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Joe Hoover, S.J.March 01, 2024
Photo by Lareised Leneseur on Unsplash

In James Joyce’s short story, “Grace,” a group of men convenes around the fire in a drunkard’s bedroom, trying to get the fellow to shape up his life. The men start discussing, of course, the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope. During the ratification of that doctrine in “the sacred college” (namely, Vatican I), writes Joyce, “there were two men who held out against it while the others were all for it.” One of these men was Ireland’s own Archbishop John MacHale.

In that bedroom in Dublin, Mr. Cunningham tells the story: 

There they were at it, all the cardinals and bishops and archbishops from all the ends of the earth and these two fighting dog and devil until at last the Pope himself stood up and declared infallibility a dogma of the Church ex cathedra. On the very moment John MacHale, who had been arguing and arguing against it, stood up and shouted with the voice of a lion: Credo!... He submitted the moment the Pope spoke.

Credo! This (this!) is the old-school glory of the holy pyramidal Roman church. The pope speaks, you do the thing, no matter how you feel about it. Credo! I believe! 

What an interesting way to live.

But would even a leonine and lockstep prelate like MacHale offer a full-throated Credo! for everything that goes down in the church? For all the lesser concepts and teachings and definitions and exhortations and nudges and general ways of being of the church? Should he? Should we? 

Maybe it is easier to offer a grand assent to somewhat abstractive church dogmas like “True God and True Man” or “Mary ever virgin” or “papal infallibility” than to the ones that live in front of our very eyes. From the length of one’s fast before the Eucharist to rewording of liturgical responses to the prohibition against Catholics using in vitro fertilization: Do we have to assent to church expectations for all of it? 

Or say we catch a passing glance at a priest in a sacristy offering a simple blessing over a couple. They’re Catholic and everyone knows the man was divorced and never got an annulment and sure they are married, but their wedding took place in a courthouse. Do we assent to a priest blessing this couple? Or not? Or…what?

Maybe it is easier to offer a grand assent to somewhat abstractive church dogmas like “True God and True Man” or “Mary ever virgin” or “papal infallibility” than to the ones that live in front of our very eyes.

The Vatican declaration “Fiducia Supplicans” roiled the Catholic world in December with its ruling that priests were permitted to offer blessings to couples living in irregular situations, including those in same-sex relationships. The declaration and its tumultuous reception in the worldwide church draw a bright line, one both beautiful and garish, around exactly this tension in the life of a modern Catholic. Do you have to believe everything the church teaches if it does not align with the evidence of your own personal theological radar?

We Western Catholics (and maybe all modern Catholics period) are, after all, still heirs to Tom Wolfe’s “Me Decade.” We are the next of kin to Kant’s “turn to the subject” and Steve Jobs’s “turn to my phone.” We are yet a handful of fine millet poured out from the grinder of the French Revolution, the Protestant Reformation, Descartes’s “Cogito,” bootstrap capitalism, Lindbergh’s solo flight, that poem I’m the master of my own whatever, the declaration that only I can prevent forest fires and the modern philosophical notion that what I make of a thing is what that thing is. The truth is merely a limp balloon that requires the breath of my particular lungs to blow it up. The sticky teachings of the church are not things I automatically assent to but things that should assent to me. 

And so credo? Really? Credo for papal infallibility but also credo for “Fiducia Supplicans”?

But what if “Credo!” for Archbishop MacHale and all the Archbishop MacHales of that time, and of this time, was not just gape-mouthed assent to the holy chair of Peter? No, what if, like any of the mystics, submitting to authority was a way for Archbishop MacHale to purify himself? 

John the Baptist chose to decrease so Christ could increase. Julian of Norwich sought sickness “in order that I might be purged by the mercy of God.” Socrates “purified” his clever opponents by debating them to the point where they admitted they “know nothing,” which is the beginning point of wisdom. And the archbishop laid to rest his own smart thinking and consented to something bigger than himself. He let himself be just another humble oarsman on the barque of Peter. 

Since its promulgation by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Fiducia Supplicans” has been welcomed by some (the editors of America, for instance) but met with resistance or even outright rejection in parts of the world. Some lay Catholics, bishops and confraternities of priests have condemned it. The bishops’ conference of nearly an entire continent declared, with little subtlety, “No blessings for homosexual couples in the African churches.” 

The National Catholic Register created a virtual map of the world with pins dropped showing the responses of various priests and bishops to the new document, those for and those against. It is like a war map of skirmishes and key battles taking place across the globe over the true doctrine of the church. 

My own “credo” to this teaching has not been easy to come by. I was disappointed that the Vatican appeared to circumvent the entire synodal process in making this declaration. A decision on a knotty theological problem handed down suddenly “from above” clearly undermines the church’s new process of gathering input “from below” to deal with, among other things, knotty theological problems. 

Let alone that the whole tone of “Fiducia Supplicans,” feels, well, jesuitical. It both forbids a priest from blessing a union the church cannot recognize, and approves a joint blessing of a couple in that same union. And it seems there is a gossamer thread of difference between blessing a couple but not blessing them “as a couple.” It takes a subtle metaphysics to permit a priest to bless together two people in a way that does not signal official church approval of that very “togetherness.” 

