Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Richard Gaillardetz on the Need to "Wrestle with the Tradition"

Later this year theologian Richard Gaillardetz (left) will leave his current position at the University of Toledo, Ohio, to take up the Joseph Chair of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. On January 27, he delivered his final Murray/Bacik lecture at the University of Toledo. Entitled “The State of the Church, 2011,” this lecture outlined some of the major changes that have transpired in the U.S. church following the Second Vatican Council, and discussed the ongoing tensions between the early reception of Vatican II and the legacy of Pope John Paul II.

The full text of Gaillardetz's lecture can be viewed here. Following is an excerpt that deals with the issue of authority in the church.


The authority of church teaching places demands on all Catholics. The Canadian sociologist, David Lyon talks of the contemporary trend toward the "deregulation of religion." What he is describing is a larger societal tendency to be religious on our own terms, to define for ourselves what matters and what does not in matters of religious belief and practice. It encourages us, in other words, to become religious consumers and for the authentic practice of Catholicism, such an attitude is problematic.

Catholics are called to resist this cultural tendency. I am not talking about some unthinking obedience to what "Father says," or the bishop says, or even what the pope says. Postmodern religion has been profoundly influenced by our culture of choice. Within that culture we are tempted to see our tradition as a religious grab bag in which we are free to pull out whatever we find appealing. It is this consumer oriented view of the Catholic tradition that many have in mind when they speak disparagingly of "cafeteria Catholicism." For many church leaders, the default reaction to this situation is to return to the juridical paradigm of command and obey. Their solution is to insist on an uncritical and unswerving obedience to all church teaching. And so they enforce fidelity oaths on ministers and church employees. They micro-manage curricular and textbook decisions in Catholic schools and parish religious education programs.

But there is another way beyond the inadequacies of "cafeteria Catholicism"; it is to encourage a substantive and deliberate "wrestling with the tradition." To be part of a religious tradition requires that I take that tradition seriously, even when it troubles me, and even when, at the end of the day, I find that I cannot give an unqualified adherence to it.

Consider two Catholics, Michael and Marie, who have both just come across the Catholic Church's teaching that the use of in vitro fertilization to assist in having a child is always morally wrong. Upon learning of this, Michael rejects the teaching immediately as silly and unworthy of his consideration. For him it is simply another example of the Catholic obsession with sex and he never gives it another thought. Marie, however, wrestles with the teaching, researching the scientific and medical dimensions of the issue while trying to grasp the moral arguments that lie behind the church's teaching. She actually reads a recent Vatican statement on the topic and finds herself in sympathy with some but not all of the arguments. She spends considerable time in prayer and reflection on the matter and finds that she still cannot fully accept the prohibition, at least in every case.

We might be inclined to say that Marie ends up at the same place as Michael who also rejected this teaching. In fact, many of the orthodoxy police would be inclined to dismiss both as "dissenters," but is their status really the same? I would argue that it is not. Michael was in no way troubled by this particular teaching; he simply ignored it. But his willingness to be so cavalier about this teaching suggests a general unwillingness to deeply engage any of the Catholic tradition. His Catholic identity is almost certain to remain relatively superficial. Marie, in contrast, may not have found that she could fully embrace the teaching, but she came to appreciate some of the ethical issues in a way she hadn't earlier and she now has a much greater sensitivity to some of the dangers associated with an unfettered use of reproductive technologies. Her wrestling with the teaching, although it did not end in an internal assent, has impacted her in significant ways. She has been shaped by her tradition.

In sum, the question is not whether authority should continue to exist in the church; the question is whether the church will find the will and the wisdom to re-imagine church authority in accord with both the ancient biblical tradition and the demands of the church today. Again, I think ordinary Catholics can do their part. They can take a young priest under their wing and celebrate his passion and commitment while gently drawing him into a different style of leadership. They can make a point of affirming the positive examples of church leadership they see from their pastors and bishops.

To read the text of Richard Gaillardetz's lecture, “The State of the Church, 2011,” click here.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Richard Gaillardetz on the State of American Catholicism: My Response – "I Was a Stranger and You . . ." – William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, March 8, 2011).
Richard Gaillardetz on Reading the Documents of Vatican II
The Wild Reed (2008).

Image: Michael J. Bayly.


  1. Ancient biblical tradition has responded. Move on. The demands of the church today have responded. Move on. Multidisciplinary study has answers as to where genuine authority resides. Church authority is being trumped extensively and significantly.

  2. Thanks for posting this excerpt from Gaillardetz, Michael. I'd love to hear what people are thinking about "authority." Is it about having a legitimate claim to be obeyed or followed? For expample, the laws we make for ourselves in a nation come from the authority we have conferred on the government. That authority resides in us and we give confer it on our representatives. They have a legitimate claim to be followed. We confer authority on teachers when we send our kids to a school. The teachers have a legitimate claim to be obeyed. When people give evidence of knowing what they are talking about we say they speak with authority. Doesn't that mean we have conferred authority on them by our judgment that they are competent? Their claim to be followed is provisional--lasts as long as we believe they know what they are talking about. The Catholic Church is a long tradition of thinking and believing people.It is worth our listening to what it has to say and "wrestling" with it, as Gaillardetz says. The problem arises when the hierarchs stop "wrestling" with the points of view of others or the insights of other traditions of thinking people. Then we start withdrawing authority from them. What do people think of this?

  3. “When people give evidence of knowing what they are talking about we say they speak with authority.” Bravo, I think that is the essence of the matter, Paula. The ‘evidence’ is what matters. Science gives evidence. Philosophy gives good reasoning skills. Good reasoning gives evidence. Mathematics gives good reasoning. People who use these disciplines in an expert way become the authorities on life needs and the infrastructure of the planet that is required to sustain life with its diversity and equilibrium.
    The hierarchy gleans knowledge from exactly the same sources as any other human being. But in 2011 the hierarchy is not an authority figure. The hierarchy consists chiefly of church administrators. An institution that originated in the age of mythology, more or less 2000 years ago, can’t possibly compete with a philosophical-scientific worldview in the twenty-first century. The best of knowledge trumps less meritorious knowledge. This is cultural evolution.
    The church institution is no longer useful as a source of adequate knowledge. Nor does the institution pursue necessarily and sufficiently truth and goodness to the degree that people and planet make obvious by their state of need, -- given the multifaceted global crisis. And that is one reason (among others) why I say that we are evolving from an axial age religion to a post-axial age faith phenomenon. There are people of faith, a multifaceted faith, globally, working to restore planet earth to the degree that is feasible so that we can continue our evolutionary journey rather than succumb to an extinction that scientific experts believe might be more or less a hundred years away. But it will take the entire global population restoring the entire planet as much as is feasible to avert the predicted cataclysm.

  4. I respect science, but I'm not infatuated with it. Today's scientific evidence will be myth tomorrow. (If not, how will poor post grads ever come up with an idea for a Ph.D. thesis?) In contrast,many a religious idea has been passed from generation to generation and rings true today. I include those with sources other than those of our religion.