In Obedience to Authority and Loyal Dissent I indicated that in my next posting, I would share my viewpoint on how the governing structure of the Church has been dysfunctional and how that affects the People of God. Briefly, my fundamental belief is that the majority of the problems the Church has experienced both pre and post, Vatican II, are rooted in its ancient and absolute monarchial governance. As a first step, the very least the hierarchy needs to consider is a bona fide agreement to acknowledge and operationalize the sensus fidelium’s (the sense or mind of the faithful) lawful right to participate in decisions on faith and morals. This needs to be a sine qua non, otherwise there will be little chance for reform or renewal, accept as the sensus fidelium is defined by the Vatican.
In this commentary I will provide background information on the legitimacy of the sensus fidelium; and of how the hierarchy has consistently ignored the mind of the people; and how an egalitarian dialogue is an essential component for change. I will also provide information on a promising document approved by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, which supports the role of the faithful; plus statements by high ranking members of the hierarchy who don’t go along with the party line.
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
Long before the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements were launched, faithful Catholic layfolks had established a number of reform organizations whose purposes were to assist in changing controversial and divisive positions of the church. Their efforts have been met with varying degrees of success, which I will expand on later. But for the most part, although these reform groups have clear goals and appropriate plans of action, they have been stonewalled by the hierarchy when it comes to the Church even considering a change in its structure of governance; or even seriously accepting the input of the lowerarchy.
Over the years there have been various interpretations of sensus fidelium.. They range from the degrading declaration that Pius X made in his encyclical Vehementer Nos in 1906, in which he stated “The duty of the laity is to allow themselves to be led, and like a docile flock to follow their pastors.” (Every time I read that quotation, I think, and he was infallible?) Contrast Pius X’s prose with the more magnanimous message of Saint John Henry Newman in his article On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine:
“Consulting the people is not to be regarded as just a friendly gesture on the part of the pope or bishops. Consultation is something the laity has a right to expect. Their view may serve at times as a needed witness of the truth of a revealed doctrine.”
More recently, Lumen Gentium, Chapter II, On the People of God one of Vatican II’s most important affirmative documents, declared that the charisma, of the Holy Spirit are available to all the faithful “of every rank”. To put this in economic language, “the hierarchy doesn’t have the corner on the market on doctrine.” Referring to Jesus, Lumen Gentium, sections 40, 41 states:
“He does this not only through the hierarchy who teach in His name and with His authority, but also through the laity whom He made His witnesses and to whom He gave understanding of the faith [sensus fidei] and an attractiveness in speech so that the power of the Gospel might shine forth in their daily social and family life.”
An even more contemporary study is one approved by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission and was reviewed in America Magazine’s April 2, 2012 issue entitled Commission Text Holds Surprises on the Role of the Faithful. The title of the Commission’s study is Theology Today: Perspective, Principles, and Criteria. America describes the study as, representing “…a forward looking consensus view, in this case it’s about the role of theology in the life of the Church.”
The study declares, “Attention to the sensus fidelium is a criterion for Catholic theology. Theology should strive to discover and articulate accurately what the Catholic faithful actually believe.” The sense of the faithful is a conviction “…deeply rooted in the people of God, who receive, understand, and live the Word of God in the Church.” The study goes on to describe how the body of the faithful, especially the laity and lay theologians are part of “…the interface between the Gospel and everyday life and have a role to play in the church’s interpretation of the signs of the times.” For those who are interested in learning more about the report, here is a complete copy of Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria approved by the whole Commission on November 2011 and released with the approval of Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
I believe the Commission has chartered a vision of the Church of the 3rd Millennium. Whether it will be embraced is questionable. As the America article points out, despite the fact, that Pope Benedict XVI strongly emphasizes the eternalness of the Apostolic Tradition, “…the affirmation (in Theology Today) of historicity is a daring move.” It goes on to assert that the Commission boldly asserts, “The council’s uses of the expression ‘signs of the times’ shows that it fully recognizes not only the historicity of the world but also of the Church.”
At the risk of over-dramatizing the Commission’s position, I believe it echoes President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which I would like to paraphrase:
…and that this Church, under God, shall have a new birth of freedomand that governance of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Perhaps I seem a little too optimistic about the power of the Commission’s report! But I do have my doubts. Even as I was writing this section, I began to wonder if the rest of the Vatican and the bishops had even read Theology Today, and if they had read it, did they just file it in their “circular file”? What made me wonder are some of the recent responses to the faithful, by the bishops. They still seemed dismissive of the sensus fidelium.
The bishops’ responses to suggestions for an adult dialogue, is not a new position. It seems their mind-set remains, “Let us sit down and discuss this issue together, but in the end, we’ll do it our way.” Even though the old “my way or the highway” approach, doesn’t work, they refuse to change their tune. It’s analogous to the definition of insanity that’s attributed to Albert Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” It’s their position of tradition! They remind me of Tevye and Golde, in the musical Fiddler on the Roof,singing the opening song “Tradition”, when they bemoan the reality that their daughters aren’t going to submit to the age old tradition of husbands being chosen by a Matchmaker. Like Tevye and Golde, the bishops are living in a world that no longer exists; a world where almost everyone thought that the earth was the center of the universe and, was created in six days. They don’t seem to have the same vision of the sensus fidelium that the Commission expressed. Underlying the mind-set of the bishops is their belief that they, and they alone as successors to the apostles make the rules and everyone else should sheepishly follow their shepherds. Or, as I’ve heard repeatedly in reference to the hierarchy, especially in the case of the sexual abuse of children by priests, “They just don’t get it!”
