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The Spectrum Virus

From time to time those of us with computers receive e-mail warnings about a new virus that some sociopath has devised and unleashed on the World Wide Web. These computer viruses can have effects ranging from mild disruption to widespread loss of information on any computer system that is opened to them. To combat these dangers, companies are producing more and more sophisticated protective software.

All Catholics must be on their guard against another virus, potentially far more dangerous, that can infect our belief and our faith. Let’s call it the spectrum virus. Like a computer virus, it is manmade. Infection from this virus is widespread, but recognition of the virus itself isn’t. There are countless instances of its ravages in Catholic writing and speaking today.

First we will describe the spectrum virus and the symptoms of its presence. Then we can examine its deleterious effects in the lives of those who allow the virus to enter their systems of thought and belief.

In politics and economics, to take the two clearest examples, there exists a wide range of opinions regarding solutions to the problems a society faces. Each theorist has to make the best case he can for his position. The range of opinions constitutes a wide spectrum, from conservative or reactionary right to very liberal or radical left. In a democracy, everyone has a right to his opinion and to being included in the political or economic spectrum. The spectrum exists necessarily because there are no final answers in these areas.

Enter the spectrum virus. To justify themselves, dissenters try to apply the spectrum model to the Catholic faith. The whole enterprise of dissent is based on this strategy. Though most dissenters will pay lip service to the magisterium, they want to keep it in cold storage. They assume-and insist everyone else assume-that with regard to what authentic Catholicism is, there is and must be a wide spectrum of opinions. Within that spectrum there will be many disagreements and even contradictions. But everyone who makes any claim to being Catholic has a right to the inclusion of his or her opinions on the spectrum. Catholics, they say, simply have to learn to respect one another’s opinions. 

The spectrum axiom of dissent is false. There can be no spectrum of opinions regarding the authentic Catholic faith, for one good reason: Unlike the realms of politics and economics, in the Catholic Church there are final answers to questions about what is the truth revealed in Jesus Christ.

Let’s look at one example of the spectrum virus at work in a recent book by a Catholic theologian. The book is Reconciling Faith and Reason: Apologists, Evangelists and Theologians in a Divided Church (Liturgical Press, 2000) by Thomas P. Rausch, S.J. There is much in this book a loyal Catholic would reject, but our focus will fall on the author’s viral infection.

Now for the symptoms of the spectrum virus. First come labels, which are a hallmark of the virus. Fr. Rausch uses labels freely for Catholic loyalists (not his term): “traditionalist,” “the right,” “conservative,” “very conservative,” “ultraconservative,” and “the Catholic right” to name a few. In several instances he refers to “liberal theologians” or “the left.” One label Fr. Rausch and other dissenters almost never use is “dissenter.” Only once in passing does he speak of “dissent”, never of “dissenter.”

Another characteristic of those infected by the spectrum virus is they seldom if ever draw a line beyond which one ceases to be Catholic. Fr. Rausch never does. He discusses extreme positions, especially among the self-styled “feminists” and makes some valid criticisms. But he never suggests that anybody who claims to be “Catholic” is anything other than that. He acknowledges that on “the left” there are “many today who are openly contemptuous of magisterial authority and particularly papal authority.” Again, “the Catholic left consists of a broad spectrum of positions, movements, and theologies”(2). But in his eyes they are still “Catholic” and must be listened to.

A basic theme among the carriers of the spectrum virus is “pluralism.” Dissenters always appeal to the New Testament in defense of their spectrum, claiming that the early Church was “pluralistic.” “The New Testament,” says Fr. Rausch, “represents not one but many theologies” (17). But he does not distinguish between two kinds of “pluralism.” There is the spectrum type of pluralism we are describing, which involves contradictory views all on the same spectrum.

This is not the pluralism of the New Testament. Its pluralism, and that of Catholic theology down through the ages, is the “facet” type: differing approaches to the same truth, none of them contradictory, all of them complementary.”

The subtitle of Fr. Rausch’s book and the title of its first chapter-“A Divided Church.”-are symptomatic of the spectrum virus. The division he describes exists only along the spectrum he imagines. The Church can never be divided; this is her solemn teaching. There is division within the Church, yes, but it is a division between faithful Catholics and unfaithful Catholics.

