally’s combative engagement with the church that she belongs to – her “independence” – points to a highly desirable attribute.

      I see Smith’s point as:

      1) It is good to have politicians with a strong spiritual faith but not beholden to anyone

      2) It would be good if all Catholics could be like this

      The first is neither here nor there. I don’t really care if Keneally is a “good” Catholic or not. As I said, this isn’t about here.

      The second inference is what I take issue with. Smith praises Keneally’s kind of Catholicism (at least as he portrays it). I cannot.

      But it’s equally possible to be “regressive, irrational and utterly dependent” . . . and still wrong.

      And of course, no one wants to be “regressive” or “irrational”. Magisterial and Dissenting Catholics would both assert, I think, that the way in which they live their Catholic faith is neither.

      As for “independant/utterly dependant”, I think there is an issue here. Magisterial Catholics see dependance upon the Church’s teaching authority as a positive and mature attribute, whereas Dissenting Catholics see it as a negative – even infantile – attribute.

      • Peregrinus

        I see Smith’s point as:

        1) It is good to have politicians with a strong spiritual faith but not beholden to anyone

        2) It would be good if all Catholics could be like this

        Well, I think Smith’s main point, the one he both starts and ends with, is that the manner in which Keneally engages with her faith is politically advantageous (in a way which is, perhaps, less true of the fashion in which Abbott engages with his faith).

        And he also suggests that this is politically advantageous for Catholicism and its place in public life, because “conscience is the common ground enabling dialogue between Christians and others”, and that “Keneally’s stance will reassure people generally that there is nothing threatening about a politician whose decisions are informed by a strong personal conscience”. At a time when the place of conscience in public life is under threat, this is surely to be welcomed. And Catholic demands that, say, a pharmacist or a nurse should be able to assert the claims of conscience against the authority of the state are somewhat weakened if there is a perception that Catholic politicians and public officials are expected to subordinate the claims of conscience to the authority of the church.

        But I think the passage you’re pointing to is this:

        “Many Catholics feel proud when the hierarchy opposes war or sides uncompromisingly with the poor, but quite contrasting emotions when it is socially conservative.

        Keneally’s intelligent approach to her faith creates hope among the many Catholics searching for new ways to maintain their own faith in a conservative Church.”

        I don’t think, to be honest, that this amounts to Smith saying that “it would be good if all Catholics could be like this”. At most, he is saying that it is good that Keneally shows that a Catholic can be like this.

        Magisterial Catholics see dependance upon the Church’s teaching authority as a positive and mature attribute, whereas Dissenting Catholics see it as a negative – even infantile – attribute.

        It depends on what you think “dependence on the church’s teaching authority means”. Krista Keneally’s actions are the moral and conscientious responsibility of Krista Keneally and not, e.g., George Pell. This means that Krista Keneally must take responsibility for deciding how she will vote on, e.g., a bill to permit gay couples to be considered as adoptive parents. If being a “magisterial Catholic” means deciding to vote as George Pell suggests she should vote then, no, that is neither positive nor mature. As a Catholic, she must be open – genuinely open – to being taught by George Pell. That is not the same thing as having to take the decisions and the actions that he wishes her to take. She not only may but must decide how to vote; she cannot abdicate this responsibility to George Pell.

        • If being a “magisterial Catholic” means deciding to vote as George Pell suggests she should vote then, no, that is neither positive nor mature.

          ++George, bless his little pink cotton socks, is not (on his own) the Church’s magisterium (although he participates in it). Being a “magisterial Catholic” means accepting the dogma of the Church as defined by the Church’s bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

          • Peregrinus

            ++George, bless his little pink cotton socks, is not (on his own) the Church’s magisterium (although he participates in it).

            George, as I said explicitly, was mentioned purely as an e.g.

            Being a “magisterial Catholic” means accepting the dogma of the Church as defined by the Church’s bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

            I look in vain for a defined dogma to the effect that gay people may not adopt children.

