Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Answer to a Troubled Liberal Catholic

At around this time last year, a then-frequent visitor to The Wild Reed, “Winnipeg Catholic,” responded to this previous post with the following comment:

I hope I do not offend you by suggesting that you appear at this point to be a Protestant who desires reform of the church, in contrast to a Fr. James Alison or Andrew Sullivan who are Catholic and living the pain of conscientious dissent within the church. It is a stark difference. I am not LGBT but have my own points of dissent. So there is an extent to which a dissenting Catholic reading your blog might feel some of the same sorts of things as an LGBT person feeling preached to by a heterosexual. [Your] three part article [The Many Forms of Courage] sounds a lot like a Protestant preaching to Catholics.

I responded to this comment by Winnipeg Catholic and, shortly after, he contacted me again, noting that my response was an “extremely thoughtful reply, which is really a post in itself, that could be titled ‘Answer to a Troubled Liberal Catholic’ or something like that.”

So, one year later, here is this “thoughtful reply” of mine as a post – one entitled, at Winnipeg Catholic’s suggestion, “Answer to a Troubled Liberal Catholic”! (And Winnipeg Catholic, if you’re still out there somewhere, stop by and say “Hi!” sometime.)


Thanks, Winnipeg Catholic, for your various responses to this and other posts of mine.

I’m curious as to when Catholic dissent becomes Protestant preaching. I’m not sure what constitutes the “line” separating these two things and, more importantly, who gets to decide when and how it’s crossed.

In my three-part “The Many Forms of Courage,” I support my position with quotes from numerous theologians and authors: Daniel Helminiak, Hans Küng, Mary Bednarowski, Simon Rosser, Paul Collins, Cardinal John Henry Newman, Donna Schaper, Robert McClory, and Patty Crowley.

All of these people understand and define themselves as Catholic. All are living (or lived) the “pain of conscientious dissent within the church” and all desire (desired) “reform of the church.” I don’t believe there has to be a “stark difference” between dissent and the recognition and call for reform. In fact, I think the two are often intrinsically related.

I’ve heard Catholic bishops, and others in positions of leadership within the Church, repeatedly say that the Church needs to be in constant reform. The Church is, after all, a living, evolving reality. Accordingly, the desiring and working for reform of the Church is an authentically Catholic endeavor. My experience has been that those Catholics who are engaged in such an endeavor are embodying the prophetic spirit of our rich Catholic Christian tradition.

Yet it seems to me that, in your view, once one talks about “reform,” than one has crossed over into Protestant territory. (This is especially odd as your [now defunct] blogsite is named “Reform Catholic”!) It also seems that you’re saying that questioning and critiquing the pope, i.e. the “earthy authority of Christ on earth” is off-limits.

Along with many other Catholics, I don’t consider recognizing and resonating with everything the pope says as being “at the heart of being Catholic.” After all, as I’m sure you’re aware, traditionally the pope is a symbol of unity, not authority. And one can have unity in diversity.

Indeed, contrary to popular misconception, “the true tradition of the Church is diversity.” These are the words of Catholic historian Gary Macy, author of Treasures from the Storeroom: Medieval Religion and the Eucharist. He goes on to note that:

All of my research . . . has been directed against what I think of as the “Big Book of Doctrine” school of historical theology. This strange form of authoritarianism, fomented both by the ultra-montanism of the late nineteenth-century papacy and by Enlightenment anti-clericalism, understands Roman Catholicism as fundamentally an attempt to provide the definitive answers to all questions, usually in one ‘big book of doctrine,’ whether it be Thomas’s “Summa,” Denzinger’s “Enchiridion,” or lately the Roman Catechism of the Universal Church.

And what of all those Catholics who disagree with the pope and/or with what Macy describes as the “big book of doctrine”? Should they all just be dismissed as “Protestants” and be encouraged to get out of the Church?

