Friday, October 15, 2010

Church Teaching Comes from Three Groups; Church Officials Are But One of Them

Hats off to the National Catholic Reporter today for posting two excellent commentaries reaffirming that there are multiple teaching authorities in the Catholic Church, and that church officials are only one of them. This was, of course, one of the pivotal themes of my doctoral dissertation, and a reality that Vatican conservatives have been eager to deny in the 40+ years since Vatican II.

In the wake of a September 15th broadside by the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops--which charged that the 2008 book The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology by Creighton University theologians Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler was “in serious error, and cannot be considered authentic Catholic teaching”--the commentaries remind the bishops that Catholic theologians and baptized Catholics as a whole are parallel channels of teaching authority: sources which the bishops may neither disrespect nor ignore.

One commentary by theologian Regina Schulte, is entitled On sexuality, the hierarchy has usurped the entire teaching office. She compares the bishops' reactionary stance to the one they voiced against the 1977 landmark book Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought, by a committee of theologians commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America--and concludes that not much has changed. Schulte knows whereof she speaks: her late husband James Schulte was one of the study's authors. Ms. Schulte asks:

"Should final decisions regarding sexual morality for all persons be filtered only through such a single mindset and then imposed dictatorially on all members -- men and women, married and single, homosexuals at all androgynal points on the spectrum?

"It borders on the ridiculous to disallow contributions that the very people possessing the requisite wisdom born of experience can bring to the discussions.

"It is apparent that the hierarchy has usurped the entire teaching office -- the “magisterium” -- for themselves; yet they are only one of three components endowed with this charism. Theologians and the wisdom born of experience in the “sense of the faithful” comprise the other two. It would seem, then, that appropriate exercise of their distinctive roles requires that bishops collaborate rather than compete.

"Finally, theologians must constantly emphasize that their role is not catechesis. Theology’s mission is not that of mere communicator between hierarchy and laity. When denunciations such as that pronounced on this latest scholarly work by Salzman and Lawson cease to be standard operating procedure, then, and probably only then, will Catholic moral theology move forward, offering light and guidance to contemporary Catholics -- and to society at large with whom it will undoubtedly resonate."

The second commentary is an NCR editorial entitled The wisdom of the church’s three magisteria. The editorial echoes Shulte's insistence that teaching authority in the Catholic church is shared by three different bodies of believers--officials, theologians and all the baptized. But the editorial expands on the theme by tracing it back to the "newly Blessed" Cardinal John Henry Newman, and by noting that Newman valued even more channels by which the Spirit of the Risen Lord could inspire church teaching:

"It was the newly Blessed John Henry Newman himself who pointed out that there are really three magisteria in the church: the mouth of the episcopacy, the doctors (meaning the theologians) and the people in the pews. Newman valued all three equally and the wise balance and guidance they provided.

"'I think I am right in saying that the tradition of the apostles, committed to the whole church in its various constituents and functions ... manifests itself variously at various times: sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by the doctors, sometimes by the people, sometimes by liturgies, rites, ceremonies, and customs, by events, disputes, movements, and all those other phenomena which are comprised under the name of history. It follows that none of those channels of tradition may be treated with disrespect.'

"Newman was fascinated with the interactions among these three magisteria in history when doctrine and theology were being formulated, notably in the early centuries when the laity saved the church from the Arian heresy and then in the 19th century when the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was forged by Pope Pius IX, who preferred expressions taken from the church’s lived experience, from the faith and worship of the Christian people, to scholastic definitions."

The editorial ends by quoting the forward to The Sexual Person written by Fr. Charles Curran, moral theologian at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, whom I still cherish as one of my mentors at the Catholic University of America in the 1970s:

“Anyone familiar with the Catholic tradition and its history knows that arguments and even sharp differences between and among Catholic theologians are nothing new. In fact, in earlier times the differences were more severe than they are today. ... In that historical context, The Sexual Person makes a significant contribution. Not all theologians will agree with what Salzman and Lawler propose but all must recognize they have achieved their purpose of entering into a genuine and respectful dialogue in the search of the truth and meaning of human sexuality in the Catholic tradition today.”

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