Thursday, April 03, 2008

A Church That Can and Cannot Change

One of the best aspects of my work as editor of The Progressive Catholic Voice (PCV) online journal is that I get to work with others in bringing together and publishing well-written commentaries and articles on a range of issues facing the contemporary Church.

For instance, in the April issue of the PCV:

• The editorial team responds to recent comments by Coadjutor Archbishop Nienstedt on the Sacrament of Penance.

• Paula Ruddy reviews Richard R. Gaillardetz’s The Church in the Making (a book that was the focus of a recent series of posts on The Wild Reed)

• Terry Dosh makes the case for Karl Rahner’s three-epoch theory of Christian history as a helpful and hopeful way of understanding the huge changes taking place in today’s church

• Tom Esch, by way of a meditation on the Sufi tale of the chickpea in the soup pot, explores the “mysterious potential hiding in our pain.”

Brian McNeill explains why wearing a Rainbow Sash at the Cathedral of St. Paul this Pentecost will be a peaceful, prayerful, and respectful way of stating that the church is wrong on the issue of homosexuality and needs to change.

• Dorothy Olinger, SSND, explores the New Creation Story (also known as the Great Story) and how it “opens us to deeper truths of our relationships with all beings and holds the solution to a promising future.”

• Tom White exposes the financial price America is paying for the Bush Administration’s “deceitful” war in Iraq.

Oh, and I get to interview Robert McClory, author of As It Was In the Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church, and keynote speaker at the upcoming Second Annual Prayer Breakfast for Hope and Justice.

If you’ve yet to check out the PCV then I strongly encourage you to do so. Simply click here to visit the PCV blogsite.

To give you a sense of the type of material we’ve been publishing since the PCV was launched on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi last October, I’d like to share with you a review that appeared last month. It’s written by my friend Bill Hunt and focuses on John T. Noonan’s latest book, A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching. Enjoy!


A Review of John T. Noonan, Jr.’s
A Church That Can and Cannot Change:
The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching

(University of Notre Dame Press, 2005)

By William Coughlin Hunt
The Progressive Catholic Voice
March 2008

For more than a century one of the things that has marked progressive Catholics is a critical historical consciousness that pays due attention to the development of church teaching over time. Few Catholic thinkers since John Henry Newman (1801-1890) have made a greater contribution to the understanding of the history of moral ideas than John T. Noonan, Jr., author of seminal works on usury (the charging of interest on money loans), contraception, abortion, bribes, religious liberty, and divorce and remarriage.

In A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching, Noonan has attempted to tie them all together by articulating a coherent approach to the problem of doctrinal development in the Roman Catholic Church. He addresses three issues where church teaching has reversed itself definitively (slavery, usury, and religious liberty) and one that is still in progress (divorce).

With regard to slavery, Noonan declares: “I cannot present in a single book all the evidence that has now been gathered as to the participation by Catholics in the perpetuation of slavery as an institution.” (p. 37) Gregory the Great (bishop of Rome from 590 to 604) not only owned slaves but also bought and sold them and defended the practice in ecclesiastical law. With notable exceptions (such as in 1256 when the commune of Bologna bought and liberated all the slaves within the jurisdiction of the city and diocese), church lawyers and theologians defended this practice throughout the Middle Ages. “On June 18, 1452, Pope Nicholas V granted Alfonso V, king of Portugal, the right to make war on Saracens, pagans, and infidels; to occupy their dominions; and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” (p.62)

Fast forward to the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, n. 27:

Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men [sic] are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than [to] those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a dishonor to the Creator.

Contrast Noonan’s sobering comment: “The Council’s action was the first categorical condemnation by the Church of an institution that the Church had lived with for over nineteen hundred years.” (p. 120) In 1992 The Catechism of the Catholic Church condemned slavery as a violation of the seventh commandment (n. 2,414), and in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor Roman Bishop Karol Wojtyla (throne name John Paul II) declared slavery to be intrinsically evil. However, the question remains: How did such a major reversal in church teaching come about?

Next Noonan addresses the history of biblical and church teaching on the unnatural sin of usury, making profit from a loan. Right up through the eighteenth century usury was seen as unnatural reproduction, an intrinsic evil. The condemnation was based on a saying of the Lord himself (Luke 6.35) and affirmed by three ecumenical councils. “[T]he flat prohibition of profit on a loan appeared to be an essential precept of the Catholic Church. It was an injunction based on nature itself because for money to reproduce itself was unnatural.” (p. 135)

Contrast this to the decrees of the Second Vatican Council or the directives of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in which there is no mention of any such sin, and to the operations of the Vatican Bank. Once again, what happened?

In subsequent chapters Noonan deals with freedom of conscience and freedom of religion that as late as 1832 a Roman Bishop declared to be an “absurd and erroneous teaching” and a “crazy fantasy” (deliramentum), and the teaching on the absolute indissolubility of marriage that is coming under increasing question because of inconsistent decisions by Vatican tribunals.

In the last section of his book, “The Test of the Teaching,” Noonan puts forth a synthesis to explain these and other developments of church teaching. Argument from analogy, a sense of vital balance, logic, and experience, “understood broadly to include empathy, identification with the experience of the other,” (p.220) are the tools that lead to development. However, the criterion for judging development of doctrine is the rule of faith guided by love of God and neighbor. Noonan closes with a quote from Augustine. “If it seems to anyone that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, in such a way that by that understanding he does not build up that double love of God and of neighbor, he has not yet understood them.” (p. 222) The same goes for doctrinal development.

William Coughlin Hunt, STD, is a former President of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) Board.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Truth About “Spirit of Vatican II” Finally Revealed!
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 1)
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 2)
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 3)
What it Means to be Catholic
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Beyond Papalism
An Australian Bishop’s Call for “Radical Reform”
“Uncle Vince” is at it Again
Uta Ranke-Heinemann on the Future of the Catholic Church
The Two-sided Catholic Crisis
Crisis? What Crisis?
The “Underground Church”


Gerald Augustinus said...

I'm afraid I'll be on the stake right next to you :)

Michael J. Bayly said...

Here's a hyper-link to Gerald's post.



kevin57 said...

I'm more cynical than the author about the whys and hows of when doctrine develops in the Church. I think it is usually much more a function of when they realize that the battle is lost and moreover, that she is past the stage of looking foolish. Irrelevancy is what hurts most.