Thursday 9 February 2012

Catholic Bishops, Gay Marriage - and Slavery.

At Enlightened Catholicism, Colleen has a post  on the Prop 8 ruling and Catholic reaction which used an entirely appropriate picture to illustrate the response of the Catholic bishops:

Catholic orthodoxy teaches that the bishops are their to lead the church. The language we use is filled with the imagery of the shepherd, directly and indirectly, as in "pastor", "pastoral" work, and "flock" and the bishops crook is derived from the shepherd's. In practice however, on the big issues in secular life, far too often it is the bishops who follow the people, and not the other way around. John Boswell showed this clearly for same - sex relationships, showing how the changing degree of official hostility following changing levels of public intolerance,for homosexuals, Jews and gypsies alike. The same is true of other areas where the church has changed it's teaching.

From my own experience, I know that was certainly true in South Africa. The Catholic Church came to play an important and honourable part in campaigning for an end to apartheid, and in easing the path to transition. Some bishops were prominent voices speaking up for justice (notably Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban), but the Bishops' Conference collectively did not lead the Church in the campaign - they responded, quite late, to intense pressure from ordinary (Black) Catholics. Opening up Catholic schools to all races was an important early move in the destruction of social segregation, but that was not initiated by the bishops. That came from the religious sisters who ran the schools, acting in defiance of secular law and the bishops' timidity.

Going back further in history, slavery is another area where the leadership of the Catholic Church for many years was complicit in slavery and the slave trade, and did not condemn it unambiguously until secular opinion had turned firmly against it. A passing reference to the Church and slavery in the comments thread at a National Catholic Reporter post on the Prop 8 decision, brought this response, from  Joseph Jaglowicz:

So Catholics "stood against" human slavery when it was "the law of the land"???

The following is from John T. Noonan, Jr.'s "A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching " (Noonan, by coincidence, is a senior judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco and a highly respected scholar):

+ "In 1814, two Irish Dominicans [informed Archbishop Carroll of Baltimore] that the [Jesuit and Sulpician] clerical slaveholders of Maryland were 'stumbling blocks in the way of their Quaker brethren [and others who had started to limit slavery].' The Dominicans carried their complaint to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, then in charge of affairs in the United States. The congregation did nothing" (p. 92).

+ Bishop John England of Charleston, SC (d. 1842) asserted "that the Catholic Church had always accepted domestic slavery; it was 'not incompatible with the natural law'; and, when title to a slave was justly acquired, it was lawful 'in the eye of Heaven'" (p. 108).

+ "In 1843, in his treatise on moral theology, Francis P. Kenrick defended the institution of slavery in the United States, going so far as to argue that any defect in title to slaves in this country was cured by prescription: the passage of time made it too late to challenge the owner's assertion of ownership...His 'Theologia moralis', written in Latin and evidently designed to educate seminarians, was the first textbook on Catholic moral theology produced in the United States; he was bishop of Philadelphia when it appeared...[He became archbishop of Baltimore in 1851], and he presided as apostolic delegate at the First Plenary Council of the bishops of the United States in 1852. His views were those of his colleagues and of the Roman authorities. The trade out of Africa was one thing; slavery as an institution was quite another" (pp. 108-109).

The following information is from Thomas Bokenkotter's A CONCISE HISTORY OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH:

"As recently as June 20, 1866, the Holy Office had upheld the slave trade as moral. The justification was based both on philosophy (natural law) and on revelation (divine law). Various quotations from Scripture were cited in support of this position...The Fathers of the Church and local church councils laws, Popes, and theologians were cited in the attempt to show that the approval of slavery was part of an unbroken, universal tradition" (pp. 487-488).

-NCR Online

 A Church That Can and Cannot Change:
The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching 

and an addition by John D:

During the Civil War no American bishop, not even in the North, denounced slavery. One bishop in Louisiana, however, issued a pastoral in slavery's defense. As with women's and gay rights, secular society has often been well ahead of the Church on matters of public morality.

-NCR Online

These examples are selective, and apply primarily to the US and the trans Atlantic slave trade. My initial investigation suggests that the full picture is more complex, but the main point holds: the full, clear and authoritative denunciation of slavery by the Catholic leadership came well after the politicians had ended it.

Public opinion, informed by the findings of social and biological sciences, is moving swiftly to recognize the validity of homoerotic sexuality and relationships, and to provide equal protection for sexual minorities, enshrining sexual justice and equality in the law. Ordinary Catholics, in the US, Latin America and in Europe, are playing leading roles in this movement. The bishops, in time, will surely follow their lead.

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