A Church in Flux

Book cover
The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernityby Ed. by Michael J. Lacey And Francis OakleyOxford Univ. Press. 392p $35

At the heart of the crisis of authority in modern Catholicism is the lack of connection between the authority claimed by the magisterium in questions of conscience and belief and what the faithful are willing to accept. And the gap continues to widen. Modern Catholics, at least in North America and Europe, insist on their ability to think for themselves, even if Vatican officials, members of the hierarchy and even many of those preparing for the priesthood continue to presume a world of deference to their authority that no longer exists.

This is the thesis of the present volume, edited by Michael Lacey and Francis Oakley. Their purpose is to contribute to an intra-Catholic dialogue. To illustrate this they have assembled an excellent collection of essays, sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California.


The first essays provide some historical background. Oakley returns to the argument he sketched in an earlier volume; he maintains that the conciliarist constitutionalism of the councils of Constance (1414-18) and Basel (1431-49), recognizing the rights of bishops in extraordinary cases over popes, endured in universities and religious orders down to the latter half of the 19th century, in spite of the defeat of the conciliarist party at Basel. He sees its later rejection not as doctrinal development but as a radically discontinuous change in the church’s self-understanding. Lacey traces Leo XIII’s arguments against liberalism and popular sovereignty, concerned as he was to defend the unity of throne and altar as the modern democratic nation-state was emerging. Joseph Komonchak gives a nuanced interpretation of Pope Benedict’s 2005 address to the Roman Curia, contrasting a “hermeneutics of discontinuity or rupture” with “the hermeneutics of reform.” He sees Benedict’s aim as defending a “continuity of principles,” to persuade traditionalists like the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre of the legitimacy of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

The second section looks at various theological, canonical and philosophical issues. Francis Sullivan, raising the question of how particular traditions might differ from authentic embodiments of the Tradition, traces developments that effectively reversed longstanding positions, using slavery, religious liberty, salvation outside the church and capital punishment (undergoing change) as examples. His conclusion is that some longstanding traditions are really human traditions, not authentic expressions of the word of God.

Using a concept from Charles Taylor, John Beal argues that canon law is still embedded in a “baroque social imaginary,” for it provides for no separation of powers, while bishops and pastors are accountable only to their superiors, not to those they serve. Gerard Mannion’s article on the magisterium suggests that “dissent” in a church that leaves little room for genuine debate, discussion and the lived experience of people and blurs gradations in teaching authority is another name for having the courage of one’s convictions or doubts.

Lisa Sowle Cahill shows how Catholic moral theology since Vatican II has become more biblically based and focused on relations, more integrated with social ethics and done by lay theologians as well as clergy. Cathleen Kaveny calls for a renewal of the casuistical tradition in Catholic theology—that is, an effort to integrate principles and rules with particular factual circumstances in regard to particular cases. She laments the lack of a common formation for Catholic moralists today such as once was provided for priests being trained to hear confessions. Charles Taylor, writing on magisterial authority, regrets that too often authority transgresses the contingency of moral judgments or falsely sacralizes simplistic readings of the natural law or historically based conceptions of gender, using homosexuality or women’s ordination as examples. He also calls for a greater respect for the “enigmatic,” reminding his readers that the prophetic spirit cannot be confined to one hierarchical level.

The final section addresses practical questions. The sociologist William D’Antonio and his associates argue from their surveys that the Catholic Church in the United States has become virtually a voluntary association, with Catholics increasingly finding authority in their individual consciences. In a fascinating article that traces the pre-history of the birth control controversy, Leslie Tentler shows how confessors, particularly after 1965, were largely responsible for this new emphasis on conscience. Uncomfortable with church teaching against birth control, they encouraged married penitents to follow their consciences, with a resulting decline in the number of penitents and a loss of authority for confessors, particularly in sexual matters. As an educated laity became increasingly autonomous morally, the church drifted into irrelevancy.

Finally Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., who has long studied trends in the formation of priests, paints a disheartening picture of the relations between priests and parishioners in the future. She outlines the differences between older priests, who see themselves as “servant leaders,” ready to collaborate with the laity and lay ministers, and younger priests and seminarians, often called “John Paul II priests,” who subscribe to a cultic model of priesthood, stressing separateness, an ontological difference from the laity and an ecclesiology less related to Vatican II. With the shortage of priests, these younger priests no longer face a long apprenticeship before becoming pastors; many are made pastors within three years or less of ordination. The influx of seminarians today from other countries (about 25 percent), many with weak academic backgrounds, has led to adjustments in seminary curricula. Furthermore, perhaps one-third of seminarians have experienced a “reconversion.” Unfamiliar with parish life, many tend to be inflexible, overly scrupulous and fearful.

The book, with its balanced and scholarly essays, represents a sober assessment of contemporary Catholicism. In his epilogue, Oakley notes four common themes: the deepening divisions over the interpretation of Vatican II and between clergy and laity; an “ecclesiological monophysitism” that stresses the unchanging divine dimension of the church at the expense of the confusion, variability and sinfulness that accompanies its embodied existence; the fact of change, everywhere apparent but too often unacknowledged; and the efforts of authority to impose all-or-nothing teachings on the faithful. This is a book that should be widely read by bishops as well as theologians.

