Amid all the specifics of the “Catholic vote” issue this past election season and the various statements of bishops and other clergy, the more general issue undergirding the whole discussion is quite simply, that of authority.
The question of teaching authority is one of the most vexing elements of Catholicism. The Church claims the authority to teach in Christ’s name on earth, but then, in modern times at least, explicitly points to different levels of authoritative claims and teachings.
(I say “in modern times” because I really do not know how the concept of “hierarchy of truths” was understood among theologians in the pre-Vatican II era or how or if it was expressed to believers.)
So this year, the issue raises is raised in this way: some bishops speak strongly on the relationship between a vote for an abortion-rights advocating politician; others remain silent. One bishop says an abortion-rights advocating Veep-elect should think long and hard before receiving Communion in his diocese, another says he does not want to alienate people.
Now, on this latter point, I think close readings – or even not-so-close readings – could conclude that these last two bishops are not completely at odds.
But the question remains. This is not a new question either. As I said, it is one embedded in the mystery of the Church’s authority, but one brought much more to the forefront in the past half-century as the Church has disposed of elements once taught as essential, as pastors and teachers on the ground regularly ignore or explicitly dismiss various elements of Catholic teaching, and – in this current example – bishops give wildly varied answers on matter of how a Catholic takes his or her faith into the process of constructing civil socieity.
This is not, I hope you can tell, an appeal to return to some easy days gone by of widespread perfect assent to clearly-articulated teaching. I don’t think such a time ever existed. No, it’s a question that follows many the catechist, preacher or pastor around, one that when asked, sounds like this:
“The bishops don’t even agree with each other? Why should I accept anything they say as true?”