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.
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.