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8 years 11 months ago
"This book should be widely read by blishops..." You have got to be kidding. Can you name one bishop out of the hundreds who would read this book? The Church has been my life but right now I can't find any smart people who are taking it seriously. 
8 years 11 months ago
"This book should be widely read by bishops..." Are you kidding? Can you name me one bishop among the hundreds who would read this book? The Church is my life but the bishops aren't even a remote part of my Church any more. I am so discouraged. I don't know any smart people who are taking them seriously these days.
Paul Ferris
8 years 11 months ago
"This book with its balanced and scholarly essays."...at least in the opinion of Thomas Rausch S.J. The problem is I have met Jesuits who would seriously disagree with  Fr Rausch....there is no dialogue in the church on these issues...only two camps...claiming balance and scholarship...

Catholics have lost of sense of who Jesus Christ is or can be today....and all these debates are not really helping I am afraid...
Paul Ferris
8 years 11 months ago
Take as an example the debate over abortion.  Two camps...one camp wants to defend exceptions that seem to me justifiable....case of rape and incest or life of mother...

Another camp says that the number of abortions have reached epidemic proportions 40% of preganancies in New York...abortions in the hundreds of thousands and even millions...

These camps argue at cross purposes....no dialogue

Where is the balance ????
8 years 11 months ago
To look at the picture through the small frame of one issue is to negate what I thught Fr. Rausch's review captured as a good synopsis of where things are and some of the major issues in the divide.
I want to say particularly i agree that with current diocesan seminary training, the outlook for easing that division at the parish level is indeed grim.
Finally, teching authority is deeply rooted in credibility; arguments grounded in "I sy so" will only provoke more division as well.
Paul Ferris
8 years 11 months ago

I agree with Robert Nunez that Fr. Rausch book review was very well done. I don't know if I will get around to reading the book but I am sure I would find it interesting and informative. I did not mean to evaluate his thoughts with one example. My point is that analysis of the these issues have gone on for decades and still we see Catholic theologians and intellectuals in debates with "conservative" EWTN Catholics laity and clergy. Nothing ever gets resolved.

And to think that the Councils of Constance and Basil have anything to do with the life of real people today is to me a stretch. I am a cradle Catholic and will die a Catholic but lately the best way for me to grow spiritually is to read Protestant thelogian NT Wright or the Philokalia because those readings help me to grow spiritually.

Sorry if my comment is off the point.

Bill Taylor
8 years 11 months ago

I was one of those priests who ended up telling people to follow their conscience. I had read Humanae Vitae several times and found it unconvincing-with a natural law argument that seemed to be based more on the inviolable demands of sexual plumbing rather than the reality of two people facing life...with its frequent appeal to authority, the weakest of all modern arguments...realizing that Pope Paul had refused to listen to the commission he had appointed, which disagreed with him, even after he stacked it with conservative bishops...and aware that Pope Paul, the hierarchy, and I shared one thing: We did not understand the realities of married life because we were not married people.

I still think that prayerful married people aware that part of their vocation is the cross, who are open to the Holy Spirit, are better judges of their reality than myself or any pope. I do not quite understand how this is "relaltivism." I would call it reality.

What destroyed the authority of the Church? Priests who told married people to follow their consciences, or a pope who tried to force his opinions down the throats of people who had their own sacrament to live, with the wisdom and help of the spirit that comes with it?

8 years 11 months ago


David Pasinski
8 years 11 months ago
Thank you for af ine review- even though the content sounds depressing.  The $35 price tag is steep for all except those with the greatest interests- and I wonder if the bishops are in the group! When one considers their buckling under to the demands of  Rome in the Missal debacle that is (supposedly) to be implemented, there is little hope that they'll see themselves as heirs to any conciliarist history! And my expereince of the younger seminarians and clergy... well, good MEN, I trust, but far, far afield from so many faithful....Rahner's "winter in the Church" is too apparent.
Michael Barberi
8 years 11 months ago
Bravo William Taylor for your honest and wise remarks.

This book sounds like another history book written by revisionists who have zero credibility with the Magisterium, orthodox traditionalists and bishops. Anyone who has studied moral theology knows the history. The issue is "what do we do about our Crisis in Truth?"

The problem with the so-called debate is that "revisionist theologians" only find a home for their essays in a book published by another revisionist as Editor, a book representing a collection of essays from different authors. There are exceptions. Journals such as Theological Studies, The Thomism, Communio, and Logos rarely publish essays that are in tension with a Church teaching. When they do, they are rebuked by the CDF. 

This does not mean that the "debate" over the many issues that divide our Church and have caused a "crisis in truth" does not exist. It is alive and well. Unfortunately, few traditionalist theologians, bishops and priests ever read the Non-Orthodox, Anti-Assenting, Heritical Opinions of These Mutineers. God forbid should they read anything written by the informed pilgrim, regardless if he/she raises legitmate philosophical and theological arguments worthy of their most profound reflection.   

Frankly, Mr. Rausch should have published a book along the lines of "It Is Time For a Solution: How Can The Catholic Church Heal The Profound Disagreement Between the Vatican, and the General Laity, Theologians and Priests and Bring an End to Our Crisis in Truth". To this end, I draw everyone's attention to the outstanding essay surprisingly written by one of the most orthodox theologians, Germain Grisez in 1986, entitled "How To Deal With Theological Dissent". His suggested solution was an excellent starting point. Unfortunately, it went into the "circular file" of many bishops.
Jim McCrea
8 years 11 months ago

Gee, Michael: I'm glad to see that you are so objective about these topics. Does this mean that you won't be reading the book?


I'm sure that your "tell it as it is" attitude will bring about an instant conversion experience among those Non-Orthodox, Anti-Assenting, Heritical Opinionated Mutineers.

ed gleason
8 years 11 months ago
Gee..Michael B. I so old I don't read books as old as your suggestion.. Grisez 1986
you must have liked it to remember it so vividly.
david power
8 years 11 months ago
I am hoping that somebody ,if not Fr Rausch, can explain to me what "reconversion" alludes to in the review.
Does it mean they thought about the Priesthood again and decided in or out?Or something else? 
I agree with the first comment made by Paul Ferris that we have simply lost Jesus Christ. Don Luigi Giussani said that "Man has abandoned the Church because the Church has abandoned Jesus".The only good thing going for it was replaced by everything and anything.
I think that a very very small percentage of people are cut out to live their lives tugging at the Papal apron strings but the majority of mankind has gone in search of the light elsewhere.
They will not return.    
Michael Barberi
8 years 11 months ago
@Jim McGrea and Ed Gleason

If you are familiar with my bloggings, you should have realized that I was being facetious and meant no disrepect. If you also read Grisez's article you would quickly determine that his suggested solution to the profound dissent with the Church, was for the pope to call a special synod of bishops to address this crisis of truth that wasin full swing in 1986 and continues to this day. Grisez proposed the pope call for a special synod of bishops in a formal process where the bishops would listen to a well organized debate between traditionalist and revisionsit theologians on the many issues that have caused a crisis of truth. Then retire to reflect of both the written materials and verbal debates. The bishops would be allowed to raise questions during the debates, but also raise questions after refection to focus theologians on the next series of discussions. Some issues all or a majority would agree on, some issues would require further refinement, and some issues the majority would clearly condemn for good reasons. To the extend possible, the pope would instruct and encourage an open debate with no second agendas or ecclesial bullying.

Grisez was a orthodox theologian but he recognized that each side of the theological spectrum had intransigent positions.  The only way to bridge the divide was to attempt to come together in communio in the spirit that Christ. The "us against them" mentality that characterized our Church was not a solution but a further reason for our lack of solidarity. The most important of Grisez's suggestions was for the pope to lead the synod fathers to reach a concensus and agreement on each issue.

As for Fr. Rausch's book, I meant no disrepect. Frankly, we have enough history books. This does not mean we should stop writing about history; nor did I intend to cast a negative opinion upon the contents of this specific book (which I have not read). This book may have redeeming value for some people, but it does not focus on a solution, or at least to propose one. IMO it was more rehash than innovation. Yes, I will not be reading this book, not because I am "closed minded", but rather because I prefer to read other books. My library consists of an equal number of books authored by traditionalists and revisionists, inclusive of the writings of popes.

I am not naive or idealogical minded to believe that an epiphany will ocurr in my lifetime. If my choice of words  or my "tell it as it is" approach mislead you, then I hope you will accept this explanation as an apology.
Michael Barberi
8 years 11 months ago
@Jim McCrea:

Just to be clear Jim, I don't like assigning labels, something the Church does repeatedly to anyone that does not agree with every Church utterance.  The labels assiged to revisionists are frankly degrogatory and further diviide us. By being facetious, I wanted to draw attention to this. A conversion will occur only when we give eveyone a voice on controversial issues. In the end, Grisez's solution will not convert everyone on every issue. However, the Church should acknowledge that it is permissible for Catholics never to go against their informed conscience and provide the guidelines for this. What we have now is an affirmation that you should never go against your informed conscience and an assertion that an individual conscious can err, together with a statement that the Church's Magisterioum is protected by the Holy Spirit against error. So, just follow the pope's opinion. This gets us no where. I confine my comments to certain sexual ethical teachings that have been at the center of this crisis of truth.
David Cruz-Uribe
8 years 11 months ago
@David Power

Reconversion refers to someone who was baptised Catholic and fell away from the faith, either into some Protestant/Evangelical tradition or something else, and then returned to the Church as an adult.  My guess is that the point being made here is that these seminarians have no experience of Church as lived out in a parish, and are bringing to it some idealized model which does not correspond well to the often messy reality of life in community.
david power
8 years 11 months ago
Thanks for the clarification. 
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