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Mercy for the past and Catholic modernity

crisis-of-moral-authority-in-catholic-modernityReview: Michael J. Lacey and Francis Oakley, The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity (Oxford, 2011).

From the early days of his pontificate, Pope Francis has warned us that if the Christian “wants everything clear and safe then he will find nothing.” The Jesuit pope tells us to risk journeying toward others, confident that God might be sought and found in all things. Our ministers must know “how to dialogue and to themselves descend into their people’s night” and — as Francis has strikingly put it — “smell of their sheep.”

The Australian Jesuit Andrew Hamilton writes of a tonal shift away from Pope Benedict’s view of the Church as a “museum or treasury of all the beliefs, relationships, liturgical details and traditions that compose its life,” with bishops and priests exhibiting the “curatorial gifts of security, reliability and arcane knowledge.” Now we must go out, traveling light. It suddenly isn’t a good time to be a Christian who wishes to retreat to the beautiful seclusion of a fortress Church to engage in the dubious pleasures of worldview defense and ritual exclusion. (Actually, it never was.)

When it comes to history, Pope Francis warns us against recovering “a past that no longer exists.” In Commonweal, the historian Nicholas Clifford has written that the Church often seems trapped in a very seductive historical fortress — an imagined past in which the Church apparently always espoused religious freedom or opposed slavery. A few years ago, a number of contributors, many also Commonweal contributors, penned essays for The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity, in which they risk journeying toward “modernity” and a past that actually might exist.

This is not easily done. Michael Lacey, one of the editors, notes that the core value of modernity is “thinking for oneself,” even in the face of formal authority. And, so, we might end up with a disturbing historical narrative leading to a modern laity dismissively telling their bishops, “You pretend to teach me, and I’ll pretend to learn.” Naturally, then, Roman Catholicism can seem strictly incompatible with this modernity. As John Beal writes, canon law is based on a “social imaginary” in which community is more important than individuals, hierarchical structure is normative and ontological, rights are subject to duties, and inequality is taken for granted. Here, as Beal says, “disobedience becomes the paradigmatic offense.” The right, real or imagined, to “think for oneself” becomes very bad indeed.

We might seem to be at a zero-sum game here. The historian Leslie Tentler illustrates this dire possibility by quoting the rather modern response of a “highly educated Catholic woman” to a 1966 survey; she spoke of confession — inevitably a matter of formal authority — as a “stylized ritual” and claimed that “exploring the conscience, or rather forming it, is a solitary experience — not for the confessional.” Now, a half century and Humanae Vitae’s prohibition of contraception later, the sociologist-contributors to this volume inform us that conservatives still hold on to the hierarchical exercise of authority, but progressives, presumably more enamored with modernity, “believe the locus of authority is within the believer — that God speaks through the experiences and reflections of individual Christians.”

Catholicism and modernity are here seemingly rivals.

Are we disastrously caught between clinging to a traditional “past that no longer exists” and a modern historical narrative that ends with the Church as a voluntary association equipped with incense and miters? There are signs of hope in this volume. Michael Lacey reviews Pope Leo XIII’s condemnations of liberty of worship and his idealization of the confessional state. But Lacey also notes that Leo at least “gestures” toward the idea that coerced faith is displeasing to God.

After all, the Church opposed “fatalism,” from the Manichaens to the Jansenists, in stressing the importance of free will. Leo simply could not understand that free will could be held not merely in tension with the state but also with the Church. For Leo, there was an either/or between unity and schism. Lacey instead suggests a patient search for “wholeness and inclusion, rather than uniformity.”

This wise counsel of a patient search for truth and unity exists in other essays. Gerald Mannion suggests that the construction of an imposing formal authority to oppose autonomy might ironically reflect a modern desire for a “view from nowhere” transcendent of history itself. Likewise, Charles Taylor speaks of a “false sacralization” of certain philosophies or spiritualities against an awareness of historical contingency, as well as “uncertainty and ambiguity” more generally. This unsurprisingly occurred after the “threat [of] the French Revolution and its aftermath,” which perhaps trapped the Church in a mimetic rivalry with modernity and modernity’s self-justifying claims to authority.

