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Is critical thinking a threat to Catholicism in Indonesia?

The controversy over a priest's same-sex marriage comments highlights the need for logical thinking in the Church

Is critical thinking a threat to Catholicism in Indonesia?

The long-held tradition of marriage that represents a comfort zone of the religious institution is beginning to be shaken by same-sex marriages. (Photo: YouTube)

Following his public apology concerning media controversy about same-sex marriage comments on May 26, Divine Word Father Otto Gusti Madung was asked to write a letter of clarification and apology to the apostolic nuncio in Jakarta.

In the letter he needed to make an explicit statement that he is still a Catholic priest and he remains committed to defending all Catholic doctrines, including the tradition of marriage being between a man and a woman.

Acknowledging the potential harm to the institutional reputation of Catholicism, the priest sincerely apologized and renewed his promise to fulfil his priestly duties to the best of his ability. He hopes that his heartfelt apology is accepted and he is given the opportunity to demonstrate obedience in safeguarding the Catholic matrimonial tradition and sacrament. The priest’s letter was signed and sent to Jakarta on June 21.

As widely reported, Father Otto’s reported comments resulted in a storm of controversy in the media. The long-held tradition of marriage that represents a comfort zone of the religious institution is beginning to be shaken. His comments were made in response to a question at a public seminar in Maumere, Flores, dated May 26. The seminar was attended by about 50 participants. According to the priest, there is always a possibility for the Catholic Church to review and change its institutional position on same-sex marriage, just like its position on other matters has changed over time.

Father Otto’s answer also needs to be understood in the context of his priestly work with marginalized people, including the local LGBT community. To strongly deny their acceptance as couples by the Church would be hurtful and perpetuate stigma amongst the community. When read in context, his comments did not condone same-sex marriage. His softened answer was rooted in compassion and acceptance of all people as children of God, which is in line with recent comments about social inclusion by Pope Francis.

Unfortunately, his comments seemed to be misunderstood, as reflected in media reports in Indonesia from May 27. This misrepresentation caused discomfort and anger among religious conservatives. For them, marriage is only between a man and a woman. In response, on the advice of his confreres and some local bishops, the priest published his clarification and apology in Media Indonesia on May 28. This can be regarded as a kind of shame control mechanism.

The priest has been made solely accountable for his comments, which did not actually contradict the Church’s current doctrine on the matter

Some local clergy felt there was no need for Otto to clarify and apologize given the context and content of his statement. There was nothing controversial or shameful about Otto’s same-sex marriage comments; he simply made a critical observation in response to a question in a discussion forum. An unfortunate fallout of media controversy, and the institutional response, is the potential harm done to LGBT people, who could experience further stigmatization and shame.

Interestingly, Father Otto’s media clarification and apology did not seem to satisfy the higher church authorities. As noted, he had to write a formal letter of clarification and apology to the apostolic nuncio in Jakarta, Archbishop Piero Pioppo. He did that wholeheartedly and with humility, fearing greater sanctions could be imposed by the Vatican. The tone of the letter seems to suggest the priest’s sense of confusion and disappointment that the media misrepresentation of his same-sex marriage comments had put him and the Catholic institution in hot water.

It is surprising that the journalists who wrote the articles, under sensationalist headlines, have so far been left out of the accountability process. The key question the journalists should have explained is: How accurate was their published account of the same-sex marriage comments by the priest? This explanation could have prevented ongoing confusion, shame and disappointment.

It is obviously too late now. The priest has been made solely accountable for his comments, which did not actually contradict the Church’s current doctrine on the matter. This is an invaluable lesson to learn. The public needs to learn not to be too quick to react, let alone to pass judgment, before making sure that all facts concerning the subject matter have been established and thoroughly understood.

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As written in his letter to the apostolic nuncio, Father Otto maintains his position that he has never suggested that the Catholic Church will, but only may, consider same-sex marriage in the future, as in some other cases in church history where changes have occurred.

He stood his ground, he did not regret engaging in the public discourse. After all, he is also an academic who is required to be critical about important moral and ethical issues related to the issue of same-sex marriage such as gender rights and justice. It would be regrettable if a priest who is an academic is uncritical. There are many in academia who enjoy being comfortable in their zone and would say nothing against gender-based discrimination and stigmatization of the marginalized in society. Academics who are critical can have a clear conscience and sense of solidarity with those who are marginalized because of their gender or sexuality.

It thus seems unfair that the priest has been publicly crucified for his personal opinion. Instead he should have been praised for engaging in critical discussion on a topic that may still be considered taboo. The public reaction to the apparently twisted media reports of his comments have exposed a disconnect between the Church and public discourse on human rights, inclusion and equality. Some within and outside the Church are obviously horrified by the priest’s critical observation being spoken out loudly in the public arena. The priest is vilified for simply suggesting that there is a possibility of same-sex marriage being considered by the Church in the future. It is a legitimate proposition, and it is worth discussing. But for this to take place critical thinking needs to be deployed.

Peter Kreeft, in his book Critical Thinking for Christians, published in 2009, stresses the importance of critical thinking, or logical thinking. It is a fashionable term today, as it used to be called human reason. According to Kreeft, critical thinking is more than just thinking critically or logically; it goes beyond that. It is about judgment and evaluation — both positive and negative.

This means that critical thinking should not be narrowly defined as criticizing or contesting a thought or a tradition, but it can also mean supporting it. Critical or logical thinking is a process of thought; it is a means to the end of thought, the truth. It is an art and science of logic, it is a tool. Without that critical-logical process of thought, truth cannot be achieved. In syllogism, a conclusion is considered true when there are no ambiguous terms, no false premises, and no logical fallacies.

Further, according to Kreeft, from the faith perspective, critical thinking, or reason, comes from God. It is God’s precious gift for humankind. But, God does not do the critical thinking for us; we have to do it by ourselves. For this reason, critical thinking is not just an academic exercise for those in academia but a tool for ordering our thoughts and actions.

An Indonesian lay Catholic told me recently that the Church is not yet ready for serious critical-logical discussions, particularly if the discussions challenge their comfort zone

As asserted, critical thinking refers to judging thoughts, generating and following thoughts. That means thoughts do not always have to be new and original; they can be recycled from previous thoughts but seen with new perspectives for their relevance. Socrates, Aquinas and Heidegger are great examples of following a thought with the virtues of courage, patience and persistence. They never left any stone unturned; they were passionate about their search for an answer to their questions.

Their passion made them become great philosophers. Socrates paved the way for Western philosophy and civilization. Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologica exploring his central question, “What is God?” Martin Heidegger too was persistent and obsessed with the question about being throughout his life. He asked, "What does it mean to be?" Heidegger’s philosophical contemplation on this existential question made him an important philosopher of the 20th century.

The debates concerning Father Otto’s same-sex marriage comments, particularly the negative reactions to them, made me wonder whether the Indonesian Catholic Church is ready for critical thinking about some of its traditions such as denial of same-sex marriage.

An Indonesian lay Catholic told me recently that the Church is not yet ready for serious critical-logical discussions, particularly if the discussions challenge their comfort zone. The fact that the priest in question was asked by church authorities to make a statement that he is still a priest and he is to obey all teachings of the Church without question, while it is a standard formality in bureaucracy, can be seen to reflect the Church’s reluctance to accept free and critical thinking.

I hope our enemy is not critical thinking as reflected in our willingness to enter the arena of critical discussions on topics deemed sensitive such as same-sex marriage. An essential part of our human nature, I think, is our ability and desire to think critically and logically as a means to thinking truly.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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