It has long been an unfortunate admission among Catholic Christians that they are not as biblically literate as their Protestant counterparts. Professor Gary Gutting, writing for the New York Times, makes good on this mark in a remarkable piece about why Catholics have no particular reason why they should listen to what “the bishops and the minority of Catholics who support their full authority” have to say. In fact, (he feels comfortable saying for the rest) “Most Catholics…now reserve the right to reject doctrines insisted on by their bishops and to interpret in their own way the doctrines that they do accept.”
Gutting claims, just because the minority of Catholics believe bishops have divine authority, and the basis for this divine authority is not more obvious than, say, his divine authority, we should be wary of what the bishops require:
“It makes no sense to say that the bishops themselves can decide this, that we should accept their religious authority because they say God has given it to them. If this were so, anyone proclaiming himself a religious authority would have to be recognized as one. From where, then, in our democratic, secular society does such recognition properly come? It could, in principle, come from some other authority, like the secular government. But we have long given up the idea (“cujus regio, ejus religio”) that our government can legitimately designate the religious authority in its domain. But if the government cannot determine religious authority, surely no lesser secular power could. Theological experts could tell us what the bishops have taught over the centuries, but this does not tell us whether these teachings have divine authority.”
Gutting then proceeds to unload the cartridge of biblical illiteracy:
“Ultimately the claim is that this authority derives from God. But since we live in a human world in which God does not directly speak to us, we need to ask, Who decides that God has given, say, the bishop his authority?…In our democratic society the ultimate arbiter of religious authority is the conscience of the individual believer. It follows that there is no alternative to accepting the members of a religious group as themselves the only legitimate source of the decision to accept their leaders as authorized by God. They may be wrong, but their judgment is answerable to no one but God. In this sense, even the Catholic Church is a democracy.”
There you have it. Because bishops’ authority is up for grabs, “above all…in matters of sexual morality, especially birth control,” we should have recourse to our own self-determined authority.