Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Treasure and the Dross

Over at the excellent Queering the Church, Terence has posted a reflection entitled, “Magisterium and Me.” Given the lively and insightful discussion concerning authority that took place in response to this recent Wild Reed post, I appreciate Terence’s sharing of his thoughts on both the “treasure and the dross” of the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Terence shared his perspective after a visitor to his blog suggested he leave Catholicism for Anglicism, where the type of reasoning favored by Terence, one that supposedly “evades the truth,” is readily accepted.

Interestingly, you may recall that the above-mentioned discussion on authority that took place here at The Wild Reed was one that was triggered by my
sharing of William Lindsey’s response to a similar demand that he leave the Church. Like both Terence and myself, William expresses disagreement with what the Church teaches about homosexuality. That, it seems, is reason enough for some fellow Catholics to demand that we be sent packing.

Troubling and tragic

I find such hostility to those who question and/or disagree in good conscience to be very troubling. I think it’s tragic that a very narrow and authoritarian model of church is being set up as the one and only way to be Catholic. As I’ve said before on these pages, I think it’s unhelpful and unhealthy to think of the hallmark of our faith as being one of unquestioning obedience.

Yet, sadly, there has always been a strain within Catholicism that has viewed “the Church” as, in the words of Catholic columnist and author Chris McGillion, “a kind of club with an inflexible set of rules, to which all its members must subscribe. Those who don’t . . . are made to feel unwelcome; those who question the rules are asked to leave or forced to go.”

I cannot help but wonder: Does this “kind of club” understanding of church reflect the example of community modeled by Jesus?

Is it the only way to view and understand the reality of church? Is it even an appropriate way to understand church?

What are other ways present in our Catholic tradition and experience?

Are some of these more equipped than others to emulate Jesus and thus invite and encourage people to flourish, both individually and communally?

Obedience as exploration and engagement

Of course, I’m not suggesting that obedience has no place in our Catholic faith. Nevertheless, I think a way of understanding obedience that is conducive to both individual and communal flourishing is sorely needed. One such understanding has been offered by theologian Diarmuid O’Murchu, who, in his book Poverty, Celibacy, and Obedience: A Radical Option for Life, notes that:

Obedience is not about submitting our will to a higher authority (why then did God give us a will in the first place?) but about exploring and proffering ever new ways to engage responsibly, collaboratively, and creatively with the issues of power and powerlessness that we encounter in daily life. . . . At the end of the day it is not laws but values that touch the depth of our human hearts.

If anything, I think it is this “exploring and proffering ever new ways to engage responsibly, collaboratively, and creatively” that could be said to be one of the “hallmarks” of our Catholic faith. And, of course, intrinsically related to this particular hallmark, this exploration and engagement, is the way we, as Catholics, view (and celebrate) the world as being profoundly sacramental, as being permeated by the sacred.

Anyway, in light of such thoughts, I share Terence’s perspective on the Magisterium.


What draws me to the Catholic Church, beyond mere habit and familiarity, is precisely that it is not just “Catholic” (i.e. institutional), but also “catholic” (literally, universal). The Gospels are clearly inclusive, and so, in principle, is the Catholic Church – inclusive across geographic boundaries, across language and ethnicity, and across two millennia of history.

An important part of that is the Magisterium. 2000 years of scholarship and of spirituality must surely include within it much great wisdom, which must be respected and treasured. I am particularly grateful for those gifts from which I have personally benefited: the wisdom in Ignatian spirituality, the teaching apostolate of the Dominicans and the missionary zeal of so many. I take the value of the Magisterium very seriously indeed, as teaching authority.

. . . [G]iven the antiquity of tradition, I . . . recognise that alongside the treasures, lies a great deal of dross. It is undeniable that the Magisterium has frequently been plain wrong, and will doubtless be found so again. This is why I approach the Magisterium as I do any other teaching authority – with a critical eye. There are of course some items which we are told we must take as infallible truth: but these are remarkably few. The plain truth is that the Vatican likes to present itself as an undisputed authority, in certain circumstances where it has no right to do so at all, and to attempt to extinguish valid objection by simple diktat or censorship – also known as “creeping infallibility”. This I resist.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Catholic Challenge
Rosemary Haughton and the “True Catholic Enterprise”
Mary Hunt: “Catholicism is a Very Complex Reality”
Pan’s Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Who Gets to Be Called “Catholic” – and Why?
A Brave Hope
Staying On Board
The Call to Be Dialogical Catholics
Ascertaining the Common Good
Reflections on the Primacy of Conscience
The Question of an “Informed” Catholic Conscience
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 1)
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 2)
A Church That Can and Cannot Change
What It Means to Be Catholic
Many Voices, One Church


kevin57 said...

Wasn't it Blessed John XXIII who stated when he called Vatican II that people's hearts must be converted and minds convinced? Issuing edicts and "commanding" under obedience may have been fine for the Middle Ages--and I'll leave that discussion to historians--but modern, mature adults simply won't accept this style of governance.

Beyond this "strategic" argument, "commanding," "ordering," and "excommunicating" have little to no place in a Church conceived of as "communio." JPII called the family the "domestic church," rightly so. It is true that at times--in fact, very rare times--a family must "expel" (i.e., excommunicate) one of its own not just for the family's good, but for the individual's ultimate good (see Gospel of Matthew). No functional, loving family would do so with the speed and, dare I say, zeal with which many Catholics on the right seem to want to do so.

Liam said...

I think Americans tend to underestimate the component of obedience/listening that is sacrificial, which creates space in which theosis may expand.

In the inimitable words of the Universal Prayer of Clement XI:

"Volo quidquid vis volo quia vis volo quomodo vis volo quamdiu vis."

"I want to do what You will*, in the way You will for as long as You will: because You will."

* Very often rendered as "ask", and not unreasonably so; I prefer that rendering myself.

Liam said...

On this 215th anniversary of the martyrdom of 16 Carmelite nuns at the depth of the Terror, I offer a link to a powerful reflection on prophecy in the modern world: