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.