Q:What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn't this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith?
Religion poses many tests of conscience. This isn't a drawback. If anything, it's one of the reasons organized faith exists. But of course there are extremes of opinion about how acceptable it is to disagree with church doctrine. My insistence that religion must teach people how to think about God for themselves would be seen as extreme -- or even heretical -- by those at the opposite end of the spectrum. We've witnessed the tide of tolerance ebb and flow in the Catholic Church. We've seen gay Episcopal bishops advance in a liberal climate only to cause a schism among conservatives.
Millions of people have left the church, or quietly rebelled while keeping their place in the pew, because they feel too confined by dogma. Is this hypocrisy? Of course it can be, as witness the "good Catholics" who practice birth control. Not that they are to be singled out. Millions of gay worshipers in every denomination are forced to walk a fine line between what they do and what they are told to believe.
In a healthy climate this tension gives rise to reform. Battles of conscience come to the surface instead of remaining hidden, and although not every battle leads to progress, progress requires a fight when it comes to organized faiths. In India the fight may be over the caste system; in Judaism it may be over marrying outside the faith or giving up orthodox rules about the Sabbath. The dividing line between hypocrisy and reform is drawn by silence. If you silently go along with what is wrong -- however you define wrong -- then you are verging on hypocrisy. If you speak out, you are inciting reform.
And attracting hostility at the same time. After 9/11 there was an interfaith gathering in Yankee Stadium that had a tremendous healing effect. Yet some participants, because they came from rigidly fundamentalist congregations, were condemned merely for appearing on stage with members of other faiths. This is arrant bigotry, and painful as it may be, those preachers who were condemned should resign their positions. The only other course for a person of conscience is to fight for what you believe in.
These comments apply to all believers equally, I think. There isn't a special category for ministers and priests. Their vows may hold them to a higher standard, but silent dishonesty is what it is, just as outspoken honesty is what it is.
Published in the Washington Post