A flawed stewardship.
After 21 years as editor, Rev. Andrew Britz, OSB, has resigned. Fr. Britz gave as reasons the effects of Parkinson's disease and his inability "to reach out to the right wing in the Church and be a force for unity and reconciliation."
Although the Prairie Messenger has brought its readers a wealth of important information and helpful, even inspiring, articles, its editorial stance has been disappointing. Like individual Catholics, Catholic publications must not take a cafeteria approach to teachings on faith and morals, accepting some while rejecting others.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) instructed the Catholic press to "form, strengthen and spread public views which are in harmony with the natural law, and with Catholic teachings and precepts." (Decree on the Instruments of Social Communication, No. 14). Not only has Fr. Britz failed to support certain teachings, but he has repeatedly challenged them. He has managed this in three ways: through his editorials; through regular columnists he has retained; and through unbalanced coverage of certain events and issues. Pray that his successor will re-evaluate the PM's editorial policy and bring it in accord with the Vatican Council.
Among the PM's columnists are Fr. Richard McBrien, an American theologian, whose book Catholicism was criticized by the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine for containing inaccurate or misleading statements; and Eugene Kennedy, an American psychologist, who left the priesthood over opposition to Humanae vitae, Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical on contraception.
Britz, McBrien and Kennedy seem antagonistic, in general, to the Church's magisterial authority, and in particular to its Roman Curia, its hierarchical structure and function, and its interpretation of natural law. Three key areas in which the PM has sown confusion are ecumenism, reception of Church doctrine, and Catholic sexual morality.
That all may be one
Reading a January 21, 1998, PM editorial, the uninformed could get the impression that the Church believes all Christian communities share more or less equally in the truth Christ revealed. This impression was reinforced earlier this year, when Fr. Britz hoped, editorially, that the day is gone when "we can boast that the Catholic Church alone has the whole truth."
It is not, of course, a question of boasting. It is a question, rather, of our accepting the clear teaching of the Second Vatican Council. The Decree on Ecumenism states that "the Catholic Church has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace ..." (No. 4) The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church addresses an essential difference when it says that the "unique Church of Christ ... subsists in the Catholic Church ..." (No. 8).
The expression "subsists in" seeks to harmonize two doctrinal statements. In the words of Dominus Iesus, "... on the one hand, ... the Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, and on the other hand ... outside of her structure many elements can be found of sanctification and truth, that is, in those Churches and ecclesial communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church." (No. 16)
When the Vatican issued the authoritative Dominus Iesus in September 2002 as a corrective against overenthusiastic ecumenism, Kennedy dismissed it, expecting that it would soon be forgotten.
As a journalist, I found Britz's writing style maddening, as clarity was not one of his editorial strengths. Perhaps he fancied he was imitating Christ, who often spoke in paradoxes and parables. In a January 23, 1989, editorial, he contended that Christ "always, but always" refused the straight simple answer. This, of course, is nonsense. Christ specifically explained the parable of the sower to his disciples. He also spoke plainly to the woman taken in adultery, when he told her to sin no more, and to the rich young man seeking guidance, when he told him to keep the commandments.
Reading Britz, you could get the idea that Christian unity is a union of religious liberals, for whom vague sociological objectives take precedence over clear doctrines and moral norms.
Reception of Church doctrine
Britz, McBrien and Kennedy disagree with the Church's magisterium on the sensus fidelium, or sense of the faithful. This concerns the reception, or acceptance, by the whole Church of official teachings and disciplinary decrees. Reception by the faithful is one of the criteria a teaching must meet to be valid.
Britz (PM, March 22, 1993) accused the Magisterium of downplaying the role of the people with respect to the teaching against contraception. "The sensus fidelium," he said, " is for all practical purposes totally dismissed." Nine years later (July 31, 2002), he revisited the issue following a COMPAS poll which found that most Canadian Catholics disagree with important Church teachings. In this editorial, he seemed to suggest, although he did not say it, that because large majorities of those polled favour, among other things, contraception and women priests, Church teaching to the contrary is invalid.
On January 28, 2004, Eugene Kennedy, inspired by McBrien's take on reception of doctrine, congratulated Catholics for their "good sense" in ignoring recent Vatican directives concerning certain practices at Mass.
Britz's notion of the sense of the faithful is faulty. Characteristically, reception by the faithful precedes definitive rulings by the Magisterium. The teachings against contraception, abortion, non-marital sex, including homosexual liaisons, and the doctrinal teaching on women priests, were long ago accepted by the whole Church. It is only recently that large numbers have rebelled against these long-established decisions. Today's dissent is rooted in a prevailing culture that is subject to change and correction. Church tradition and teachings are rooted in the wisdom of the ages, both lay and clerical, and guided by the Holy Spirit.
Catholic sexual morality
On October 29, 2003, Britz devoted the equivalent of a full page to an article that disputed, mocked and distorted Catholic teaching on human sexuality. In a review of John E. Perito's Contemporary Catholic Sexuality, What is Taught and What is Practiced, John J. Kennedy suggested that chastity was beyond attainment and the norms forbidding impurity were therefore of no real value. The norms he was talking about prohibit things like masturbation, fornication, contraception and homosexual activity. It is hard to believe, Kennedy wrote, that Jesus would be as judgmental about things like fornication as the Church is through its interpretations of Natural Law.
But in his Gospel, St. Mark quotes Jesus as saying that acts of fornication and sensuality are among the "wicked designs" that make us impure (7: 21-23). This sounds pretty judgmental to me.
As a Catholic, I was outraged that a semi-official Church paper should give such prominence to a savage attack on Christian sexual morality. As a journalist, I was appalled that, to the best of my knowledge, the PM has not given similar prominence to a review of a book that upholds this morality.
The PM greatly admired the late Fr. Bernard Haring, an influential theologian who aggressively dissented from the Catholic position on contraception and other moral evils. Britz wrote as if the long-standing teaching against contraception as intrinsically wrong is subject to revision. In 1993, the 25th anniversary of Humanae vitae's re-statement of the teaching, he said, "Everyone in the church is called upon to begin again" (PM, March 22). He proposed an "honest and open" discussion (PM, June 21), which implies that the original discussion was not honest, and the encyclical should be re-worked.
Britz seemed content with the Winnipeg Statement, which Canada's bishops issued as a pastoral response to Humanae vitae. In reference to contraception, the bishops said there are circumstances in which "whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience (No. 26)."
But Pope Paul said there are no circumstances which justify the use of contraceptives (No. 14). Further, any attempt to nuance intrinsically disordered acts like contraception should be considered in the light of what Pope John Paul II said June 6, 1983, in Osservatore Romano: "It would be a grave error to set up pastoral requirements in opposition to doctrinal teaching since the very first service that the Church must perform for people is to tell them the truth."
Britz' position on homosexuality is scandalous. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2357, 2358) states that the homosexual inclination is objectively disordered and acts which flow from it are contrary to natural law. But Britz has suggested that homosexuals should "rejoice in who they are ... as gays and lesbians" (Oct. 11, 1997) and he urged his readers to celebrate that homosexuals are the way they are (May 7, 2003). In the latter editorial, he said we should not pray "for their conversion to our lifestyle."
But, surely, we ought to resist disordered inclinations, not celebrate and rejoice in them. Instead of telling us not to pray for changes in lifestyle, the PM should refer homosexuals to one of the more than 100 recovery groups that have motivated them to alter their orientation. It may well be that some cannot change. If so, another group, Courage, helps its members lead celibate lives.
The PM devoted two full pages to a March, 2000, conference in Saskatoon promoting the gay rights agenda (March 29). Later (Aug. 2), columnist Eugene Kennedy rebuked the Pope for "an expression of his resistant and resentful feelings about homosexuality." Kennedy went after the Pope when the Holy Father described the World Gay Pride Festival in Rome as an affront to the 2000 Jubilee and an offence against Christian values.
PM editorials have reminded us repeatedly that Jesus lived with taxpayers and prostitutes, "the two groups most despised by the religious establishment." So if He were walking the earth today, He would want to be seen with practising homosexuals, among others.
Never, in my memory, has the PM given Jesus' answer when his living arrangements were questioned. In three gospels He replied that he associated with these people because it is they, not the healthy, who need a doctor. He chose to live among notorious sinners not only to show them He loved them, but also to encourage them to repent.
In a personal letter concerning a Vatican statement on the pastoral care of homosexuals, Britz said we must never lose the face of compassion (March 5, 1987). Compassion is a virtue, the mean between the extremes of indifference and indulgence. In a permissive culture such as ours, it is easy to succumb to the vice of indulgence, which can masquerade as compassion, just as prodigality can masquerade as liberality. The difference between the virtue and the vice is that the former is rooted in truth. Unless we bring homosexuals truth, as well as love, we may fail to encourage them to change their orientation or to stay celibate.
The foregoing is but a smattering of Britz's missteps. It judges his work, not his person. His defenders say he is conscientious, hardworking and humorous, all admirable qualities. His editorials, nevertheless, have contained statements that are confusing, misleading and just plain wrong. For the sake of his readers, this must be pointed out.
As noted above, he admitted to an inability to be a force for unity and reconciliation. Unity in the Church is established through acceptance of papal teachings on faith and morals, as the Popes were meant to be both symbols and instruments of unity. If we are in communion with the Pope, we are in communion with one another.
Like Pope John Paul II, Fr. Britz carries the heavy cross of Parkinson's disease. Pray that God will comfort them both.
Joe Campbell of Saskatoon is a regular contributor to Catholic Insight.
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|Title Annotation:||Renewal Of The Prairie Messenger?|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2004|
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