Doctrine extends a helping hand, not a wagging finger

If this October is anything like last year’s, the press covering the Synod of Bishops will focus almost exclusively on homosexuality and the possibility of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receiving Holy Communion. That emphasis is understandable, since there is certainly division among Catholics on both issues.

Not surprisingly, the press frames the synod as merely a political contest boiling down to which “side” has the numbers to win. This approach ignores the fact that the synod’s pastoral conversation about homosexuality, divorce and the sacraments will be framed by the church’s faith, including the articulation of that faith in doctrine.

Advertisement

For many members of the Christian community, however, the invocation of “doctrine” might suggest the death of all hope. A popular perception of doctrine is that it is a set of rigid, uncompromising propositions that are handed down from on high: one obeys doctrine; one does not tend to look to it for help during life’s difficulties.

For the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner (1904–84), on the other hand, doctrine enables the church to speak to the real problems of real people. Father Rahner calls doctrine that which, when put into words, proclaims the faith of the church in ordinary language, thereby leading people more deeply into relationship with God. Put differently, doctrine invites people into friendship with God by proclaiming what the church knows about God.

Doctrine extends to members of the church a helping hand rather than a wagging finger. This makes sense, given that doctrine exists to facilitate a relationship with God, not to provide instructions for avoiding divine wrath. Consequently, doctrine, like anything that reaches across cultures and epochs to address itself to human needs and desires, can fully make sense only in the context of those needs and desires. It can never be an abstract or technical truth, particular to one time and one place.

Calling on doctrine to fortify our relationships with God is not the same as saying that the church needs to produce ever better, ever clearer explanations that cover all eventualities and all particularities. Indeed, attempting such a task would be futile.

One partner in the relationship—God—remains, as Father Rahner would put it, the “incomprehensible mystery” who exceeds our grasp, while the other partner—humanity—is constantly changing. Our concerns, ideas, languages and capacities are not identical to those of the generation before us, to say nothing of how different they are from those of our ancestors from centuries ago.

So doctrine must be dynamic enough to accompany the church in every generation, yet also reliable enough to teach us something about the unchanging God and to guide us in our life as a pilgrim church. This tension between reliability and connection to pastoral reality is not new; it has been present throughout the history of the church.

The argument that a given doctrine did not originate in response to pastoral challenges, that it is “unalloyed” or “chemically pure,” to borrow helpful descriptors from Father Rahner, is tantamount to claiming that this particular doctrine floated down to the church from heaven. In fact, not only have all doctrines been the product of a preceding theological debate arising out of the complex historical situations in which the church lives its faith; they also, most important, undergo a process of reception, interpretation and application by councils, synods and local churches. Doctrines, then, renew the church or they die, remaining frozen in time, no longer enriching ecclesial life.

The church’s history manifests this dynamic countless times. An early instance is in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which calls Jesus Christ “consubstantial with the Father.” The title of the creed uses the names of both councils because the debate during and after Nicaea (325) regarding the use of “consubstantial” was so contentious that the bishops wanted to return to their local churches and gather in regional synods to consider the matter at greater length. Constantinople (381) did not bring about universal agreement, but it forged consensus and gave the church a statement of its belief, thus producing doctrine. Even in its “final” form, the creed continues to be interpreted by the church.

Of course, the church does more than look backward, remembering its history. Because the church’s primary orientation is forward, destined as it is for the fullness of the kingdom of God, doctrine that remains in conversation with pastoral realities proves to be not only a necessary companion but an ideal one along the pilgrim way.

Naturally, an ongoing conversation involving doctrine and pastoral realities carries risks with it. While striving to listen to the whisperings of the Spirit, sometimes the church mis-hears the Spirit or is unduly influenced by other voices. One must always guard against the possibility, in other words, that human beings are hearing themselves rather than God.

Father Rahner is not unaware of these risks. “The danger of the human factor simply remains a danger,” he writes, “and no precautionary measures exist which can exclude it unambiguously at the very start.... It is the promise of the Spirit and that alone which prevents the final realization of an ever-present danger.”

