Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Many Forms of Courage (Part II)

In the first part of “The Many Forms of Courage,” it was observed that for Catholics who disavow the term “gay,” and opt instead to describe themselves as “same-sex attracted,” an unquestioning obedience to the Magisterium, i.e., the teaching ability and authority of the Pope and those bishops in union with him, is often a major theological and ideological commitment.

This second installment of “The Many Forms of Courage” further explores the role and history of the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church.

A bishop-centered church: “Not absolutely intrinsic to Christianity”

In theory, the Magisterium serves as the normative teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church. Such an office is appropriate and, indeed, necessary. Yet in current practice, the Magisterium is clearly hampered in its discernment of the Spirit within the Church as the People of God, as the Body of Christ.

Why is this? For the Magisterium to be a genuine normative teaching body within an understanding of “the church” as the living Body of Christ, it needs to be comprised of representatives from the entire Body of Christ – an entirety that includes, for instance, women and LGBT persons.

But what of the teaching that says that those who currently comprise the Magisterium, namely the pope and bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, are the successors of the apostles? If this is true, who are we to question their authority?

In light of such an important question it is helpful to recall the observation of Catholic theologian and historian Hans Küng who notes in his book, The Catholic Church: A Short History, that “[A] church constitution, centered on the bishop, is by no means directly willed by God or given by Christ, but is the result of a long and problematical historical development. It is human work and therefore in principle can be changed.” (p.19)

Küng also observes that, “[In the early] Pauline communities there was neither a monarchical episcopate nor a presbyterate nor an ordination by the laying on of hands.” Despite this, the early Christian churches were considered “complete and well-equipped,” and “did not lack anything essential.” (p.20)

So what happened? Well, according to Küng, “After Paul a degree of institutionalization was unavoidable . . . [Yet] it cannot be verified that the bishops are successors of the apostles in the direct and exclusive sense. It is historically impossible to find in the initial phase of Christianity an unbroken chain of laying on of hands from the apostles to the present-day bishops.” (p.21)

What then can be demonstrated historically? “In a first post-apostolic phase,” writes Küng. “local presbyter-bishops became established alongside prophets, teachers, and other ministers as the sole leaders of the Christian communities (and also at the celebration of the Eucharist); thus a division between ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’ took place at an early stage. In a further phase the monarchical episcopate, of an individual bishop, increasingly displaced a plurality of presbyter-bishops in a city and later throughout the region of a church. [. . .] A monarchical episcopate can be demonstrated for Rome only from around the middle of the second century (Bishop Anicetus).” (pp.21-22)

Accordingly, says Küng, “The presbyteral-episcopal church constitution [in place today] is not based on any institution by Jesus Christ and can in no way be seen as absolutely intrinsic to Christianity, if one uses as a measure the words of Jesus himself, the earliest community, and the charismatic constitution of the Pauline churches.”

So has the development of the leadership model within the contemporary church been a mistake?

No. Küng is adamant that the presbyteral-episcopal church constitution “was not apostasy, and beyond dispute [was] of great pastoral use.”

“For good reasons,” he writes, “it became the norm in the early ecclesia catholica. All in all it was a meaningful historical development which gave the Christian communities both continuity in time and coherence in space, or as one could also put it, catholicity in time and space. So it is not to be criticized as long as it is used in the spirit of the gospel for the benefit of men and women and not to preserve and idolize the power of the hierarchs.”

“In a word,” says Küng, “the succession of bishops is functional rather than historical; the activity of bishops is rooted in the preaching of the gospel, and they should support the other charisms rather than quench them. In particular, prophets and teachers had their own authority.” (pp.22-23)

Good Catholics can dissent

For a growing number of Catholics, the “prophets and teachers” of the contemporary church are those men and women calling for reform of the church’s teaching on human sexuality. The experiences and insights of such people – including LGBT people – need to be incorporated into the deliberations and pronouncements of the Magisterium.

Until that time, Catholics can in good conscience reflect upon and dissent from the Vatican’s stance on issues like homosexuality. This is because in our Catholic tradition we have, in addition to the
primacy of conscience, the system of “probabilism” which, as Catholic theologian Mary Bednarowski reminds us, basically says that, “if five or six truly reputable authors/scholars hold an opinion, it can be seen as a sign of its intrinsic probability.”

We also must not forget that there’s always been a strong and consistent calling within our tradition to come down on the side of compassion rather than condemnation, of trust rather than fear. Such compassion and trust leads us to be humbly open to the guiding Spirit of God, alive within the entire Church. These same qualities also serve to protect us from our own hubris, as the openness engendered by compassion and trust guard against embracing a triumphant, all-knowing mentality - one that, in actuality, limits where and how we seek and respond to the presence of God in human life.

NEXT: Part III of “The Many Forms of Courage.”

Image: Bearded Saint by Ted Fusby, used with permission.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:

The Many Forms of Courage (Part I)
The Real Meaning of Courage
The Dreaded “Same-sex Attracted” View of Catholicism
Be Not Afraid: You Can Be Happy and Gay
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality: “Complex and Nuanced”

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