Saturday, March 24, 2007

Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity

The St. Paul Pioneer Press published an interesting letter this past Monday by Phyllis Plum. Here’s what she had to say:

Those angry about Archbishop Harry Flynn’s nonsupport of New Ways Ministry speakers are not Catholics in practice and philosophy. Michael Bayly of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (which is also not a Catholic organization), claims being universal means accepting “diverse opinions.” Absolutes don’t work that way.

The universality of the Catholic Church means there is one way and truth involved; everyone is on the same page, or they aren’t members. That’s how membership works. I am tired of noisy groups pushing their view into tradition and absolute truth, seeking to change the rules and deny authority. A straight line can’t also be crooked.

So, what are we to make of our sister Phyllis’ charge that neither I, nor CPCSM, are Catholic in “practice and philosophy”?

What of her view of the Church as some type of exclusive club with clear and unchangeable rules?

A reaction against a certain type of authority

Well, first, it needs to be acknowledged that Ms. Plum’s reaction to people like me and groups like CPCSM, reflects a type of Catholic theology that, according to English Jesuit Philip Endean, is “shaped by a Counter-Reformation reaction against Protestantism, in particular against the possibility that a person’s private experience of God could serve as a source of religious authority overriding the Church’s official leaders.” (1) *

Endean’s reflections on such a theology can be found in his introduction to the book Karl Rahner: Spiritual Writings. Rahner, of course, is one of Catholicism’s great twentieth-century theologians. He was also a key figure at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and, as such, helped move the Church beyond the type of theology reflected in the writings of Ms. Plum, and thus the ghetto of neo-scholastic thinking.

Rahner was instrumental in developing and articulating an alternative theology to such a narrow and abstruse way of thinking, a theology that sought to “integrate the whole of Christian theology around one simple message: that God is a God of self-gift, a self-gift that can, however dimly and incompletely, be experienced.” (2)

A theology based on this understanding of God’s active presence in human life, notes Endean, is one that is open to “a permanent process of growth, interchange, and transformation.” (3)

It’s clear from Ms. Plum’s letter, and from recent comments left at the Wild Reed in response to this post, that such an ongoing process of “growth, interchange, and transformation” (especially as it relates to complex human realities such as gender and sexuality) is very frightening for some Catholics. And in order to deny and avoid such a process, many resort to “equat[ing] ecclesial fidelity with passive toadyism” – which for Endean, is “a temptation of modern Roman Catholics.” (4)

More than we know

As comfortable as it may be to wrap ourselves in all sorts of “absolutes” with regards to gender and sexuality, Endean, in reflecting on the work of Karl Rahner, nevertheless reminds us of the authentically Catholic perspective which recognizes that “dogmas of tradition exist not as truths complete in themselves, but rather as resources for helping us discover the ever greater glory . . . of the God whose gift of self pervades all possible experience.” (5)

Basically, to quote one of my favorite lines from the movie Ben-Hur: “The world is more than we know.”

And whereas I, and others, find hope in such a description of reality, there are those whose response is one of distrust and fear. As a result, some poor souls cling so desperately to aspects of the known that they prop them up as idols, from whose shadow they dare not venture (or allow others to venture) out into the world.

Yet as Endean reminds us, “Christian fidelity is not a matter simply of preserving a heritage unsullied, but rather of courageous engagement with what is new, with what seems strange.” (6)

His words recall those of Pope John XXIII: “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.”

Endean goes on to say that, “The proclamation of the gospel is permanently interactive: no one is untouched by the grace of God, and the proclaimed message will be heard aright only if it somehow interacts – in ways that might be surprising, creative, or unprecedented – with the self-gift of God already present. It follows, too, that Christianity is permanently growing and in process.” (7)

“What Christianity is committed to,” concludes Endean, “is not the claim that its traditions possess the whole truth, incontrovertibly, but rather the claim that its traditions possess one resource among others – admittedly a privileged and indispensable one – for continuing to discover God’s truth.” (8)

Understanding “the Church”

In light of this very Catholic way of understanding the ongoing process of discerning and discovering God’s truth, I, as a Catholic gay man, respectfully disagree with Phyllis Plum’s contention that the “one way and truth” of the Catholic faith excludes those who dissent from the supposed “rules” of our Catholic tradition.

An understanding of the Catholic Church as some kind of exclusive club with an inflexible set of rules fails to reflect basic Catholic theological tenets articulated by folks like Karl Rahner, as well as the example of community modeled by Jesus.

I think a better and more inviting way of understanding the Church than as an exclusive country club, is that of a shared pilgrimage of a diverse group of people united in their commitment to embody God’s loving and transforming presence through their words, actions, and relationships of compassion and justice.

Perhaps the commitment to embody such values should take precedence over “rules.” Jesus certainly wasn’t averse to breaking the religious rules of his day when responding to the demands of compassion and justice.

