What counts as authentically “Catholic,” and who gets to make that determination? That is the focus of this timely collection about the persistent problem of authority in contemporary Catholicism. Since Vatican II and Humanae vitae, there has been an ongoing disjunction between certain official magisterial teachings and their reception, particularly on the part of first-world Catholics. In his prologue, Michael J. Lacey writes that what has provoked this discontent is the demand by the laity “for personal religious experience, understanding, judgment, and integrity.” As a consequence, when tensions arise between individual conscience and official church teaching, the trend is against immediately assenting to the voice of authority in favor of “thinking on one’s own,” a core value of liberal modernity, one against which the church stoutly contended in its long antiliberal and antimodern phases.

The volume is divided into three parts, with essays provided by a group of top-flight authors. The first section is historical. It treats issues as diverse but pertinent as conciliarism (an example of “radically discontinuous change” in the tradition, according to Francis Oakley); Pope Leo XIII’s insistence on integralism and unity-as-conformity (Catholic antidotes to liberalism and popular sovereignty, writes Michael J. Lacey); and Joseph A. Komonchak’s nuanced analysis of Pope Benedict XVI’s interpretation of Vatican II—one in which Komonchak argues that Ratzinger has a more complex position on “change” and development than he is often given credit for.

The book’s second section is theological. Francis Sullivan writes on how the Catholic tradition has changed on issues like human rights, the fate of unbaptized infants, and the morality of capital punishment. John Beal tackles canon law and how its “baroque” hierarchical worldview is at odds with our contemporary emphasis on individual rights. Gerard Mannion calls for a greater dialogical exercise of teaching authority, while Lisa Sowle Cahill chronicles the shifts in moral theology since Vatican II, from personalism and proportionalism to virtue ethics and natural-law theories. M. Cathleen Kaveny argues for a retrieval of the art of casuistry in applying moral teaching to present-day circumstances. And Charles Taylor contributes a short, insightful essay on magisterial authority in the face of real, lived contingencies.

The final section includes three sociological studies. The first, by William D’Antonio, the late Dean Hoge, et al., charts the shifting relationship between American Catholics and ecclesial authority. Leslie Woodcock Tentler then examines the effects of the birth-control controversy on the practice of confession. And Katarina Schuth concludes by assessing seminary training since Vatican II.

In this cornucopia, a number of gems stand out. Lacey’s prologue neatly summarizes the “crisis” of the title: the “quiet insistence of thinking for oneself is the chief characteristic of Catholic modernity,” he notes, putting it at odds with the long-established “inherited conventions” of Catholic polity that gave the ordained and the hierarchy not only precedence, but control of the laity. Komonchak’s treatment of Ratzinger’s hermeneutics of “discontinuity” and “reform” is a model of even-handedness and insight. Cahill provides one of the clearest presentations I have seen about personalism and proportionalism and why they have been challenged and partially surpassed by natural-law theorists and by those who emphasize character and virtue ethics.

The essays by Beal, Schuth, and Taylor help clarify the nature of the ongoing crisis, but also underscore why there is no imminent solution to it. Beal’s sketch of the canonical mindset provides a chilling backdrop for understanding the current impasse between a hardline hierarchy bent on unquestioning obedience and the mass of faithful who insist the Spirit also speaks through their experience. As a result, Beal is not sanguine about the possibility of a meeting of the minds—the one juridic and paternalistic, focused on duties and revocable privileges, the other geared toward a personally achieved identity that values individual rights and responsibilities. Schuth’s essay on priestly formation confirms the existence of the same firewall by underlining the conflict between the “servant leader” model of the generation of older, Vatican II priests, and the “cultic priesthood” more eagerly adopted by the recently ordained. The latter often self-identify as “unapologetically Catholic” and dismiss their older peers as out-of-touch secularized liberals, who in turn view them as inexperienced ideologues. Some of the newly ordained go on to alienate parishioners who are used to more collaborative models of ministry.