Informed by Father Rahner, and particularly by a number of articles in his multi-volume Theological Investigations, I offer three questions for the church to consider as it thinks through the challenging pastoral issues pertaining to its life today.

Where to begin?

It might seem obvious to begin with some doctrine of the church as a point of departure. Father Rahner would counsel otherwise. Precisely because doctrine flows from the church’s experience of the living God, the starting point must be predoctrinal, which, in this instance, means prepropositional as well.

To help explain what prepropositional knowledge means, Father Rahner introduces the example of a young man falling in love. The young man’s clumsy attempts to articulate his feelings to himself and to others are not, in themselves, the start of his love. He has an ineffable feeling, something precognitive that must be recognized as something.

But for the young man’s love to grow, this feeling must be expressed in some way. Father Rahner writes, “Reflection upon oneself...in propositions...is thus a part of the progressive realization of love itself; it is not just a parallel phenomenon, without importance for the thing itself.” An experience of love is neither the feeling alone, nor the recognition of the feeling alone, but precisely the experience of recognizing and naming what one is feeling. That is when we encounter the reality of love.

Father Rahner claims, “We discover the possible from the real.” And so the answer to the question of where to begin is simple: not with our propositions about what is real but with the real itself. This, after all, is how Jesus’ first friends encountered him. He was not consubstantial with anyone, as far as they were concerned, nor were they worried about how many natures or wills he possessed; he said and did things that first made them reorient their whole lives; only later did they rethink them.

The church of today is not so different. When we address challenging pastoral situations, we should not immediately look for a doctrinal explanation or solution but should first make sure that we understand what is going on in the experience of the people affected.

Authentic use of Scripture

Since Scripture is the church’s norma normans non normata, all authentic doctrine must conform to it. Any reading or application of doctrine that contradicts Scripture must be regarded as a false appropriation of the church’s teaching.

It is important, however, to avoid the ways that Scripture has been erroneously used in the production of the church’s doctrine. Father Rahner recognizes two of these patterns that seem to tempt the church in every age.

First, a “one-sided view of Scripture” treats the biblical text as if “each of its assertions [were] dogma and not merely theology.” Scripture, then, does not amount to a handbook of doctrinal statements waiting to be cut-and-pasted into catechisms. Scripture contains both the original kerygma and the apostolic church’s reflection upon it. Consequently, approaches to contentious issues in the life of the church will avoid abusing the biblical text and drawing false conclusions from it only when their reading of the text is subjected to the most outstanding exegesis. Rigorous exegesis, as the Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” teaches, will produce “a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture,” thus allowing “the judgment of the church [to] mature.”

Second, the four canonical Gospels, even the words attributed to Jesus himself, are not immune to misuse. Father Rahner writes, “[The modern theologian] can precisely not simply present every saying placed upon the lips of Jesus by the evangelists as his ipsissima verba.” In its substance, this second way of misusing of Scripture does not differ from the first, but it bears mentioning in the church today, especially given the frequency with which certain words attributed to Jesus—the Matthean (19:7-9) and Marcan (10:11-13) sayings on divorce come to mind—have been recently invoked as demanding careful attention, most especially when real exegetical questions are dismissed on the grounds that the “plain sense” of Jesus’ words is obvious.

How to proceed?

Determining how to proceed can begin by identifying past and current patterns we need to avoid or grow beyond. Father Rahner points us to three.

The first, what I name the “accretion model,” holds that approaching a pastoral problem in conversation with the church’s doctrine consists of brushing away whatever accretions—historical, theological, political, etc.—have obscured the church’s view of a given doctrine. But this assumes that there was once a perfectly pristine doctrinal statement that became obscured and is now waiting to be (re)discovered. Father Rahner rejects this, believing instead, “All human statements, even those in which faith expresses God’s saving truths, are finite. By this we mean that they never declare the whole of a reality.” 

The second is the “explication model,” which would have the church address pastoral problems by taking a particular doctrine, with its inevitable limitedness, and using logic or reason to deduce other doctrines from it. This treats doctrine as a box containing a variety of objects rather than as a window to help see something non- or pre-propositional. Father Rahner makes clear, however, that for the church to listen to God’s word means more than drawing deductions from it. The church engages in “a reflection on the propositions heard in living contact with the thing itself,” that is, as it cultivates its relationship with God in light of its present historical situation.

