Wednesday, September 16, 2009

James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 4)

In responding to a recent post, regular Wild Reed visitor “Mareczku” observed how certain groups of people are increasingly being made to feel unwelcome in the Church. Asked Mareczku: “What does one do when sometimes you feel like you don’t belong?” - or perhaps more accurately, when you’re made to feel you don’t belong. It’s a heart-wrenching question – and that it’s being asked by so many should tell us that there’s something seriously wrong with the direction the Roman Catholic Church is heading.

Personally, I often feel I get the message from the institutional church that I don’t belong for two reasons: One, I’m gay - and not just gay but happily and comfortably gay. Two, I believe in and work for reform of many of the policies and practices of the Church – policies and practices that I and many others recognize as being at odds with the Gospel message of love. In short, I’m a self-identified “progressive Catholic,” which basically means that I’m a Catholic drawn to highlight and participate in my Church’s capacity for compassion and justice, development and change.

My first thought upon reading Mareczku’s question was to let him and others know of the importance of finding a community within Catholicism wherein one is affirmed, supported, and truly loved for who one is. I know that that is absolutely essential for me, and I feel very fortunate to be part of a number of Catholic communities that through their embodiment of an understanding of church that is participatory, collaborative, and valuing of dialogue and diversity, accept and support me as both a gay man and a “progressive” Catholic.

Now, some might say: “Well, Michael, that just proves they’re not really Catholic!” I can’t help that these folks think this way. But I’m convinced that despite being very noisy, they’re actually in the minority. And they may be at the moment calling the shots at certain levels of the Church, but that’s definitely to the detriment of the wider Church. And more and more Catholics are recognizing this. (As to ways of actually responding to the efforts of some to make us feel not Catholic enough and thus unwelcome, I recommend visiting here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Also, it just so happens that this current installment of The Wild Reed’s series, James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth, speaks to Mareczku’s and many others’ experience of feeling dismissed, maligned, and pushed out the door. As you’ll see, whether one’s doing the pushing or being pushed often very much depends on one’s understanding of truth.

(NOTE: This series is comprised of excerpts from James Carroll’s book, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews.)


The answer to Pilate’s question, What is truth?, matters.

If truth is the exclusive province of authority, then the duty of the people is to conform to it [and expel those who don’t!]. That answer to the question fits with the politics of a command society, whether a monarchy, a dictatorship, or the present [Roman] Catholic Church.

But if truth is, by definition, available to human beings only in partial ways; if we know more by analogies than syllogisms; if, that is, we “see in a mirror dimly,” then the responsibility of the people is to bring one’s own experience and one’s thought to the place where the community has its conversations, to offer and accept criticism, to honor the positions of others, and to respect oneself, not in isolation but in this creative mutuality. The mutuality, in this community, has a name – the Holy Spirit.

The implication here is that truth is not the highest value for us, because, in Saint Paul’s phrase, “our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect.” Which is why the final revelation of Jesus is not about knowing but about loving. This, too, places him firmly in the tradition of Israel, which has always given primacy to right action. “Beloved,” the author of the First Epistle of John wrote, “let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” This statement of a biblical faith in the ultimate meaning of existence as love is a classic affirmation of what one might call the pluralistic principle: Respect for the radically other begins with God’s respect for the world, which is radically other from God. In other words, God is the first pluralist. . . .

Religious pluralism begins with the acknowledgment of the universal impossibility of direct knowledge of God. The immediate consequence of this universal ignorance is that we should regard each other respectfully and lovingly.

. . . [I]n addition to the assumption that all citizens can contribute to the truth-seeking conversation, is that all citizens are constitutionally incapable of consistent truth-seeking and steadfast loving. God may be love, but the polis isn’t, and neither is the Church. So we come full circle and recall that the language of love is often used by those in power [I think here of the officials of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis and their recent statement in which they convey their “wish” to “lovingly caution those members of the faithful” who are associating with the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, a group I serve as co-chair], while the language of justice is used by those who suffer from the abuse of power. The language of love is not enough. Because the language of love does not protect us from our failures to love; only the language of justice does that.

NEXT: Part 5.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 1)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 2)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 3)
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Genuine Authority
Comprehending the “Fullness of Truth”
Beyond Papalism
Thoughts on Relativism
Many Voices, One Church
“Something Exciting and Joyous”
What It Means to Be Catholic
Truth Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunctional Church
Pan’s Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
Dialogue is Key in Moving Past Theological Impasses


William D. Lindsey said...

Michael, thanks for an enlightening excerpt from James Carroll's book. This one strikes me as particularly powerful, for a number of reasons.

First of all, it recognizes and names the game being played by those who think they own "the" truth, and want to use that truth as a trap to entrap and then destroy those they see as unfaithful.

What is frustrating about that game, in the way some Catholics play it in the U.S. today, is that it is designed to condemn and exclude even before any attempt at dialogue or understanding has taken place. That is hardly the Catholic tradition at its best.

As this truth game is played out with the lives of gay Catholics by some of our brothers and sisters, it begins with the assumption that the truth is established. The truth is a trap, and the more we ask for discussion of the issues, the more we're just trying to get out of the trap in which they have us trapped with their truth.

This game gives no attention at all to distinctions the church has always made between core tenets of faith we all must hold in order to maintain unity, and the many aspects of our faith and moral teachings that are validly open to discussion.

It's amazing to me to see some folks playing that truth-as-trap game now trying to revive a senescent neo-Thomism, with its language of "objectivity," that was not even authentic Thomist thought at the time this system of thinking ruled the roost in seminaries. It has long since been effectively critiqued and complemented by other philosophical traditions more congenial to theological discussion in the postmodern era.

And finally, I'm impressed by what Carroll says because he says clearly what sorely needs to be heard at this point in history. Love is what it has always been about. Not truth.

Truth is secondary to love in authentic Catholic theology--in the most traditional Catholic theology. Like Augustine's theology.

Augustine tells us that it is through love that we enter into truth. I wish some of the traditionalists would pay a little more attention to what the traditional really says.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks, as always, William, for your thoughtful and articulate response. I really appreciate your contributions to The Wild Reed.



Mareczku said...

This is excellent. I agree with William, it was enlightening. His comments are also great. I consider myself lucky because I belong to a diverse parish. It is a great parish and spiritual home. However, I have issues with the institutional Church. Our own Diocese of Scranton has gone through a tough time with our bishop resigning. I read of Bishop Malone in Maine and your Archbishop Nienstedt and it is painful. Are these men unaware of the hurt they cause? I read some of the other aricles linked and was touched. As someone from a somewhat conservative Catholic background I have come more and more to appreciate the progressives in the Church who show a love and kindness that is sadly absent in others. For me, as for others here, being Catholic has always been a strong part of my identity. I can't leave because the Church is my home.

Again, I wish to thank you for addressing my concerns and answering my questions.

Peace - Mareczku