Questioning the moral authority of the Catholic church

The Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas recently decided to sever its ties with the Girl Scouts. Instead, the Archdiocese will support the American Heritage Girls troops, which is a Christian-based scouting program. It is decisions like this which alienate me from my Catholic faith and make me question why I should invest much time or energy in organized religion in general.


I was raised in a Catholic family, where we were proud that two of my uncles were priests and one of my aunts was a nun. My father attended Catholic seminary and wanted to be a Maryknoll missionary, before he eventually got a doctorate in Ancient Near Eastern language and became a professor of religion. As a child, I religiously went to church every Sunday. From my background, you would assume that I would be a proud Catholic, but I rarely attend church and only nominally call myself Catholic. Over and over, I find myself questioning the moral authority of leaders like Kansas City’s Archbishop Robert Carlson, who was the leader in the decision to sever ties with the Girl Scouts. These types of decisions make me very reluctant to invest any time in the church. Frankly, I get more spiritual uplift out of environmental activism than going to church. Most of the people who I meet in environmental groups are atheists, but I often find that I have more in common with their moral values than people who call themselves Christians.

From the article it appears that abortion was the central issue driving this decision, which is very frustrating, because the anti-abortion activism currently found in the Catholic Church is based on a very narrow understanding of morality. Morality is about applying a principal to a real-life situations, which means that there are often competing principals at play which need to be weighed. Catholic anti-abortion activists pretend that that abortion is a black and white moral decision, but it isn’t that simple, even when starting from the principal of respect for life, not to mention the other principles that are involved in the decision. The failure of Catholic leaders like Archbishop Carlson to understand the moral complexity of abortion makes me question their claims to moral authority.

To be a principled advocate for life means to also be against war, against the death penalty, for aiding refugees, and for economic and political policies which reduce death from malnutrition and poverty. I respect Catholics like Pope Francis who are morally consistent on these issues, but the majority of the Catholic anti-abortion activists are moral hypocrites when it comes to respect for life.

When I was involved in organizing against the war in Iraq over a decade ago on the campus of Indiana University, not a single anti-abortion activist showed up to our protests. When asking anti-abortion activists why they aren’t also protesting the fact that the US is currently bombing in 7 different countries, they will generally give responses that highlight their moral blindness to the issue. The more thoughtful ones will acknowledge the moral contradiction, but say that it is not a black and white situation, so they can’t take a stand against the US wars in the MiddleEast. From my point of view, abortion has far more shades of gray, than the current US policy of bombing and drone strikes that kills 90% civilians.

The greatest moral crisis facing humanity today is climate change, yet the Catholic church and Christianity in general was generally tone deaf to the issue for a quarter century after climate scientists came to a consensus on anthropogenic climate change in the late 1980s. It was only with the election of Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis in March 2013 and the publication of his papal encyclical Laudato Si in May 2015, that the Catholic church began to seriously respond to the moral crisis. With Pope Francis now raising many of the moral issues that the Church largely ignored under John Paul II and Benedict, I find it easier to call myself a Catholic now-a-days.

The Catholic church’s position on birth control, however, is one of the reasons why the planet is barreling toward an ecological crisis that potentially threatens most of life on the planet. If so-called “respect for life” leads us to a global population of 12 billion by the end of the century as the UN predicts, and a failing ecosystem where half of all species are liable to go extinct, then we clearly need to adjust our moral principles. Pope Francis has done an admirable job of addressing part of the ecological crisis by asking wealthy Catholics to stop over-consuming, but this was not paired with a matching call to reexamine what respect for life means in a planet facing overpopulation and collapsing ecosystems.

Birth control is one of the moral issues where I frankly disagree with the leadership of the Catholic church and I find it very disheartening to read the pronouncements of Catholic leaders. Mostly, however, I simply feel indifferent to whatever the bishops say on birth control, just like many other moral issues. When I see gaping holes in their reasoning, I ask why I should bother paying any attention to their pronouncements. Hopefully, the parents of children in the Kansas City Diocese will come to a similar decision as well and ignore the benighted pronouncements of their Archbishop on the Girl Scouts.

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