Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa

Can the Church Admit Error?

Can the church confess error? Will it ever do so? If so, how? Those were the questions Commonweal put to the four distinguished scholars and authors whose responses follow. It is increasingly apparent that the question of how doctrine can change or develop lies behind the most neuralgic conflicts facing the church today, most prominently the church’s teachings on contraception and the ordination of women. Traditional notions about the development of doctrine are obviously an important part of any answer to these questions, but we pressed our contributors to take their answers beyond legalisms and theological syllogisms. Wouldn’t an admission of error—in the church’s past defense of slavery or in its official teachings about Judaism, for example—enhance, rather than damage, the church’s credibility? Aren’t the tortuous efforts to explain away dramatic reversals in church teaching—like the effort to reconcile current teaching and pre–Vatican II understandings about religious liberty—a cause of intellectual scandal as well as moral evasiveness? Isn’t it fallacious to fear that admitting error would immediately call "everything" the church teaches into doubt?

After all, the intellectual prestige attached to the truth claims of modern science is strengthened by a willingness to admit error. In a different arena, and perhaps more to the point, didn’t the reversal of legal precedent involved in the overturning of segregation law vindicate rather than undermine the moral authority of the Supreme Court?

Obviously such parallels are never exact and can in some ways be misleading. Revealed religion is not a merely empirical or constitution-based tradition. Still, the inability of the magisterium to explain genuine changes in practice and doctrine breeds both frustration and cynicism, if not hypocrisy. Isn’t there any way to be more honest about the facts of history and the nature of historical change? How should the church go about doing so?

Four Responses:

A Repenting Church, by Richard P. McBrien

'Sentire cum Ecclesia', by Richard John Neuhaus

Galileo's Daughters, by Elizabeth A. Johnson

Renewing Authority, by Joseph A. Komonchak

Published in the 1999-11-19 issue: 
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