Im starting with a long list of names but I need to in order to make my point. So, suppose you had encountered a new book on the Catholic Church by Michael Lacey or Francis Oakley or Joe Komonchak or Frank Sullivan or John Beal? What if it had been written by Gerard Mannion or Lisa Cahill or Cathy Kaveny or Charles Taylor? And how about Leslie Woodcock Tentler or Katarina Schuth? Or another sociological study by the indefatigable team of Bill DAntonio, Jim Davidson, the late lamented Dean Hoge and Mary Gauthier? Wouldnt you be excited to read what the book had to say? Well, the bad news is that none of these folks has just published a new book, though I am sure some are impending, but the good news is that they are all featured in the 2011 Oxford University Press collection, The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity, edited by Lacey and Oakley.When I look at this collection and the truly formidable array of scholars who are its contributors I am inevitably reminded of the Yale conference back in 2003 that led to the outstanding book, Governance, Accountability and the Future of the Catholic Church (Continuum, 2003). The conference opened with an address by the then Archbishop Wuerl of Pittsburgh on the roots of Catholicism, more notable for its piety than for its willingness to grapple with the findings of scholarship. After a polite but distinctly challenging response from Peter Steinfels there came an array of distinguished scholars, many of them also included in this present 2011 volume, simply laying out the facts about the nature of governance and authority. Their conclusions contradicted those of the archbishop, who sadly had been unable to stay to hear what they had to say.
What makes the connection for me, besides the considerable overlap between the two lists of contributors, is the polite but firm challenge to ecclesial assumptions about the exercise of authority in the Church, in the context of our currently serious disconnect between magisterial authority and Catholic rank and file over a whole host of issues. Michael Lacey lays down the gauntlet in the introduction to The Crisis of Authority when he identifies the chief characteristic of Catholic modernity as a quiet insistence upon thinking for oneself. In this kind of modern Catholic world, Lacey adds, effective leadership is more difficult than it used to be: Rome speaks, but the arguments continue. Indeed, if there is one persistent note throughout this collection it is that the primacy of thinking for oneself is simply beyond dispute, not worth wasting any ink defending, a sine qua non for responsible Christian discipleship as of course it surely is for any kind of scholarship, theological or otherwise.If there is little doubt that the scholarly Catholic world is methodologically indistinguishable from that of secular scholarship, and all the better for it, the same cannot be said for the transfer of this message of freedom to the Catholic rank and file. Many of them dissent from this or that teaching, or are simply confused or even angry about one thing or another, but their access to the breath of fresh air that comes from knowing the facts is by no means so easy. Most will not read books like either of the two I mention here, and the chances of hearing preaching that is informed by this kind of scholarship are not good. However, the arguments of the authors in these admittedly specialized texts are just the kinds of things that thoughtful Catholics need in order for their legitimate wish to think for themselves to be seen to be compatible with continuity in the faith-community, if not indeed essential to its survival with any kind of credibility. Ah, the inestimable power of being well-informed!