Pope Francis has treated Catholic social doctrine as…well…doctrine. So did the last four popes. (Indeed, the last four are responsible for much of it themselves.)  But the astonishing media coverage of Pope Francis has forced Catholics who identify as economic conservatives to confront doctrines of the Church which are at odds with their politics in a much more direct way. We saw hints of it in response to Pope Benedict’s social doctrine, but it has been the teachings of Pope Francis which have led to many in this group to be upfront about their dissent.

In response, a friend of mine from grad school went off on his Facebook wall recently, describing these Catholics as “authority-phobes.” (Hereafter, “authoriphobes.”) On board with the Church’s claims which fit with their secular politics, they dissent from many doctrinal claims about economics and the structure of labor. Here is one classic example from JPII’s Laborem Excercens:

The true advancement of women requires that labour should be structured in such a way that women do not have to pay for their advancement by abandoning what is specific to them and at the expense of the family, in which women as mothers have an irreplaceable role.

That labor should be structured in this way is not a matter of prudential judgment. Catholics with views which argue for the market functioning autonomously, without these and other kinds of justice-centered structures (AKA, “picking winners and losers”), dissent from the social doctrine of the Church. Period.

But it has been interesting (and, I must admit, frustrating) to see many past authoriphobes now wielding what Pope Francis says and writes as an authoritative weapon against those with whom they disagree. Criticisms of Paul VI, JPII, and B16 with regard to their authoritative claims about sexuality and other matters have given way to praise of Francis’ authoritative claims about economics and justice. The National Catholic Reporter, to their credit, at least appears to finally be on the verge of consistent skepticism about the papacy in the Pope Francis era:

But NCR remains an exception which proves the rule. The evidence now appears to be clear: more than a year into Pope Francis’ pontificate, many on the right and left in the US cynically use the authority of the Pope as a weapon in their political war.  The source of their ultimate and irreducible concern is not the authoritative Catholic tradition, but rather the success of an American political agenda. And don’t take my word for it. According to Notre Dame social scientist David Campbell, “for many but not all Americans, when they’re faced with this choice between their politics and religion, they hold fast to their politics and switch religion, or more often switch out of their religion.”

But what about those of us who do academic work?  Surely an appeal to authority, as a classic argumentative fallacy, has no place in academic spheres in which theologians do our thing, right?  And doesn’t that make those of us who reject authoriphobia to be something like less than honest academics? Instead of a genuine and open search for truth, following the evidence and arguments wherever they lead us, our answers are predetermined by commitments to the authority of the institutional Church. How could anyone claim, at least with a straight face, that this is an intellectual enterprise?

I don’t want to speak for all of us who reject authoriphobia, but I have a story very similar to the one recently told by our own David Cloutier:

The example that kind of changed my world in grad school was reading an article by my colleague David Matzko McCarthy (“Procreation, The Development of Peoples, and the Final Destiny of Humanity,” Communio, 26 Wint 1999, p 698-721). It was one of those articles that forced you to rethink everything. It suggested Paul VI was conveying the same social vision in both Populorum Progressio and in Humanae Vitae. I had been trained and inculturated to think this could not be the case – that there was this unexplained disjunction between Populorum (yay!) and Humanae Vitae (boo!). McCarthy showed me that this was at least hasty, but probably also erroneous. There was a consistency. The point of this reference is not to make Humanae Vitae a litmus test or get into a debate about absolute norms. It suggests rather that the broad vision of Humanae Vitae – the vision of sexual life that it sought to protect and worried would get swamped by a “contraceptive mentality” – is probably pretty much correct. And Populorum Progressio. I learned it’s OK to trust the tradition broadly conceived.

For David, myself, and many others, our current “trust” in the authority of the tradition as interpreted by the magisterium, far from being antithetical to the academic enterprise, came directly from our academic study. Like David, I spent much of my life (basically from the time I was taught about it until mid-way through grad school) thinking that Humane Vitae was utterly ridiculous. Actually, it is probably more accurate to say that almost never thought about it at all. It was simply the accepted wisdom all around me that the Church’s teaching on contraception and sexuality was hopelessly behind the times and out of touch. It also didn’t help that (1) virtually no one in my Catholic circles talked about it (except as an object of ridicule) and (2) it was (and remains) a seriously inconvenient set of teachings.

