Friday, March 18, 2011

"A Truly Living Tradition...Must Always Be Recontextualized in the Present Moment"

The headline of this post could easily be lifted from my doctoral dissertation, The Creativity of Church Teaching: A Whiteheadian Alternative to the Notion of Development of Doctrine (1983). One of the central points argued there is that church teaching is a process and that the process moves forward by the continuous, endless interplay of scripture, tradition and contemporary experience.

In fact, however, the headline is a direct quotation from Dr. Richard Gaillardetz, a highly regarded Roman Catholic theologian, in his final Murray/Bacik lecture at the University of Toledo on January 27th, "The State of the Church, 2011." The link is to the website of the National Catholic Reporter, which published the complete lecture online, and the second half of it in its print edition of March 4, 2011. The lecture was his last in Toledo because starting this fall he begins his appointment to the Joseph Chair of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College.

For my money, the import of the Gaillardetz quotation is that it is part of his vision of how the exercise of authority in the church could be productively reformed. It comports very comfortably with the recontextualization model that my dissertation tried to articulate: the interplay of scripture and tradition with contemporary experience results in newer church teachings, which simultaneously take their place among the old and make the old teachings available in a novel context, thereby redefining the limits of the older teachings and redistributing the intensities among them.

The context of Gaillardetz vision is provided by the first half of his lecture, in which he traces the history of American Catholicism from the 19th century to the present, but with particular emphasis on the period since Vatican II. Agreeing with other commentators, he sees the tensions within the church as a struggle between those who remain inspired by the achievements of Vatican II, versus those who bought the very conservative, overly clerical interpretation of Vatican II which Pope John Paul II drummed into Catholics during his historically lengthy reign.

In this Gaillardetz explicitly distinguished his analysis from that of Catholic conservative George Weigel, in whose narrative "the church of the 70s and 80s was characterized by a flimsy and irresponsible application of conciliar teaching accompanied by an episcopal practice of cultural accommodation that needed to be corrected by John Paul II's insistence on fidelity to 'settled teaching' and his robust confrontation with the toxic cultural elements of our age." Instead, Gaillardetz argues that in the 70s and 80s "the bishops' conference was not concerned with cultural accommodation but with balanced critical engagement with a sensitivity to the need to moderate the authority claims of their policy judgments."

Gaillardetz suggests that reforming the exercise of authority in the church requires that pastoral leaders "recover the ancient conviction of St. Cyprian of Carthage that you cannot be a good leader and teacher unless your are a humble learner and listener." This would open the door to re-imagining ecclesial authority in three ways.

First, pastoral leaders would recognize that the legal or de jure authority of their offices is only a part of, and in fact quite secondary to, their larger leadership roll. They are called first of all to excel in the charism of leadership. And they are unlikely to achieve success with their de jure authority if they lack the charism of leadership. Thus the screening for candidates for priest and bishop should call forth those who actually possess that charism, rather than finding the most competent dogmatists and legalists.

Second, pastoral leaders need to see themselves not as museum curators controlling how dogmatic antiquities are exhibited, but more as gardeners, tending the living tradition of the church but also trying "to create the best possible conditions for healthy growth but [who] ultimately have to allow the growth process to act according to its own independent processes."

This is where Gaillardetz gets closest to my own thinking. And he can be about as scathing as I think he needs to be: "Too often a crass and antihistorical 'traditionalism' masquerades as a love of tradition. As Jaroslav Pelikan famously put it: 'Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.' If a religious tradition is a truly living tradition and not merely a preoccupation of those prone to nostalgia and love of antiquities, it must always be recontextualized in the present moment. With every new social context the tradition will have to, in some sense, assume a new form."

Third, Gaillardetz recommends his own version of Alfred North Whitehead's dictum, it is more important for a claim to be interesting that for it to be true. Church teaching advances, not by trying to resurrect "the juridical paradigm of command and obey" and not by insisting "on an uncritical and unswerving obedience to all church teachings," but by encouraging Catholics and Christians and other believers and even non-believers to wrestle with the tradition and at least take it seriously in their decision-making. This might not end in internal assent, but it at least allows the tradition to be entertained conscientiously by individuals and by a wide variety of groups. By contrast, a self-proclaimed dictatorship of religious absolutes will be dismissed out of hand.

My dissertation maintains that the only guarantors of the accuracy of church teachings are God and the future. God keeps luring forth new teachings and the future progressively sets them within new limits, provided by the context of newer teachings still. Gaillardetz ends with some sentences which resonate quite harmoniously with that view:

"The Venerable Bede once wrote: 'Every day the church gives birth to the church." Out of this present moment, a new church will doubtless be born. All Catholics should pray that we will be its humble and faithful midwives."

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