My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
It was disappointing to see a gratuitous slap at the Catholic Church in a column published on April 7, the day before Easter, in the local secular newspaper, The State Journal-Register. Easter should be a time for all Christians to rejoice in their shared belief in the Lord's resurrection, yet the Episcopalian priest-columnist Tom Ehrich took the occasion to write divisively, "In the Roman Catholic Church, where central control is everything, a wave of decentralized thinking is threatening Rome's control over congregations, personal practices and even doctrine." His point was that the Catholic Church threatens his view of what he calls "free thinking." He claims that the method of the Messiah was to encourage "freedom from all constraints."
Unfortunately, these views distort the teachings of the Catholic Church as well as the message of Jesus. It is a rather jaundiced view to claim that "central control is everything" in the Catholic Church and that there even is such a thing as "Rome's control over congregations." With over a billion Catholics in the world, anyone vaguely familiar with the Catholic Church would know the impossibility of even trying to "control" all of them.
Certainly doctrine must derive from authority, otherwise by definition it is not doctrine. In contrast, a "freethinker" is one who, by definition, has rejected authority and dogma. It is noteworthy that the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), identifies a new mental illness called "oppositional defiant disorder" or ODD. Defined as an "ongoing pattern of disobedient, hostile and defiant behavior," symptoms include questioning authority, negativity, defiance, argumentativeness, and being easily annoyed.
The Catholic Encyclopedia defines free-thinkers as, "Those who, abandoning the religious truths and moral dictates of the Christian Revelation, and accepting no dogmatic teaching on the ground of authority, base their beliefs on the unfettered findings of reason alone. Free-thought, of which they make a profession, is an exaggerated form, though a quite logical development of the doctrine of private judgment in religious matters." These heretical views were condemned by the church, but this has not prevented people from rejecting the teachings of the Catholic Church. Such Christians are called Protestants.
Both Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have taught that the church does not impose, but freely proposes the faith. The Catholic Church recognizes that for faith to be meaningful it must be freely embraced. The Second Vatican Council taught that every type of proselytism that forces, induces or entices someone to embrace the faith by unworthy devices is strictly forbidden (cf. Ad Gentes, n. 13).
It is also a distortion of the message of Jesus himself to say that he encouraged "freedom from all constraints." Jesus saved the woman caught in adultery from being stoned to death and refused to join in her condemnation, but he sent her on her way with the admonition to "sin no more" (John 7:53-8:11). Jesus also said, "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17).
God gave us the Ten Commandments. Jesus gave us clear teachings. The Catholic Church proposes the faith handed down by Scripture and Tradition. As Pope Benedict XVI has said, "A person can open himself to the faith after mature and responsible reflection and must be able to achieve this intimate inspiration freely. This is not only for the individual's benefit but indeed for that of the whole of society, for the faithful observance of the divine precepts is helpful in building a more just and supportive coexistence."
May God give us this grace. Amen.