Charles Taylor’s incisive essay addresses the heart of the problem, and as a philosopher, he can move past some of the qualifications theologians must normally employ. For example, he bluntly evaluates what he sees as the magisterium’s twin problem: it doesn’t respect its own limits; and it teaches by means of threats. The “limits” Taylor has in mind derive from the historical conditions that ground the “scope” (matters of faith and morals) and the exercise of authority. While bishops are required to teach that certain acts are intrinsically wrong, nonetheless “authoritative pronouncements on issues where contingent circumstances are crucial to our judgment cannot be taken as definitive, let alone ‘infallible,’” Taylor writes. Ignoring the historical context of decision making, he says, leads to a “false sacralization” of how the church thinks about issues, to a form of legalism, and to “a lack of reserve” or humility when it comes to dealing with the enigmas of life—such as the problem of evil or the tensions that arise in weighing the difference between God’s justice and mercy. This overstepping—the result of a fear of history and of the ambiguities of life—eventually preempts the individual Christian’s freedom of conscience and fundamental right to “live the faith, do the right thing, reconceive his or her life, and live with its enigmas.” This in turn has led to the fundamental rift between ecclesial authority and the laity that we see today. Taylor detects in the current magisterium’s mode of teaching a return to the church’s “blind historical panic” about modernity that followed the French Revolution.

If there is a weakness in the book, it is its undue reliance on “modernity” as an explanation for nearly everything that has to do with the state of contemporary Catholicism. To use a hockey metaphor, for decades the premier expositors of Vatican II and of postconciliar Catholic life have been circling a small spot on the ice marked “modernity” and have lacked the ability to move the puck down the ice. As a result, when it comes to offering constructive suggestions for dealing with the “crisis,” the best most of the authors here can suggest is a form of “Wouldn’t it be nice if...?” Wouldn’t it be nice if the bishops would dialogue more with theologians? If the constitutionalism grounding the conciliarist movement were to be retrieved? If younger and older priests would work together? Wouldn’t it be nice if the hierarchy would share some of its power with the laity? But recent events (bishops piling on the Catholic Health Association during the 2010 heath-care-law debates, the episcopal criticism of the work of theologian Elizabeth Johnson in the harshest terms, etc.) indicate that such power sharing won’t be happening anytime soon.

If the “modern Catholicism” discussed here no longer exists, what has replaced it? Perhaps a “recontextualized” Catholicism (to use the phrase of theologian Lieven Boeve), the result of this era’s wholesale suspicion of overarching narratives and grand theories. Or a Catholicism, lived in the midst of a contemporary Western culture, in which modern values like rationality, autonomy, and asceticism contend with postmodern values like affect, aesthetics, and the refusal of instrumental reason, not to mention the all-encompassing ethos of our consumerist and celebrity culture.

The Dominican Timothy Radcliffe has maintained that the point of Christianity is “to point to God who is the point of everything.” That should be the goal of Catholicism’s authoritative teaching and preaching. For discipleship and holiness of life—the performance of the values of the reign of God—are the most inviting story for human happiness.

For this “pointing to God” to be made plausible to a (post-)postmodern audience, Catholicism must reactivate its incarnational and sacramental imagination. It must convey how the finite mediates the infinite, how nature mediates grace, how we become holy—not in spite of our lives but because of them. All ecclesial authority should be exercised in service to this sacramental view of reality. Thus the most fundamental response to the crisis of authority will be found first and foremost in a common spirituality—living a Jesus-like life in all the diverse ecclesial and worldly situations in which we find ourselves. Once again, Charles Taylor says it best here. Healing the rift between those with magisterial authority and the faithful, he notes, “would involve accentuating the common life, to the point of struggling against the divisive judgments and actions that accentuate the alienation many feel.” I am afraid, though, that should this “common life” of discipleship not be quickly discerned and experienced, many will treat the church the way the fourth-century desert fathers and mothers treated a society that had become officially Christian. Their quest for salvation, as Thomas Merton put it, drove them to regard their society “as a shipwreck” from which each one “had to swim for his life.”

Published in the 2011-12-16 issue: 

Anthony J. Godzieba is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.

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