            • Not every teaching of the Church is formally defined, yet it would be a gross misrepresentation of the Church to say that it was not a public and well known and universal doctrine of the Catholic social doctrine that children should not be given to “gay couples” for adoption.

              The Compendium of Social Doctrine (which, like the Catechism, IS a public statement of the Church’s teaching) addresses the topic you raise. Cf. 212.

              • Peregrinus

                Hi David

                Para 212 doesn’t mention homosexuality at all. It speaks very highly of the family founded on marriage, but it could just as easily be used to support arguments against adoption by single people, or adoption by cohabiting couples, or indeed against adoption of children whose birth parents are living. And indeed there could be real merit in some, and possibly even all, of those arguments.

                NSW legislation allows all of these things. Yet I don’t see any politicians who enacted that legislation being denounced as “dissenting Catholics”.

                And they’re not. The church’s teaching that X is bad or undesirable or that Y is good and desirable is not a teaching that X must be forbidden by law, or that Y must be mandated by law. It is the vocation of the Catholic legislator to make judgments about how authentic moral principles should be reflected in civil law or in the actions of the state. You may disagree with their judgments, but that does not make them dissenters, or you magisterial.

                Let me counsel you against embracing the phrase “magisterial Catholic”. I don’t think it’s going to improve understanding between you and your readers. It’s been pretty much hijacked by people who use it to mean, not people who accept authoritatively-proclaimed Catholic teaching, but rather people who agree with them about how authoritatively-proclaimed teachings must be understood, interpreted and applied, all those who take any other position being identified as “dissenters”. It is, ironically, a term which describes a highly subjective and relative position.

                I’m sure that’s not your own position, but there’s a great likelihood that that’s how the phrase will be understood. Best to avoid it, I suggest.

                (Actually, on reflection, the phase it wasn’t hijacked by those people; it was coined by them. The Catholic tradition would never describe individuals as magisterial; magisterium is an attribute only of the church. Anyone describing himself as a “magisterial Catholic” may be revealing rather more of his high opinion of himself than he intends.)

            • Gareth

              Pere: I look in vain for a defined dogma to the effect that gay people may not adopt children.

              Gareth: That is a pretty stupid thing to say Pere.

              If God has outlayed for us that he finds homosexual acts as being gravely sinful and abominable, it follows that I dont think He would take very kindly to gay adoption or that Catholic dogma would express otherwise.

  3. Christine

    As a Catholic, she must be open – genuinely open – to being taught by George Pell.

    I get this. I really do. But I’m with Matthias and David on this one.

    I saw only too well what “progressive” Christianity wrought in the ELCA, which once held the beliefs common to all Lutherans.

    It seems as soon as women’s ordination comes in a whole host of other situations arise. More than one parishioner left my ELCA parish when they discovered that the money they were putting in the collection plate was funding elective abortions for women clergy. Now, that seems almost old hat as the “progressive” ELCA is busily redefining what it means to be Christian at all.

    Nope, I’ll put my stake in the historic Christian teaching of Christ the Bridegroom of His Bride, the Church. Which, I think, aligns very much with magisterial teaching.

    • Dear Christine,

      I have been thoroughly heartened by the election of Matt Harrison as the President of the LCMS, as it gives a real chance for an authentic historically valid Lutheranism to exist, which can dialogue with the Catholic Church.

      I pray every day for the unity of Rome and Wittenberg. But I have to be honest and say that it is only feasible between confessional Lutherans and magisterial Catholics. There is, to be certain, a lot of agreement between dissenting Catholics and progressive Lutherans, but there is no foundation there to build upon.

      I’m with you: “I’ll put my stake with the historic Christian teaching of Christ the Bridegroom of his Bride, the Church.”

  4. Christine

    I have been thoroughly heartened by the election of Matt Harrison as the President of the LCMS, as it gives a real chance for an authentic historically valid Lutheranism to exist, which can dialogue with the Catholic Church. . . .

    David, I couldn’t agree more.

    Christine