The most blatant example of the difference between the Theology Today’s document and the hierarchy, was Pope Paul VI’s so called contraception encyclical Humanae Vitae, when the pope trumped the decision of his Commission, and banned “artificial” contraception. For details see my commentary in Catholica,Humanae Vitae: The Turning Point for the Catholic Church, which traces the history of birth control and raises the question of whether the encyclical was about, sex and contraception, or Papal authority and the inability of the hierarchy to admit the teaching in Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubiion Christian Marriage, needed to be revised. The decision that was made definitely doesn’t fit with the Commission in Today’s Theology’s”signs of the times”. Nor does it agree with the sensus fidelium. As we know, thousands of people left the church or if they remained, they continued to practice some type of artificial contraception. But Paul VI was the decider! Ipse dixit! Literal translation “he himself has said it” or, the definition from Webster-Merriam, “something alleged: something asserted dogmatically and without proof”.
Here’s a voice with much more authority than I have, who disagrees with Paul VI’s decision. It’s an article entitled Cardinal Martini’s Jesus Would Never Have Written “Humanae Vitae” by Sandro Magister that speaks for itself. I also think that Cardinal Martini’s assessment is in harmony with Theology Today.
There are many other examples since then that illustrate the difference between the spirit of Today’s Theology and how the hierarchy responds to the faithful when they try to exercise their legitimate role as part of the sensus fidelium, but I’ll mention just one recent example.
THE NUNS AND the HIERARHY, DIALOGUE WITH THE DEAD?
One of the most publicized examples is the current conflict between the Nuns and the hierarchy over the rights of the “lowerarchy” to a bona fide dialogue as faithful members of the People of God. Many of the Nuns’ backers believe that the focus is the manner in which the Vatican and the bishops are mismanaging the current conflict with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Here are several situations that I believe are typical of the way that the bishops’ idea of dialogue does not conform with the sense of “signs of the times” as expressed in the Vatican’s own document, Theology Today.
To give the hierarchy the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the problem is that both sides have different understanding or misunderstanding of the word dialogue. To me dialogue and compromise suggest that both parties are on an equal level. One definition of an egalitarian dialogue is one “… in which contributions are considered according to the validity of their reasoning, instead of according to the status or position of power of those who make them.” As I read John L. Allen Jr’s interview with Cardinal Levada on his view of the LCWR, it became crystal clear to me that his Eminence’s view of dialogue was not the same as the Nuns’ or mine. I guess if you’re His Eminence, it’s not possible to imagine the Sisters to be at your same echelon. It certainly didn’t sound that way in the interview. The Cardinal’s responses made me think of Martin Buber’s classic book, I and Thou. Buber basically contrasted I and Thou with I and It. His Eminence does not believe that the Nuns are worth of an I and Thou relationship because that “…is a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity.” The Nuns only merit an I and It relationship because it is “… a relationship of separateness and detachment.” Here is a YouTube Presentation of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou. So much for the benefit of the doubt! Nevertheless, it might be helpful for all of us to keep Buber’s words in mind if we expect to have productive dialogues with one another.
Jamie Manson’s article LCWR’s Annual Meeting: Some Reflections and a Little Back Stop in the National Catholic Reporter,points out that many of the reform groups that have tried to transform the church’s structures, can’t dialogue or negotiate with the hierarchy because “… the climate has become so uncompromising…”. She quotes Sister Pat Farrell, when she was president of LCWR as saying, what the Nuns want at some point in the process is to “…be recognized and understood as equals in the church, that our form of religious life can be respected and affirmed…it might sound like just asking for dialogue is vague, but I think ultimately, one of our deepest goals is to create that kind of climate in the churchnot just for ourselves, but for the Catholic church throughout the world.”
In an article by Joshua J. Mc Elwee, Overseeing Bishop: LCWR ‘Not in Accordance with Church he makes it clear what Sister Pat Farrell was reacting to in Bishop Leonard Blair interview on the radio program, Fresh Air. Blair is the Bishop of the diocese of Toledo, Ohio, one of three bishops appointed by the Vatican to oversee the LCWR. Farrell asked the question on the same program a week earlier, “Can you be Catholic and have a questioning mind?” When the bishop was asked whether he or the other two bishops who are involved with the LCWR’s revision were open to dialogue, Blair replied, “…that would depend on the sisters’ definition of dialogue.” He went on with his definition of dialogue that was not close to being an I and Thou dialogue as described by Martin Buber. It was a very legalistic response that would suggest that if your idea of dialogue is not the same as his, there’s no point in having a dialogue. You can read his response in the title of the article at the beginning of this paragraph and decide for yourself.
ADDENDUM, REQUIESCAT IN PACE
This is an article from ROME (Reuters), September 2, 2012 In Final Interview, Liberal Cardinal Says Church is 200 Years Out of Date. It reports the death of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former Archbishop of Milan. He was 85. As you’ll recall I quoted him above from an earlier article where Cardinal Martini questioned Paul VI’s decision on Humanae Vitae. This current article quotes him from and interview two weeks before his death, as saying, “The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change.” Wow! I’ll drink to that! What adds weight to his opinion is the fact that he was papal candidate, once favored by Vatican progressives to succeed Blessed Pope John Paul II of happy memory. Here are two other quotes by the Cardinal that give his vision of the future of the church.
For me, Cardinal Martini offers hope for change in the church. Like Pope John XXIII, they were both harbingers of the future. Even though they were part of the hierarchy, they understood and took into consideration the hopes of the people of God, and were willing to take a stand outside of the rigid box of tradition. They were willing to acknowledge the need for urgent change. My hope is that there are many more members of the hierarchy who are willing to take courageous positions as they did. Their spirit gives new meaning to the prayer I haven’t thought of in years:
“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.”
I will continue, in my next commentary to provide more specifics for how we, the People of God, can become part of the efforts to “renew the face of the earth and the church.”