I thought something similar about exceptionless moral norms and intrinsic evils more broadly. Weren’t these just hierarchical, patriarchal, and intellectually lazy tools for controlling the flock (especially women) and keeping power structures as they currently exist? Don’t those who want to fight for a tradition that has been exploited by old or dead celibate white European men need to resist these dangerous ideas?

However, my academic study of theological and social ethics changed my mind. Based on evidence and arguments I had not previously considered, I came to see the concept of intrinsic evil as being a life-giving means of liberation. At least if we have preferential option for protecting marginal and vulnerable populations, absolute and exceptionless prohibitions against killing the innocent, usury, polygamy, wars of aggression, torture, racism, non-consensual sex, and slavery are nothing short of absolutely necessary. The exceptionless nature of the rules keep those in power from manipulating the proportionate reasoning in their favor. As a result, the intrinsic dignity of those whose moral value is most inconvenient for us to acknowledge cannot be ignored via a stacked proportional calculation which privileges the interests of the powerful.

I must admit that, after a difficult struggle, I’ve come to see the basic themes of Humane Vitae (in particular the intrinsic connection between sex and procreation) as tools of liberation as well.  In fact, I’ve come to think of HV as a social encyclical. It would go beyond the scope of a blog post to make the full argument, of course, but the radical disconnect of sex from procreation in our culture has led to an incredible number of injustices perpetrated on the most vulnerable—including tens of millions of birth-control abortions, an explosion of exploitative and coercive sexual practices (along with a similarly-increasingly level of STI/Ds), and of course the many problematic practices associated with the widespread use of artificial reproductive technologies. Just to name two: the structural coercion of vulnerable women for use as incubators and egg sources for  the more privileged (often men), and also the creation and destruction (often on the basis of disability) of millions and millions of our the youngest and most helpless members of our human family.

Some believe that those of us who reject authoriphobia are living in some kind of “black and white” fool’s paradise. We must be deluding ourselves if we think that moral reality has easy answers that can be lumped into an intellectually lazy orthodox/not-orthodox binary. Isn’t the moral universe (along with the tradition itself) messy, difficult, grey, undecidable? Doesn’t the certainty of orthodoxy with regard to contested issues ring of a certain kind of hubris and/or ignorance?

While I think we have far more significant moral clarity and agreement than those with this view generally admit (even on their own terms, and often in the assumptions of their own activism), it is certainly the case many of us who value authority struggle with a number of messy, difficult, grey and undecidable situations. Speaking for myself, while I’m generally convinced by the insights of the tradition as interpreted by the magisterium, I’m equally convinced by the fundamental dignity of my LGBT friends, and of the witness of many Catholic women who want and deserve to lead the Church at its highest levels. How to think about these tension-filled situations? It is very difficult, and often times I’m compelled to simply be silent and struggle with what appears to be an intractable conflict.

But claiming Catholic identity, I think, compels us to engage in this kind of (often long) difficult and uncomfortable struggle–and not dismiss the tradition when it conflicts with another deeply-held belief. Submission to authority doesn’t mean to submitting to the proposition itself (it isn’t clear what that would even mean if one doesn’t, in fact, believe the proposition), but we should submit to the authority of the teaching in its capacity to compel us to struggle to understand how it is true. It requires a kind of intellectual humility that many academics (including me) struggle to cultivate, but if we are to genuinely enter this struggle we must reserve the right to change our mind in light of new arguments and evidence proposed by those who argue for the Church’s teaching.

One exception to the generally authoriphobic response of the Catholic right to Pope Francis’ social teachings has been that of Ross Douthat:

Now the challenge for conservative Catholics is to do somewhat better in our turn, and to spend the Francis era not in opposition but seeking integration — meaning an economic vision that remains conservative, but in the details reminds the world that our Catholic faith comes first.

Douthat insists that, because his faith comes first, his account of economics must be integrated with and not opposed to the teaching of the Church. I personally think he will find it difficult to do this, but he is at least committed to living in the messy, grey area of trying to integrate the Church’s teaching with his other deeply held views. Unlike many of his conservative Catholic colleagues, he has submitted to living within what is likely an uncomfortable and uncertain situation.

One of the many advantages of being part of a Church with a universal teaching authority, however, is its capacity to unite us in our diversity. Ross Douthat is not alone in his struggle; he has countless other Catholics struggling right along with him, and on many different kinds of issues. A truly diverse community of Catholics can both challenge and support each other as we work through what it means to be claimed by the authority of our tradition.