The third model Father Rahner rejects is what I call the “isolation model” and its many manifestations. They all have one commonality: they look at a particular doctrine with tunnel vision, sometimes ignoring other relevant doctrines, or important cultural contexts, or even the liturgical life of the church. Father Rahner rejects this on account of his belief that, “In the last resort every reality, even the most limited, is connected with and related to every other reality,” and hence, in his view, all forms of the isolation model fail.

All three of these patterns can be seen in the church’s recent conversation: “We must return to Jesus’ precise teaching about marriage”; “But you are assuming that Jesus really meant to legislate”; “But you would abandon all doctrine on the principle that the only thing that matters is that people love, by which you mean ‘not offend’ one another.” And so on. Dialogue like this does not appear to be a fruitful way forward and indeed barely manages to be dialogue.

So if these are patterns the church ought to avoid when addressing a challenging pastoral situation by means of doctrine, then how could it proceed more fruitfully?

Though frustrating on one level, it is also liberating to recognize, as Father Rahner does, that “there is then no adequate formal theory of the development of [doctrine] which would be in itself sufficient to permit a prognosis for the future.”  Reflecting upon doctrine in light of real pastoral problems is not like baking a cake with the aid of a detailed recipe.

Lacking such a formula, it is as absolutely vital that history, context and the real play a seminal role in such reflection. In Father Rahner’s words, “God’s revealing Word is directed through the medium of the historical process at the total history of humanity....” From there, the church continues to discern what the Spirit is saying:

The Church as a whole considers a thought which grows out of the whole content of its faith: it ripens, it merges ever more fully with the whole, while the Church lives it and perfects it. And so the Church of a certain day, if we may say so, finds itself simply there, believing in this special manner.