“Fiducia Supplicans” is not an easy buy. 

Which is kind of the whole point here.

Because what else is this whole thing not? It is not about me. 

It is not ultimately about what I think and what I want and my sharp analysis of church doctrine and ecclesial politics. 

The question for me, and maybe for any skeptics of the declaration, is whether we can give John MacHale’s soul-purifying exclamation, “I believe!” 

The question for me, and maybe for any skeptics of the declaration, is whether we can give John MacHale’s soul-purifying exclamation, “I believe!” 

By “I believe!” I do not mean necessarily an instant “I agree!” with whatever the church says whenever it says it. God knows, those days are probably over. But when it comes to such challenging church pronouncements, maybe a Cartesian, atomized, capitalist, great-man-theorist, solo-cockpit, bootstrappy, everything-on-my-own-terms, late-modern Christian disciple like myself can at least declare: “I believe that God is in there. I believe that God’s will is at work.”

Our task is to look at hard or strange or seemingly “crafty” teachings of the church like this one as mediated by what the church actually is—the body of Christ. And when I do so, then, frankly, I realize one simple thing: It will all work out. The church and Vatican and papacy that produced “Fiducia Supplicans,” regardless of how I feel about them, will all be O.K.

St. Ignatius writes in the Spiritual Exercises that it is “presupposed” of Christians to “be more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement rather than condemn it as false.” Loyal devotion to the church means listening carefully to its difficult proposals, trying to find what is good, asking for clarification and being patient with its failings. If the statement is wrong, one tries to “correct it with love.” Ultimately, writes Ignatius, “in every good way” one should try to “save” that proposal. This, according to Ignatius, is called being Christian. 

And this is not just about such wooly matters as controversial Vatican pronouncements. 

I once heard an earnest and devout young Catholic wonder aloud if it was maybe O.K. to sip one’s coffee during Mass. I lost my mind. (Gently, I hope—she is after all, a co-worker, one we would like to keep.) My childhood pastor rose up in my brain and had an apoplectic fit. Coffee…in the pews…during the liturgy… 

In a small church in the ranching lands of western Nebraska, I once saw a man, a man who was an usher, a man who was an usher standing in the sanctuary worshiping at the holy and perfect sacrifice of the Mass…in jean shorts.

Jean shorts. At Mass. A grown man. Wearing them. 

The 18th-century French priest and writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade once wrote, “Perfection consists in doing the will of God, not in understanding his designs.” Perfection, drawing near to God, can come from drawing near to what is disturbing. And trusting that, though I don’t fully get it, through these beverage and church-wear and blessing disturbances, God is at work in me, in us. Telling us it will be just fine.

Saying “it will be just fine,” is not a soothing pastoral blanket thrown upon all sides of an issue to ensure that everyone’s opinion feels validated, dampening conflict and eliding debate. No. Coherence about theology and liturgy and pastoral practice—it matters. So we make our cases, we marshall our arguments. We strive to accept, struggle to accept, follow our consciences. (The African bishops managed to reject the blessings of couples in irregular situations...in agreement with the pope. And then other African bishops re-agreed with the possibility of blessings after that.) It honestly feels like kind of a mess. But on my more charitable days, I could reframe it as weirdly refreshing. 

Because amid all the wrestling with theology we do, maybe our job is also to notice what is being done to us. To behold the way God uses vexing things like conflict in the church to work on us, to purify us. 

Amid all the wrestling with theology we do, maybe our job is also to notice what is being done to us. To behold the way God uses vexing things like conflict in the church to work on us, to purify us. 

In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” Mrs. Turpin has a vision in which all the sinners of the world are lined up marching into heaven. Bringing up the rear are people like her, “accountable as they always had been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior.” But they are shocked to find that “even their virtues were being burned away” before they could enter the Kingdom.

When the keepers of all orderly theology are thrown off our game, when we don’t get precisely what we want, we are having our virtues burned away. The human certainties we are attached to are being cast out so we can become attached more purely to Christ. So our lives are less about what we want and more about what God wants. 

To echo what Gamaliel said to the Sanhedrin about the first disciples, let this declaration go. Cast it out from the hyper-analytical and schismatic fears of the mind. If it is of human origin, it will fragment and fade away. But if it comes from God, nothing on earth can drive it off. 

This whole controversy, if nothing else, reminds me that there are blessings in the first place. There are traditional formulas (“The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord make his face shine upon you…”) that, when spoken in a particular way by a particular person, do a particular thing. A thing beyond what I can do myself. 

And the act of asking for a blessing from someone who is not me, seeking metaphysical help from a priest, acknowledging that there is a truth beyond that which I can formulate myself: All of that agitates against the very same ego-driven, atomized, self-sufficient, Western, bootstrappy “I am my own church” attitude of the late-modern liberal consensus. 

Two people go up to a priest and say, in effect: “We know the church considers our union sinful. It does not approve, and will not endorse. But from that church, we want a blessing anyway. Why? Because we need it.”

You want belief, you want humility? There it is. Right there. Credo.

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