A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Respecting the Enigmatic

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.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

You can go so far in that direction that you have nothing left but individual conscience. It's not a more sophisticated, better educated, more deeply informed way to receive religious authority, but a complete rejection of it - as authority. And that is the way of the West - believe no one and obey no one but the state. To the modern mind, anything else is irresponsible. We really can't think any differently. It complicates life enormously :O)

"If authoritative teaching is representative teaching, it must actually be received as authoritative and representative in the Christian community. It is not enough simply to claim that such teaching is representative. The community of Christians addressed by their teachers will either receive or not receive the teaching in light of their faith in Jesus Christ and of the scriptural witness to God's revelation in Christ. In the process of reception it becomes apparent whether or not the teaching was representative." Wolfgang Pannenberg, The Present and Future Church, First Things, November 1991.

You know it seems to me that we ought to give some thought to the phrases "teaching authority" or "authoritative teaching." Teaching is undoubtedly what we want and need in the Church, not to mention society as a whole. But what makes teaching "authoritative"? Not simply who says it. It has to have something to do with what they have to say and, as you suggest via Pannenberg, its reception or non-reception says something about its content. And then there's "teaching authority," which tends to the oxymoronic if you go too heavily on the authority part. Here the question is what kind of authority is "teaching authority" which comes down to asking what makes for good--and therefore authoritative--teaching? Too many people want to bang the "authority" drum as if it settles everything, when the most it should do is elicit our respectful attention, after which we will probably know how good the teaching is, which means how much "authority" it actually has.

Paul Lakeland (8/22 9:14 pm):

Too many people want to bang the authority drum as if it settles everything, when the most it should do is elicit our respectful attention, after which we will probably know how good the teaching is, which means how much authority it actually has.

I'm tempted to say that's an excellent illustration of circular reasoning :O)

Paul L. --Thanks very much for the review. I've ordered a copy.Yes, we need to talk about teaching authority, and we need to include a review of the various meanings of "authority".Let's go back to the beginning. The trusty (?) Proto-Indo-Europeanl dictionary gives some of the primitive meanings associated with "au-aued" in the various Indo-European languages. The word's basic meaning was apparently to speak, to talk, but there were many, many early derivative meanings such as oath, ode, sing hymns, voice, doctrine of the elders which seem to have persisted in our meaning. The last meaning (doctrine of the elders) is found in the Hindu Theravada, so I assume it is a very ancient one, and part of the kernel of meaning which the term had early on. See: seems that all those meanings are implicit in our uses of the term "authority" in "teaching authority". Most obviously, an authority speaks, but his manner is something like an oath-guaranteed wau -- he speaks with an intention that his message is guaranteed by his word of honor that what he is thinking/saying is definitely, exactly true. Further, and most obviously, our teaching authority presents his message as the doctrine of the elders, of those who knew what we must learn.But what about the singing, specifically the singing of hymns? Is that included in our basic sense of authority? Well, consider that singing hymns is a group process. Are those who listen to the words of the authority also in some way speaking -- at least to themselves -- what they are receiving from the authority? In other words, are they agreeing with the authorities, as hymn=singers agree with the choral director? Certainly Vatican II maintains that the authoritative teachings of the Church are in fact what the faithful have themselves also thought is truly the teaching of the elders.Except for the last point, on the surface this all seems simple enough, but I submit that none of it is simple. First, language is intrinsically ambiguous, so how exact can authoritative teaching be? And how do we *know* that the authority who speaks is in fact truthful? (These days there is a lot of evidence that many bishops are liars.) Most troublesome, how can the authority (and we) be sure that what he is saying is indeed what the elders also said?Another huge problem: what do the individuals who are the Church all actually belief is Christ's message? Not only what do *we* believe, but what have our ancestors, elders, believed To find the answer to that surely we must ask the individuals -- and that means asking ourselves -- what they think is true. Unfortunately, we often at least seem to disagree. And here's another problem: the teachings authorities of the Church seem to be saying at the same time that 1) they are confirming what the individuals believers think, and that 2) what they, the authorities, are saying is somehow news to the listeners. But how can 1) and 3) both be true?Where are the answers to these troubling questions to be found? In the much-needed theological epistemology that has yet to be thought out. Sigh.

I really liked Taylor's observations on the question of limits on the way magisterial authority ought to be exercised. It was so refreshing to find among the refusals to respect limits that "bring about a dispossession, a preemption of the Christian's capacity to work out by his or her own intellect and groping spiritual maturation, how to live the faith, do the right thing, reconceive his or her life, and live with its enigmas," that due respect for the enigmatic in life. A little Keatsian "negative capability" among the hierarchy might be a blessing to the Church. Great piece.

I finished the "Crisis of Authority" during Irene (just as Joseph Komonchak was starting Middlemarch -- see the main blog). And he too has a splendid article in "Crisis" on Benedict's view of Vatican II.. I very much liked Taylor's article, though I wish it had been a bit more fleshed out (I dispute the point above about the bad editing of Secularism - for someone like me, not at all at home in formal philosophical language, it's helpful to have Taylor's summings up and repetitions, driving his points home for the weak-minded among us. I think what he's saying in "Crisis" is that the whole question of ecclesiastical authority needs to be discussed and better understood. I wouldn't agree that there is simply a stark choice between unquestioning obedience on the one hand, and going entirely one's own way on the other, pleading the primacy of conscience. To see things this way is to echo those people who are always quick to point out that 'the Church is not a democracy." Of course it isn't, nor should it be; but there are choices other that between free-wheeling democracy and absolute monarchy, with its roots in 16th century visions of kingship. And above all, as I think both Taylor and Frank Oakley point out, one has to come to terms somehow with the question the historical situations in which authority is exercised. (Oakley's view is that the ancient and honorable tradition of conciliarism in the Church was finally excised by the papacy in the 19th century, and has now been swept down an Orwellian memory hole (my words, not his).So if one demands obedience to the magisterium, one has to be able to answer the question of which particular magisterium one has in mind -- that of the 12th century? the seventeenth century? the 19th century -- or the twentieth? Because they do, to some extent, often contradict one another, and the contradictions can't simply be papered over.As both Taylor and Oakley (in his summation) say, a bit of humility from Rome would be enormously helpful (as, no doubt it would be from us too). So how do we get "Crisis" into the hands of those who should read it?

I believe that only drastic action by Holy Spirit -- a miracle -- can reform the Church. The bishops have had their capacity for self-criticism bred out of them, so If they read Crisis they wouldn't recognize themselves.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment