Is a catechist Catholic?

Tracy A. Woodward THE WASHINGTON POST Alison Carroll holds a copy of the Profession of Faith on Tuesday July 5th, … Continued

Tracy A. Woodward


Alison Carroll holds a copy of the Profession of Faith on Tuesday July 5th, 2012.

For a Catholic reader of the Post, it was a pretty stunning story to see so prominently on the July 12 front page. With the print headline “Parishioners question need for fidelity oaths,” one is made to wonder whether some parish priest somewhere is exacting supine obedience from the hapless folks in the pews. To Catholics who accept the teachings of the church (should that really be redundant?), the oath, it turns out, is a welcome return to orthodoxy.

The story concerned a small number—just five, it seems—of the 5,000 Sunday school teachers in the half-million-strong Catholic diocese of Arlington, who decided to hand in their resignations rather than take an oath, promulgated by Bishop Paul Loverde in May, that they affirm their own personal belief in the religious teachings they were responsible for passing on to their young charges.

From the first lines of the story, one could tell that Bishop Loverde had done the right thing. We immediately meet one of the former teachers: “Kathleen Riley knows her beliefs on the male-only priesthood and contraception put her at odds with leaders of her church.”

If Ms. Riley knows she is “at odds” with her church’s central doctrines on such matters of faith and morals, then she should not be at all surprised to find herself no longer a Sunday school teacher. Bishop Loverde’s oath is not an “alarming effort,” as “liberal Catholics” believe, to “stamp out debate” in the church. It is an effort, by the prelate responsible for the teaching of Catholic doctrine to half a million people, to control the curriculum and pedagogy when that doctrine is taught to impressionable children.

Ms. Riley is quite right that “the Holy Spirit gives us the responsibility to look into our own consciences.” This is just the responsibility the bishop is exercising. But if Ms. Riley has looked into her own conscience and concluded that the church is wrong about the male-only priesthood and contraception, she does not have the right to teach those contrary conclusions as though they are part of Catholic doctrine, or a valid alternative to Catholic doctrine, or a meaningful contribution to the Catholic conversation, in a doctrinal curriculum for children learning about the faith.

This does not mean she should leave the Catholic Church. It does not mean anyone is casting her into a lower circle marked “bad Catholics.” It does mean that the dissenting view of Ms. Riley, which she is of course welcome to discuss with her pastor at any time (and not just in the confessional) has no place in the Sunday school classroom. What happens in that classroom belongs to the church, as the body of Christ, not to Ms. Riley, and the bishop is the man responsible for the integrity of the body of teachings that inform the body of Christ.

(Editor’s note: The catechists said in interviews that their issue is not with conveying official church teaching to students, but with being required to sign a fidelity oath.)

Professor Rosemarie Zagarri of George Mason University, another former St. Ann’s teacher who would not take the oath, takes particular offense at the idea that catechists must (as the bishop’s “oath” puts it) “adhere with religious submission of will and intellect” to everything the church authoritatively teaches (which is not the same as every memo from the diocese). She calls this being “willing to go against the dictates of her conscience.” But in fact she is simply being screened regarding the contents of her conscience, which is not the same thing.

Again, the conscience whose activity matters here is the one belonging to the bishop, representing the whole church. Catholics do not believe that the conscience is mere “intuition” or “gut feeling” about what seems right to us. It is a well-formed moral sense, partaking of both reason and faith—very heavy on the reason, in fact. And it is not something that should, in the Catholic view, vary widely from one individual to the next. A well-formed conscience is formed by, and is in accord with, the two-millennia-old Magisterium, the “deposit of faith.” This is what is meant by the “religious submission” referred to in the “Profession of Faith” required by the bishop. (See Bishop Loverde’s letter, and the profession of faith, here in an On Faith follow-up blog.) Some parts of the church’s teaching are harder for each of us than others are. But the church asks us to set aside our doubts willingly, and to express our solidarity with what the whole church declares itself to believe.

It’s notable that most of the Profession of Faith required by the bishop to be said aloud by the catechists, in public at a Mass, consists of the text of the Nicene Creed, which is said on most Sundays by everyone in the pews. Everything in the rest of the signed oath for catechists is simply an inference from one of the lines in that creed: “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.”

The “apostolic church”—that’s a reference to the Catholic belief that our bishops are successors of the Apostles who were the first members and leaders of the church. As one of the successors of Peter and the other apostles, Bishop Loverde has acted conscientiously, and all of Arlington’s catechists must do likewise. If one can happily say and sign the profession, one is a catechist. If one cannot, one is not. No one is imposed upon. Are people who cannot say “I do” to the church screened out? You bet. That’s the point, and a very good one it is.

Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.

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  • amelia45

    This is almost unbelievable to me.

    Catholics – no thinking allowed or even necessary. Just listen to whatever the Church tells you. So what if Monsignor Lynn transferred paedophile priests around – he obeyed, radically. So what if bishops and cardinals lied to officials when they were questioned about child abuse. What do police and district attorneys matter … and a few abused children … or money transfers in Vatican banks.

    Trust them. They did not lie about a Catholic belief. All you have to do is “firmly accept and hold each and every thing definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals…” and “… adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.”

  • nkri401

    I thought the Bishops were for the religious freedom??

  • Osasco

    Is a journalist a journal?

  • Paul Christopher Lim

    If you send your kids to Catholic Sunday school, then you want Catholic – not what some random lady wants to teach. Teachers follow a cirriculum. A math teacher must teach that 2+2=4, even if she thinks the real answer is 3. If you want to teach Catholicism, then be a catechist. If you want to teach something else, then you won’t be doing it a Catholic Sunday school.

  • PhillyJimi1

    Osasco, I don’t care if it was 200 years ago. The church failed it’s most fundamental morality test by covering up the abuse scandal. We’re not talking about isolated cases but a systematic cover up. I used to be Catholic but renounced my association with the church when I was presented with the facts. I considered it the ONLY moral thing I could do. If you believe in a judgment day, you may want to reconsider the ramifications of continuing to support an obviously immoral institution who didn’t care about protecting the most vulnerable members of the human race.

  • Secular1

    Mr. Lim your assertion is silly, as it gets. In case of mathematics & science it is not an individual’s opinion that is being paraded, as in sunday school. 2+2 = 4 is not pulled out south end of a north bound mule. While, trinity or virgin births are exactly that and contrary to general observation. So when I insist that my child be taught 2 + 2 = 4 that is on solid ground and the dean’s expectation too. Where, as the same is not true in case of some silly stuff taught in sunday school.

  • Rpreston127

    I notice almost weekly the church bulletin asking for volunteers for religious instruction. There seems to be a real shortage of teachers
    willing to give their time or is it an unwillingness to teach something with which they cannot agree.

  • ashooner

    This reminds me of the GW Bush “With me or against me” diplomacy that worked out so well.

  • ashooner

    I guess the RCC has dealt with this before (and relatively recently, too). Benedict XV says:

    “It is, moreover, Our will that Catholics should abstain from certain appellations which have recently been brought into use to distinguish one group of Catholics from another. They are to be avoided not only as “profane novelties of words,” out of harmony with both truth and justice, but also because they give rise to great trouble and confusion among Catholics. Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected: “This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly; he cannot be saved” (Athanas. Creed). There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim “Christian is my name and Catholic my surname,” only let him endeavour to be in reality what he calls himself.

  • lynnman1

    They are asking them to only teach what is agreement with the Catholic faith. If they have personal feelings that are contrary – they should not be indoctrinating children they are teaching with there own personal feelings in these areas. Is that really a lot to ask?

  • lynnman1

    PhillyJim – the Church did NOT fail its morality test. There was a scandal precisely because individuals in the Church did not follow the teachings of the faith. Individuals sin but the Church was not created by man, it was created by Christ and the Holy Spirit was sent to guide the Church in the fullness of truth – that is what they are asking the teachers to teach, not everything any particular Bishop says.

  • MeriJ

    Wise words indeed.

  • MeriJ

    These women were not teaching those ideas. They were required to state a public purity oath that they don’t THINK any of these ideas privately. Birth control and women as priests were mentioned specifically in their case, by them and by the author above.

  • MeriJ

    Q: When are purity oaths required? A: When intolerant, authoritarian personalities gain control of institutions.

    The history of the church is full of light and compassion, balanced by the usual dark eras and acts of evil you expect of any powerful organization run by human beings. The alphas who are naturally drawn to leadership roles in organizations are often power-hungry and political. It’s just human nature. The church has maintained balance for a long time now, based on tolerance, humility and compassion. This purity oath is how those dark eras begin.

  • john1513

    Except, “Catholic or non-Catholic.” It’s good to know which you are.

  • john1513

    Asking Catholics believe Catholicism: liberals are scandalized.

  • mikestech

    Well said, and a rare sensible opinion in the Washington Post On Faith page. The issue here isn’t what the catechists believe; it’s what the parents who send their children to CATHOLIC Sunday school expect their children to be taught — authentic Catholic doctrine. If these teachers don’t adhere to Catholic doctrine, they shouldn’t be teaching it.

  • IntellectOne

    “liberals are scandalized’, good get out because the Catholic Church does not need any Judases. Go Go Go……..

  • DearbornGuy

    Heavens! The bishop is asking Catholic Sunday School teachers to actually believe in and teach … Catholicism? What’s next? Asking Catholic grade school and high school teachers to do the same? What is this world coming to? Must have been a slow news day in Wash DC to find a handful of Sunday school teachers out of 5,000 who can’t put up with a simple thing like defending and teaching their Faith.

  • CCD Teacher

    I guess I am wondering why these teachers felt the need to have this a public discussion. Either they are prepared to sign the Oath or not.
    They cannot teach what they do not possess. It is a very simple position.
    They don’t believe so they should not teach.

  • amelia45

    So every Catholic who uses contraceptives or whose spouse uses a contraceptive should not teach. Every Catholic who really does believe that as a civil matter, gay people should be able to “marry” and have the same rights as straight people – should not teach. And every Catholic who can’t see any reason why women can’t be priests or priests should not be able to marry – should not teach. And God help any teacher who uses artificial insemination to be able to have a child. What else? Are those who support the Affordable Care Act because of all the good it does and despite the issue of contraceptives, are they allowed to teach? How many do you think are left? How many robots are there in the world?

  • IowaMike

    By golly amelia45 I think you’ve got it. Why would the Church allow anyone who doesn’t believe its doctrine to oversee the faith formation of children. You can believe whatever you want that is between you, God and your confessor but I don’t want you heterodox/heretical views taught to my children.

    The Church views:

    a. contraception as an intrisic evil….infallible doctrine…see Humanae Vitae.

    b. homosexual relationships as disordered and intrinsically evil…infallible doctrine…..supported by Scripture and the Magesterium.

    c. the priesthood is reserved for men….infallible teaching….confirmed by Pope John Paul II in his Apostalic Letter, ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’. In the letter His Holiness speaks from the Chair of Peter and writes, “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

    d. artificial contraception as a moral evil for too many reasons to mention here….it is infallible and will not change to suit pop-culture.

    c. the Affordable Care Act an infringement upon religious liberty because it forces people to violate their religious beliefs to say nothing about the unacceptablility using contraceptives and abortifacients.

    In short, I sure wouldn’t want someone like you teaching the Catholic religion simply because you don’t believe it yourself.

    Good luck with you relativistic views.

  • IowaMike


    Q. When are purity (fidelity) oaths required? A. When poorly formed Catholic’s and Catholic dissidents try to undermine Church teachings by teaching their own heterodox/heretical views rather than the doctrine of the Church. What’s wrong with the Church putting teachers to the test through a fidelity oath….good job I’d say and it will root out the ‘honest’ non-believers but unfortunately will not root out the dissidents who will sign but not comply.

  • IowaMike


    Please Google the Decrees of Vatican I (the last doctrinal counsel). Go to Chapter 3 on Faith, paragraph 8. It spells out emphatically what a Catholic must believe to be Catholic. If you are suggesting that a person who believes contraception or abortion or homosexual marriage or cloning or In Vetro Fertilization et al are just ducky can successfully teach Catholic doctrine that condemns them is just plain dishonest.

  • IowaMike


    Don’t send you kid to Sunday school then

  • IowaMike


    Ignorance is bliss. You condemn the entire Church and all priests, all bishops the pope et. al. for the actions of less than 4.5% of all priests? Then you best get you kids out of the public school system because the abuse rate is 150X that of the CC at the peak of the abuse problem. The Church has always had bad people in it and always will.

