Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Deterioriation of Papal Authority

Pope Benedict speaks his Sunday message to the
faithful, but are the faithful listening? 
I think it is worthwhile to ask ourselves why there was an erosion of papal authority during the pontificate of John Paul II.  In the first place the erosion did not begin with John Paul but had begun already with Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae.  I have no intention of criticizing the encyclical from a theological point of view.  In the first place, Paul VI has always been one of my heroes.  I think he and Pius XII were the greatest popes of the 20th century. (yes greater than John XXIII—I will explain why some day.)  I am not competent to criticize Humanae Vitae from a theological perspective nor do I want this blog to get into theological issues except as they are also historical issues.  But there are problems with the encyclical.  Perhaps we will do a detailed entry on the subject sometime, but to keep it in the context of its effect on papal authority we can note several factors. 

1.      It did not take into adequate consideration the complex scientific data intrinsic to the questions it was examining. 
2.     Given that the encyclical did not follow the recommendations of the majority of the papal-appointed commission but accepted the conclusions of the commission minority, the basis of the final decision reflected in the encyclical can be called into question.  In other words, what were the Pope’s motives in accepting the minority conclusion? The Pope’s reasoning for rejecting the advice of the majority of his commission was never sufficiently given.  Certainly the Pope was not bound to accept the majority conclusion, but the failure to explain why lessened the credibility of the decision. 
3.     The conclusions on which Paul VI based the encyclical are not reconcilable with the cultural framework of the time.  
4.     The vast majority of the Catholic laity and perhaps even of the clergy implicitly or explicitly have rejected the teaching.  

     There may be other factors to consider but let me say that the first two I think are valid concerns; the second two, and especially the third, are not.  Yet valid concern or extraneous to the argument, modern society for the most part dismissed the papal teaching and did so with considerable disrespect and that alone weakened the magisterial authority.  
     Related to the issue of Humanae Vitae but extending far beyond it, a second reason for the erosion of papal authority in the final years of Paul VI and in the pontificate of John Paul II is that there was a “change of rules” where I think both bishops and laity expected to have more input into Church teaching and discipline and were disillusioned when their views were not heard.   In its decrees, and notably in the decree Christus Dominus, the Council had returned an immense amount of authority to the local bishop at the expense of the power of the Roman Curia yet the pontificate of John Paul II saw the reconsolidation of power in the hands of the Congregations of the Roman Curia.  As this has been particularly true in regard to matters of Worship where the Congregation began ruling on such minutiae as prohibiting the use of Eucharistic flagons to hold the Precious Blood or where hundreds of changes in the new translation of the Roman Missal were made on curial desks even after the respective Bishops’ Conferences had approved the translations that had been foisted on them by Rome to begin with, the bishops were emasculated by pezzi grossi monsignori in the sight of all the Church.  The laity have fared no better.  Despite the decree  Apostolicam actuositatem   which called on the bishops to respect the expertise of the laity, we see the laity as being treated as little more than the lackeys of the magisterium in the realms their expertise--politics, economics, education and other areas proper to the laity,  In particular many both in Rome and in the American hierarchy see that Catholic laity are only to do the bidding of the hierarchy in public life and many of the laity whose expertise is not theology but fields such as Constitutional law, psychiatry, reproductive science, education, civil law, or political science object.  The day of the laity deferring to the clergy in matters of secular concern are over and not likely to return and while good Catholics will listen patiently to sermons of varying worth outlining their responsibility, and will study documents such as Faithful Citizenship, they will make up their own minds on how to live their Catholic and Christian faith in the marketplace.   Today's laity have learned to think for themselves and while, like thinking people, they are open to information that makes them reconsider their position, they are not about to cede their duty to make responsible decisions to others, even Church authority. 
       This brings up a third problem and that is a clergy that is not sufficiently educated to convincingly relay magisterial teaching to contemporary laity.  Gone are the days when the priest, the doctor, and the lawyer were the only three men in the parish who had a college background.  (In those days no women, except possibly some of the nuns in the parish school had been to college, and they to the educational hothouse of a women’s college.)   The problem is that most Catholic priests today are educated little more than their predecessors of two generations past, but the laity—men and women alike—are far more highly educated than were their grandparents.  College education among white American Catholics is all but universal.  While immigrant populations are often poorly educated they, and especially the Asian and Pacific Rim immigrants, make the education of the second generation a high priority.  Graduate degrees are not rare among contemporary American Catholics--in fact today Catholics are probably the most highly educated religious group in the United States excepting Jews.  Catholic laity are used to leadership roles in business, education, science, technology, the military, politics and other fields and they expect to be talked with as peers.  Meanwhile the clergy, while they may have earned an “M.Div.” degree at some seminary or other, are usually abysmally undereducated in non-theological fields and lack the “renaissance” background to intelligibly explain the doctrines they have been taught to modern people of some sophistication.  When the clergy get into the pulpit and pontificate—whether it is liberals about socio-economic matters or conservatives about psycho-sexual issues, what one too often sees is an appalling display of ignorance.  And I don’t think this is an uniquely Catholic problem but that most Christian denominations seem to have far too many clergy who—while good people—lack the intellectual discipline to convincingly put forth the importance of their faith for modern people.  It may explain why religious practice is falling off among more highly educated and critically thinking people of all Christian denominations.    

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