No Fidelity Oath Required

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 10/14/2012

It won’t surprise most of you to hear that we Unitarian Universalists do not have the same belief system as the Roman Catholics do.  When I say not the same belief system, though, I mean our denomination doesn’t share a belief system with Catholicism.  I think individual UUs and individual Catholics actually can and do have quite a great deal of overlap.  But as far as the teachings of the churches are concerned, it remains fairly clear that UUs and Catholics don’t have a lot in common.

There are lots of easy ways to describe our differences – in fact, those obvious differences are often what have driven so many Catholics to Unitarian Universalism.  We are often more socially progressive than Catholics, I think it’s safe to say, except sometimes in the area of fighting poverty.  We UUs see sexuality as a holy, positive, and important part of human life, and we teach that to our kids, and I just can’t say the same for the majority of Roman Catholicism. 

And our theology is broader-based than Roman Catholic theology, of course.  We have a far broader range of sources to our collective belief system about the nature of the world than Catholicism  does .  These Sources to which our denomination has agreed can be found in your hymnal, on the pages before hymn number one. Read them over from time to time.  And although you’ll see there that one of our sources is “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves,” it doesn’t take much of a look at Catholicism’s creeds and doxologies to see that Catholicism demands a much more detailed and complex relationship with Christian teachings than we UUs do.

We have quite a number of former Catholics among our UU ranks, and the breadth of our theology is often a particular draw for those who find their way to us.  Sometimes that change happens when the person finds they no longer agree with Catholic teachings, and do agree with ours.  That’s a fairly straightforward reason to change religions.  But I’d say it’s not the most common reason, as straightforward as it is.

What’s more common, I would say, is that a maturing Catholic person starts to have a range of beliefs, some that are consonant with Catholic teachings, and some that aren’t. 

Now, developing a range of personal beliefs is not so unusual, as I think any UU can tell you.  I am always personally surprised, frankly, when all of any one person’s beliefs fall neatly into the teachings of one religion.  But that’s what makes me a UU, right there, right?  It’s not about whether I believe any one particular thing about God, or don’t believe.  It’s more that I think that any given person, given the opportunity, is going to come up with a whole bunch of beliefs that are probably going to be different from the beliefs of the person sitting beside them. 

And what’s more than that, as a Unitarian Universalist religious person, I think all those different beliefs are okay.  Not only okay, actually – I want to continue to go to church with all those people with all those different beliefs!  That’s Unitarian Universalism. In Unitarian Universalism, we don’t let differences in our beliefs get in the way of being a church together.

This is not the case for Roman Catholicism these days, at least in Arlington, Virginia.  A situation emerged there last summer that does a great job of showing what I think is the core difference between Catholicism and Unitarian Universalism.

As you may know, the American Roman Catholic church overall has been trending more conservative in recent years, and apparently the Arlington diocese has historically been one of the most conservative of all.  The Washington Post reported last July that the Arlington diocese had taken a new step to maintain religious orthodoxy:  the diocese sent out a letter to all 5000 Sunday School and parochial school teachers requiring them to submit, “of will and intellect,” to all of the teachings of church leaders.  This fidelity oath requirement caused several Sunday school teachers at St. Ann’s parish in particular to resign.

This new requirement, the fidelity oath, in Arlington joins, in intent, the new requirements sent to other volunteer and staff leaders of Catholic organizations across the country, such as the one in Oakland, California that calls for those reaching out to gay and lesbian Catholics in the area to “affirm and believe” church teaching on marriage, hell and chastity, even if those beliefs contradict the work the organization is doing.  In its intent, the new requirement in Arlington is also like the letter sent to Catholic workers in Baker, Oregon, requiring them to agree with a particular statement on abortion. The statement with which they are to agree is this:  “I do not recognize the legitimacy of anyone’s claim to a moral right to form their own conscience in this matter.”

I do not recognize the legitimacy of anyone’s claim of a right to form their own conscience in this matter.  That’s what the Catholics of Baker, Oregon, are supposed to swear.  There is no room for individual conscience on the matter of abortion.

Can you imagine anything less UU than that statement?  It is the sentiment conveyed by this statement, I think, more than any other, that illustrates the starkness of the difference between Unitarian Universalist and Catholic teaching.  This statement illustrates the difference between us far more than any disagreement about the presence of God or the divinity of Jesus or the necessity of the Communion ceremony or the primacy of infant baptism.  Because a UU church or a UU could potentially have or believe in any of those things, really.  But what a UU church will never do, even with all our potential theological diversity, it will never ask you to revoke your right to form a moral decision based on what your own conscience tells you is right. 


Our belief in your right to follow your own conscience is written into our denominational Principles.  Take a look at them, in your hymnal again or on the back of your order of service.  Some people have suggested that we look at the order of our principles like a tent, with the first and the seventh Principle as the foundation, and the middle ones as the pinnacle of our beliefs.  The middle principles tell us that we affirm and promote a free and responsible search for our own truth and meaning.  And we believe in the use of the right of conscience, not only in our own hearts, but in our congregations and society at large.

It is this right to individual conscience that does not appear in much of the Catholic Church’s official teaching at present.

This, to me, is an extremely important difference between us and Catholicism, much more important than the actual content of any individual opinion that either of our religions might have on any subject.  Because what does it matter what particular opinion you end up with at the end of the day, if the process by which you decide what is right and what is wrong is faulty? 

Any particular UU might have an opinion on abortion that is very close to the standard Catholic line, or very different from it.  What’s more important to me as a UU than what that opinion is, is that the person who was forming their opinion had the opportunity to exercise his or her own moral judgment. This is a clear difference from much of Roman Catholic teaching.  I would say this difference, the right to individual conscience, is what really brings Catholics to our doors.  It’s like they get in here and they can breathe.  I’ve seen a lot of former Catholics like that here.

Now, this exalting of the right of individual conscience that we do, as much of a refreshing change as it can be, is it a perfect way to be?  Is it problem-free, easy-going, the solution to all our troubles?  Well, no, it isn’t.  And a decent critique of our system comes, inadvertently, from this same Washington Post article, from Rev. Paul deLadurantaye of Arlington, when he defends this letter requiring the fidelity oath from teachers.  He makes a good point when he says,
“The church’s teaching is meant to be a service, not to coerce or oppress…[The fidelity oath says]…that the church is a reliable guide, more reliable in these matters than what I read elsewhere.  There’s something more transcendent than just my own judgment.”

There’s something more transcendent than just my own judgment.  I think that’s true.

This is an important statement for UUs to remember, in the midst of all of the individual-consciencing that we like to do.  Because we UUs can fall into the trap of believing that what we already think, as individuals, is inherently of merit, probably of more merit than what groups of other people we don’t know have decided.  We can tend to think that if we don’t personally agree with something, or we haven’t had the opportunity to give it much thought, then that thing isn’t of much use.  This tendency is the unfortunate flip-side of our belief in the right of individual conscience.

This sort of thinking is not only arrogant, but it’s inherently limiting.  There is in fact much, much in the world that is more transcendent than our own judgment, that’s for sure.  Even for a people who believe that one’s individual conscience ought to be the final decision maker, there is still much more that is transcendent and from which we can learn.

But what?  I think it’s important to ask.  What is more transcendent than my own conscience?

The Catholic position is that Roman Catholic Church teaching, church doctrine, as expressed by Catholic bishops, is the thing that’s more transcendent, and with that I simply cannot agree as a rule.  It’s tricky to tease out, because much of what the Church has said for the past couple of thousand years has been indeed wrapped up in that which is authentically more transcendent than my own conscience. 

But, as anyone with any experience with powerful groups of people in general, and the Catholic church in particular, can tell you, the human leaders of powerful groups can be very, very wrong about matters of extreme importance.  And all the more so when those leaders believe they are speaking for God, and when they have a lot of control over large groups of people. 

This is why we UUs like to err on the side of believing the little guy’s conscience first, before we believe the large group of powerful, potentially wrong people.  If one person’s judgment is off, there’s only so much harm that person can do.  When the Catholic Church’s judgment is off, which is has been many, many times in ancient and recent history and in current times, there’s a huge amount of damage that can be done. 

But that doesn’t solve our UU problem of where to turn when our own judgment, our own much-exalted conscience, is not transcendent enough for the need at hand.  We want to throw out the bathwater of too much human control and domination, but let’s not also throw out the baby of a support system that is bigger than we are and can help us when we’re in need, or a grounding, encompassing spiritual understanding that can comfort us when times are tough.  We shouldn’t even throw out the accumulated wisdom of the generations of people who have gone before us, the ones who are recognized in our UU Sources: the men and women who confronted evil with justice, compassion and love.  We UUs need all of that foundation, just as the Catholics do.  We do, at times, need to transcend our own judgment, with faith, with community, and even, at times, with the wise teachings of the group to which we belong.

Still, we UUs know that there are times in each of our lives when we can be in the middle of some big problem or decision or situation and the little voice inside of us lets us know that something is off beam.  We UUs know that this little voice of ours, once recognized and followed, is strong enough to help us resist many a situation where everyone else in the world seems to agree on something that is terribly, terribly wrong.  Many people of faith, historically and today, UUs and Catholics too, believe that the little voices of our individual consciences are indeed part of the broad voice of God, the same God that the Catholic bishops suggest can best be described by them, and no questions asked.

So, when you are called upon to make a decision about whether something is right or is wrong, do go ahead and reach towards those things that are greater than you are.  Reach for the insight of the sages, and the earthy knowledge of your human community.  Reach for your faith, and what the holiest things you know can tell you.  But we also hope, if you are a UU, that you’ll also always listen for that still small voice within, the voice of conscience.  We believe that you have been created to follow a path and a wisdom that perhaps only you can hear, but you can do no less than follow that path if you are to be true to yourself and your Creator.  It is right to rejoice in that freedom of conscience, Unitarian Universalists, because it is one of the paths to knowledge and to peace.

May the consciences with which each of us were born grow and develop into true guides for our lives and for our world, not confined by arrogance or limitation, but a rudder for navigating the challenges we’ll always find all around us.  And may we UUs, flawed as we sometimes can be, also find a way to be a guide to the world in the ways in which a great diversity of beliefs and opinions, born of our holy individual consciences, can be brought together with integrity and with love.