Multiple authors suggest the idea of a “learning” Church or at least the adoption of seemingly humble theological practices. Cathleen Kaveny suggests that the Magisterium can even follow the common law practice of including dissenting opinions in publications, which clearly shows “humility” before later judgment. (More recently, Kaveny has suggested other borrowings from civil law regarding the thorny issue of divorce and remarriage, including a statute of limitations for second marriages.)

The patient search can foster a historical narrative that has more space for what one contributor, citing Margaret Farley, calls “the grace of self-doubt.” Here, Francis Sullivan suggests that the Church no longer considers slavery morally acceptable because of a growing realization of the meaning of human dignity, a “reversal” that foreshadowed more recent developments concerning the undesirability of capital punishment. More severely, Francis Oakley suggests that acknowledging the legitimacy of the Council of Constance and its decree Haec Sancta means recognizing a jurisdictional power for a general council superior to the papacy, and, with it, a historical narrative of discontinuity with the First Vatican Council. (At the very least, it would seem that the steps to save Vatican I — whether suggesting the difficulty of determining formal dogmatic definitions from the 15th century or limiting the relevance of Haec Sancta to special emergency conditions — means acknowledging a degree of uncertainty to the past.)

As Oakley’s contribution suggests, composing a historical narrative graced with “self-doubt” will be difficult. Joseph Komonchak’s essay is a review of Pope Benedict’s 2005 speech to the Roman Curia on the interpretation of Vatican II. Benedict, though dismissing the possible straw man of a “hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture,” speaks of a “hermeneutics of reform,” not mere continuity. Benedict acknowledges that the Church’s opposition to modernity eliminated the possibility for “positive and fruitful understanding,” so the Church eventually had to develop positions toward the modern sciences, modern state, and the world religions that would involve “some kind of discontinuity.”

Benedict, though, draws a necessary but questionable distinction between a “continuity of principles” and a changed application toward the “demands” of “concrete historical situations.” Komonchak expresses a degree of skepticism; it is “debatable,” he says, whether the distinction between principles and applications can explain the Magisterium’s previous condemnation of religious freedom. When Benedict speaks of religious freedom’s place in “the deeper patrimony of the Church,” he certainly can appeal to Jesus and the martyrs. But, as Komonchak notes, “the pope here has leapt back over the centuries of Christendom.” That past exists, too.

This book, then, is an excellent antidote to what Oakley calls an “ecclesiological monophysitism,” which would emphasize the “eternal, stable, and unchanging” and conveniently deemphasize the “confusion, variability, and sinfulness” in Church history. But one can question whether it queries modernity sufficiently. Lisa Sowle Cahill writes about a student from her parish’s high school who admirably intended to build homes in the Dominican Republic, but apparently for her own spiritual growth. Cahill rightly worries about a modern stress on “authenticity” that “remains indifferent to the common good and the structural conditions that furnish ‘enriching’ service opportunities.”

It is not the case that the American self is meant to exist in egoistic isolation, but, as the sociologist Claude Fischer has suggested, Americans seem meant to join voluntary associations that they are always happily free to leave. The self remains sovereign. But this can contradict a certain Catholic ideal: monastic vows of obedience and stability, changed names, the radical rejection of autonomy for a true self that echoes Jesus’ dependence on the Father. When Thomas Merton speaks of God’s presence within everyone on the streets of Louisville, it is in a “point of nothingness and absolute poverty.”

This “nothingness” isn’t meant to be some sort of romantic self-destruction, but the identification of a paradoxical strength in weakness, a willingness to face the death of the “empirical self” to realize that our “slavery” (Heb. 2:15) to the fear of death is groundless. We find ourselves, but after entering a void. There are critics of the modern self in this book, but they remain relatively unassimilated, from the “evangelical” Catholics whom Cahill sees as selective and perhaps sectarian to the young priests in Katarina Schuth’s essay who have had conversions but now seem “inflexible, overly scrupulous, and fearful.” It is hard to know how exactly to reconcile the somewhat “Protestant” modern self with some of the seemingly radical aspects of the Catholic self.

Furthermore, with a few exceptions, this is a book that is very much about ideas, from “liberal modernity” to more general “conceptions of what constitutes a just moral order in society.” It acknowledges that ideas are affected by events — the “threat of the French Revolution,” “the kind of abject dependence that Pius VII had experienced at the hands of Napoleon,” the unfortunate election of Urban VI in 1378. But it would have been useful to see more specific focus on historical contingencies, especially regarding ecumenism. While Charles Taylor mentions ecumenical relations when writing about an unfortunate “intolerance for ambiguity,” there are no non-Catholic contributors here.

To provide a more radioactive example, readers will be aware of a debate in the Roman Catholic Church about divorce and remarriage. Some of the concerns expressed in this book have already been voiced in this debate. There is the problem of formal authority existing uncomfortably alongside the dissent of the laity. Cardinal Walter Kasper has spoken of an “abyss” between Church teachings and the convictions of many Catholics. There are the concerns about preserving historical continuity, as well as the authority that comes from it, that match the concerns of the Jesuit moralist John Ford about the possibility of permitting contraception, quoted in this book (and many other places): “If the Church can have erred so egregiously, then the faithful can no longer believe in her teaching authority.” The specter of modernity continues to haunt; a prominent traditionalist has called Kasper’s proposal for Communion for the divorced and remarried (after penance) a “cultural revolution.” (Kasper, tellingly, has said that he does not favor “appeasement,” presumably to the same modernity.)

But the debate about divorce and remarriage has yielded theological possibilities that can elucidate this book’s proposals for patience before the tension between Catholicism and modernity and a historical narrative marked by the “grace of self-doubt.” In his speech at the consistory and in an interview with the here-ubiquitous Commonweal, Kasper mentioned the Orthodox principle of oikonomia (“economy”), “which allows them in concrete cases to dispense, as Catholics would say, the first marriage and to permit a second in the Church,” albeit not as a sacrament. Kasper is not sure whether this tradition can be “adapted” to the Western Church, but noted this “old tradition” was never condemned by an ecumenical council. As the Melkite priest Lawrence Cross has noted, this is the tradition of Eastern Catholics, in communion with Rome, and is presumably non-negotiable for the Orthodox. (The Western concept of epieikeia is distinct from oikonomia; it is merely juridical.)

To be sure, oikonomia cannot mean contradicting dogma. But a historical narrative attentive to the possibilities (and misuse) of oikonomia can mean a renewed and ungrudging awareness of the difference between dogma and the possibilities of its interpretation and application, whether strict or lenient. Furthermore, certain Orthodox theologians have suggested that sacraments can be mutually recognized but not shared with a heterodox community; thus, validity can apparently arise in what is alien and presently incongruous. Finally, the root of oikonomia is the manifest insufficiency of law, presumably including constructions of historical continuity, for the building up and unification of the Church. A historical narrative could be free of the need for unwarranted forms of certainty and embrace a degree of “self-doubt.”

While some voices have been raised against the use of oikonomia for granting Communion to the divorced, it might be a point for reflection that can enable greater patience and what Charles Taylor calls “respect for the enigmatic.” Oikonomia is meant to show that, as the Romanian Orthodox Church puts it, “Love, mercy, and compassion remain more in control than absolute law.” There really is something disconcertingly enigmatic about this. But the pope has said that this is the “season of mercy.” It is an unexpectedly hard thing to show mercy to our own past. The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity shows that it is a necessary thing.


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