Those “noisy groups” that Plum says are seeking to change “the rules” of the Church, tend to be comprised of those who are willing to embark on those very Catholic journeys of “courageous engagement with what is new, with what seems strange.” They also tend to be people who have been denied any voice in developing the “rules” that folks like Phyllis Plum are so intent on lifting up as absolute and thus unchangeable.

But let’s get real. The Church’s understanding, and thus teaching (or “rules”) on human sexuality, has been primarily shaped by heterosexual men within a patriarchal culture. If we want teaching that truly reflects a universal - i.e., catholic - perspective, then a more diverse and inclusive range of voices and experiences needs to be taken into account – including the voices and experiences of women and gay people.

The role of the laity

Also, once we acknowledge the significant role that human experience plays in the process of continually discovering God's truth about human life and relationships, the role of the laity – all members of the laity – comes into much clearer focus.

Australian theologian Paul Collins, for instance, reminds us that, “Consulting the laity in the formulation of doctrine is part of Catholicism’s theological tradition. Also, the whole Church’s acceptance of papal and episcopal teaching is an integral part of testing the veracity of that teaching. The hierarchy does not have a monopoly on truth.” (9)

Collins finds support for such claims in the writings of the great English theologian, Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90), “who said unequivocally that the laity has to be consulted in matters of doctrine, especially when teachings concern their lives so intimately.” (10)

Wrote Newman: “The body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and . . . their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church.” (11)

Good news to share

Based on Ms. Plum’s view, I am presuming that she also believes that most Catholic heterosexual married couples are not actually Catholic, as, in reality, the vast majority of them, acting out of an informed conscience, do not consent to “the rules” when it comes to contraception. Yet we rarely hear the likes of Plum publicly denouncing dissent of this kind, perhaps because it’s easier for Catholic married couples to quietly dissent in this way. Most gay people, however, feel that they cannot simply quietly dissent, as such a secretive way of living puts us in the psychologically damaging and life-denying space of the closet.

Besides, we are compelled to lift our voices as we have good news to share: the loving and transforming presence of God is not limited to the impoverished teachings and rules of the Vatican. We have experienced this sacred presence in our lives and relationships.

In short, we’ve come to realize the ancient spiritual truth (and thus Catholic truth) that not only can our beliefs shape our reality, but our reality can and should shape our beliefs. That’s the kind of living, growing Catholic Church that most Catholics want to live in and contribute to.

Such an understanding of Church could be imagined as a great sheltering tree. Phyllis Plum is adamant that the Church can only be straight, never “crooked.” Yet just as a tree is comprised of different parts, both straight and curved, firm and supple, the Church too is not as rigid and uniform as some may wish it to be. Like a healthy tree, the Church needs both anchoring roots and growing branches that are reaching ever outwards. That such a reality leads to tension is inevitable. But such tension doesn’t have to be divisive or destructive. It can be creative and life-giving.

Accordingly, I believe that despite our differences, Phyllis Plum and I both have a place and role to play in the Catholic Church. And for me, that truth says much about the beauty and power of the Catholic faith.

1. Endean, P. (Ed.), Karl Rahner: Spiritual Writings (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005), p. 13.
2. Ibid., p. 26.
3. Ibid., pp. 26-27.
4. Ibid., p. 26.
5. Ibid., p. 27.
6-8. Ibid., p. 28.
9-10. Collins, P., Between the Rock and a Hard Place: Being Catholic Today (Sydney: ABC Books, 2004), p. 12.
11. Newman, J.H., On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, (1859), ed. John Coulson (London: Collins, 1961), p. 63.

* My sense is that Ms. Plum would have us relinquish the authority of our personal consciences in favor of the authority of the Magisterium. Yet if we did this, what then do we do with statements like the following:

“Above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of church authority, stands one’s own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of church authority.”

Such a statement explicitly differentiates between one’s “own conscience” and “church authority”. Yet is this statement simply the ramblings of a dissident theologian, a “militant secularist” in a Catholic disguise?

Actually, no, it’s not. They are, in fact, the words of Fr. Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), and he is explaining the authentic Catholic understanding of the primacy of conscience. The pope’s explanation is excerpted from a commentary on “Gaudium et Spes” (“The Church in the Modern World”) published in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (Vorgrimler, Herbert (Ed.), Burns and Oats, 1969, p. 134.)

Photography: Michael J. Bayly

Recommended Off-Site Links:

“It’s Time to Re-Evaluate Our Views on Human Sexuality” ( a response by Michael J. Bayly to a previous letter by Phyllis Plum), Pioneer Press, August 12, 2003.
Br. David Steindl-Rast on “A Revolution of Authority”

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Who Gets to be Called “Catholic” – and Why?
Comprehending the “Fullness of Truth”
The Many Forms of Courage
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
In the Garden of Spirituality: Joan Timmerman
Reflections on the Primacy of Conscience
The Question of an “Informed” Catholic Conscience
Keeping the Spark Alive: An Interview with “Modern Mystic” Chuck Lofy
The Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
Pan’s Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
The Onward Call

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