Go look it up!

Whenever we had a question about something we were learning in school, my dad had this annoying response--go look it up! When we were young, he purchased a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and said he did it so that we would have somewhere to go to find the answer to whatever questions we were asking. This was annoying to us because it was just so much easier to get the answer right there and then. The whole point of asking, though we never admitted this, was to avoid the work of finding the answer ourselves.

Of course, parents get smarter as their kids grow up. I see the wisdom in my dad’s advice. I’m no longer annoyed, though in giving the same advice to my daughter, I admit that I’ve become annoying.

Today, getting answers is less laborious in the world of the World Wide Web. The tradeoff is that we have to be more careful, more alert about inaccuracies and falsehoods, more discerning about sources, when we use Google, consult Wikipedia, or hunt through the blogs. A year or so ago, someone sent me a news story indicating that Pope Benedict had snuck into this country and took his first ride on a roller coaster in New Jersey. I looked up the source and verified my suspicion--it was from The Onion, an online journal of satire.

The beauty of the Internet, however, is that all kinds of official documents are now available through computers and cell phones with online access. Organizations ranging from the United Nations to the neighborhood pizzeria, as well as Encyclopedia Britannica, publish as a matter of course their own materials ranging from annual reports to carryout menus on their own Web sites, making their organizationally approved content widely available.

Not long ago, I got into an extended discussion with someone about why the Catholic Church does not allow women to be priests. Go look it up! And I did. A quick Google search brought up “Inter Insigniores,” a declaration on the question of admission of women to the ministerial priesthood, issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1976. Sad to say, in all of my years of Catholic education, I had never read the document or the excellent follow-up commentary by the same office.

It struck me upon reading these documents just how important sexual difference, and the anthropological reality of being human through two means, male and female, are to the Church’s sacramental understanding of the priesthood. As this column has indicated in the past, the same regard for sexual difference and the male and female identities plays a central role in the Church’s understanding of marriage and sexual attraction.

One of the elements of the teaching in “Inter Insigniores” is that holy orders, being a sacrament, must contain within it a sign that is “perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease.” The Church understands the ministry of the priest to be the unique sign of Jesus, truly present. That is, “the bishop or the priest, in the exercise of his ministry, does not act in his own name; he represents Christ, who acts through him.” To be effective as supernatural signs, the sacraments must “represent what they signify by natural resemblance.” Jesus “was and remains a man.” Thus, the presence of Jesus in the priesthood is obscured in a fundamental respect if the priest is not also a man.

There is much more to the argument for a male-only priesthood, of course. The example itself that Jesus gave, in calling only men to the sacramental priesthood, has exerted probably the greatest bearing on Catholic teaching in this area. And the text of “Inter Insigniores” explains carefully that it is not any supposed attribute of superiority that recommends men for the priesthood. Yet, the teaching’s reference to the male identity of Jesus, as something more than an incidental biological fact, gives credence to, as the Sacred Congregation put it, the belief that “in human beings the difference of sex exercises an important influence, much deeper than, for example, ethnic differences.”

Whether or not one agrees with Church teaching on women priests is not the point of my bringing it up. I agree with the Church’s position on this matter, but until only very recently I had not taken the time to actually go look up the seminal document and study it. Unfortunately, I’m not alone in my tardiness. All too many of us have missed out on the opportunity to “go look it up” when it comes to grappling with some element of our faith. Those who attack what the Church teaches should know just what it is that they are opposing. Those who promote what the Church believes should be at least as familiar with the official documents as any well-prepared opponent will be.

So, let me be annoyingly insistent--go look it up! Your faith and intellect will be nurtured, challenged, and improved. With the ready accessibility of official Church documents online, there’s no more excuse not to.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference