Three Blind Mice Attempt Catholic Ecclesiology
In a recent piece motivated by Bill Donahue’s Why Catholicism Matters, former NYT editor Bill Keller identifies his agreement: “Much as I wish I could encourage the disconnected, the Catholics of open minds and open hearts to stay put and fight the good fight, this is a lost cause. Donahue is right. Summon your fortitude, and just go.” Perhaps Anne Rice’s departure is the model that Keller believes others should follow. “I’m out,” I remember her writing. “In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control…”
I invite persons to meander on over to LifeSiteNews and read the reactions to Keller’s piece. The post I author here will engage with comments representative of the general quality of those reactions.
Dwarfing Catholic ecclesiology is Bruce Burgess who writes “I wholeheartedly agree that those who disagrees with the Church’s teachings should leave the Church. If they won’t go voluntarily, they should be expelled.”
At the Second Vatican Council, in the text Lumen gentium, discovery is made of a “Church, to which we are all called in Jesus Christ, and in which we acquire sanctity through the grace of God, [that] will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven (Paragraph 48).” The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, is moving towards — we Catholics believe — a greater realization of God’s expectations. The person in the pew may indeed be mistaken about the capacity of the Church to develop its teachings in ways that would be agreeable to that particular person, but even if that person is mistaken in his or her optimism, it is a mistake motivated by something true: The Church is moving towards a greater realization of God’s expectations.
Think about that person in the pew: If he or she is taught to believe that communicated through his or her conscience is, to quote the Victorian John Henry Newman, him “who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil” then such a person is to follow what he or she believes to be God, and because such persons also believe the Holy Spirit is leading the Church, it is natural for that person (even if it is not necessarily correct), for that person to believe that there will be eventual correspondence between that conscience and the teachings of the Church.
The German Bishops wrote, in the 1960’s, that the Christian person “who believes he has a right to his private opinion, that he already knows what the Church will only come to grasp later, must ask himself in sober self-criticism before God and his conscience, whether he has the necessary depth and breadth of theological expertise to allow his private theory and practice to depart from the present doctrine of the ecclesiastical authorities. The case is in principle admissible. But conceit and presumption will have to answer for their willingness before the judgment seat of God.” Such a person may indeed be mistaken, but according to the German Bishops, such a person is not necessarily deluded simply because he or she claims to “know what the Church will only come to grasp later.”
The Canadian Bishops, also in the 1960’s, observe that though the dignity of the human person lies in his or her ability to achieve fulfilment in God through the exercise of free choice this does not exempt a person from the responsibility of forming his or her conscience according to Christian values and principles. A person’s exercise of free choice is to be open to the teachings of the Church, and any selfishness or undue external pressures in the person’s motives must be expunged. The Canadian Bishops recognize that the free human person is prone to sin and evil and is to humbly ask for the grace of God to prevent this freedom from leading to abuse. Quoting Paragraph 50 of Lumen gentium, the Canadian Bishops state that a person is to offer “cheerful readiness” to hear what the Church has to say, for true freedom is not synonymous with the ability to do as one likes, but rather is found in doing what the responsible conscience directs. Turning to an encyclical like Humanae vitae, the Catholic is to examine honestly what Pope Paul VI has said, for the Church is the human person’s guide in the pilgrimage of achieving final happiness. The Church is teacher “even in those matters which do not demand the absolute assent of faith.” Relying on Paragraph 25 of Lumen gentium, the Canadian Bishops assert that the Church’s teaching is to be acknowledged with reverence, and judgements made are to be adhered to, in both mind and will.
The Canadian Bishops also observe that individuals who have tried sincerely, but without success, to keep the directives of the Church, may safely be assured that “whosoever honestly chooses that course of action which seems right to him does so in good conscience.” A previous paragraph had reminded Canadian Catholics that those who find the Church’s teaching on contraception either “extremely difficult or even impossible to make their own” should “not be considered or consider themselves, shut off from the body of the faithful.”
That those who “disagree with the Church’s teachings should leave the Church [and that] if they won’t go voluntarily, they should be expelled” is not what the Church asks for such persons. My question to Bruce Burgess (and it can extend to those who agree with him) surrounds why he has subordinated the teaching authority of the Church — why he has subordinated representatives of the Church’s teaching authority like the Canadian or German Bishops — to Bill Keller, a former editor of the New York Times. My question to Bruce (and it can extend to those who agree with him) surrounds how he would evaluate my request (a request I do not make) that he leave the Church because of his own non-assent to what the Church teaches.
Also dwarfing Catholic ecclesiology is TCDU who writes that “most of those that don’t accept the Magisterium are already excommunicated automatically anyway.”
This subordinates the Church’s Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983, to one that I am unfamiliar with. Disagree with what the Church teaches about particular concerns (homosexuality, women’s ordination, artificial methods of regulating birth…) and you have “already [been] excommunicated automatically”? I wonder what is at the source of TCDU’s confusion. I remember a conversation with a priest surrounding this very issue of automatically incurring excommunication. I noted that I thought those moments rather rare, and the priest observed that given the prevalence of abortion, experiencing automatic excommunication is not so rare. The priest was mistaken. This fellow is correct: “To actually incur the excommunication one must know that it is an excommunicable offense at the time of the abortion. Canon 1323 provides that the following do not incur a sanction, those who are not yet 16, are unaware of the law, do not advert to it or are in error about its scope… [emphasis mine].”
