|Blessed John Henry Newman|
Well, remember this is a historical blog. I don’t deal with theology qua theology—only with the history of the Church, and at times the history of the development of theological teachings in the Church. And—remember this too—my consideration of history is not only about the past but also about what light the past sheds on the present and what opportunities for the future the past reveals to us. People who limit the study of history to the past and don’t consider the past as metaphor that permits us to speak of the present and the future are not historians, they are antiquarians. The Church has far too many antiquarians, including whoever it is that has been dressing Pope Benedict up in the left-over glad rags of past centuries. Nevertheless, I am not anxious to go there in this posting.
The past shows us that the magisterium, including infallible statements, are not irreformable. Pius XI condemned the Ecumenical Movement in his 1928 Encyclical Mortalium Animos which was completely overturned by the Decrees Unitatis Reintegratio, Nostrae Aetate, and Dignitatis Humanae at the Second Vatican Council. Remember it was an encyclical that was overturned—the same medium through which Pius XI condemned contraception in Casti Connubi (1928) and Paul VI extended the condemnation to the use of “the Pill” in his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae. This teaching is considered to be infallible; the condemnation of ecumenism was once so thought also.
In the 1302 Bull, Unam Sanctam, Pope Boniface VIII wrote: Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.
The Church has long moved away from such doctrine—long before Vatican II—but certainly Nostrae Aetate with its positive comments on non-Christian religions and the Divine truths they reflect is more than a repudiation of Boniface’s teaching, it is a contradiction.
Mortalium Animos and Unam Santam reflect teachings once considered infallible. On a lesser level, in the 1930’s Pius XI refused a petition from the bishops of France to declare Saint Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church on the grounds sexus obstat: her sex (female) was a barrier to such a position. Hmmm. That argument is used today in a different context. Some forty years later Paul VI named the first two women as Doctors of the Church—Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena. John Paul would name Thérèse to that honor in 1997. Theologians can argue about the ability of the Church to alter doctrine but historians view it from a different perspective, unencumbered by an agenda of apologetics.
What I wrote is that the Church needs to have honest conversation on a wide variety of issues. The faith of the Church is not solely the teaching of the magisterium—it is the deposit of doctrine and it is the faith held by the faithful, that is by the Church which is not limited to the hierarchy but comprises the community of the baptized. The Deposit of Doctrine, or the corpus of Tradition, is the province of the theologians who have studied the doctrines along with their roots in Divine Revelation and their historical development through the centuries. The consensus fidelium—the consensus of the faithful—is the living faith as held and understood (using that term as held intuitively rather than as intellectually fathomed) in the hearts of the baptized. History shows us, as Blessed John Henry Newman explained so well in his essay On Consulting the Faithful on Matters of Doctrine, that magisterium, theologians, and faithful must work in tandem for doctrines to take hold. The current dissensions among the hierarchy, the theologians, and the faithful indicate to the historian that this is not yet an opportune time to state the teaching of the Church on a wide variety of issues. But we cannot afford to come to a standstill, thus conversations are necessary to reach that single voice proceeding from a single heart.
Such conversations will not be easy and such accord will not be quick. We Americans and Western Europeans have a tradition of imperialistic arrogance that we know better than our “little brown brothers” of Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific Rim. We are shocked that they do not see questions about the role of women or about human sexuality from the same perspectives that we do and we think that they are backward for viewing these issues differently. We are, I suppose, as entitled to our prejudices regarding them as they are theirs regarding women and gays. Or, maybe we are no more entitled to our prejudices than they are to theirs. But in any case an honest and frank discussion in a universal Church will not come to easy resolutions, nor will all be pleased with the outcomes, but we need to undertake the process nevertheless. We can see the chaos which has befallen the Anglican Communion when the Churches of the North have moved unilaterally in directions in which the Churches of the South are unprepared to go. But the alternative is not to stay stuck and go nowhere. If we believe that the Holy Spirit is here to guide the Church, we need to trust that Spirit and begin the process.