I appreciate Catholic author Garry Wills response to this question in his book, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit. “This is a serious question,” Wills acknowledges, “but one based on an assumption that is not only challengeable but extremely unhealthy. It assumes that the whole test of Catholicism, the essence of the faith, is submission to the Pope. During long periods of the church’s history, that was not the rule – St. Augustine, for one, would have flunked such a test. And today it is a test that would decimate the ranks of current churchgoers. It is not a position that has a solid body of theology behind it, no matter how common it is as a popular notion.”

For me, the heart of being Catholic is more to do with viewing and acting in the world in a certain way – a profoundly sacramental way, i.e. a way that seeks, recognizes, and responds to God in the diversity of life and relationships around us.

And authority? Well, I resonate with Catholic theologian Mary Bednarowski take on authority when she says:

I understand “authority” as residing in both the individual and the community. For quite some time I’ve thought about ‘authority’ as that in which I can place my trust. For me that means that as an individual who is a member of a faith community, I have to exercise my own conscience as an informed adult within the framework of the moral guidance offered by my community.

If my conscience is not “clear” – that is, if I don’t know where I stand on a moral issue – I must seek clarity. Sometimes it comes from within the Church. Sometimes it comes from the culture in combination with the Church. Sometimes the culture in some aspect or another is, for the moment, ahead of the Church. As an individual and as a member of a community, I have to figure out how to hold it all together. It is my obligation to come to know “in what I can place my trust.”

This whole ongoing process is informed by human experiences – mine and others, individual and communal. However we understand the workings of God in our midst and whatever our doctrine of the Church, there is no institutional Church that exists apart from the human community and its experiences and struggles.

When it comes to matters of human sexuality, however, there has developed an “institutional Church” or perhaps better said, a component of the institutional Church, that has set itself “apart from the human community and its experiences and struggles.” The teachings that result are what I, and others, consider dysfunctional. Indeed, most Catholics recognize this and dissent from such teachings. Many also make the connection between the dysfunction of this teaching and the need for reform of the methods of authoritative teaching.

These “methods,” of course, are hierarchical in nature – another major problem for our Church. For as Eugene Kennedy has noted:

Contemporary [Catholic] bishops are painfully learning that they can either function hierarchically or they can exercise healthy authority but that they cannot do both.

Hierarchies are designed for the exercise of power, that is, for authoritarian control. They depend on structures rather than human relationships.

Authority, however, depends completely on human relationships. It derives from the Latin augere – to create, to make able to grow. Parents author their children. Their authority over them is a function of that special relationship through which parents commit themselves to their children’s growth, to their human fullness, to their emergence from dependence. So, too, the authority of teachers, pastors and popes is essentially relational, ordered to the growth of their students, their parishioners or their worldwide flock.

Bishops who have been trained to relate structurally through their roles and the rules of hierarchy and who have been conditioned to manage rather than expose themselves to the risks of human relationships find it almost impossible to exercise their authority effectively in an institution that insists that they exercise it as impersonal control.

In closing, I personally don’t see the point or value in striving to be obedient to teachings that are ill-informed, dysfunctional, and simply wrong. I should also add that, in my view, it is basically in the area of human sexuality that the hierarchical Church has lost the plot, so to speak, with regards its teaching authority. The reasons for this are complex, fascinating, and tragic. They’ve also insightfully outlined in Eugene Kennedy’s book: The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality.

Finally, I think one of the elements of the shadow side of Catholicism is what can be called the “cult of unquestioning obedience.” I attempt to explore this here while examining the film Pan’s Labyrinth.



See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What it Means to be Catholic
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
Agreeing with the Vatican
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism


Anonymous said...


I find this post of great interest, especially when it comes to words such as "authority". My understanding of the Catholic church is that authority comes from both "Scripture" and "Church Tradition". This to me has always seemed dangerous, as surely there must be one "authority". To me, it would also seem that you add a third "authority", that of your own personal experiences.
My belief is that there must be just one "authority" for us to obey, one that isn't changing but rather constant.
"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever."
Heb 13:8

In Him,

James Clifton

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi James,

It’s so great to have you visit and leave a message.

