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The American heresy

When should religious dogma bow to experience?

(Reuters/Giampiero Sposito)
By James Carroll
April 19, 2009
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WHO WOULD HAVE thought that a Catholic priest preaching on the Boston Common 60 years ago could set in motion a momentous change that still defines the great argument that Catholics, and other believers, are having with themselves? The priest's name was Father Leonard Feeney, and the topic of his sermons was "No Salvation Outside the Church." That was a long-held dogma, dating at least to the 1302 papal bull Unam Sanctam ("One Holy"): Only those in full communion with the pope in Rome are assured of God's grace; everyone else will burn in the eternal lake of fire. Feeney's diatribes were aimed especially at Jews. Unluckily for him, one of the people who worked in nearby Back Bay, and could regularly hear his preaching during lunch-time strolls, was a fellow named Dick Pearlstein, who, with his brother, ran a stylish men's clothing shop. Named for its founder, their father, Louis, the store is still there (and still stylish).

It so happened that Dick Pearlstein's wife, Dolly, was the sister of the Catholic archbishop of Boston, Richard Cushing. Cushing loved Dolly, and he loved his brother-in-law. How the archbishop must have winced to hear of the anti-Semitic slurs that were a staple of Feeney's preaching. That Cushing took in what they meant to his sister's husband is suggested by the fact that he ordered Feeney to stop his preaching, no matter how consistent it was with established doctrine. The priest refused, and refused again. Cushing excommunicated Feeney. A confident Feeney appealed to Rome. Then, to the astonishment of the whole Catholic world, the Vatican upheld the excommunication. Feeney was out.

It was 1953. I was 10 years old, living in Alexandria, Va. The nuns of St. Mary's school were abuzz with the news, and the monsignor was flustered. I went to my mother. "A priest was excommunicated for preaching 'No Salvation Outside the Church?' " I asked. "But I thought that was what we believed."

"It was," my mother answered calmly.

"What do we believe now?"

"We believe, 'Live and let live.' " My mother, like countless other American Catholics, had clearly been prepared for this shift by the experience of intimacy with her own versions of the Pearlsteins. In the New World, unlike the Old, rubbing elbows with those who believe differently was the norm. When one religious absolute bumps into another, each one becomes less absolute. And, as the Vatican's ruling suggested, this peculiarly American phenomenon had begun to have its effect everywhere.

The Feeney story points to the larger question that defines the seismic shift that knocked Catholicism, along with contemporary religion itself, from the blocks of a long-held dogmatism. Archbishop Cushing had had a personal experience that weighed more than the doctrine he was sworn to uphold. The experience, one assumes, went something like this: If I love Dick Pearlstein as I do, then God must love Dick, too. No eternal lake of fire for Dick. An ethical insight - how Feeney's preaching was a grotesque offense against charity - led to a theological change. A decade later, Cushing brought his ecumenical impulse to completion at the Second Vatican Council as one of the leading figures to make the case for the 1965 declaration Dignitatis Humanae ("On the Dignity of the Human Person"), which formally overturned "No Salvation Outside the Church" in favor of the idea that every person "can attain salvation" who acts according to the "dictates of conscience."

It would be oversimple to say that a personal experience like Cushing's should trump dogma in every case, since norms, laws, and established ideas aim to enshrine wisdom and moral principle. Conscience is the primary realm of ethical choice, but doctrines are measures against which conscience must be tested. Still, the modern affirmation of the individual - of conscience, of experience - has posed a direct challenge to the authority of doctrine. How do I know I exist? Not because the church, or even God, tells me, but because "I think, therefore I am." This Enlightenment impulse took flight in America, where "these truths" were held to be "self-evident." Such emphasis on the individual, together with corollaries like inbred rights, religious pluralism, and separation of church and state, led the Catholic Church to lump such ideas together and label them as heresy; the heresy, indeed, of "Americanism," which the Vatican condemned in 1899. By then, however, in its war against the modern spirit, church teachings had become calcified, and doctrine had become doctrinaire. What Cushing did, acting out of the American experience, was to help the church leave that defensiveness behind. It is not too much to say that Dignitatis Humanae was the Catholic embrace of Americanism.

This contest between dogmatism and experience may have climaxed in the Feeney affair, but it has been going on at least since the trial of Galileo, the paradigmatic case of doctrine being defended against tested - and testable - experience. If the Earth can be shown to move around the sun, neither unaided eyes, nor Ptolemy's schema, nor even Scripture itself can say otherwise.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that the church was wrong to oppose Galileo, but the present pope is resuscitating the same spirit of Catholic rigidity. When, during his visit to Africa last month, Pope Benedict XVI condemned condom use even for the prevention of HIV/AIDS, he asserted the flatly wrong idea that condoms make people more vulnerable to the disease, putting a doctrine ahead of evident human experience. Ironically, the Vatican rejection of all forms of "artificial" contraception takes precedence even over the church's absolute opposition to abortion, since, as experience shows, any serious effort to lower abortion rates requires advocacy of birth control, not the interdiction of it.