    I don’t know why you are so angry and you’re free to say what-ever-you-like. But when you attack the Church beliefs you are flat wrong. Christ gave us these truths; He established the priesthood; He established the Magesterum; He entrusted the interpretation and teaching to the bishops….’dem is the da facts. What Christ taught/teaches is truth….truth is immutable….it does not change and you can’t change it because you’re angry.

  • IowaMike


    You would serve yourself well if you studied the difference between a well-formed and mal-formed conscience. This oath is completely within Catholic teaching.

  • ThomasBaum

    Doesn’t God becoming One of us have something to do with Salvation?

  • ThomasBaum

    I am not here to serve myself, I am here to at least attempt to do what God chose me to do.

  • MeriJ

    Mike, you really think that a person is not qualified to teach the faith unless they agree that birth control is a sin and that god didn’t want woman to be priests?

    This isn’t about whether they teach views inconsistent with the above. They have to swear that they fully believe them privately. It’s a mean of ensuring that only people aligned with the right wing of the church are allowed positions of leadership.

  • MeriJ

    Mike, no one disputes what you have written. But I would suggest that in real life terms, some of these sins are in different categories than others. Abortion is hardly in the same bucket as women priests or contraception, for example. By your logic, if one cannot be a true Catholic unless one believes contraception is a sin, how many Catholics would you guess there really are in the United States? In the past, there was tolerance on the lesser issues. This is a crackdown by the intolerant.

  • nkri401


    Please and please excommunicate all those Catholics that have used contraceptives or masturbated. NO EXCEPTIONS. Otherwise, you Bishops are condoning these “intrinsically evil acts”.

    Happy IwoaMike and IntellectOne?

  • Tancred2


    when you try to make something funny, it should at least be partially true.

    The sins you’re describing are not serious enough to merit excommunication, but procuring or receiving an abortion are excommunicable offenses.

  • nkri401


    You should read IowaMike and IntellectOne…

    BTW – why should a good Catholic pick and choose what to follow and not depending on seriousness of the offense?

  • Banyansmom

    MeriJ, that’s not what the oath requires. If it required “the assent of faith” to the teachings of the ordinary Magisterium, it *would* require that those taking the oath *believe* that contraception is a sin. By contrast, “religious submission of will and intellect” is a recognition that those divinely charged with safeguarding the deposit of faith have concluded that artificial contraception is incompatible with that deposit, and while the person taking the oath may have serious reservations about that teaching, s/he accepts the validity of the teaching based on the authority of those teaching it.

  • Banyansmom

    There is a difference between sinning, since we’re all sinners, and believing that the sin isn’t a sin.

  • ThomasBaum

    The question: Is a catechist Catholic?

    Maybe something that we should give a little thought too: Is a Catholic catholic?

    Sometimes I wonder just who will be more surprised when they meet God, those that believe in God or those that don’t believe in God.

  • muusk

    As one of the catechists in the Arlington diocese who resigned (and there are many, many more than those mentioned in the article), I must clarify that these catechists were devout Catholics who would have been more than willing to sign a document attesting that their teaching would conform completely to church teachings. Good catechists teach history and doctrine, not opinions. There is a great deal of material to be covered in Sunday religious education, and there is no reason why anyone should be wandering off into personal opinions or politics. It was rare that anything the least bit controversial came up in class, but I was always prepared to answer any question on church teaching accurately and thoroughly, whether or not I had private reservations or concerns of my own (“The Church teaches that…” ). If I was ever stumped, the DRE was always available to help. As a representative of the church, I took my responsibility to communicate correct church doctrine very seriously, and I lived my life in a way that was completely consistent with those teachings. However, I believe firmly that I may not, as a Catholic, promise “submission of will and intellect” to anyone but God. This oath does nothing to improve understanding of doctrine among catechists and nothing to seek assurance that the catechists will refrain from bringing personal, private opinions into class. Those catechists who have no idea that what they are teaching is wrong — for example, the catechist who told my son’s class that Catholicism endorsed capital punishment due to the biblical “eye for an eye” — will cheerfully sign the oath and continue their incorrect teaching, yet those who can very clearly articulate Inter Insigniories (the Vatican document which lays out the Church’s argument for a male-only priesthood), but who harbor private doubts which they would only share with a spouse or close friend, know that they cannot in good conscience sign a document pledging unquestioning “belief” and