Respecting the Enigmatic
Paul Lakeland August 21, 2011 - 9:29am
Im pleased when one of my students is excited to discover that something we are talking about in the course Im teaching actually connects to something in another course! But I found myself falling into the same set of feelings without the justification of inexperience or youth when two of the eight or ten books I am currently reading (that is, periodically picking up and putting down) revealed the same serendipitous connection. Charles Taylor and Mark Jordan may well be old friends for all I know, but if not, they should sit down together and have a long talk.In a way its not so surprising that they might have things in common, at least in the books I have been reading, since the focus of both is the question of teaching, specifically teaching with magisterial authority. In fact Magisterial Authority is the title of the chapter Taylor contributed to the book I promised a few weeks ago that I would revisit, namely, The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity (see The Power of Being Well-Informed, July 12). Taylors essay is by far the briefest piece, perhaps a surprise for those of us who have waded through A Secular Age, alternately impressed by his wisdom and insight and appalled that he didnt have a better editor. Taylor, one of the most distinguished Catholic philosophers of our day, takes up two questions in his short essay, the scope of magisterial authority and the manner in which it should be exercised. While what the magisterium guards and teaches is vast, the deposit of faith or matters of faith and morals, how it should teach is significantly more constrained. Thinking especially of moral teaching, which seems to be pretty much all that the magisterium concerns itself with these days, Taylor points out that principles and goals lead to moral decisions only when we have some grasp of the situation in which they have to be applied, and this grasp cant be derived from faith. In other words, there is clearly a normative component in magisterial teaching, but it has to be offered in an inductive context where what Bernard Lonergan might have called taking a look is actually quite important. So, if you dont actually take a look but allow yourself to be panicked then you might end up like Pius IX trying to stop the clock on essentially dynamic issues about liberalism, democracy and so on. Taylor suggests that U.S. and Canadian bishops who want to censure politicians for their stance on abortion law or gay marriage may be repeating the same error of failing to see the limits of magisterial authority. He offers several explanations for this phenomenon, some of themlike legalism and false sacralization, (that is, identifying a particular historically conditioned mode of thought like natural law ethics as essential to the faith)quite familiar, and others, such as the failure of respect for the enigmatic, arrestingly unfamiliar, at least the term itself. What it comes down to, of course, is the charge that magisterial teaching frequently fails to respect the ambiguity and complexity of lived life. Taylors point, I take it, is that the magisterium often oversteps its legitimate responsibility and unwittingly tramples upon the indispensable roles of conscience and authentic freedom in making practical moral judgments. Bishops have the right and responsibility to teach, says Taylor, but without threats. Otherwise, given the Christian emphasis on the responsibility to conscience, teaching could end up commanding us not to do what we are in conscience bound to do. As, for example, would certainly be happening if bishops told us how we should vote.
The Harvard theologian Mark Jordan takes up the same set of issues a little less directly in his discussion of official moral teaching in The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism. In fact, he has an entire chapter on Teaching by Threatening, but gets to the point where he and Taylor can shake hands when he draws attention to the attitude of certainty that marks all official ecclesial documents. Precisely because the magisterium imagines it is supposed to have answers for everything, complex human worlds like the problem of homosexuality, says Jordan, are resolved in a few pages of propositions. In fact, almost every aspect of personal and sexual ethics in the Church is dealt with in similar fashion, so that the divorced and remarried or the pregnant and unmarried woman or those couples living together outside marriage are left, if they bother to check the teaching at all, either confused or scornful. The issue, both Taylor and Jordan suggest, is not best handled by classifying such people as sinful (arent we all?), relativistic or hedonistic, but by rethinking how the Church legitimately teaches. Jordan puts it well when, writing that Aquinass discussion of vices against nature is not interested in the mechanism of copulation but rather in a rhetorical program that can persuade whole human beings to seek the beatific end that they in fact desire.I think this is what both Jordan and Taylor want to say about magisterial teaching, and its certainly what I want to say. Good teaching, as good teachers know, is not a process of giving instructions that the pupils will slavishly follow, but rather of sharing what little wisdom and knowledge one has in the hope that some of them at least will carry off some of it into their lives beyond the classroom, where they will construct their own complex selves. It is in that mysterious, nay enigmatic, realm beyond the reach of the teacher that, if at all, they will acquire their own wisdom and insight.
About the Author
Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.