When the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed gay marriage last summer, Miami’s Roman Catholic Archbishop, Thomas Wenski, compared the ruling to the Dred Scott decision.
The one that upheld slavery.
Wenski’s response was certainly over the top. But it was also more than a little ironic. In 1857, when the court issued its infamous Dred Scott judgment, the Catholic Church itself still endorsed slavery. In fact, in 1866 the Vatican said slavery was “not at all contrary to the divine and natural law.” The church finally condemned slavery —in other words, conceded its doctrine was wrong — in 1888.
That’s important to keep in mind this month as Wenski and his fellow bishops join Pope Francis in Rome for their important synod on the family, which ends Oct. 25. Among the issues are homosexuality, divorce, contraception and abortion — all of which we know the church forbids. Prelates like Wenski insist those prohibitions are divine “truth” divinely revealed to a divine institution.
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But truth is, the church and a good deal of its doctrine are fallibly human. And most Catholics themselves will be the first to tell you so.
For starters, more than 80 percent of U.S. Catholics like myself told a CBS/New York Times poll last month that you can disagree with church teaching and still be a good Catholic.
The Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of us — compared to 55 percent of the general U.S. population — support the same gay-marriage rights the church demonizes.
Pew also found more than 60 percent of us believe divorced Catholics who remarry should be able to receive communion.
The church argues that Jesus himself called divorcees who remarry adulterers. But Catholics know that’s as open to interpretation as anything else in the Bible. (Biblical scholars disagree on what he actually meant.) And they’re just as aware that Jesus compassionately understood human realities like marriage failure — and the need to get out of abusive marriages.
As for the church’s ban on contraception, almost 80 percent of us told a Univision poll last year that we simply ignore it — if only because we find it utterly hypocritical to proscribe the best defense against unwanted pregnancies and therefore abortion.
And speaking of abortion, in that same survey two-thirds of us said it should be legal in some cases. That’s a robust rejection of the church’s blanket abortion veto, which includes even cases of rape, incest and when a mother’s life is in danger.
Just as many of us tell those pollsters we believe women should be ordained as priests and priests should be allowed to marry.
The church fires back that polls don’t dictate truth, and I agree. But what it doesn’t get is that the majorities in those poll results aren’t just following social fads. We’re following our religious faith.
One of Catholicism’s core tenets is that we arrive at faith by use of our God-given reason. And reason convinces us that church teaching — like, say, condoning slavery or insisting the sun orbits the Earth — has to evolve, like everything else in life.
The church doesn’t want to hear that, of course — few religious institutions do — because it fears that admitting error reduces its divine street cred.
Yet it has little choice but to listen in the 21st century, when so many people reject the relevance of organized religion. (Another recent Pew study shows the share of the global population calling itself “religious” plunged between 2005 and 2011 from 77 percent to 68 percent.) The church’s loss of moral credibility after its sexual-abuse nightmare doesn’t help, either.
What the Vatican is betting on now is that Pope Francis’ compassionate tenor will help obscure his church’s severe tenets. It’s why Rome is downplaying his meeting last month with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to authorizesame-sex marriages.
Because Davis’ censorious campaign doesn’t jive with Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” mantra on gays and lesbians, Rome wants to distance His Holiness from Her Intolerance.
But the pope’s welcome empathy doesn’t make up for his church’s worn-out rigidity. And it won’t soften the world’s disappointment if Archbishop Wenski and his colleagues leave their family synod ignoring the majority of Catholic families.
Tim Padgett is WLRN’s Americas editor.