The Personalist Project

The philosopher Gary Cutting, possessor of an endowed Chair at Notre Dame, recently published in the New York Times a defense of Obama’s birth control mandate and an attack on the authority of the Catholic bishops. He argues the tired old case (as if its new—I’ve been hearing it for over 40 years) that because the majority of Catholics reject Humanae Vitae (forbidding artificial birth control, which as we know is often also abortifacient) therefore the bishops do not represent the Church and their “teaching” has no force. He says flat out, “The immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church.”

I was wondering how all this might look if transposed back about 2000 years. Let us suppose that, after the Jewish mob imposed its intentions on Pilate, the Jewish leaders (representing Gary Cutting) put out their own statement about the vanquishing of Christ (representing the Pope and Bishops today, i.e., legitimate authority). In the following, the Jewish people of 2000 years ago are parallel to the Catholic people today. Here I paraphrase, with some adjustments (but nothing too radical needs adjusted to see the parallel), the last four paragraphs from Gary Cutting’s article: 

“…haven’t the members of the Jewish people recognized Christ as ‘teaching with authority’—unlike the scribes and Pharisees—and thereby ceded to him the power to define how to live morally? By no means. There was, perhaps, a time when the vast majority of the people accepted Christ as having an absolute right to define theological and ethical doctrines. Those days, if they ever existed, are long gone—as evidenced by the events of the last few days: Christ’s debacle and crucifixion. Most Jews now reserve the right to reject doctrines formerly insisted on by Christ and to interpret in their own way the doctrines they do accept. This is above all true in matters of sexually morality (e.g., one man, one woman for life, no divorce) where the majority of Jews have concluded that the teachings of Christ do not apply to them. Such “reservations” are an essential constraint on the authority of (the supposed) Christ.

The remaining followers of Christ and the minority of Jews who support them have tried to marginalize Jews who do not accept Christ as the absolute arbiter of doctrine. They speak of merely “cafeteria Hebrews,” and merely “cultural Hebrews,” and imply that “real Jews” are those who accept Christ’s teachings entirely. But this marginalization begs the question I’m raising about the proper source of the judgment that Christ has divine authority. Since, as I’ve argued, members of the Jewish faith are themselves this source, it is not for Christ himself but for the faithful to decide the nature and extent of his authority. Christ truly was—as he often said—merely a servant, “the servant of the servants of the Lord.”

It may be objected, by the supposed “true believers,” that, regardless of what individual Jews think, Christ in fact exercises effective control over the Jewish people. This may be true in many respects, but only to the extent that members of the Jewish church accept his authority. Caesar’s alleged query about Christ’s authority (“How many divisions does Christ have?”) expresses more than just cynical realpolitik. The authority of Christ may be enforceable morally but not militarily or politically. It resides entirely in the fact that people freely accept it.

But Christ’s claim to authority has been undermined because the Hebrew people have decisively rejected it. Thus his teachings (e.g., on marriage and divorce; or, eating his body and blood if you wish to have life within you!) are hereby declared not to be a teaching of the Jewish tradition. He presented himself as the fulfillment of the prophecies and presumed to teach with authority, as if on his own word such issues were settled. In fact, these issues have clearly been settled by the voice of the Hebrew people, “Crucify him!”

As mentioned in Campus Notes commentary on this article at the Cardinal Newman Society blog: “Gary Cutting's argument would seem to have Jesus telling Peter, ‘upon this poll I will build my Church.'”

I am afraid that Gary’s arguments against the teaching authority of the Catholic Church today might have put him in the midst of the mob demanding crucifixion 2000 years ago.

Comments (6)

Joseph Stanko

#1, Mar 30, 2012 3:55am

I actually agree with some of what he says, but his conclusion baffles me.  

He starts off asking the perfectly sensible question "Who decides that God has given, say, the Catholic bishops his authority?"  He says "we have long given up the idea that our government can legitimately designate the religious authority" and I agree, this is the essense of the Establishment clause of the 1st Amendment.  Congress does not have the authority, nor should it, to designate who speaks for God.

Thus he concludes "In our democratic society the ultimate arbiter of religious authority is the conscience of the individual believer."  And again I agree, we each have the right under the Free Exercise clause to freely choose whether or not to submit to the religous authority of the Bishops.  No one can or should be compelled to be a Catholic.

But... and this is where he loses me... the arbiter is the conscience of the individual, not the majority of Church members.  If I personally choose to follow the Bishops and to accept their teaching, why does it matter if I am "outvoted" by my fellow believers?  The Obamacare mandate violates my individual conscience rights regardless.

Gregory Borse

#2, Mar 30, 2012 3:10pm

Cutting is inter-changing one kind of authority within the Church with another--the "tradition" for the "magisterium."  Humanae Vitae is a statement of clarification NOT of what the Church in her body has practiced (i.e. Tradition); it is a clarification on the Church's universal teaching regarding the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human individual life within the context of a world in which suddenly artifical contraception is cheap and available as a means to avoid completing the procreative act. 

Jules van Schaijik

#3, Mar 30, 2012 7:10pm

Joseph Stanko, Mar. 30 at 2:55am

He starts off asking the perfectly sensible question "Who decides that God has given, say, the Catholic bishops his authority?"

I think the question is not sensible but confused. We don't decide whether God has given authority to the bishops. No one does, except God himself. All we can do is recognize or believe what God has done.

The difference is crucial. The authority of the bishops does not depend on human individuals of groups. It is only the effectiveness of their authority that depends (humanly speaking) on how many people accept it. Also, if Cutting is right, then "the people" can't really go wrong. They can no longer reject God's word and risk their souls. To reject it is really nothing other than to change it, which is perfectly safe.

Gregory Borse

#4, Mar 30, 2012 7:47pm

This is an insight of the first order, Jules:  "We don't decide whether God has given authority to the bishops.  No one does, except God himself.  All we can do is recognize or believe what God has [always already] done."

Just so.  Cutting would draw a backwards (faulty) analogy between the secularist Founding of the United States and the authority of Church teaching and practice and find fault with the latter (which is really the former) in light of the former (which is really the latter).  But it is a faulty and impossible analogy.  The U.S. Constitution pays tribute to the dignity of the human person from within the fecund tradition of Natural Right.  Cutting, however, takes an interpretation of a philsophical truth and reality (men and women, by their natures, have liberty) from (perhaps) the Declaration and Constitution, and uses it to revise a Catholic understanding of the relationship between the Creator and his creatures--regardless of the social-contract theory that results from thinking about how to administer--in this life--the relationship between a man or woman and his or her representative government.  Doesn't work that way.  In fact, cannot work that way. 

Michael Healy

#5, Mar 30, 2012 9:02pm

Gregory and Jules,

Good points.  I note further that the way the whole and the parts relate (historically and in terms of authority) is quite opposite in the USA and in the Catholic Church.  In the USA, individual settlements (the parts) came first and larger entities (the whole) were then gradually formed later: counties, states, federal government.  But in the Church, the "whole" came first (Christ founding the Church at the Last Supper, Pentecost, etc.) and then later the smaller parts were formed (dioceses, parishes) under authority of the already existing whole.

Gregory Borse

#6, Mar 30, 2012 9:54pm

But--Cutter's mistake is to think that the unfolding of understanding is equal to the revelation of truth.  Not the same thing.  And it explains alot?

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?