Perhaps Pope Francis himself best embodies this posture of active waiting. Lately, he has exhorted those around him to practice parrhesia—speaking boldly and frankly. This same parrhesia, and its underlying trust in the Spirit, ought to characterize the whole church, most especially when it engages the important work of reflecting upon difficult and multidimensional pastoral situations. And this challenges all of us to grow as people whose deepest desire is to be attentive to the Spirit.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
John Halbleib
2 years 1 month ago
We have been watching every speech/homily of His Holiness Pope Francis I. He has tailored each to his audience, but has remained focused on human rights, human dignity, and humanity’s shared obligation to one another. He has consistently referenced portions of the Declaration of Independence and mentioned two champions of the Declaration of Independence – Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. (sometimes naming them and other times quoting them). The founders of the United States of America (as well as the first members of We the People) fully understood Pope Francis I’s description of the hardships caused by unfettered capitalism and markets without real limits. America’s founders rejected the notion that the few who possessed extraordinary wealth should rule. Rather, our founders and early members of We the People entered into an agreement among all Americans that all of our lives, fortunes and sacred honor should serve each member (and all members) of We the People. In other words, all Americans have already agreed with Pope Francis: “Money must serve, not rule!” The Agreement among We the People already mandates that wealth must serve to fulfill the human rights of all Americans and that the few who have extraordinary wealth shall not rule the many. The Declaration of Independence evidences all Americans’ agreement to Human Rights Capitalism. See https://goo.gl/AgAc2a From the lectern used by Lincoln when he delivered his Gettysburg Address, Pope Francis’ final message is for America to lead as it once did by honoring its original Agreement. In other words, he has challenged America to once again serve as a world leader based upon our Declaration of Independence. See https://goo.gl/AgAc2a
L J
2 years 1 month ago
Dear Fr Folan, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your great article on development of doctrine with an eye from Karl Rahner. I remember with fondness studying Rahner in my Jesuit college, and bantering around these mental gymnastics type exercises. They are sorely missed in our American milieu driven by partisan ideologies (left/right; conservative/liberal), "reality TV" (oxymoron), sensational "headlines" by all media outlets, and C/catholics vilifying each other in the name of God. You put a proper perspective on what the Council Fathers are about to do in Rome. We do well to pray for them, for those who distract us from God, and that we all live as Christ in a 'culture of encounter' AMDG
Luis Gutierrez
2 years 1 month ago
If we are to be grounded in reality, it seems to me that the sacramentality of male-female marriage is clear (the universal reality of concrete families, the fact that marriage is a sacrament, the meticulous exegesis of the theology of the body). What still needs to be discussed is the sacramentality of the Christ-Church nuptial mystery, and how it is made visible in all dimensions of Church life, including the historically male-only reality of the Church hierarchy. As long as the Christ-Church union is not made clearly visible in a male-female hierarchy, may other issues will remain barely visible and ill-defined, and therefore impossible to resolve. The male-only Church hierarchy is unnatural. Real families are male-female, in head as well as body. The first millennium was spent formulating an understanding of Christ. The second millennium was spent formulating an understanding of the Church, with Mary as prototype. Perhaps the third millennium is the time to deepen our understanding of the "great mystery" of Christ and Church, thereby liberating Church doctrine from patriarchal gender ideology.
Leonard Villa
2 years 1 month ago
A thoughtful essay but I would rather look to Blessed John Henry Newman and his essay and thoughts on doctrinal development than Father Rahner. I would also look to the classic formula of St. Vincent of Lerins regarding orthodoxy: that which has been believed in the Church "everywhere, always, by everyone. Yes indeed Scripture but not "Scripture alone" so that the living tradition of the Church is always a vital source of the belief and morals of the Church hence the importance of the Fathers. Yes indeed we must look to pastoral realities with respect to doctrine but we must never use the excuse of "pastoral realities" as a doctrinal source or oppose pastoral practice and doctrine relegating difficult doctrinal teachings to the realm of ideals as is done by some regarding the Church's teaching on contraception. Doctrine is often the call of the Church to conversion and for that God provides his grace. We hear that every Lent: Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.
Colin Donovan
2 years 1 month ago
The concluding thought of this essay is all well and good, we should indeed wait on the Holy Spirit to lead doctrinal development. But inherent in that waiting is the recognition that previous generations in the Church also waited, and guided by the Spirit they did eventually reach doctrinal conclusions. Unless we attribute to God a hopeless schizophrenia, that only our "waiting" can unravel, no amount of waiting will undo the conclusions of previous generations, or produce canonical or pastoral results in essential contradiction with them. I do not take the author to be claiming it would, though there are plenty of Catholics reading this who may conclude if we wait long enough it might.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 1 month ago
