Sunday, April 17, 2011

What You Probably Won't Hear Discussed Tomorrow Night About Newman by Acclaimed Church Historian Marvin O'Connell

Here in St. Paul Fr. Marvin O'Connell, Professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, will deliver the Archbishop Ireland Memorial Lecture at the O'Shaughnessy Educational Center Auditorium, University of St. Thomas at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow night, Monday, April 18, 2011.

This is quite serendipitous as recently I posted on The Progressive Catholic Voice one of O'Connell's Catholic Bulletin columns from 1969. For those who may not know, the Catholic Bulletin is the former name of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

This particular column of O'Connell's highlighted the belief held by John Henry Newman (1801-1890) that the consensus of the faithful is the voice of the infallible Church. Last fall, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed Newman’s beatification, a milestone on the path to sainthood.

Tomorrow evening at St. Thomas, O'Connell will discuss the “drama surrounding Newman's elevation to the College of Cardinals” in a lecture entitled “A Red Hat For Newman.” This lecture is free and open to all, and is part of the biannual Archbishop Ireland Memorial Lecture Series sponsored by the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity of the University of St. Thomas.

As interesting as this "drama" no doubt is I'd much rather hear O'Connell talk on Newman's understanding of the role of the faithful in helping shape church teachings. Such a discussion is sorely needed – especially in this Archdiocese, for reasons which I document here. Then again, I doubt if the local clerical caste would tolerate such a discussion, even if were facilitated by an acclaimed historian of the caliber of Marvin O'Connell. It's sad but true.

Anyway, following is more of what O'Connell wrote in the pages of the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis about the need to consider the views of the faithful – at a time when apparently open discussion on such important issues was permitted .This particular excerpt is from his September 26, 1969 The Catholic Bulletin column.

. . . It was Newman's contention that if the teaching church saw it as a necessity to take account of the faithful's consensus even in a dogmatic definition, all the more should authority "really desire to know the opinion of the laity on subjects in which the laity are especially concerned." It does not seem to me that it stretches Newman's principle in the least to apply it to the birth control controversy.

Crucial to Newman's argument is the idea that the "consultation" process is designed to uncover a fact: what in fact do the people believe about this or that matter at it relates to their faith? This does not mean a vote in the sense of expressing a preference; it means rather a serious procedure aimed toward finding out what in fact the consensus of the faithful is. In Newman's words, a "definition is not made without reference to what the faithful will think of it and say of it."

To consult the faithful, then, is a very important way to discover what the teaching of the church really is. That teaching is something given by Christ, not something invented. It is perfectly true that the truths of revelation do not emerge from the body of the faithful. But it is just as true that they are not concocted by authority. The genuine Cristian tradition expresses itself in many ways: through Scripture, the ordinary magisterium of popes and bishops, the decisions of ecumenical councils, the accumulated wisdom of theologians and last – but most assuredly not least – through the living faith of the Catholic people. For the Holy Spirit is with them too.

Rev. Marvin R. O'Connell
Excerpted from "Consider Views of Faithful on Serious Matters"
The Catholic Bulletin
September 26, 1969

When O'Connell wrote this particular column in 1969 the issue of the day was contraception. I would contend that that issue has been resolved – not that the clerical caste has accepted it. But the reality remains that the Catholic people, the "voice of the faithful," have spoken and for them the matter is settled. By the U.S. bishops own estimation, 96% of Catholic heterosexual couples practice birth control. For the vast majority of Catholics, contraception is not an "intrinsic evil."

The big issue today, of course, is homosexuality and same-sex marriage. That too is well on the way to being a settled issue in the hearts and minds of Catholics, with something like 63% of Catholics supportive of same-sex civil marriage. It's a number that is only going to increase. Yet, once again, the bishops are being left behind. That's unfortunate because their hardheartedness on this and other issues is undermining and tarnishing the role of the bishop, a role that has an important place in our tradition.

