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.