As the Church Has Always Taught (Except When it Hasn’t)
Here is an ecclesiological proposition with far-reaching pastoral implications: we need an ecclesiology that accounts for fallibility. Let me explain.
When the Church has recognized the need to confess its own sins, the language of its confessions has been constrained by a sense of doctrinal timelessness, which is tied to a well-established view of the Church’s credibility as dependent on its authoritative status as guarantor of truth – or even, as some would interpret, on its never being wrong. This view is too well precedented to be blithely dismissed, yet it sometimes has the strange effect of forcing Church teaching into a kind of magisterial double-speak, in which any admission of having been wrong at any point in time cannot be explicitly construed as such.
Take for example Vatican II’s groundbreaking Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae), which was discussed at some length in the comments to my post relating to 16th-century interconfessional martyrdom. In such a context, the declaration is cause for great rejoicing as well as a bit of bewilderment. The repudiation of religious coercion based on universal human dignity is a welcome development that is solidly grounded in the Church’s social tradition. But there is something a bit odd about how this development is maneuvered, for example in article 12:
The church, therefore, faithful to the truth of the Gospel, follows in the path of Christ and the apostles when it recognizes the principle that religious liberty is in keeping with human dignity and divine revelation and gives it its support. Through the ages it has preserved and handed on the doctrine which it has received from its Master and the apostles. Although, through the vicissitudes of human history, there have at times appeared patterns of behavior which was not in keeping with the spirit of the Gospel and were even opposed to it, it has always remained the teaching of the church that no one is to be coerced into believing.
Thus, the leaven of the Gospel has long been at work in people’s minds and has contributed greatly to a wider recognition by them in the course of time of their dignity as persons. It has contributed too to the growth of the conviction that in religious matters the human person should be kept free from all manner of coercion in civil society.
The ecclesiological sleight-of-hand here turns on the sentence I have bolded, which serves as a sort of pivot point between faithful continuity going back to the very foundations of the Church and “the growth of the conviction” which admittedly has not always been adequately recognized as it is in this document. There is nothing contradictory about this juxtaposition in and by itself. It would simply be a brilliant articulation of the Catholic tradition’s beautiful paradox of development in continuity, were it not for the dubious claim in the middle of it. Here is where the council seems to suddenly find itself backed against a wall, as the Church is not willing or able to attribute to itself the actions it now condemns. Responsibility for wrong behavior must therefore filter down from the institutional to the individual level: certain members of the Church have not always recognized this principle as they ought, but “it has always remained the teaching of the church that no one is to be coerced into believing.” Wait – really? This statement is hard to defend historically, to say the least. To our shame, coercion of religious belief by the Church at the highest organizational levels, from Reformation-era executions to the infamous Inquisition to forced baptisms under Charlemagne, remains on the record.
When Catholics pick up on this discontinuity (!) between history and doctrine, they often respond in one of two ways. Some, including a few commenters here, have taken the position that if the Church has ever done or approved of anything, it can’t be wrong. Church teachings that would lead to the conclusion that the Church has at any time acted wrongly, let alone justified it doctrinally, are either absurdly twisted to support this view or dismissed as not carrying doctrinal weight. I suspect this position is taken out of fear of the second option, which may take a tone of derision toward the institutional Church (essentially passing the buck the other way by distancing oneself as an individual from any problems with the big bad institution); or, if the cognitive dissonance of that is too much, it can become a full-blown crisis of faith: if the Church was wrong on this one thing, how can I believe anything it tells me?
Neither of these responses is adequate. We need a third option – one that can allow the Church to say, in so many words, “we were wrong.” The Church needs a theological paradigm in which it can say this without undermining its own credibility. Put another way, the faithful need a paradigm in which they can trust the Church without needing it to be perfect. Current events give this need a particular pastoral urgency. With an abuse cover-up conviction making national news in the United States, and the still unfolding scandal at the Vatican over leaked documents that point to corruption, there can be no illusions of ecclesial perfection. That is why we need a different ecclesiological epistemology. Pardon my Greek, but this is no mere ivory-tower abstraction. The implications for the faith of many Catholics are all too concrete. A faith that depends on the Church being absolutely perfect or infallible is a house built on sand, which cannot survive the storm of scandal. It’s an epistemic crisis waiting to happen.
I wonder if a well-rounded conception of continuity may provide a solution. It has already become fairly commonplace, at least since John Henry Newman, to refer to the development of doctrine. Development in this sense is best seen as being in continuity with the Church’s tradition, which in turn is best seen as something that moves and develops. As I’ve hinted above, this dynamic paradox is strongly precedented not only in the content of Church tradition but in its very nature. The same tradition has long insisted that fidelity does not demand a perfection that is not humanly possible, and why should this apply any less to the whole Church than to its members? To trust that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit at least some essential kernel of true Gospel is and has been and will be preserved does not excuse the Church’s grave mistakes, past or present. But perhaps it does mean that its mistakes cannot cause the Church to cease to be the Church, with all that entails. If this is the case, then developments or changes or even outright retractions in Church teaching need not be feared.