Setting the Standards

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Setting the Standards

In the latest attempt to treat the Catholic Church like a public utility, the July 12 Washington Post published an outraged front-page story about how the Diocese of Arlington asked everyone who teaches in parish education programs to sign a profession of faith indicating that they agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Out of 5,000 teachers, about five objected.

Yes, you read it correctly. Five people, or 0.1 percent of the teachers, objected and the Post deemed that front-page news. “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”

Anyway the profession of faith is about as vanilla (Catholic vanilla) as it gets. Signers affirm the Nicene Creed, “everything contained in the Word of God,” and the teachings of the Church on all matters of faith and morality. That is, the teachers are required to affirm that they are professing Catholics who believe and will teach what the Church believes and teaches.

When I pastored a Presbyterian Church in America congregation, we required the same thing. Teachers and other leaders had to affirm the central beliefs of Christianity, the truth of the Word of God, and the doctrines and discipline of the denomination as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Book of Church Order. The Catholic Church is hardly the only one that reserves the right to authoritatively define doctrine. Most churches do and every church should.

Nevertheless, responding to the profession, Rosemarie Zagarri, who teaches history at George Mason University and Sunday school at her parish, wrote, “Although I fully understand the authoritative role of the Catholic hierarchy in defining the teachings of the faith, in my view only a person who is willing to abandon her own reason and judgment, or who is willing to go against the dictates of her own conscience, can agree to sign such a document.”

She may “fully understand the authoritative role of the Church hierarchy,” but she clearly doesn’t believe in it. Personal reason, personal judgment, and personal conscience are the final authority, trumping the teachings of her Church. In this Zagarri is reflecting a worldview that infects much of American Christianity, the central tenet of which is the absolute authority of private judgment. It’s a worldview that is killing churches from within.

Perhaps the most telling example is the Episcopal Church. Ross Douthat commented in the July 14 New York Times:

It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace.

Douthat notes that from 2000 to 2010, the hip, trendy, non-judgmental, non-dogmatic, believe-what-you-like Episcopal Church’s average Sunday attendance plummeted by an astonishing 23 percent. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the other mainline/oldline denominations that have abandoned their doctrinal foundations have also found their attendance in freefall.

Why? Douthat notes that, “leaders in the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t get from a purely secular liberalism.”

If all I get at church are the ideas and teaching I can get more conveniently and with less hoopla by perusing the editorial page of the Washington Post in my pajamas, why would I ever go to church? I wouldn’t, and apparently neither would most people.

Sociologist Christian Smith points out in his book Souls in Transition that the withering of liberal Protestantism and Catholicism is an indication of the triumph of the theologically liberal worldview they championed. Citing the attitudes and beliefs of adults 19 to 25, Smith writes, “Individual autonomy, unbounded tolerance, freedom from authorities, the affirmation of pluralism, the centrality of human self-consciousness, the practical value of moral religion, epistemological skepticism, and an instinctive aversion to anything ‘dogmatic’ or committed to particulars were routinely taken for granted by respondents.”

Even among evangelicals Smith found that “final authority has decisively shifted from the Bible to the individual reader.” Most of the younger evangelicals Smith and his team surveyed believe “it is the right and responsibility of each individual to decide religious truth for himself or herself — based on his or her ‘reading’ of relevant matters.” This does not bode well for the future of evangelicalism.

If Smith is correct, the Diocese of Arlington is an important example of holding teachers and other leaders accountable to defined standards of faith and morality. At the end of the day, those standards keep us from the fate Ross Douthat foresees for the Episcopal Church and the others: “change, and change, and die."

Publication date: July 18, 2012

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