Recently in Puerto Rico, Cardinal Aponte Martinez asked singer Ricky Martin to stop promoting being gay. Martin came out last year and is raising two young sons. He's also being very vocal in sharing how much better his life has become now that he is honest about his sexuality. In responding to the cardinal, gay rights activist Pedro Julio Serrano told reporters the following:

Homophobia disguised as religion and under the pretext of freedom of speech is still homophobia and it kills. Enough of wanting to impose a moral vision of human sexuality. Sexual orientation is an innate characteristic of the human condition that cannot be changed, it is not a behavior, it is not a disease, and it is not synonymous with promiscuity as argued by Cardinal Aponte Martinez.

I agree with everything Serrano says, including the part about the church imposing a "moral vision of human sexuality." However, I definitely believe the church should be developing and articulating a moral vision of sexuality. The thing is, though, for this vision to be reasonable, pastoral, credible and authoritative it must be open to being informed and shaped by the insights of science and the lived experiences of us all – including gay people and the experiences and insights of their lives and relationships.

Sadly, that's not happening. The clerical caste of the church is refusing to learn and grow in understanding and acceptance of the richly diverse reality of human sexuality. As I noted
previously, the failure of the church's clerical caste to speak meaningfully to and for people on sexual matters is readily seen by the vast majority of Catholics as the result of this same caste’s dismal failure to integrate into its thinking and teaching the corporate body of Christians’ experience and wisdom regarding sexuality. And once one recognizes this failure then the "official" teaching of the church on sexuality can be seen for what it is: a discriminatory ideology; a closed system of ideas and beliefs that starts with a limited and faulty premise already inside the system. For the architects and guardians of such a system, no experiences, insights, and questions that arise beyond the system can be tolerated. Indeed, they are routinely condemned and actively discriminated against.

All of which is a far cry from the insights of Newman and the teachings of Vatican II that the laity has a duty to make their concerns and beliefs known and a role in working with the bishops and theologians in continually reforming the church and clarifying (and perhaps even correcting) its teachings so that they truly reflect the transforming presence of God in our midst.

See also the Progressive Catholic Voice posts:
The Consensus of the Faithful as the Voice of the Infallible Church
The Call of the Baptized: Be the Church, Live the Mission
Richard Gaillardetz on the Need to “Wrestle with the Tradition”
Church Teaching and the Individual Conscience
St. Paul-Minneapolis Catholic Archdiocese Releases New Strategic Plan: Who Was Consulted?
Communicating with Leadership
Let Our Voices Be Heard!
It’s Critical That Catholics Find Their Voice
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 1)
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 2)
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 3)
Catholicism: A Changing Church – Despite Itself
A Return to the Spirit

1 comment:

Terence Weldon said...

You're dead right, Michael, to note that the bishops are being left behind. Some of the press reports on the recent analysis of research on Catholic responses to homosexuality suggested that Catholics are out of step with the Church. This is nonsense - we are the Church. It's the bishops who are out of step, not the rest of us.

A few months back, NCR posted an article about an Italian book called "Once, there was a Vatican", and other similar Italian work. Apparently, these books lament the declining influence of the Vatican in the ordinary life of the Church. I think this is a matter for celebration: it is now obvious that the CDF no longer controls Catholic belief and consciences, and nor (increasingly) does it control Catholic theology, which is now being written and taught by religious women and lay Catholics - married, straight and gay- as well as by priests under their control.

I suspect that they are also losing control of the priesthood: just consider the growth of the womenpriests movement in the US, and the Archbishop Milongo's married priests in Africa, the widespread flouting of laws on compulsory celibacy, and the astonishing stories of breakaway parishes - such as St Stephen's, and others.

After Vatican II, there was some concern that the Vatican had successfully rolled back much of the progress to reform, but some things cannot be undone, The genie is out of the bottle, and will not go back.

There is a fundamental transformation of the Catholic Church presently under way, mostly unacknowledged and ignored - but in years to come, the results will be plain to see.

Newman was right. Eventually, the will of the faithful must and will prevail.