Very thoughtful article. A special warning to all theologians not to be so certain of their personal interpretation of this or that doctrine, unless it has been validated or promulgated by the Church's teaching authority. However, I would disagree somewhat with two interpretations. My reading of the Arian heresy is a little different. The vote at the Nicene Council (the 1st Ecumenical Council) in 325 AD for the “consubstantial” Creed was overwhelming (~300 for vs. 2 against) - we would say definitive or infallible today - but was not accepted by the Arian bishops – a politically powerful faction mostly outside the synod that persisted for a couple of centuries to undermine the orthodox teaching - not unlike the recalcitrant opposition today against many definitively declared moral teachings. Notice that the energy for the heterodoxy, then as now, came mostly from outside the Church, and many Catholics succumbed to the pressure and became semi-Arians. The next Council in Constantinople was called in 381 AD to decide on a new bishop of that city, to reiterate the teaching of the previous Council (it couldn't do otherwise), to further emphasize the Trinity by elaborating on the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and to combat formulations made by semi-Arians and other heresies (Macedonian, etc.). This is a great example of how we can be certain of definitive teaching as promulgated by the Church. Of course, “consubstantial” remains the infallible interpretation even today. Secondly, the phrase " Scripture is the church’s norma normans non normata" - is a sola scriptura standard and not a Catholic standard, which is better expressed in VC II Dei Verbum (10): "Sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church (Magisterium), in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls."
Paul Ferris
2 years 1 month ago
This article started with the understanding that the Synod was to discuss Homosexuality and Communion for Divorced Catholics who do not receive an annulment. Recently I came across a passage from Matthew chapter 9 verses 9 thru verse 13. It reads:The Call Of Matthew.."as Jesus passed from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the custom post. He said to him, 'Follow Me'. And he got up and followed him. While he was at his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples: 'Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners ?' He heard this and said, 'those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.' Go and learn the meaning of the words: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to the call the righteous but sinners.'" The author, Peter Folan,S.J. says the discussions and debates of the coming Synod should be looked upon, not from the prism of politics, but from the perspective of faith. I think this passage from Matthew says it all: Go and LEARN the meaning of the words: I desire MERCY not sacrifice. Pope Francis meeting with his gay married friends in the United States and his appointment of Cardinal Kasper to lead the Synod is the Pope's way of following Jesus. Karl Rahner and Cardinal Newman were both great Catholic theologians but the Gospel of Matthew and the witness of Pope Francis are even better. Final comment: Fantastic article by Jesuit priest, Peter Folan. He lives up to his name Peter.
E.Patrick Mosman
2 years 1 month ago
The following is an excerpt from a exchange with a Jesuit priest in 2004 who supported a more " open and welcoming" Church, ala the Church of England, in order to attract more adherents. "In the former strongholds of the Catholic Church, fundamentalist, evangelical, conservative Christian missionaries are making significant inroads in Central, South America and the Caribbean and are ordaining new local ministers. This same trend can be found among Hispanic immigrants in the US. What are they doing right to attract new adherents and ministers? What is the Catholic Church doing wrong to lose followers and potential priests? In England, the Church of England is a shell of its former self with less than one million attendees at Sunday service. The CofE has latched onto every liberal belief and action, which has not stemmed the loss or increased membership, and has attempted to maintain its clergy by accepting women and gays. On the other hand, fundamentalist Baptists and the strict tenants of Islam are attracting adherents in the UK. What are they doing right to attract new adherents and ministers? What is the Church of England doing wrong to lose followers and ministers as it has had married ministers and now has adjusted to and accepted even more liberal proposals than are being considered or proposed for the Catholic Church as the panacea? One wonders what those Church of England/Episcopalians who left their church to become Catholics because of its conservative beliefs must think of Pope Francis and his liberal advisers? Even small successes such as those by the 'conservative/traditionalists' Christian communities need to be re-examined for what they can teach and so to the failures of the 'liberal' experiments in the Catholic Church in Europe and elsewhere and the Church of England."
Henry George
2 years 1 month ago
Valid points which few Liberal Catholics have any answers for.
Henry George
2 years 1 month ago
Are there truths of the Catholic Faith or not. If everything is open to re-interpretation and revision then what can we believe ? Why do we suppose that Catholics after "Vatican II' are so much wiser and holier than those who lived before the Council ?
Phil Tanny
2 years 1 month ago
I find it interesting that Jesus was able to launch all of Christianity in just a few years, an achievement beyond comparison in the Western world, without much if any reference to sophisticated intellectual theology. His genius seemed to be his ability to share profound truths about the human condition in a way that the humblest among us could grasp. Perhaps there comes a point when being intelligent, educated and sophisticated becomes a liability instead of an asset when considering the message of love that Jesus shared. Perhaps we make it complicated to sidestep the ruthless simplicity of love, to give ourselves many hurdles which must be overcome before we can be who we already know we should be? Every day each of us faces a series of ordinary daily life situations where we are called upon to choose between the tiny prison cell of "me", and love/God. When we love, we are with God. When we don't love, we are on our own. The vast majority of the time, we already know which we have chosen. Is it really so complicated?
Ernest Martinson
2 years 1 month ago
As Americans, we take a puritanical pride in growing more doctrines or laws and regulations. Any perceived problem requires another law to control others living in error. Something is to be said for seeing things in black and white. What is black can then be segregated through more modern Jim Crow laws.
michael burke
2 years ago
I think this article talks about process. Doctrine, say the Trinity or marriage or abortion, does not change, rather Our approach to errors of the time. Rhaner is not opposed to change but also is opposed to Errors. This is always the tension, and the more catholic one becomes through grace, the more one obeys the doctrine. Example is the view toward suicides, who were allowed burial in holy ground after a long time when this was forbidden. Still suicide is objectively wrong and subject to the scrutiny of the victum their state of mind, capacity for free will etc..........this was process, as the church examined over time, the subjective possibilities of same. There can be no change in marriage for example because it goe to the route of natural law and chuck theology of the body, nor abortion.............clarity is not a shckle rather the guidepost of our journey in faith.
William Rydberg
2 years ago
To start, a Doctrine and a Dogma are two vastly different things, for one, no Dogma is superior to another. The Church has understood Dogma to be revealed. That the meaning although ultimately mysterious is absolutely true, and the meaning plain - no meta-language here. There are no hierarchy’s of truth, because its about a mystery revealed. In a manner we get a glimpse of “What no eye has seen, nor ear has heard..”. Concerning Fr Rahner SJ, I have great respect for him as a Religious and a teacher. In my opinion , when he appeared on the scene, he saw that parts of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition was basically stuck, going nowhere confined to preserving philosophical/theological Catholic Teachings rather than adding to same. The most eminent scholars were folks who put together great references and codices, but nobody seemed to adding to same. Naturally, All areas were not like this, I think of the Ressourcement and I think of the tremendous work done here in Canada (I am a Canadian), as the many other areas that are even now bearing fruit. But we should also keep in mind that in his efforts to make a way for the Holy Spirit to speak, he made mistakes In my humble opinion that we are still dealing with today. Not to bore the readers, but for example, he was instrumental in the Demise of the great Denzinger. He was Editor in the 1950’s, and they even changed the Referencing System, which to a System based upon references and codices basically killed it. Finally, this in my opinion “TOO CUTE” comments in the text of this article about “COMING DOWN FROM HEAVEN..” commentary is offensive to any Catholic that thinks about what is being said. Because everything from the Incarnation to the coming of the Holy Spirit is about “COMING DOWN FROM HEAVEN.” AMDG CSSML
Brian McDonough
2 years ago
Regarding those Bishops who opposed Francis at the Synod, he has the numbers in his favor. Francis not only "holds the cards," he is the "House." Francis has appointed 32 Cardinals since February 22, 2014 or about 16 Cardinals a year. 18 of them are younger than 70, and 26 are younger than 80. Francis need only appoint 35 more Cardinals younger than 80 to have appointed 61 Cardinals younger than 80, and he will have appointed a majority of the 120 Cardinals younger than 80 who shall elect his successor. It is probable that Francis will reach that number over the next 3 years because 46 current Cardinals are over 85, and 22 of those are over 90. The probability that some of these Cardinals sadly may die over the next few years is relatively high, and Francis shall appoint their successors. Francis may also create new Cardinals in places where none existed because he already has done this 5 times. This Bishop of Rome also has been and shall continue to appoint Progressive Bishops and Archbishops [as he just did with Fr. Zuppi in Bologna and Fr. Lorefice in Palermo], some of whom he shall elevate to Cardinals. Finally, if Francis is Pope another 5 years, then 46 of the current Cardinals, who were NOT appointed by Francis, shall be over 80 and unable to vote for a new Pope in 5 years. In 5 years, only 44 of the current Cardinals, who were NOT appointed by Francis, shall be younger than 80 and still be able to vote for Francis' successor; and many of them are Progressive because they voted for Francis as Pope. Therefore, Francis' successor shall be as Progressive as, or more Progressive than, Francis. It is written in the numbers. Francis not only "playa the game," he decides who "playa the game" that chooses his successor.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

James Comey is perhaps a better Niebuhrian than Niebuhr himself.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.November 20, 2017
“Not everything that is technically possible or feasible is therefore ethically acceptable.”
Gerard O’ConnellNovember 20, 2017
I have been trying with all my heart—with all my mind, with all my soul, to live peaceably with a terror that has been grafted onto me.
Robert I. CraigNovember 20, 2017
Image: iStock, (CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA) Composite: America
What ought to be the Ignatian contribution to the fight for racial justice, given our mission and our values?
Bryan N. MassingaleNovember 20, 2017