I agree with you that there should be (and is) only one authority. And I understand this one authority as being God. And you’re right, God “isn’t changing, but constant,” the “same yesterday, today, and forever.” But would you agree with me that our understanding of God evolves and changes?

I see Scripture, Tradition, and experience as ways by which our understanding of God has and continues to develop. Rather than seeing any one of them as an absolute authority, perhaps it would be more helpful to see each of them pointing (in different ways) to the one authority that is God. In this way, all three could be understood as sources of revelation, ways by which our loving and changeless God is revealed to us. (I have to say, though, that for me, experience is ground zero of such revelation. After all, both Scripture and Tradition are the products of people’s experience of God in their lives – limited as these lives were by historical and cultural realities.)

I’ve been reading an interesting book by Catholic theologian Richard R. Gaillardetz, entitled By What Authority? A Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful (basically, Scripture, Tradition, and experience). In the preface of his book, Gaillardetz reminds us how Jesus was often challenged with the question: “By what authority do you do these things?” Gaillardetz says that Jesus never gave those asking this question a direct answer, yet “his entire life and ministry offered the only real answer: God was the true Author of Jesus’ life. His authority was grounded in his relationship to the one he dared address as ‘Abba.’”

Gaillardetz goes on to say that:

The Church lives to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ, the Word of God. It too depends as well for its authority on God, the Author of life. The Church does not possess authority any more than Jesus possessed it. Indeed, authority is not really a possession at all. Authority names a quality of relationship. This explains one of the perennial dangers of any claim to authority in the Church. The danger lies in the mistaken notion that authority resides in persons (e.g., popes and bishops) or objects (e.g., the Bible). But this way of speaking of authority is misleading, for in the final analysis authority pertains to a relationship more than a person or object. . . . Where one might speak of the Bible, the creed or a pope as possessing authority, this authority in fact resides in the relationship between the community of faith and the Bible, the creed, or the pope. True authority is always maintained in a relationship between two realities, the one acknowledging the authority and the one manifesting that authority.

I find this all very fascinating.

Gaillardetz is actually going to be speaking in Minneapolis on April 19. Wouldn’t it be cool if you were here, my friend, and we could go and listen to him together! I’m sure he’d provide much for us to think about and discuss.

If you’re interested in more of Gaillardetz’s writings, you can visit the previous Wild Reed series of posts that begins here.

Thanks again for stopping by, James. It’s been a long time since our days in Goulburn, which makes our reconnecting all the more better!



Anonymous said...


I didn't want to be hasty in a reaponse, I want to read more of Gaillardetz, as well as some of your posts in regards to his stuff, but there was one thing that came to mind.

Gaillardetz says "Church does not possess authority any more than Jesus possessed it."

Is this sentence implying that Jesus didn't possess authority? Or that the church has the same authority as Jesus?

What then do we do with verses like Mat 28:18;

"And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.""?

I take it, from my earlier post, that Jesus then has always had the authority, and always will.

I wont be there on the 19th, but I do hope to make it across in the year to come, and would love to discuss further then!

James Clifton

P.s in answer to your question, "would you agree with me that our understanding of God evolves and changes?" answer is, yes, indeed. But we need to ensure that it is our understanding of God that changes and evolves, and not us changing and evolving God to our understanding of him.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi James,

I think what Gaillardetz is saying is that the authority that Jesus manifested (and which, in turn, people recognized and responded to) was of God.

In traditional language we could say that it was the authority of God the Father that God the Son embodied and manifested to others.

It all comes back to this idea of there being only one authority (i.e., that of God) yet capable of being channeled, manifested, etc. through people and communities via just and loving relationships.

If I get the chance, I'll raise this issue with Gaillardetz when I go hear him speak on the 19th.

I'm heading off to Chicago today (April 11), and won't be posting or responding to comments until next Wednesday (April 16). So if you respond to this (or any other post) and don't get a reply or see your comment posted, you'll know why!