David Quinn: The beliefs of the church are not going to change by poll
Published 13/04/2012 | 05:00
The findings of the survey commissioned by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) are not even in the tiniest bit surprising. We have known for years that on issue after issue many or most Catholics, even weekly Mass-going Catholics, do not believe what their church believes.
The press release by the ACP says the survey "reveals a significant disconnect between official Catholic Church teaching and what Catholics actually believe".
That is absolutely correct, but the question is what should be done about it? Does the church alter its teachings in line with the latest opinion poll or must it instead do a much better job explaining to Catholics and the general public why it believes what it believes?
The poll zeroed in on the teachings liberal Catholics want to see changed, for example celibacy, women priests and on sexuality generally.
Huge majorities want the Catholic Church to allow married priests and women priests.
But two other questions arise here. First, would allowing married priests and women priests revive the fortunes of the church by making it more 'relevant', and second, should these teachings be changed regardless of the effect on the life of the church?
In answer to the first question, allowing married priests and women priests would not result in very much of an increase in vocations, nor would it lead to a rush back to the pews.
It has done this for no church anywhere. This point cannot be stressed often enough because hardly anyone seems to be aware of it. The Lutheran Churches of Scandinavia have changed teaching after teaching in line with liberal opinion. For example, they routinely allow same-sex marriages to take place in their churches. They have had women bishops, never mind priests, for years.
But in Scandinavia hardly anyone attends church services. Liberal Christians and their secular cheer-leaders need to think long and hard about this. Why is it that the churches where their every 'remedy' has been introduced are not thriving? Worse than that, why have they shrivelled up even faster than the churches that have not altered their teachings?
I have never heard a satisfactory answer to this question from liberal Christians. They don't like the question because they find it impossible to answer.
So instead they change the subject and insist that regardless of whether allowing women priests etc will revive the fortunes of a church, it is the right thing to do in any case.
But if that is so, then why run an opinion poll about it? It is either the right thing to do or it isn't.
If it's the right thing to do, then do it, regardless of whether a majority are in favour of the change or a majority are against it.
If an opinion poll tomorrow revealed that a majority of Catholics no longer believe that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ during the Mass, should that teaching be changed too? It is either true or it isn't true that this happens, regardless of what a poll reveals.
Likewise, if a poll showed that a majority of Christians no longer believed in the literal bodily resurrection of Christ. Again, the resurrection either happened or it didn't regardless of what we believe.
In other words, opinion polls and their findings, while very interesting, are entirely irrelevant as to the question of whether this or that teaching should be changed. The teaching should be changed only if what was previously taught turns out to be false.
If it is true that Christ has not authorised the church to ordain women then it can't ordain women. (Of course, whether Jesus did or didn't authorise it to do so is a very controversial question.)
But if the question of whether something is true or untrue can't be decided by a popular vote, how is it decided? The church believes these matters are decided by the use of reason and by reference to the Bible and by reference to the life and practice of the church.
The chief reason why many Catholics no longer believe what their church believes on certain issues is that the church itself has neglected to explain to them these beliefs. By the church I mean particularly the church here in Ireland.
As a rule neither priests nor bishops bother to explain the teachings on women priests, on celibacy, on sexuality and so on. Combine this with the fact that the media in general support all of these things then it is no wonder we are faced with the present situation.
Indeed, a certain number of priests and bishops directly contradict what their church teaches on these matters.
What is really needed then is more and better explanation of why the church believes what it believes.
But apart from that it should be perfectly plain to anyone with a bit of wit that the truth of a matter can't be decided by a show of hands or an opinion poll.