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Should church volunteers be required to sign loyalty oaths?

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Parish volunteers should think twice about signing on the dotted line when asked to pledge their allegiance to the church.

By Rosemarie Zagarri, a professor of history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

[Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.]

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During the 2011-2012 academic year, I volunteered at our local parish in Arlington, Virginia, as the lead catechist in my daughter's Sunday religious education class. As a college professor I understood some of the challenges of teaching. Teaching religion to fifth graders, however, presented both new challenges and rewards that I had not anticipated.

It was hard to hold the attention of 15 lively 11-year-olds for 90 minutes each week as we discussed the meaning of issues such as the sacrifice of Abraham, the doctrine of the Trinity, or the role of the risen Christ in our daily lives. Nonetheless, the experience was a good one. I enjoyed my interactions with the children and believed that at least some of them were learning something about their faith and I felt that my own faith was invigorated by the experience. Having to answer the children's deceptively simple questions often forced me to think more deeply about Catholicism and why I believe what I believe.

As a catechist, I always understood that I had a solemn responsibility to teach the church's official doctrines to the children. Whatever my private opinions on certain controversial topics, I knew that I was acting as a representative of the church; my own views were irrelevant. I would like to believe that other catechists took their roles just as seriously. To my knowledge, there were no incidents in my parish that suggested otherwise.      

Thus I was shocked when after the school year ended I received a letter that changed the whole nature of the catechetical enterprise and made it impossible for me to continue in this ministry. Our bishop informed me, along with the rest of the nearly 5,000 religious educators in the diocese, that we would be required to make an annual oral and written “profession of faith” according to a prescribed formula. Often required of candidates for the priesthood, this was no simple statement of belief in Catholic doctrine. While the first paragraph contained the Nicene Creed, the last three paragraphs demanded much more: the signatory agreed to submit with his/her entire "intellect and will" to "each and every" church teaching related to faith and morals. This submission was not confined simply to doctrines definitively proposed by the church but also extended to teachings enunciated by the pope, bishops, or magisterium "even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act."

Troubling as the requirement was, I soon realized that our diocese was not alone in the move to require fidelity oaths from laypeople. Other bishops have insisted that lay ministers, educators, and the staff at all Catholic agencies and institutions swear to adhere to the church's teachings on specific issues, including homosexuality, contraception, chastity, marriage, abortion, and euthanasia, among others. One even ordered members who sit on the board of the Catholic Association for Gay and Lesbian Ministry to sign an "oath of personal integrity" in which they would "strive to clearly present Catholic doctrine on homosexuality in its fullness" and "profess personally to hold and believe, and practice all that the holy Catholic church teaches, believes and proclaims to be true, whether from the natural moral law or by way of revelation from God through scripture and tradition." Other dioceses are reportedly considering implementing similar requirements.  

In my case, the new requirement felt like a slap in the face. After giving freely of my time and talent to the church, and conscientiously trying to do a good job, being required to sign this oath now seemed to imply that what the church valued most was obedience. Only those Catholics who claimed to accept without reservation all of the church's teachings--whatever they might be, whether officially promulgated or not--were now considered sufficiently orthodox to spread the faith to young people. I resigned, as did a certain number of other catechists throughout the diocese.

Although some parishes have reported staffing problems for their religious education classes for the 2012-2013 school year, it is unclear how many teachers actually left because of the new requirement. Unlike my own pastor, who took the new rule seriously and asked catechists to prayerfully consider the request several months before it went into effect, other pastors reportedly handed their instructors the document right before the first day of class and asked that they sign it on the spot.

Some who did sign have expressed confusion or resentment; others have rationalized their acquiescence as a necessary inconvenience in the service of a larger good. Still others, of course, signed cheerfully, relishing the prospect of purging from the church those who deviate from an idealized orthodoxy that is free from the troubling complexities of modern life.  

Purportedly the directive in Arlington was implemented as part of a celebration of the Year of Faith proclaimed by Pope Benedict. Since catechists and teachers of religion are on the front lines in spreading and communicating the faith, this profession of faith, our bishop says, will "assure sound teaching in our catechetical programs so that our children and young people may truly be formed as authentic disciples of the Lord Jesus."

This leads to several related questions. How, I wonder, does a profession of faith by those who are already giving of their time and talent to the church contribute to the conveyance of sound teachings? If there is concern about the authentic transmission of the faith, why are catechists being required to swear an oath of fealty rather than being systematically educated in the church's teachings?

This line of questioning leads to other concerns. How many American Catholics can assent to the prescribed profession of faith with a sincere heart and with a full understanding of its meaning? To take an obvious example, a Gallup poll taken in May 2012 shows that 82 percent of all American Catholics find artificial birth control morally acceptable. How in good conscience can those Catholics sign a pledge in which they commit themselves to an unquestioned obedience to a magisterium that condemns contraception? Are loyalty oaths really intended to decimate the ranks of catechists by eliminating all of those who don’t agree with the church on this teaching?

Or to take another example, since the document requires that individuals assent to church teachings that are both "definitively" announced as well as those that are not proclaimed by a definitive act, then must catechists support the bishops' recent claim that the Affordable Care Act violates the constitutional protection of religious liberty? In response to this query, a diocesan official said that it "probably does" imply that they need to accept the bishops' position. However it seems to me that thoughtful, conscientious Catholics could very well arrive at different conclusions on this issue--a topic that reflects the current fissures in contemporary American political life much more than disagreement over eternal spiritual verities.      

For a Catholic who takes the profession of faith seriously and wishes to understand it fully, signing this statement violates the very freedom of conscience that the bishops claim to support. Since it is impossible to know exactly what a person is assenting to, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that what is being required is nothing less than unquestioned submission to any and all dictates of the church hierarchy. In other words, it asks for blind obedience. Yet if the church's 2,000-year history has taught us anything, it is that neither laypeople nor the magisterium, popes, and bishops, though guided by the Holy Spirit, have reached perfection in their articulation of God's word or its implementation in the world.

God endowed human beings with an intellect and will so that, guided by the church's teachings, they may make up their own minds on important issues. Although the church hierarchy has the final authority in all matters regarding faith and morals, there should be room for individuals to respectfully disagree with the church's perspective on certain issues. As we can see clearly with the benefit of hindsight, those who listened to their consciences in opposing the church hierarchy on issues such as slavery or torture as a remedy for doctrinal deviance should certainly not be condemned for their dissent. Open debate and discussion enable all sides to clarify the truth.

Bishops and pastors have every right to insist that lay teachers of religion convey the true and authentic doctrines of Catholicism to their students. Parents and children have every right to expect that religious education instructors do not use their positions to spread their own private opinions about the faith. Nonetheless, by choosing to focus on catechists' inner beliefs rather than on their outward dissemination of the faith, some dioceses are taking an unwise path. In its heavy-handed attempt to root out individuals who believe in the possibility of conscientious dissent, many individuals who would like to share their talents with the church have withdrawn from their ministry. With fewer catechists, religious education programs struggle and it is the children who ultimately suffer.

In addition, the imposition of a profession of faith reinforces the mistaken belief that there is only one way to be Catholic and that way involves an unquestioned obedience to authority. Instead of inspiring the loving unity that should characterize a Year of Faith, this action has generated conflict, confusion, and cynicism. Although the Church hierarchy may be the ultimate arbiter of truth, the church remains, most essentially, the people of God.  

Image © Michal Adamczyk/