Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Living Tree of Catholicism: Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity

By Michael Bayly

As we launch this blogsite, you can be sure that The Progressive Catholic Voice will be perceived and condemned by some of our Catholic brothers and sisters as “not really Catholic.” Why? Because The Progressive Catholic Voice dares to ask questions, dares to challenge, dares to dream.

A reaction against a certain type of authority

In order to prepare for the inevitable backlash, I think it’s crucial that as progressive Catholics we acknowledge that such angry reactions to endeavors like The Progressive Catholic Voice reflect a type of Catholic theology that, according to English Jesuit Philip Endean, is “shaped by a Counter-Reformation reaction against Protestantism, in particular against the possibility that a person’s private experience of God could serve as a source of religious authority overriding the Church’s official leaders.” (1)

Endean’s reflections on such a theology can be found in his introduction to the book Karl Rahner: Spiritual Writings. Rahner, of course, is one of Catholicism’s great twentieth-century theologians. He was also a key figure at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and, as such, helped move the Church beyond the ghetto of neo-scholastic thinking.

Rahner was instrumental in developing and articulating an alternative theology to such a narrow and abstruse way of thinking, a theology that sought to “integrate the whole of Christian theology around one simple message: that God is a God of self-gift, a self-gift that can, however dimly and incompletely, be experienced.” (2)

A theology based on this understanding of God’s active presence in human life, notes Endean, is one that is open to “a permanent process of growth, interchange, and transformation.” (3)

It’s clear, though, that, such a progressive process of “growth, interchange, and transformation” (especially as it relates to complex human realities such as gender and sexuality) is very frightening for some Catholics. And in order to deny and avoid such a process, many resort to “equat[ing] ecclesial fidelity with passive toadyism” – which for Endean, is “a temptation of modern Roman Catholics.” (4)

More than we know

As comfortable as it may be to wrap ourselves in all sorts of “absolutes” with regards to issues such as gender and sexuality, Endean, in reflecting on the work of Karl Rahner, nevertheless reminds us of the authentically Catholic perspective which recognizes that “dogmas of tradition exist not as truths complete in themselves, but rather as resources for helping us discover the ever greater glory . . . of the God whose gift of self pervades all possible experience.” (5)

Basically, to quote one of my favorite lines from the movie Ben-Hur: “The world is more than we know.”

And whereas I, and others, find hope in such a description of reality, there are those whose response is one of distrust and fear. As a result, some poor souls cling so desperately to aspects of the known that they prop them up as idols from whose shadow they dare not venture (or allow others to venture) out into the world.

Yet as Endean reminds us, “Christian fidelity is not a matter simply of preserving a heritage unsullied, but rather of courageous engagement with what is new, with what seems strange.” (6)

His words recall those of Pope John XXIII: “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.”

Endean goes on to say that “the proclamation of the gospel is permanently interactive: no one is untouched by the grace of God, and the proclaimed message will be heard aright only if it somehow interacts – in ways that might be surprising, creative, or unprecedented – with the self-gift of God already present. It follows, too, that Christianity is permanently growing and in process.” (7)

“What Christianity is committed to,” concludes Endean, “is not the claim that its traditions possess the whole truth, incontrovertibly, but rather the claim that its traditions possess one resource among others – admittedly a privileged and indispensable one – for continuing to discover God’s truth.” (8)

Understanding “the Church”

In light of this very Catholic way of understanding the ongoing process of discerning and discovering God’s truth, I, as a Catholic, respectfully disagree with the contention that the “one way and truth” of the Catholic faith excludes those who dissent from the supposed “rules” of our Catholic tradition.

An understanding of the Catholic Church as some kind of exclusive club with an inflexible set of rules fails to reflect basic Catholic theological tenets articulated by folks like Karl Rahner, as well as by the example of community modeled by Jesus.

I think a better and more inviting way of understanding the Church than as an exclusive club, is that of a shared pilgrimage of a diverse group of people united in their commitment to embody God’s loving and transforming presence through their words, actions, and relationships of compassion and justice.

Perhaps the commitment to embody such values should take precedence over “rules.” Jesus certainly wasn’t averse to breaking the religious rules of his day when responding to the demands of compassion and justice.

Those of us frequently accused of trying to “change the rules” of the Church, tend also to be those who are willing to embark on those very Catholic journeys of “courageous engagement with what is new, with what seems strange.” We also tend to be people who have been denied any voice in developing the “rules” that others are so intent on lifting up as absolute and thus unchangeable.

But in reality, the Church’s understanding, and thus teaching (or set of “rules”) on, for example, human sexuality, has been primarily shaped by men within a patriarchal culture. If we want teaching that truly reflects a universal – i.e., catholic – perspective, then a more diverse and inclusive range of voices and experiences needs to be taken into account – including the voices and experiences of women and gay people.

The role of the laity

Also, once we acknowledge the significant role that human experience plays in the process of continually discovering God’s truth about human life and relationships, the role of the laity – all members of the laity – comes into much clearer focus.

Australian theologian Paul Collins, for instance, reminds us that, “Consulting the laity in the formulation of doctrine is part of Catholicism’s theological tradition. Also, the whole Church’s acceptance of papal and episcopal teaching is an integral part of testing the veracity of that teaching. The hierarchy does not have a monopoly on truth.” (9)

Collins finds support for such claims in the writings of the great English theologian, Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90), “who said unequivocally that the laity has to be consulted in matters of doctrine, especially when teachings concern their lives so intimately.” (10)

Wrote Newman: “The body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and . . . their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church.” (11)

Good news to share

Many of us within the Catholic Church have come to realize the ancient spiritual truth (and thus Catholic truth) that not only can our beliefs shape our reality, but our reality can and should shape our beliefs. That’s the kind of living, growing Catholic Church that most Catholics want to live in and contribute to.

Such an understanding of Church could be imagined as a great sheltering tree. And just as a tree is comprised of different parts, both straight and curved, firm and supple, the Church too is not as rigid and uniform as some may wish to believe it to be. Like a healthy tree, the Church needs both anchoring roots and growing branches that are reaching ever outwards. That such a reality leads to tension is inevitable. But such tension doesn’t have to be divisive or destructive. It can be creative and life-giving.

Accordingly, I believe that despite our differences, those who may feel threatened and/or hostile towards The Progressive Catholic Voice, and those who readily identify with this voice, all have a place and role to play in the Catholic Church.

And for me, that truth says much about the beauty and power of our Catholic faith.

Michael Bayly is an editor of The Progressive Catholic Voice and the executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM).

1. Endean, P. (Ed.), Karl Rahner: Spiritual Writings (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005), p. 13.
2. Ibid., p. 26.
3. Ibid., pp. 26-27.
4. Ibid., p. 26.
5. Ibid., p. 27.
6-8. Ibid., p. 28.
9-10. Collins, P., Between the Rock and a Hard Place: Being Catholic Today (Sydney: ABC Books, 2004), p. 12.
11. Newman, J.H., On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, (1859), ed. John Coulson (London: Collins, 1961), p.63.

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