On his spectrum Fr. Rausch sees “polarization,” more jargon associated with the spectrum theory. He expresses great concern for finding “middle ground” on which the competing viewpoints can agree. For him the ultimate accolade for a theologian is that he is “mainstream.” To paraphrase an observation of noted theologian and wit Msgr. William Smith, whether being mainstream is a good thing depends on what the stream is and where it’s going. If you’re mainstream in the Niagara River fifty yards above the Falls, you’ve got a problem.

The dissenters even have a place for the pope on their spectrum. Often one hears or reads of someone “disagreeing with the pope,” making rejection of defined Church teaching purely a matter of personal disagreement. An article in the February 2001 issue of Crisis magazine profiled a prominent Catholic writer who has largely lost his faith. He claims, defensively, “Disagreeing with the pope doesn’t disqualify you as a Catholic.” This grievous error is one of the key affirmations of those infected with the spectrum virus.

(That same issue of Crisis contained another illustration of the widespread adoption of the spectrum theory. An advertisement for a forthcoming liturgical conference was described as “Bringing together people from all parts of the theological spectrum to discuss the future of Catholic liturgy and move us closer to the unity all Catholics hope for” [emphasis added].)

Now for the harm the spectrum virus works in those who allow it to enter their thinking.

In May of 1998 Pope John Paul II issued a short apostolic letter, Ad Tuendam Fidem. The letter added to the codes of canon law of the Roman Catholic Church and of the Eastern Catholic Churches clear statements of the obligation to uphold the Church’s teaching. Penalties were specified for those who dissent from the Church’s official teaching. In a commentary on the apostolic letter, speaking for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger made this point: “Whoever denies these truths would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church” (section 6; italics in the St. Paul edition of this commentary).

Why does rejection of one of the Church’s official teachings cut off one’s communion with the Catholic Church? Cardinal Ratzinger does not explain his statement, but the reason for it is not hard to see. Try this analogy.

Suppose it were possible (it isn’t) to summarize all the Church’s official teaching in fifty propositions. Suppose further that a theologian reads down the list and announces that he holds every doctrine except number thirty-two. (If he’s a typical dissenter, the subject matter of number thirty-two will probably be sexual morality.) Then he concludes that on a grading scale, he has a score of ninety-eight. That, he says triumphantly, is an “A” or an “A+” in anyone’s class. So basically he’s a good Catholic-indeed, a “conservative” Catholic.

But look at what has happened. The dissenter has not only rejected one of the Church’s teachings. He has made four other fateful decisions. First, in good dissenter fashion, he has applied the spectrum theory to the whole realm of Catholic teaching.

Second, he has rejected another basic Catholic teaching: namely, that the Church speaks with the authority and guidance of Christ in her official teaching. If in one instance she teaches error (and our dissenter has said that number thirty-two is in error), she obviously does not-indeed, cannot-speak authoritatively in Christ’s name.

Third, he has refused to submit to the Church’s authority and has thereby taken a non-Catholic stance toward everything else the Church teaches. He is saying in effect that he will decide what is authentic Catholicism. He focuses not on belief in the Church’s doctrines but on his own opinions about those doctrines. And that’s why he is no longer in the full communion of the Catholic Church. He may outwardly conform to Catholicism, but inwardly he is Protestant.

Finally, our hypothetical dissenter has started down a slippery slope of disbelief. Few are those who stop with rejecting only one of the Church’s teachings. Inevitably he will, in the spectrum jargon, become more and more “liberal.”

At the heart of all dissent lies the spectrum virus. It works incalculable harm in the lives of countless Catholics. Fr. Rausch quotes a dissident archbishop who has written, evidently approvingly, that the majority of Catholics in his archdiocese “seem to ignore much of the Church’s teaching on sexuality and make their own decisions on many of these questions [contraception, abortion, homosexual behavior, and so on] using common sense” (71; emphasis added).

It is not hard to predict what moral judgments about these issues that unfaithful Catholics will make on the basis of their “common sense.” Does the judgment pronounced in Matthew 18:6 fall on a shepherd who sees his sheep plunging to destruction and does nothing to stop them?

If you want to remain a faithful Catholic, inoculate yourself against the spectrum virus by refusing to use labels. Banish them from your vocabulary. One is either “Catholic” or one is “a dissenter” (to use the current euphemism) or “heterodox” or simply “unfaithful.” There is no “middle ground,” which the Fr. Rausches of the world claim they are trying to establish.

We must pray for dissenters. We must ask for God’s grace to lead them out of the blind alleys of disbelief into which they have stumbled, infected as they are by the spectrum virus. We must pray to be, whenever possible, channels for that grace.


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