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What Does it Really Mean to be a Practicing Catholic?

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
January 30th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The person who claims to be a practicing Catholic while not giving at least religious submission of intellect and will to the all Church's teaching, including that related to the ordination of women, artificial contraception, abortion, and homosexuality (to pick a few of the hot-button issues) is being disingenuous.  These moral teachings are part of the "standards of excellence" that are part of the Catholic practice.  Without at least religious submission of intellect and will to these and similar teachings, one can be many things, but one thing one cannot be is a practicing Catholic.

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - Many people claim to be practicing Catholics, meaning (one must suppose) that they claim to be something more than non-practicing or nominal Catholics. 

Unfortunately, the term practicing Catholic is bit squishy (or vague or ambiguous as lawyers might say) and subject to abuse by all manner of Catholics (in name only) who seek to justify their various stances.  Instances of abuse can be cited aplenty, such as when the former priest, writer, and Catholic dissenter James Carroll uses it in the most minimalistic and even perverse way in his book Practicing Catholic

We likewise see it when the nuns involved in that hotbed of radical dissent and radical feminism known as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious--recently the subject of a doctrinal assessment by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith--when it insists that it is composed of faithful and practicing Catholics despite it and its members' public stances against the Church's teaching on such subjects such as the ordination of women, homosexuality, and a whole gamut of sexual matters.

The laity is similarly eager to use (or abuse) the term.  We have such abuses when Vice President Joe Biden or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi--both politicians one would classify as pro abortion and pro-homosexual "marriage"--claim to be "practicing Catholics."

Outside politics we see the term practicing Catholic abused, for example, when the Ursuline-educated global promoter of contraception Melinda Gates claims to be a "practicing Catholic."

When trying to define the term practicing Catholic to determine whether it is being properly used, we might start by observing the obvious: that a practicing Catholic is a Catholic who abides by Catholic practice.  The question then becomes, what is Catholic practice?

For help in understanding Catholic practice, we might with profit turn to Alasdair MacIntyre's definition of "practice" his book After Virtue.  Applying his insights to the context of Catholicism, we can say that Catholic practice at minimum should have the following elements:
  • Catholic practice is a coherent and complex form of socially-established cooperative human activity;
  • Catholic practice has identifiable goods internal to that form of activity which it seeks to achieve;
  • Those identifiable goods are realized in the course of trying to achieve standards of excellence that are appropriate to, and partially define, the form of activity;
  • In addition to standards of excellence, there are rules that seek to embody those standards;
  • The result is that the human powers to achieve excellence, and the human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.
In this article, I want to focus on the third and fourth features of Catholic practice: (a) the standards of excellence and (b) the rules intended to embody the identifiable goods and standards of excellence of Catholic practice. 

To enter into a practice, MacIntyre insists, one must accept the goods, the authority of those standards of excellence, and the rules intended to promote those standards of excellence.  One has to be willing to allow the inadequacy of one's performance to be judged by those goods, standards, and rules. 

To enter into a practice, therefore, is to subject one's "attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes to the standards which currently and partially define the practice."  MacIntyre observes that "we cannot be initiated into a practice without accepting the authority of the best standards realized so far."

With respect to a practice, our feelings are irrelevant.  Our personal druthers are likewise immaterial when it comes to a practice.  "In the realm of practices the authority of both goods and standards operates in such a way as to rule out all subjectivist and emotivist analyses of judgment," MacIntyre observes.

MacIntyre gives examples.  "If, on starting to listen to music, I do not accept my own incapacity to judge correctly, I will never learn to hear, let alone to appreciate, Bartok's last quartets.  If, on starting to play baseball, I do not accept that others know better than I when to throw a fast ball and when not, I will never learn to appreciate good pitching let alone to pitch." 

Now there is always danger in applying a purely human or philosophical concept (i.e., "practice" as used by MacIntyre) which is applicable in architecture, medicine, law, science, art, or football (but not to tic-tac-toe or bricklaying according to MacIntyre), to something like the Church which is of divine origin.  Catholic practice is something of an entirely different order than mere human practices, such as the practice of law, medicine, music, etc. 

For one thing, strictly human practices do not involve grace, something which is gratuitous and divine in origin.  Human practices are the result of natural talent, training, and discipline.  The virtues or excellences of a human practice are entirely acquired.

Catholic practice, on the other hand, participates in the confluence of human activity and divine activity.  The virtues relating to Catholic practice--be they theological or moral--are infused at baptism.  In human virtues, our own efforts bear the fruit.  In divine virtues, our efforts are to get out of the way so that the divine virtue can bear fruit.  We become excellent (holy) because we allow God to make us so.

In Catholic practice, the goods, the  "standards of excellence," and the rules intended to advance those are directly revealed by God and are defined, expressed, or developed by the Church's Magisterium under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

So practice in human sciences and arts is not the same as Catholic practice.  The term "practice" cannot therefore be used univocally (with identical meaning) when going from the mundane to the supernatural.  Nevertheless, there are analogies between a wholly-human practice (such as law) and a blended divine-human practice such as the Catholic Church from which we might draw some insight to help us grasp the concept of Catholic practice.

