Friday, January 17, 2014

Well, What Do Liberal Catholics Want?

One of my regular readers—and a good friend—drew my attention to this article by Damon Linker.  You can check out the article at
What drew my attention was the following paragraph
After reading an endless stream of gushing commentary by liberal Catholics on Pope Francis, I'm beginning to wonder if they ever really cared about reforming doctrine in the first place.
Now I am not sure that Linker knows his Catholicism sufficiently to know what is doctrinal and what is not.  He lumps disciplinary matters like mandatory celibacy in with theological (doctrinal) matters such as abortion and same-sex marriage.  But that isn’t my argument with him.  Frankly, I don’t think “liberal” Catholics have any expectation—or desire—for doctrinal change.  Polls show that while American Catholics stand with the majority of Americans in not wanting a total ban (note the word “total”) on legal abortion, the vast majority of American Catholics believe that abortion is a moral evil in as that it is the deliberate taking of a human life.  Similarly the majority of American Catholics favor the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, but I don’t know any American Catholics (which isn’t to say that there aren’t some, I just don’t know them) who quibble with the Church’s policy of sacramentally celebrating only the marriages of a man and a woman who are free of previous valid marriages to marry.  Similarly, I don’t know of any serious calls to recognize “second marriages” although many would favor lifting the ban on communion from those married outside the Church.  What “liberal” Catholics have long wanted and now found in Pope Francis, is not a revision of doctrine, but a change of tone.  We had just grown tired of being such an unfriendly Church where any who did not conform to our idea of righteousness were judged worthy of only being cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  We were getting known for what we are against rather than what we stand for—and a negative label is never good for morale.  Nor does this sort of Jansenist condemnatory tone proclaim the Good News (evangelion, Gospel) of salvation. 
The one area where there most likely is a desire for change is the matter of opening the ordained ministries to women.  The two previous popes have declared this to be a theological issue but, frankly, have not been convincing.   Many—including some of the finest theological scholars today—have said this is a matter of discipline and not of doctrine.  The argument is that because the bishop and presbyter (the Latin word for a priest, and better term when talking theologically) sacramentally represent Christ, and Christ was male, the bishop and presbyter must be male to represent him.   Granted the Bishop and the priest sacramentally participate in the Unique Priesthood of Jesus Christ—which is to say that Christ is the only priest in the Christian faith and the bishop and presbyter are sacramental-representations of Christ the Priest.  The bishop or presbyter have no priesthood of their own, but only that of Christ in which they participate.  Of course all the baptized participate in the Priesthood of Jesus Christ by virtue of their baptism—but those who are ordained do so in an unique way proper to and restricted to the Sacrament of Orders.  And granted that Jesus is male.  But is the masculinity of Jesus essential to his being, much less to his priesthood?  What is essential to Christ’s Nature, according to the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon is his humanity, not his masculinity.  But again, we are verging on the theological here and I want to avoid going too far into that field and stay to the historical.  Let us just say that other than the possibility of ordaining women to the ministries of Bishop and Presbyter most “liberal” Catholics are quite content for doctrine to go its slow path of evolutionary development rather than have the Pope—even Good Pope Francis—just start changing the key teachings of the faith willy-nilly.   
Let me also say that as someone who would generally fall into the category of “liberal” Catholic, that I don’t want the Pope to change teachings about contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, or even ordination of women or priestly celibacy.  I want things to be open for study, research, and intelligent discussion.  I am far more interested in a good process than any particularly desired product.  I think we have a lot we need to think about and talk about before we get into substantial change.  Theologians need to reclaim their historic role in moving the discussion forward and not simply providing the rationale for unilateral magisterial decrees.  We need—as we had at Vatican II—bishops making decisions that were enlightened by the theologians.  And we need to involve the faithful in those discussions.  I think Pope Francis and the faithful have learned—and learned instinctively (which is to his credit)—to sing in harmony.  We need for the faithful, the theologians, and the magisterium all to learn how to sing in harmony, realizing of course, that harmony permits descants. 
Finally, let me just add that as a “liberal Catholic” I would hope that any substantial change in Church discipline and any significant development in doctrine would not come from the Chair of Peter  acting unilaterally but from a Universal Council.  What would really seal the Vatican II revival of Francis’ pontificate is the calling of the next Council.  Remarkable things happen when the Holy Spirit gathers the Church and is allowed to “do her (Pentecost) thing” 

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