One reason why there may be error about the scope of a teaching is because this is complicated territory. Several decades ago, the CDF revised the Profession of Faith to be taken by those identified in Canon Law. Unchanged was the first and longest paragraph, but after this, three further paragraphs were added. The first deals with teachings divinely revealed, and the second, with teachings proposed definitively (those inseparably connected with such divine revelation). The third paragraph deals with teachings neither divinely revealed, nor inseparably connected with revelation, but which nonetheless emerge from the authoritative exercise of the teaching office of the Roman Pontiff or College of Bishops. Ecclesiologists tend to use these added paragraphs as their framework for articulating gradations within Church teaching, or, to put differently, the weight with which a certain teaching is proposed.
In their Commentary of John Paul’s Ad tuendam fidem, Ratzinger and Bertone distinguish between teachings which are connected to revelation by logical necessity, and teachings connected by historical necessity. Having the second gradation as their object of study in Paragraph 11 of their Commentary, Ratzinger and Bertone assert that reserving the priestly orders to men is a doctrine connected to revelation by logical necessity. In terms of teachings connected by historical necessity, they cite the legitimacy of a Pontiff’s election, the canonization of saints, and the invalidity of Anglican orders.
I have often remarked that as no official statement, solemnly defined, identifies what belongs to the second gradation, Paragraph 11 of the Ratzinger-Bertone Commentary, and its proposed classifications, must be considered an interpretation. Avery Dulles, in his 2007 work Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, expresses his own difficulty in understanding how, for example, the canonization of saints might fall within the second gradation. Although taking issue with what has been interpreted as being connected to divine revelation by historical necessity, Dulles strangely accuses other theologians of “evasion” when they claim that a particular teaching, let us say the reservation of priestly orders to men, has not been definitively taught, and instead belongs to as third gradation.
I know that the reservation of priestly orders to men is controversial in quarters. However, I have difficulty understanding why more caution isn’t demonstrated by persons who would do well to consider that even when the weight of the 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalisis is combined with the consistent interpretation of the CDF, the Church interprets its teaching on this matter as belonging to the second gradation. Given that such interpretations are not protected by the infallibility a solemn judgment would imply, what is not as clear is whether the Church’s interpretation is correct.
Let me expand: The interpretation of the CDF can be discerned also from their 28 October 1995 “Response to Dubium.” They state that the reservation of priestly orders to men has been infallibly taught by the Magisterium and is connected to the deposit of faith. Further, representatives of the CDF stated at a meeting in Vallombrosa that “the Magisterium has simply reaffirmed this teaching as a truth of the Church’s doctrine (the second paragraph), based on Scripture, attested to and applied in the uninterrupted Tradition, and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, without declaring it to be a dogma that is divinely revealed.” Very strong language is also used by John Paul II during his ad limina speech to the German Bishops (November, 1999): “The doctrine that the priesthood is reserved to men, possesses by virtue of the Church’s ordinary and universal Magisterium, that central character of infallibility which Lumen gentium speaks of and which I gave juridical form in the Moto Propio Ad Tuendam Fidem.” These features do not meet the criteria of a solemn judgment, nor does the Pope intend this since he appeals to the ordinary and universal Magisterium. The best conclusion to draw from this, I think, is that while the Pope speaks with authority, his interpretation is not rendered infallible as a result. Persons following after, then, should be very careful of the accusations they leave at the feet of others.
I wonder whether TCDU believes a person is automatically excommunicated for being open to the possibility that the reservation of priestly orders to men will be revised because the Church certainly doesn’t say such persons are excommunicated. Tasked to theologians is “assess[ing] accurately the authoritativeness of the interventions” by the Magisterium (Paragraph 24, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum veritatis), and if theologians have come to different conclusions about the authoritativeness of a teaching such as the one which reserves priestly orders to men, and if such persons have been able to do so without automatically incurring excommunication, then surely those less familiar with the nuances of ecclesiological language can be permitted to make mistake, or embrace the erroneous without having attributed to them malice when ignorance would have sufficed as an explanation. To say that those who have made mistake, or have embraced what the Church presently considers erroneous “don’t accept the Magisterium” is a statement without validity. What is apparent is that such persons reject an interpretation surrounding the scope of a particular teaching, and because they feel such a teaching holds a particular scope, they engage with the teaching in ways a person would not if he or she had attributed a different scope.
A final dwarfing of Catholic ecclesiology comes in the words of Squire98 who writes that “It would be better if those RINO [editorial insert: s/he means CINO] Catholics formally left the Church. In practice they have already left. The Church would be cleansed of its pretenders and the pretenders would have their precious ‘independence’. Sounds like a win-win.”
I doubt Squire98 has intended to, but s/he has reduced the Church, not simply to its teaching authority, but also to the particular positions the teaching authority articulates on matters related to human sexuality. The Second Vatican Council teaches of an existing “’hierarchy’ of truths, [truths which] vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith (Paragraph 11, Unitatis redintegratio).” It is not that some teachings matter and some don’t but rather that the fundamental Christian faith is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Being a Christian, to use the language of the current Pope, is found in the encounter with Jesus Christ who gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. It is not found in being right about homosexuality, women’s ordination or artificial methods of regulating birth.
Individual Catholics, instead of leaving the Church should, I think, use the occasions of their disagreements to reflect on the Church as the bride of Christ. It is only one image, and certainly is not the only way to understand the Church, but I think reflection surrounding this image can be positive, because it can remind persons of a self-giving love that exists between Jesus and the Church. It can remind such persons of the importance of the Eucharist, a central way in which such love is expressed. I remember Anne Rice stating that she would miss participating in the Eucharist: Is that because in those moments when Christ had been mediated to herself and to others, she had experienced something of the transforming love of Jesus?
What I reject in your comments, Bruce Burgess, TCDU, and Squire98, is that you would have Catholic persons distance him or herself from the Eucharist when the Church does not ask such a person for this. You have, I presume, unintentionally misrepresented Catholic teaching but I will not make your mistake and suggest you leave.
I also write at Musings on Film.