Catholic practices are both external and internal.  An example of an external Catholic practice is the obligation to attend Mass on the Lord's Day and on Holy Days of Obligation. Our body needs to be there.  There is an internal practice associated with this external practice, and that is to strive to give "full, conscious, and active participation (actuosa participatio)" while at Mass. (SC No. 14)

In this article, however, I want to focus on an essential internal Catholic practice, the practice of assent or religious submission to the authentic Magisterium of the Church, in particular, the Pope.  In this particular area, Lumen Gentium establishes the "standards of excellence that are appropriate to, and partially define, the form of activity" as well as the rules that embody those standards as it relates to internal assent or religious submission.

"In matters of faith and morals," Lumen Gentium states, "the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.  This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.  His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking."  (LG, No. 25)

An essential aspect of internal Catholic practice therefore requires that the Catholic give religious submission of mind and will to the authentic Magisterium of the Pope and this even if he is not speaking ex cathedra.  An essential component of internal Catholic practice is that the Pope's ordinary teaching at a minimum must be religiously submitted to by both intellect and will.  (I say at minimum, because if infallible teaching is involved, whether in ordinary or extraordinary mode, the full assent of faith, or theological assent, is required.  This is something much more than religious submission.)

The Pope's extraordinary and ordinary teaching on many matters of faith and morals that are controversial in modern times is well known.  For example, in Blessed John Paul II's Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (No. 4), it is manifest that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."  I believe this to be extraordinary, infallible teaching.

Whether one turns to Pope Pius XI's Casti Connubii (No. 56), or Pope Paul VI's prophetic Humanae Vitae (Nos 13-14), or John Paul II's Familiaris Consortio (No. 32) or myriad other texts and documents, it is manifest that the Church's teaching is that artificial contraception is an intrinsic evil. At a minimum, this appears to be ordinary infallible teaching.  I believe like the theologian Ermenegildo Lio, however, that Humanae Vitae was an extraordinary form of the prior ordinary teaching that artificial contraception is an intrinsic evil and so infallible per se.

As Vatican II (Gaudium et spes, No. 51) stated and as reiterated in John Paul II's Evangelium Vitae (No. 62), abortion is an "unspeakable crime," a nefarious moral act, which "as an end or as a means," will "always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being."  This is extraordinary, infallible teaching.

Finally, the teaching of the Papal Magisterium regarding homosexuality as found in the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons (No. 3) is that the homosexual inclination, though not itself a sin, is an "objective disorder," and homosexual activity itself is "intrinsically disordered" and hence always gravely sinful.  For these and other reasons, Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly expressed opposition to any suggestion of the liciety of homosexual "marriage," such as in his ad limina visits with the American Bishops or in his Christmas Address to the Roman Curia on December 21, 2012.  All of this is, at minimum, ordinary infallible teaching.

Now I think, as do most trustworthy theologians, that these teachings are all infallible, and so are due the assent of faith (theological assent).  (Though one might argue, in some but not all of the cases, whether they are ordinary or extraordinary modes of teaching, I think it is impossible honestly to believe that the teachings, regardless of their mode, are non-infallible and so possibly reformable in some sense.)  But even if (arguendo) they are not infallible, they are due, at the very minimum, religious submission of intellect and will.

One of the essential qualities of internal Catholic practice (certainly not the only, there are many more requirements) is that the Catholic at minimum submit his intellect and will to the authentic teachings of the Church on faith and morals.  These, along with the extraordinary or ordinary infallible definitions or teachings, define the "standards of excellence that are appropriate to, and partially define, the form of activity" of Catholic practice.

If these "standards of excellence" are denied, then one is not a practicing Catholic--but something else.  As Archbishop Chaput recently put it, "If they don't believe what the Church teaches, they're not really Catholic." 

The person who claims to be a practicing Catholic while refusing at least religious submission of intellect and will to the all Church's ordinary teaching, including that related to the ordination of women, artificial contraception, abortion, and homosexuality (to pick a few of the hot-button issues) is being disingenuous.  In fact, I am of the opinion--as are most orthodox theologians--that the submission of faith, or theological assent (something greater than religious submission) is demanded here.  These moral teachings are part of the "standards of excellence" that are part of the Catholic practice.

To dissent, to refuse religious submission of mind and will, to reject these "standards of excellence" is to step outside the Catholic practice.  It would be akin to a lawyer arguing before the Supreme Court of the United States that neither the U.S. Constitution nor the laws passed by Congress and signed into law by the President apply in the premises, but rather, that the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the laws made by the National People's Congress of China ought to apply.  Whatever would be going on in such a hypothetical, such an advocate would not be practicing law, although an argument could be made that he is practicing clownship or buffoonery.

Someone who dissents from the ordinary teaching of the Catholic Church, i.e., someone who fails to give religious submission of intellect and will to those teachings, is outside of Catholic practice, which necessarily translates to the fact that he or she--whatever he or she is--is not a practicing Catholic.  They are perhaps practicing clowns or practicing buffoons or practicing pagans or practicing Catholic apostates, but they are certainly not practicing Catholics.

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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