Judging by their letters to the editor, Joe Wemhoff [Seeking fewer dissident Catholics, Viewpoints, July 6] and Virginia Seuffert [Orthodox Catholics produce more vocations, opposite page], seem to believe that if all Catholics were orthodox, the Church would be pure and perfect. It’s just a matter of memorizing the doctrine and the rules, then strictly obeying. Simple. No mess.

If someone strays, there are consequences, of course, but if properly repentant, the prodigal sheep would be welcomed back into the fold. Chronic offenders, regrettably, must be cast out into the darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. If you don’t want to be part of this very exclusive club, you’re free to leave. Don’t let the church door hit you on the way out.

Orthodox Catholics need things highly structured and very clear-cut. For someone like me, it’s a straitjacket that smothers spirituality. For them, it’s the friendly confines within which they lead their religious lives, secure in their certainty.

I respect their approach to Catholicism because I believe there are many ways to be a “good” Catholic. They, however, insist one approach (theirs) fits all. Extreme orthodoxy demands strict conformity, and to maintain that conformity you must impose it.

Which is why proponents can sound so haughty, even scornful toward the rest of us. Consider a quote from the Chicago section of the New York Times the Sunday before last by Rev. Anthony Brankin, pastor of St. Odilo in nearby Berwyn: “Really, when you think about what has happened in modern society, who but aging feminist nuns and their hangers-on clerics even cares whether women should be priests or not?” Ignorance and arrogance make a particularly nasty mix.

Wemhoff, in his July 6 letter, states that the Catholic priest shortage is “artificially contrived.” That, no doubt, would come as a surprise to overworked priests or the many parishioners around the country who don’t have a pastor. I guess it’s all in their heads.

Seuffert, meanwhile, assures us that if everyone were orthodox, there would be a lot more vocations, just like the good old days before Vatican II — the golden age of orthodox Catholicism. And she’s right.

The problem is, a large portion of the Catholic Church is not orthodox, doesn’t want to be, and doesn’t want priests who are.

Until the next ecumenical council rolls around, Vatican II remains the official position of the Catholic Church. And at the core of that council are two principles that undercut excessively rigid orthodoxy:

1) The Church is defined as “the people of God,” not just as the institutional hierarchy, and

2) The individual Catholic’s conscience takes precedence over all other forms of earthly authority, including the Pope. This principle is known as “primacy of conscience.”

Granted, conscience should be “informed” by the teachings of the Church (the “magisterium”), but that guidance does not ultimately override or overrule an individual’s conscience.

Orthodox Catholics cannot conceive of any person’s conscience opposing official Church teaching because they believe the Church is never wrong. But the Catholic Church once condoned slavery. It insisted that the sun revolves around the Earth, in spite of all scientific evidence to the contrary. And many of the 95 criticisms that Martin Luther hammered to that church door in Germany at the start of the Protestant Reformation were right on the money. For most of its history, the institutional Church has been deeply corrupt and frequently wrong. Anyone who is a student of Church history knows that.

Currently, although the Church holds that artificial birth control is wrong, the consciences — and practice — of the vast majority of individual Catholics (orthodox and non-orthodox) hold otherwise. The present pope says the ordination of women is a sin. The majority of Catholics say that, according to their consciences, sexism is a sin.

Orthodox Catholics would say any conscience that disagrees with the Church hierarchy is not informed enough. The rest of us would say that subjugating one’s conscience to hierarchical decrees makes you just as guilty when the hierarchy turns out to be wrong.

When the pedophilia scandal broke, the hierarchy chose to protect the institution instead of protecting the victims. They did so because they define the Church as an institutional structure, not as the people of God. As a result, they violated not only the spirit but the letter of Vatican II.

Orthodox Catholics reject primacy of conscience because they oppose all dissent, informed or otherwise. Effectively, therefore, they too stand in opposition to Vatican II, which encourages dialogue and discussion at all levels in the Church.

Wemhoff and Seuffert seem to think non-orthodox Catholics are lazy and uninformed. If only we were better educated, we would see the error of our ways.

Be careful what you wish for. Non-orthodox Catholics aren’t lazy and they’re a lot smarter than you give them credit for. I agree Catholics, in general, need to learn more about theology and Church history, and I urge all the laity to do just that because it will confirm how far off track the pre-Vatican II Church was, how badly we needed the Vatican II reforms, and how badly we need them still.

I urge all lay Catholics to learn as much as possible, especially about the years 1962-65. The 50th anniversary of Vatican II is coming up in October of 2012. There’s just enough time to bone up. I have an excellent reading list to recommend if you’re interested.

In the meantime, I’m tired of hearing orthodox Catholics tell the rest of us that we’re not good enough Catholics — or not Catholics at all. They need to recognize that there are other, equally valid ways to be a “good” Catholic. This is a universal Church, not a country club with select membership.

I have no difficulty respecting John Paul II Catholics as long as they respect John XXIII Catholics. The Vatican II Church is big enough for both.

If you can’t live with that, then a divided Church is entirely your responsibility.

Anytime you want to rejoin us, however, we’re here to welcome you with open arms.

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