What makes the church choose tolerance?

[Previous: Let’s chat with Justin, the Catholic apologist AI]

My chat with Justin, the Catholic apologist AI, got me thinking. How does the Catholic church – or any church – decide what should be a matter of conscience for individual believers, versus what they want to make into law for everyone?

As an example, I asked whether the Catholic church believes contraception should be outlawed. This was Justin’s answer:

The Catholic Church teaches that contraception is morally wrong, based on the natural law and the divine plan for marriage and human sexuality. This is stated in the encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI. However, the Church does not necessarily advocate for making contraception illegal in civil law…. the Church also respects the freedom of conscience and the responsibility of individuals to make moral decisions.

I also asked about divorce. Here too, I got a similar answer from Justin’s canned repertoire:

The Catholic Church holds the belief that marriage is a lifelong commitment, as Jesus himself taught in the Gospel of Matthew: So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate. However, the Church does not necessarily advocate for making divorce illegal in civil law…. Remember, the Church’s teachings are about promoting the sacredness of the marital bond and the dignity of the human person, not about imposing religious beliefs on others.

I hope you noticed the giant loophole Justin left for itself. It said the church “does not necessarily advocate” outlawing divorce or contraception.

A weasel word of this magnitude means this response is only answer-shaped. It hasn’t actually answered the question at all. It means the church can put up a pretense of tolerance, while still claiming it’s consistent with Catholic doctrine if bishops start lobbying to revive the Comstock Act and to prosecute women for using birth control pills.

However, Justin’s answer was unambiguous on one point: the church respects individuals’ freedom of conscience.

Except when it doesn’t – because we all know that’s not the whole story. The Catholic church, like many other religious sects, can and does try to make it illegal for people to make choices the Vatican doesn’t think they should be making.

The church spent years and millions of dollars lobbying against marriage equality. They fought against all proposals for same-sex marriage, even when those proposals were strictly for civil commitments and didn’t require churches to participate.

And they’ve kept on fighting. Years after same-sex marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court, Catholic bishops were still lobbying against the Respect for Marriage Act, even though it did nothing more than give Congress’ stamp of approval to the decision that was already on the books. The church is also still punishing its members who support LGBTQ rights, seemingly at random.

Abortion is an even more relevant example. Justin gave a hair-raising answer about whether it should be legal:

The Catholic Church teaches that all human life is sacred from the moment of conception until natural death, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. Therefore, the Church opposes abortion in all circumstances, including when the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life.

In other words, the Catholic position is that human life must be protected under all circumstances – except when the life is a pregnant woman. If the pregnancy threatens her life, then the church says to do nothing, even if the inevitable outcome is that both woman and fetus die. It’s a cult of maternal martyrdom in action. It’s the same deadly belief that killed Savita Halappanavar, and that’s now moved on to killing women in red states all across the U.S. They’re not willing to allow any latitude for freedom of conscience here!

One more example: the church is opposed to marijuana legalization. Their reasoning for this is that, if it can be abused, then it should be banned. This makes it especially inexplicable that they aren’t opposed to alcohol:

Msgr. Steven Rohlfs, a spiritual director at The Seminaries of St. Paul in St. Paul and a moral theologian with a specialty in medical ethics, told The Catholic Spirit Sept. 16 that marijuana is not “intrinsically disordered,” or something that by its very nature is not right with God, such as the acts of abortion, euthanasia and contraception. But “for most people, most of the time,” using marijuana is not a good idea, Msgr. Rohlfs said. With the best interests of individuals and society in mind, the Church opposes its recreational use. That can be said for many drugs, including alcohol and prescription medicines, he said.

So why is the church talking out of both sides of its mouth? What makes it choose tolerance on some issues, while demanding the imposition of theocratic law on others?

The answer isn’t theological, but political. There’s no principled reason for why the Catholic church has fought to block same-sex marriage and abortion and assisted dying and green burial, but isn’t lobbying to outlaw divorce or contraception or IVF. It’s nothing but a political judgment about the chances of success.

When the church doesn’t think it’s going to win the fight, it backs down and offers pious words about respecting human dignity and individual freedom. When the church does think it can win the fight, it goes to the mat to outlaw anything that offends Catholic dogma.

(Granted, the bishops have picked plenty of losing fights. They lost on same-sex marriage. They’re losing on marijuana legalization. They’re getting steamrolled on abortion everywhere the voters have a say and the choice isn’t made for them by right-wing courts or a gerrymandered legislature. I didn’t say it was good judgment.)

This is why we need secularism. We should never trust any church or sect to make laws for the rest of us, because they’ll legislate their beliefs to the exact extent of their power to do so. Laws that are for everyone have to be made on the basis of reasons and evidence that are available to everyone, not on any church’s peculiar beliefs about what God does and doesn’t approve of.


  1. says

    So…we’re looking to an AI chatbot to answer questions about Catholic doctrine? I wonder what the Pope and the Inquisition would think of that? It’s certainly not as silly as listening to Bill Donahue, but that’s not saying much…

  2. Katydid says

    I gave this post some time to think about the matter. Based on people I’ve known in various locations since the 1960s, I’m saying American Catholics don’t actually follow the rules. Except for the fringe crazies, the general Catholic is peripherally aware of the rules and just doesn’t care.

    In contrast, since the 1980s, I’ve found various flavors of evangelicals and fundamentalists (who seem to have merged in the 1980s) embody that 2-panel cartoon where the speaker says in panel one, “My faith won’t let me do that” and in panel two, “My faith won’t let YOU do that, either”.

  3. jenorafeuer says

    As I noted on a different post recently, when Paul Martin, as Prime Minister of Canada, actively helped push through the Civil Marriage Act which formally legalized same-sex marriage in Canada, a number of Catholic bishops stated that Martin (himself a life-long Catholic) should be banned from taking communion. I have no idea if anybody followed through on that after the fact. Martin himself had voted against a previous bill for same-sex marriage, but as Prime Minister he actively said he had come to believe it a matter of human rights and that his duty as leader of the country was more important than his religion.

    Of course, the Catholic Church in Canada has a lot less power than it used to. It used to be that the Church ran most of the schools and medical system in Quebec, but that changed in the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. It’s still technically the largest religious denomination in the country at nearly 30% of the population (which was a little more than all other Christian denominations put together), but that includes a lot of ‘Easter and Christmas’ Catholics these days, and the number of ‘no religion’ people was over 34% in the last census. So this is mostly a lost fight for them here.

    Sadly we’ve also been picking up a number of annoying U.S.-style evangelicals.

  4. Katydid says

    @3, Louise Penny tackles the loss of religion in her Three Pines series of books. The town is set in the fictional town of Three Pines, which is between the Vermont border and Montreal. The police that play a part in every book come from Montreal. Several books touch on the hold that the church had on people in earlier times, but is now kind of “in name only”.

    Also, very sorry for inflicting our crazies on you and inciting your crazies to adopt their habits. I’m being sincere (in case that’s not obvious).

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