Pressing Church Issues
Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler, Creighton University:
Liberating Conscience: An End to Magisterial Authoritarianism
In his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis has done a great service to the Church by re-establishing the centrality of conscience, its role, function, and authority in the moral life. He notes, “We…find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful…. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (n. 37, emphasis added). We deliberately use the term, “re-establishing,” since the authority and inviolability of personal conscience, especially since Vatican I and, more recently, during the papacies of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has largely been reduced to obedience to “magisterial authority.” The standard and long-traditional Catholic approach to making moral decisions, however, acknowledges the authority and inviolability of an informed personal conscience.
Already in the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas established the authority and inviolability of conscience. “Anyone upon whom the ecclesiastical authorities, in ignorance of the true facts, impose a demand that offends against his clear conscience, should perish in excommunication rather than violate his conscience” (In IV Sent., 38, 2, 4). After Vatican I’s declaration of papal infallibility in 1870, this teaching became submerged in claims for the doctrinal authority of Pope and Bishops. The way that Catholics were to make a moral decision was best articulated, perhaps, by Pope Pius X: “The Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock.” The latter have “one duty…to allow themselves to be led and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors” (Vehementer nos, 8). It could not be clearer: to make a moral judgment in this context all a Catholic need do is to follow the instructions of Pastors in hierarchical power. Pope John Paul II seemed to reaffirm this model of conscience in Veritatis splendor as do Catholic philosophers like Germain Grisez and John Finnis and Archbishop Chaput. This position is summed up well by Grisez: “For her members, the Catholic Church is the supreme moral authority under God. Catholics ought to conform their consciences to her teaching in every question, every detail, every respect. If they are faithful, they will.” Or again, “A Catholic conscience should conform absolutely to the Church’s teaching.”
Pope Francis’ view of conscience is quite different and reflects the role, function, and authority of conscience in Aquinas and the Second Vatican Council: “In all his activity a man [and, of course, a woman]is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God…. It follows that he is not to be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious” (Dignitatis Humanae, n. 3). According to this perspective, an individual Catholic makes concrete moral judgments by following his/her personal conscience, a practical judgment that he/she should do or not do this particular action. Given universal human weakness and finitude, any such practical judgment of conscience can be in error. If the error cannot be ascribed to moral fault, failure to gather the necessary evidence, to engage in the necessary deliberation, to take the necessary counsel, for example, the practical judgment of conscience not only can but also must be followed. When we have done all we can in our circumstances and within our limitations to gather information, to take appropriate counsel, to deliberate, to discern, we can and must fall back on the practical judgment of conscience, even if, as Aquinas argued, it is contrary to Church authority.
This traditional Catholic model of conscience promotes a mature faith, commitment to internalizing the values behind Church teaching, though not necessarily the absolute norms (e.g. norms against contraception and homosexual acts) that attempt to codify those values, and empowers the faithful to be active and valued members of the Christian community who, in the words of Gaudium et spes, are called to join with all people “in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships” (n. 16). This model reflects well the literal meaning of the Latin word con-scientia,knowledge together, perhaps better rendered as to know together. What is lacking in the institutional Church—although the 2014 and 2015 synods that invited lay input on marriage and family issues are a move in the right direction— is the infrastructure to empower lay people with plural perspectives to be active participants in the discernment and formulation of doctrine. The current institutional Church structure is an antiquated, patriarchal, hierarchical, feudal, and all too-often oppressive relic from the Middle Ages, which has no place in the 21st century. The consciences of the faithful or sensus fidelium, guided by the Holy Spirit, prayer, discernment, and the four sources of moral knowledge—scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—should have a participatory voice in the Church today.
Daniel Lloyd, Saint Leo University, North Charleston
Apologetics as a Critical Feature of Catechesis
About 75 years ago, C. S. Lewis made the observation that Christians “in the old days” might not have needed too many complicated ideas about God. His point was that even in the 1940’s the times had changed significantly, and the average layperson really needed to listen to theology: “Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones…” (Mere Christianity, Book 4.1). Lewis thus argued that all Christians needed to familiarize themselves with a more complex understanding of their faith. Such a viewpoint is even more important today. Since Lewis’s time, the Western world has seen major shifts away from traditional religiosity and Church participation. Such shifts mean that fewer and fewer people, including many Christians, understand what Christianity teaches and why. This period has also seen a significant rise in prominent articulations of atheism and agnosticism, which themselves often begin by rejecting faith as a rational and just expression of human life. For Christians today, and really any other religious group intent on sharing its faith with family and society, a hard look at some of the major obstacles for catechesis is called for.
The educational industry in America is not often explicitly linked to the topic of catechesis, but Christians should consider paying far more attention to this connection. Those who do come to Church, listen to the sermons, participate in adult education programs, or otherwise attempt to guide their children into a mature faith, are, or will be, products of this system in one way or another. With the statistics pointing to an overall drop in critical reading and thinking skills for average and below average high school students, religious communities need to think about how to promote a more sophisticated understanding of theology to help all members grow in an increasingly sophisticated world. To think with any amount of theological sophistication requires a good amount of critical thinking skills, and these skills are often tied to reading skills. If the response of religious communities over time becomes reactive, such as by simplifying sermons which might themselves be the only contact with theological education many parishioners receive or by turning to an emphasis on advocating ethics without doctrinal understanding, then the issues are compounded in a negative way.
In my parish, some of the most well-attended adult classes have been those on apologetics. Such anecdotal evidence supports the basic perception many have that parishioners don’t feel like they know how to explain or defend the doctrines and the positions that the Church takes. On the one hand, this is good news for the basic life of the Church. That adults want to know more and want to hear more about the intellectual support of the faith is an indication of spiritual health. That many adult Catholics have little foundation in such matters, on the other hand, is an indication of a failure in the spiritual formation within the contemporary Church. In a cultural environment in which the Church is often criticized or ridiculed for its beliefs, focusing more attention on apologetic programs at the parish level is one clear and necessary way to support parishioners whose faith is being tested and who might have limited resources in the way of critical reading and thinking skills to investigate matters on their own effectively.
Even longer ago than Lewis, G. K. Chesterton recommended a return to studying Saint Thomas Aquinas as a countermeasure to a society which, he argued, was becoming less rational and rigorous intellectually. Here too, the situation in Western society seems to have travelled further down the road than Chesterton could have imagined. It is more common today to see beliefs and ideas rejected out of hand because they do not easily or clearly fit into categories of social justice which dominate the media and culture. In the face of a situation in which many Westerners experience the inability to converse about important topics, Catholic teachings about the sanctity of life, sexuality, and the option for the poor, for example, can be felt as mills around the necks of parishioners who have never been introduced to the tools to understand why the Church teaches what she does. I am personally a great fan of Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire ministry. Between the books, video clips, catechetical materials, etc., this ministry is helping to answer the call for a much needed diversity of resources, which can cater to different people in different situations. Some see such ministries as ultimately an emphasis on the delivery method, namely the electronic, social media that has become integrated in most aspects of life. But delivery method doesn’t, by nature, directly respond to the issues related to comprehension. In many instances, much of the catechetical material available for use today presumes a foundation in history and theology which many parishioners don’t have. The Church must thus be attentive to answering the call of the New Evangelization while not jumping the gaps in the critical thinking skills and the intellectual foundations of many Christians.
To be clear, I am not advocating faith formation programs or sermons built on studying Thomas’s works specifically. Reading or teaching Thomas is simply one example of a healthy response to a society unused to forms of rigorous intellectual investigations of matters related to faith. More directly, this piece is advocating the increased use of apologetics in general, whether it be in faith formation classes, sermons, videos, etc. Apologetics done well includes an intellectually comprehensible and systematic approach to the faith. A focus on apologetics will, no doubt, seem regressive to some Catholics today who argue that spiritual growth and sophistication come with more consistent attention to many voices, especially those of dissent. However, this has not been my experience teaching courses on Christianity to adults. My experience includes adults expressing a profound sense of wonder and gratitude that Catholicism, in particular, grounds its teachings and practices on rigorous intellectual foundations. Only after carefully learning a systematic and traditional understanding of the Christian faith do many students say they can really understand and vocalize their own beliefs. A turn to apologetics in all manner of parish life will, I believe, lead to accessibility to spiritual growth otherwise lacking to many. That apologetics promote, by example and format, critical thinking skills because of their systematic nature, is the important point here, and it is one important way which the Church today can counterbalance the lack of a critical engagement of the faith.
Christopher Denny, St. John's University
The Ascetic Corrective
Pope Francis’s recent encyclical letter “Laudato Si’” cites a 2003 address delivered in Norway by Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew. Delivered in Norway, the speech was titled “The Ascetic Corrective,” and in it the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox churches said:
“The environmental crisis will not be solved simply by sentimental expressions of regret or aesthetic formulations of a creative imagination. It will not be altered by fashionable programs or ecumenical catch-words. It is the ‘tree of the cross’ that reveals to us the way out of our ecological impasse by proposing the solution of self-denial, the denial of selfishness or self-centeredness. It is, therefore, the spirit of asceticism that in the final analysis leads to the spirit of gratitude and love, to a rediscovery of the sense of wonder and beauty.”
While the focus of ecological initiatives is often directed at governments and large corporations, a recent analysis by faculty at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology demonstrates that 60 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 80 percent of the world’s water use are due to consumer use, once the cost of production for purchased consumer goods is taken into account. (Diana Ivanova et al., “Environmental Impact Assessment of Household Consumption,” Journal of Industrial Ecology 20/3 (June 2016): 526-36.) A technological solution to the environmental crisis, one in which we rely on even more consumer goods to solve the problem of overconsumption, does not seem close at hand.
Two years ago the Wake Up, Lazarus! forum addressed the issue of ascetic relevance, with participants confronting the declining profile of asceticism in contemporary spiritual life, noting the impossibility or inadvisability of reviving traditional ascetic practices in the contemporary era. Is the ecological crisis a wake-up call to revive and adapt traditional practices of asceticism? Can traditional Christian practices of fasting and self-denial be reinterpreted and expanded in a quest to limit consumption, or are those spiritual disciplines inadequate to meet today ecological problems?
Should Catholics revive the practice of Friday fasting from meat to make more efficient use of grain and agricultural land, expanding fasting beyond the Lenten season to the entire year for multiple days a week? Might churches reduce their reliance on air conditioning to consume less electricity and shrink a community’s carbon footprint, and encourage parishioners to do the same in their homes? Could the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas be times in which the gospel message’s incompatibility with unbridled consumerism is consistently highlighted in the liturgical celebration through encouraging donations of surplus clothes and goods rather than the purchase of new items? Organizing carpools or using available forms of mass transit might reduce the need for the massive paved parking lots in suburban parishes that go unused during most days of the week. Can suburban and rural churches transform some of their land currently used for automobiles into sites for community-based agriculture, producing organic food that can be distributed to those in need in the local community?
Are these suggestions feasible? What other practices could be undertaken so that religiously-motivated environmental asceticism is supported by Christian communities?
Gerald Vigna, Alvernia University:
To Reform the Liturgy, Reform the Church
I remember the last straw. Hurricane Sandy was coming in. The Gospel was an episode of Jesus healing a blind man, or so I recall. What I recollect most vividly was the presider talking about how he disliked going to his mother’s shore house the day before and covering the windows in preparation for the storm. If the homily lasted ten minutes, the first eight were dedicated to his complaints masquerading as confession of wrongful filial aloofness. It closed with an indolent allusion to the Gospel. Homily. I guess.
Okay, so that seems truly too minor an incident to trigger as strong a reaction as I had. But there are straws and there are camel’s backs. So what led up to Labor Day weekend 2012?
I very much like the prayers said at mass, even the ones that are the same or nearly the same every week. The Gloria, the Creed, the entire Eucharistic canon of the mass. And when I go I find the mass satisfying because I listen carefully to those prayers and repeat them conscientiously when required (although I still sometimes say, “And also with you”). These prayers have a certain intrinsic spiritual value. They also acquire, however, a certain transactional value that accrues from the quality of the entire liturgy. Thus we have the emphasis among those who care about the mass on the homily, among other elements such as the music and even the quality of the lectors. As the final blessing and dismissal direct, however, the Eucharistic Liturgy must also connect to the rest of one’s life, and here was the sticking point.
I felt let down in all the areas surrounding Church. Pastor, bishops, employer, bishops again, homilies. I am one of those rare birds whose life is entirely surrounded by the Catholic Church. I was quite active in the parish. I work for a Catholic institution. My job leads me to pay particular attention to the bishops’ statements, especially as they relate to Catholic universities. Although not a victim, I am closer to the sex abuse scandal than most. Unfortunately, the sacraments cannot be a shining, bright light untouched by all these things. If rites are undergirded by a sacramental imagination that sees God’s grace in all things, then the converse is also true. It can be difficult to separate God’s grace from the muck of human misbehavior.
Allow me to gently name some of the specific issues that at first annoyed me and then became much more onerous. None of these settled matters in themselves, but cumulatively, well, they led up to Labor Day weekend 2012.
A new pastor arrived. Quickly it became clear that he was a bit of a careerist and that his method, in the words of a fellow parishioner and old friend was, “My way or the highway.” He immediately dissolved the parish council, as was his right under canon law. Unfortunately, he did so dismissively rather than pastorally and offended some members, including me. Realizing that I did not want to work closely with him, I dropped off committees. Meanwhile, the bishops were aggressively resisting the consequences of the sex abuse scandal and threatening state legislators who might favor lifting the statute of limitations imposed on sexual assault allegations. The university began to go through the corporatization that has been transforming higher education in the U.S. in recent years, including the damage to shared governance and the reduction of tenured positions. And salaries are low. The bishops again stepped in it with criticisms of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson and Sr. Margaret Farley. The first statement, a subtle threat to academic freedom, was directed at Sr. Johnson’s work and suggested that we not assign it to undergraduates because it might confuse them in their faith. I bristle at nothing more than someone recommending what I should not teach in a classroom. Around this time, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, whom I had admired for his stand on immigration, was implicated in a cover-up of the sex abuse scandal in Los Angeles.
And then there was that homily.
Vatican II issued a document on reforming the liturgy. It also issued a document on reforming the Church and yet another on reforming the world. The faith is organic, truly a seamless garment. The complaints I have put forward seem to have their origin in a desire to control rather than shepherd prudently, a certain cowardice, too much careerism, and bad homilies. The last results from shaping them in the direction of a personal piety of the laity and rarely if ever pointing to the Church’s concern for the world’s systems and their sinfulness. The liturgy must embrace the fullness of the faith; the faith must fully engage the promise of the liturgy. Thy Kingdom come.