All sworn out: Lay Catholics shouldn't have to sign loyalty oaths
Editors' note: Sounding Board is one person’s take on a many-sided subject and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.
When asked to pledge allegiance to the church hierarchy, parish volunteers should listen to their conscience.
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 difficulties of teaching. Teaching religion to fifth graders, however, presendted 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, I enjoyed my interactions with the children and believed that at least some of them were learning something about their faith. I felt that my own faith was invigorated by the experience as well. 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 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 doctrine.
While the first paragraph contained the Nicene Creed, the last three paragraphs demanded much more: the signatory agreed to submit with his or 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 or by bishops “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.” 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 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 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 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.
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 the faith, this profession, 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.”
How 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?
How many American Catholics can assent to the prescribed profession of faith with a sincere heart and with a full understanding of its meaning? 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 could 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?
Must catechists also 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 catechists probably do need to accept the bishops’ position. It seems to me that thoughtful, conscientious Catholics could very well arrive at different conclusions on this issue—a topic that reflects fissures in American political life much more than disagreement over eternal spiritual truths.
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. 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.
1. If asked to sign a loyalty oath, I would:
40% - Refuse to sign it because I can’t do so in good conscience.
26% - Refuse to sign it because I disagree with it in principle.
13% - Resign from whatever position required me to sign the oath.
8% - Sign it, since I believe in it.
4% - Sign it, but privately doubt its usefulness.
2% - Sign it, but publicly express my concerns about it.
7% - Other
2. If I were sending my children to religious education, I would want their teacher to sign an oath of fidelity to the church.
10% - Agree
83% - Disagree
7% - Other
3. As long as catechists teach official church doctrine, it’s OK if they privately question or disagree with certain teachings.
87% - Agree
7% - Disagree
6% - Other
4. Asking catechists to agree with the Nicene Creed is OK, but requiring adherence to the bishops’ views on all matters is going too far.
83% - Agree
10% - Disagree
7% - Other
5. Having catechists who openly disagree with church teaching would confuse students who are learning the faith.
39% - Agree
41% - Disagree
20% - Other
Representative of “other”:
“Confusion could produce useful dialogue.”
“It would be no more confusing than having a parent express the same dissenting viewpoint.”
6. Even if you privately disagree with the church on certain issues, your views will still come across when teaching children.
17% - Agree
66% - Disagree
17% - Other
Representative of “other”:
“It depends on the age of the students.”
7. A position that should require signing a loyalty oath would be:
12% - RCIA teacher
11% - Catholic school teacher
10% - Youth minister
10% - Volunteer catechist
8% - Liturgical ministers such as lectors, eucharistic ministers, or altar servers
6% - Parish finance council members
5% - Parish secretary
7% - Other
83% - None of the above
Results are based on survey responses from 743 USCatholic.org visitors.
This article appeared in the May 2013  issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 5, pages 23-27).
Image: Angela Cox