Freedom is the beginning of
everything. If there is any way that
we are made in the image and
likeness of God, it is in being free.
It was 1968. As an ordained priest, Vincent Rush was facing a moral dilemma that would forever change his life. The spiritual foundation on which he became a priest was beginning to crack. He was willing to give up years of preparation, accumulated academic honors, and his standing in the community, rather than be part of the destruction of the Gospel which he believed the Church’s “rule of law” was perpetrating.
The seeds for daring to be a critical thinker were actually planted by some of his philosophy, theology, and ethics professors who exposed him to the rigors of logic and to logic’s dependence on experience. Those seeds matured in his intelligent, inquisitive mind and he began to think beyond where most human beings think—when it becomes too confusing, uncomfortable, or too unsettling.
He had come to believe that the rule-oriented legalism, which permeated so much of Catholic thought of that time, wasn’t scripture-based. He resolved to have a more flexible and compassionate outlook as the vision of his ministry. It was this that led him to tell people that the two most important words in making a moral decision were “it depends.”
“I was impressed by Aristotle’s saying that you should never ask from a discipline certitudes it can’t give. We do not have certitudes about how God is going to act in any given situation because we don’t know what God sees. All we can know for certain is our own intent. Intent is everything in determining morality. Good intentions are not always enough, but without them we have nothing.
“Take the situation of three different people responding to a drunken man lying on the curb of a street asking for a handout. The first person gives him a ten-dollar bill and thinks, ‘What a good-for-nothing, lazy person,’ and goes on his way. The second person responds with a ten-dollar bill and thinks, ‘This makes me feel good about myself. All these people here will witness what a generous person I am.’ The third person gives him a ten-dollar bill and thinks, ‘There but for the grace of God go I. I wonder what conditions brought him to this place? I wonder what I could do to help alleviate the problems of homelessness?’
“For those of us watching this situation, we would all have seen the same thing—three different people giving the man ten dollars. What was different was the intent. Why we do the things we do is the question. It’s not about rules, it’s about being a compassionate, loving person.
“In 1968, the Vatican was prohibiting medically accepted methods of birth control. People were being told that if they used the pill, they would go to hell. I knew that the intent for some people to use artificial birth control was the same as their intent for natural birth control. They were trying to better take care of the children they already had, prepare livlihoods before becoming parents, protect their security, or not wanting to add to a growing world population. To damn their souls to hell was an emotional crisis for themand for me. I knew I could not get in the pulpit and support this ruling. I was distraught and could find no way to comfort myself.
“I went to visit another priest and then walked the streets until 2:00 a.m., convinced I had no choice but to leave the church. I then drove to a friend’s house and because of the warmth and trust that defined our friendship, I was able to hear him when he said, ‘Vince, we need priests like you who challenge us to think. If you are distressed about the Church now, what will it become if you leave?’ It was at that moment that I decided to stay but only on the condition that I would speak freely. If the Church couldn’t handle it, they would have to let me go. I became the King’s loyal opposition.
“That Sunday, I told the parishioners, ‘Follow your conscience. You know your circumstances best. You shouldn’t feel you are forbidden to practice artificial contraception.’ Not only did I say it for them, but I said it to save my own integrity. The next week, a woman who had heard about my comments the previous Sunday came to talk to me.
“‘Father, is it really true that last Sunday you said it was up to us to decide to use the birth control pill?’ she asked me. ‘I have ten children and have had numerous miscarriages in my seventeen years of marriage. My psychiatrist has told me that I should not have any more children since I’m on the verge of having a nervous breakdown. My husband’s wages are being garnished to pay back hospital bills and my check is going to support our family. When I told my husband we had to stop having sex, he said he would go to the red-light district.’
“She felt her only solution was to go on the pill, so she discontinued participating in communion. Her older children were very upset with her for not receiving communion and told her if she couldn’t go to communion, they were not going either—and they were going to stop going to church altogether. The lady concluded her story to me by saying, through her tears, ‘Since I started taking the pill, I have believed I would have to go to hell to keep my children in church.’”
Even though this took place over thirty years ago, Vince still cries softly when he thinks what the “rule of law” was doing to this woman and her family. “I told her she would not go to hell and to start participating in communion. ‘Thank you, Father,’ she said as she walked away, drying her tears.”
For Vince, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He was determined to preach and teach publicly the supremacy of conscience over Vatican teaching, which is in accord with the teaching of the Catholic Church. The Dignitatis Humanae-Vatican II document states: “because they are persons . . . endowed with reason and free will . . . they are bound to adhere to the truth.” He began to point out publicly beyond Sunday mass just where he thought the Vatican was in error.
“Laws are just guides,” Vincent told me. “It’s good to know that the sign says, ‘Slippery When Wet.’ But to make moral judgments, we need to know the circumstances and we need to know intent. I like the quote from the play, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, ‘You’re so busy thinking about what’s right, you don’t know what’s good.’ When we know we are free to take account of ALL the circumstances, and we look at our intent, we have a much better chance at being a moral person.
“Fortunately, I’ve never gotten into trouble with my views because the people who are ready to hear what I have to say take it in and are glad to be set free and become responsible for their own morality. The people who aren’t ready, ignore me or think of me as a small fish and not that much of a threat. However, I was not promoted to bishop, though I had all the credentials.”
What started with pastoral experience of people not feeling free to follow their conscience because of some law, has led Vincent to a life of preaching and teaching the primacy of moral virtue. His book The Responsible Christian and his more recent twelve-hour video series were his attempts to spread the information to a wider group than his immediate audiences. He really believes it when he says: “Being free is what makes us most in the image and likeness of God.”
*** This article is reproduced from the Compassionate Rebel.