Tests of faith

It may be that there is nothing new in Ad tuendam fidem ("To Defend the Faith"), John Paul II’s June 30 apostolic letter. Perhaps, as many have said, by setting out the levels of church teaching and adding these more consistently to canon law, the pope is simply emphasizing and clarifying the responsibility of church leaders and teachers to uphold Catholic teaching.

And it may be that the accompanying commentary from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has no particular standing except as one possible illustration of those three levels of teaching, which were added to the Nicene Creed in a 1989 revision of the profession of faith to be taken by church officials and professors of Catholic theology. The levels consist, first, of truths considered divinely revealed in Scripture and tradition or by the solemn or universal judgment of the church; second, teachings not considered explicitly revealed but so intimately linked to revealed truths as to require full and definitive assent from every Catholic who wishes to be in full communion with the church; and third, teachings that are official and requiring adherence even if not yet judged definitive or irreformable. It is clearly the second of these that the pope’s letter and the CDF commentary wish to expand; the examples provided in the commentary include the restriction of priestly ordination to males, the illicitness of euthanasia and prostitution, the legitimacy of papal elections, and the invalidity of Anglican orders.

Some commentators seem prepared to minimize the reach of this action. "No one intends to put the brakes on discussion and dialogue," says Archbishop Tarcisio Berone, who signed the CDF commentary along with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, adding of course a warning that "dissent and debate" must not "go so far as to touch the definitions of the faith" (see, Origins, July 16, 1998, which also contains the pope’s letter and CDF commentary). A number of theologians and canonists, perhaps to avoid futile wrangling, appear similarly ready to downplay this development.

So why, if there is nothing new or alarming here, did reading these documents make us feel so dispirited and discouraged? Just the usual liberal reaction to the Vatican’s relentless pursuit of doctrinal conformity? Or just the sinking realization that a nineteenth-century understanding of the church really is being restored? Or was there something more (see, Richard McCormick, page 12, and James Coriden, page 13)?

Was it that the ties of faith that should bind us to the Catholic tradition of pope and hierarchy seem here to resemble a noose? Was it that the examples set forth in the CDF commentary seemed carefully selected to draw that noose tighter? Was it the absence of any credible sense of historical or doctrinal development that made the CDF commentary seem arbitrary, written not to encourage faith but to dictate it?

The pope and the Vatican are building a structure of church authority that is reaching new heights of complexity and legalismÑand is being asked to bear more and more weight. Every college freshman knows that there are many things over the centuries about which the church, despite the Holy Spirit, has simply been wrongÑwrongÑand that there are some things about which its teaching has changedÑchangedÑand not all the apologetic sophistries under the sun will demonstrate otherwise. To construct a structure of doctrinal authority without addressing this elementary fact is practically to beg that the whole thing, like the faulty scaffolding in Times Square, come crashing down. The report published in our last issue on the indifference of young Catholics to the institutional church suggests that the process of disintegration is well underway.

"But isn’t this reaction altogether too dramatic?" we asked ourselves. It often seemed that way as we sought the opinions and counsel of others. In fact, among the truly sanguine, there is the view that here is but another fin de regime maneuver that will be duly buried in the next pontificate. Why rail against the last stand of a brilliant man? History and the Holy Spirit will sort the wheat from the chaff.

No sooner did we entertain those thoughts than a new test of faith came along.

On July 24, the Vatican released another papal letter, this one "On the Theological and Juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences" (see, Robert Imbelli, page 14). Whatever technical juridical issues the letter may resolve, and whatever level of authority it finally may grant episcopal conferences, it is pretty clear that the Vatican has strictly limited their collegial and particular, or local, character. Under terms of the letter, a document of a doctrinal character issued by an episcopal conference must be unanimously agreed to; absent that, the conference must seek the approval of the Vatican. There can be no bright-line distinction, of course, between pastoral and doctrinal. Much of what bishops’ conferences like the National Conference of Catholic Bishops do and say for largely pastoral purposes nonetheless has doctrinal implications. Surely the 1983 "pastoral" letter on war and peace and the 1986 "pastoral" letter on Catholic social teaching and the U.S. economy had some doctrinal implications. And though both letters drew only a handful of negative votes, that would suffice to turn final authorship over to what are Vatican offices with no real episcopal accountability at all (and whose willingness to interfere and to override the overwhelming opinion of bishops’ conferences has been amply demonstrated in the case of English translations of liturgical texts).

We await the opinion of ecclesiologists as to the theory of episcopal authority embedded in the letter, but we note that its rhetorical strategy is essentially to reduce the standing of national bishops’ conferences by contrasting them with both the bishop in his diocese and the full authority of the universal college of bishops. There is something bordering on hypocrisy here when one thinks of curial efforts to harass and overawe individual bishops, on the one hand, and to control and cripple the initiatives and discussions at the worldwide Synods of Bishops, which in principle should reflect that more authoritative collegiality.

Again, there are voices to remind us, what does it matter? The American bishops’ conference, for example, has already been growing inert, secretive, and apprehensive of second-guessing by Rome, to the point that some bishops have been heard doubting that it is even worthwhile to attend conference meetings. Perhaps some respected bishops may see the latest letter as a signal to cease being team players and to speak their minds as individuals. It would be an ironic, although not unprecedented, twist if a measure aimed at enforcing unity ended by eroding it.

Are we right to find these letters from Rome dispiriting and discouraging? Is it fair to say that this papacy is in the hands of fear-filled men? Of course, not all their fears are groundless. Some Catholics have adopted a theological minimalism that gives as little weight to the fact of long-held teachings as curialists give to the fact of doctrinal development. There is an extraordinary challenge to maintaining unity in a church that now ranges across cultures and politically independent nations in a way for which there has been little historical preparation.

But we look long and hard at the actions issuing from Rome without finding anything different from strategies that were tried over the last two centuries in Europe. Those strategies not only failed to arrest but probably advanced the secularization of culture and the marginalization of Christianity so lamented by the pope.

Can we offer alternative strategies? They would begin with a turn to prayer and ever deeper theological reflection, recognizing that the latest turns in papal policies constitute for some Catholics not merely organizational difficulties but a challenge to their faith in the church itself. Anticipating an extended period when church authority will be weakened by self-inflicted wounds, we must create independent institutions that take orthodoxy seriously without depending on ecclesiastical threats or purges. We must keep in mind Jesus’ admonition of how others will know us: by our love.

Those are but starting points. Yet without some such departure from the present course, where the defense of the faith becomes itself a test of the faith, the celebration of the millennium, by which this pontiff sets so much store, may turn out to be a grand and hollow event.

Published in the 1998-08-14 issue: 
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