The End of the Para-Creed?

For much of recent history, (say, 30 or 40 years,) if you asked random people on the street what the Catholic Church teaches, you'd likely get a pretty short list: no contraception, no women in authority, no abortion, no remarriage after divorce (without annulment,) no marriage for priests, no gay sex, and (more recently,) certainly no same-sex civil marriage. These teachings had become a tidy para-creed often used to label those of us who quibbled with any of these items "heretics."

Pope Francis has made no changes to any of these para-credal doctrines, as the preachers of that creed are quick to point out. What he seems to have done, however, is to remove their status as inerrant indicators of the "true Catholic." As he said,:

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently....We have to find a new balance...

That new balance doesn't begin with doctrine, but with human beings:

We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.

Two comments. First, I think this step is a necessary precondition for any change of doctrine, should such occur. The use of the small handful of moral teachings as a para-creed meant that any challenge to them--actually, any discussion about them--is ruled out--or at the very least immediately turned into a shouting match about orthodoxy--from the start. Now, perhaps, a new conversation can begin.

Second, this would seem to pose an opening to a real engagement with human experience as a primary source for ethics. Moralists have been doing this for decades, of course, but wherever experience (individual or "condensed" by social scientific methods,) conflicted with extant doctrine, it was ruled inauthentic or even evil. Consider this sentence from the USCCB's statement against Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler's The Sexual Person:

The fact that the alternative moral theology of The Sexual Person leads to many positions in clear conflict with authoritative Church teaching is itself considerable evidence that the basic methodology of this moral theology is unsound and incompatible with the Catholic tradition.

If it isn't what was already taught, it's likely wrong from the start. A similar dynamic sunk the USCCB's attempt to formulate a pastoral statement on women decades ago. The expressed thoughts, dreams and hopes of Catholic women had to be carefully edited lest anybody seem to raise a challenge to what the magisterium already "knew."

To be sure, nothing in Pope Francis' statements indicates an imminent change in doctrine. But starting by accompanying people "in their situation" has to shift the conversation, at least. For those of us who have difficulties with the para-creed, one big issue is that it seems to exclude, condemn or otherwise harm whole categories of human beings--women called to leadership in the Church (whose desire to lead as they are called is said to reflect a defect in their femininity,) LGB Catholics (whose sexuality, should they act on it, is said to pose a threat to society,) people in truly difficult marital or reproductive situations (whose difficulties are too often simply dismissed as less important than upholding the teaching,) etc. etc.

This opening to serious engagement with experience is a necessary consequence also of Francis' inversion of St. Ignatius' idea of thinking with the Church. Ignatius meant with the leadership of the hierarchical Church. Francis interprets this as thinking with the People of God. Well, gotta listen to them first.

None of this means that Francis' ponitificate will necessarily mark changes in the articles of the para-creed. I'm still waiting to see what he'll actualy do, nice though this start is--though his comments on the role of women in the Church are puzzling and unhelpful so far. (What the heck is "female machismo," anyway, and who gets to decide?) But here's another quotation from his interview:

Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.

Audacity and courage--great virtues! And not just for potential returnees. The whole Church will need them, if Francis' words are to come to fruition,and we all begin to think with the Church, the People of God. All the People of God. We'll see...


Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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