US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Under oath: Does the church need to require Catholics to sign pledges of fidelity?

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Arlington, Virginia's Bishop Paul Loverde might not have realized the stir he would cause when he recently mailed letters to the nearly 5,000 catechists in his diocese asking them to sign a "profession of faith." But a story this week in the Washington Post about a small group of teachers who quit rather than sign the pledge has made the issue of loyalty oaths a hot topic.

The new policy in Arlington, set to take effect in all parishes come September, requires every religious education teacher and classroom aide to make an annual profession of faith, the signed copy of which will be kept on file in their parish. The document itself starts off innocently enough, beginning with the Nicene Creed and then including statements about believing in the word of God and the church's teaching on faith and morals.

Then comes the big finish: "I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops enunciate."

This isn't the first time that a diocese has implemented some form of loyalty oath. Some observers have criticized such oaths, while others call them a "welcome return to orthodoxy." But are they really necessary?

As a former parish religious education director, I never asked catechists or other volunteers to sign any statement about their personal faith or adherence to the pope, the bishops, or anyone else. I generally took it in good faith that those who were coming forward to volunteer their time for the difficult and often thankless job of teaching the faith to children of the parish were themselves truly committed to the Catholic faith. Sometimes it became clear that a particular volunteer wasn't quite right for the job of catechist, but never did I see someone defy or contradict church teaching in any way.

I can understand why a bishop might see the need to require an oath of fidelity to church teaching from those passing on the faith to the next generation. But I can also understand why some would be hesitant to sign their name to such a statement.

Though Catholics might profess their faith every week at Mass, most people have doubts from time to time. They might question an aspect of church teaching that seems in conflict with their lived reality. They might want to have their own intellectual discourse about the gospel message and how to carry it into the world rather than submitting to the will and intellect of the church hierarchy. Those who hesitate to sign their name to an oath may even be more in touch with their faith and conscience, as they continue to work through their questions about their church and the world they live in.

Does that make them unfit to teach the faith to children? Not at all. Being willing to teach the truth of the church to others doesn't necessarily require that one never have personal doubts or questions about it. Besides, a catechist teaching first grade classes is probably not going to disagree with the very basic teachings they are presenting to children at that age, even if the teacher themselves wrestles with more complex questions.

The whole issue reminds me of the recent comments made by German Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki: "Maybe it's a problem that today in the church everything must be almost over-correct. It must also be possible to be Catholic without every last detail being always checked."

If he were to read about the recent news here, I wonder if Woelki would add: "Or without signing a loyalty oath."