But the single most important instance of experience trumping doctrine involved the Holocaust. The murder of 6 million Jews was perpetrated by the Nazis, not by Christianity, but the genocide could not have occurred if not prepared for by a centuries-long tradition of sanctioned anti-Judaism. The Holocaust forced Christians to reckon with the real-world consequences of that tradition, centered on the doctrine that Judaism had been superseded by the church, and on the age-old reading of New Testament passages that blamed "the Jews" for the murder of Jesus.

An ethical insight forced a theological change. In the Catholic Church, the "Christ-killer" slander was repudiated, in the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate ("In Our Time"), and so was the idea that the religion of Jews who rejected Jesus was rejected by God. Once again, Cushing, no doubt thinking of his brother-in-law, played a leading role. Nostra Aetate amounts to the largest doctrinal shift in the history of the church - and it occurred because of the inescapable experience that was had in the heart of Europe in the middle of the 20th century.

It is no accident that John XXIII, the pope who summoned the Vatican Council, and who put the church's relationship with the Jewish people high on its agenda, was one of the only prelates who had had direct experience of the Holocaust. As papal legate in Turkey during the war, he helped hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jews escape by providing them with faked baptismal certificates. In France at war's end, he directly confronted the church's collaboration with the Vichy regime. He saw the Catholic failure up close, and knew that its causes had to be dealt with. No dogmatic proposition was held with more certitude than the church's superiority over Judaism, and no idea had a firmer grip on the Christian imagination than that of Jewish culpability for the death of Jesus. Yet, because of undenied experience, both were renounced.

That is why Holocaust denial is such a grievous offense. When Pope Benedict lifted the excommunication of the notorious Holocaust denier, Bishop Richard Williamson, there was a storm of protest, and properly so. It is no accident that Williamson is part of a sect, the Lefebrites, that defines itself by opposition to the reforms of Vatican II: In order to oppose the council's momentous doctrinal shift, such reactionaries must deny the experience that made it necessary.

The Williamson case raises the question of Pope Benedict's own ambivalence about the Vatican II reforms. His good intentions are on display when he meets cordially with leaders of other faiths, but, for doctrinal reasons, Benedict is bringing back insulting old attitudes about "non-Catholics," decidedly including Jews. During his 24-year run as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was constantly on the lookout for opportunities to reassert pope-centered Catholic supremacy. His 2000 document Dominus Jesus ("The Lord Jesus") said that those outside the Catholic Church live "in a gravely deficient situation in comparison to those who, in the church, have the fullness of the means of salvation." His reassertions, as Cardinal Ratzinger and as Pope Benedict, of this exclusivist supremacy have astounded people of other faiths - and wounded them.

Yet Benedict feels morally obligated to defend a hierarchy of truth that alone can withstand what he sees as the ethical chaos of an uncritical relativism that ranks every religion as equally valid - what he warns of as the "dictatorship of relativism." But Benedict's "relativism" is a straw man, since he is an astute enough philosopher to appreciate that every person's experience is unique, and every point of view is therefore somehow relative. No one is in possession of the absolute, which is what makes it absolute. At a time when many pillars of meaning are shaken, broad worry about ethical chaos is appropriate, but Benedict's actual concern is narrowly dogmatic. Not coincidentally, the pinnacle of the hierarchy of truth he defends so staunchly is occupied by himself as the Vicar of Christ. The content of this doctrine is his own status.

Every religion has its version of the contest between dogma and experience. Jews must test ancient assumptions about the Land as seal of the covenant against the here-and-now challenge of war between Israelis and Palestinians. The worldwide Anglican communion divides between those who give primacy to doctrinaire notions of marriage and those who see cruel exclusion of homosexuals as an affront to everything Jesus meant. Islam hears the voices of women demanding to have their experience weighed equally in the scales with tradition. Fundamentalist Christians say no to any experience, any evidence, that contradicts the dogma of biblical "inerrancy."

In the Catholic Church, the issue could not be more dramatically joined. Will the dogmatically defined character of an all-male priesthood withstand the experience of otherwise liberated women? Will narrow exclusivism outlive the newly respectful pluralism that marks the contemporary world? Will the doctrine of papal infallibility survive the ever more common spectacle of a pope forced to explain himself, or even apologize? Will the last medieval structure of authority hold fast against a global move toward democratic liberalism? Will a collapsing clerical culture remain aloof from the urgent need of Catholics for a revitalized sacramental life? Will theology resist ethics? Dogma experience? The great argument goes on.

James Carroll, a columnist on leave from the Globe and a scholar in residence at Suffolk University, is the author, most recently, of "Practicing Catholic," from which this essay is adapted.