Power and Peril: The Catholic Church at the Cross Roads

by Michael W. Higgins and Douglas R. Letson
440 pages,
ISBN: 0006394299

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Renovating the Catholic Church
by Gregory Baum

Some Catholics are angry with their Church, provoked by its many contradictions. They express their complaints in books or articles in a tone of accusation, seemingly addressing the Church from a position outside of it. The more substantial literature critical of the Catholic Church, however, is produced by Catholics strongly identified with the Catholic tradition, who love their Church and think of themselves as located at its theological centre. They understand this critical literature as part of an ongoing conversation within the Catholic community.

The present book belongs to this conversation. The two authors are professors at St. Jerome's College, the Catholic college on the campus of the University of Waterloo, where one of them, Michael Higgins, is president and the other, Douglas Letson, past president. The two colleagues have previously co-authored three books, Women and the Church: A Sourcebook (Toronto: Griffin House, 1986), My Father's Business: A Biography of His Eminence G. Emmet Cardinal Carter (Toronto: Macmillan, 1900) and The Jesuit Mystique (Toronto: Macmillan 1995).

Their new book analyses in four long chapters, each about 80 pages, the problems confronting the Catholic Church at this time. Chapter 1 offers an account of the Church's recent evolution through the pontificate of John XXIII, the Vatican Council and the subsequent years under Paul VI and John Paul II. In this historical development a number of contradictions have emerged within the Catholic Church. Chapter 2 deals with the unresolved problems the Church's location in a secular society has produced for Catholic schools, Catholic universities and Catholic hospitals. As Rome seeks ever greater control over these institutions, society¨and many Catholics¨become increasingly impatient with the intervention from the central administration. Chapter 3 deals with the Church's conservative teaching on women, sexuality and married life and the critical reactions to this teaching by Catholic lay people and professional theologians. Many Catholics find it unseemly that a small group of old bachelors committed to celibacy desire to define the moral norms regulating the sexual life of humanity. Chapter 4, entitled "The Curse of Clericalism", analyses the harm done to the Catholic community, to people's freedom, creativity and holiness, through the presence of a powerful elite exercising parental authority over lay Catholics looked upon as children.

Chapter 5 (as long as each of the preceding) reveals the ongoing spiritual vitality within the Church, despite its unresolved problems. My comments on this beautiful chapter will be made at the end of this book review.

What are the contradictions generated by the Church's recent history? Let me mention some of them. Over a period of many centuries, the power to teach and legislate has been increasingly concentrated in the papacy. Vatican Council I in 1870, reacting to the loss of the Pope's secular power over his ecclesiastical territories, emphasized his spiritual power over the Church by defining his supreme jurisdiction and, under certain conditions, his infallibility. To overcome the Church monarchical structure, Vatican Council II (1962-65) insisted on the ancient "principle of collegiality" that entitles the bishops to cooperate with the Pope in the important decision made at the centre and that summons the bishops to engage in dialogue with the people of their diocese. The principle of collegiality calls for a decentralization of ecclesiastical life. After the Vatican Council II, the National Bishops' Conferences and the World Synod of Bishops began to play an important role, yet under the pontificate of John Paul II these institutions increasingly lost their power, and the monarchical style of ecclesiastical rule was restored. The Church's official teaching affirms the principle of collegiality, but the Pope's practice has not respected it. Here is one contradiction.

Vatican Council II emphasized the Church as "people of God," a biblical image where the focus is on the laity, the Christian people, and where the ordained ministers (priests, bishops ad pope) appear as servants of the Christian community. Vatican Council II wanted the Catholic people to play a more vital part in the Church and exercise its mission in the wider community as mature and responsible agents. According to some of its texts, the Council wanted to overcome the inherited clericalism where the ordained priests act as parents in charge of lay people as their children. In its public rhetoric the Vatican still refers to the present as "the age of the laity," but in fact decisions are made without consultation and independently of their aspirations. Again, a contradiction between teaching and practice.

The Catholic teaching authority itself is not free of contradiction. The magisterium (as we call it) insists that the Church's teaching never changes and must be obeyed, while Catholics are keenly aware that the Church has actually changed its teaching at Vatican Council II. At that time, the Church affirmed religious liberty, which the papacy had condemned in the 19th century, and praised the ecumenical movement which Pius XI had condemned in a 1928 encyclical. The Council acknowledged the abiding character of God's covenant with the Jewish people, contrary to the traditional teaching; it also affirmed God's redemptive initiative in every human soul, correcting the terrible teaching of the Council of Florence (1442), according to which there was no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church and schismatic, heretics, Jews and pagans would go to hell after they die. Against this, here is what Vatican Council II teaches regarding people outside the Church: "Since Christ has died for all humans and since the destiny of humans is one and divine, we hold that the Holy Spirit offers to every human being, in manner known only to God, the possibility of participating in the Easter mystery of resurrection.."

I am especially aware of the changes in the Church's teaching because during Vatican Council II, I worked as a theologian at the Secretariat of Christian Unity which was responsible for three conciliar documents, on Religious Liberty, on Ecumenism, and on the Church's Relation to the Jews. There was, at first, a strong opposition against these documents because they contradicted previous teaching. But because a deeper understanding of the love of God-and-neighbour and attention to the Church's contemporary experience demanded the new interpretations, the great majority of the bishops eventually supported the three documents. These new interpretations, I should add, had been advocated prior to the Council by theologians and lay movements in the Church, some of which had then been actually censured by Rome.

The evolution of doctrine produced by new reflection on Scripture and attention to contemporary experience is a dynamic process, in which the Catholic people, including their theologians, play an active part. That is why Catholics like Michael Higgins, Douglas Letson and countless others are convinced that their well-founded critique of certain teachings, especially on the place of women in the Church and the role and meaning of sexuality, will eventually lead to a modification of the official positions. They are told by Rome in the strictest way that this will never happen, but prior to Vatican II Catholics who defended religious liberty, ecumenical openness and the universality of God's mercy were also told that the Church never changes its mind. And yet it did.

What emerges from the studies offered in the present book is that faithful and well-informed Catholics have come to accept the Church's official teaching with a grain of salt. Rome's reaction to this situation is to seek increasing control over Catholic education and Catholic health care and multiply condemnations of individual priest theologians. Yet Rome does not censure non-clerical theologians, probably because they think Catholics will pay no attention to them. Thanks to an important development, over the last three decades, Catholic theological faculties have produced large numbers of non-clerical theologians, both men and women, who now teach at various institutes of higher learning and produce a Catholic theological literature in complete freedom and in fidelity to the Gospel and the best of the Catholic tradition. Polls taken among Catholics over the last years have shown that the majority of them do not accept the ecclesiastical teaching on women (women are by nature not cut out to be leaders), on sexual intercourse (only permitted in married life and only if open to conception) and on the priesthood (only for celibate males).

These unresolved ecclesiastical issues are examined in detail by Higgins and Letsun in the first four chapters. The beautiful 5th chapter documents the spiritual vitality within the Church, despite its unresolved problems, by offering brief profiles of a long list of Catholic men and women whose lives reveal the power of the Holy Spirit to transform the human heart. While some of these Catholics are well-known in the Church, like Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier, others have remained rather hidden, yet all of these remarkable human beings betray a degree of charity and dedication that is out of the ordinary. Since God's love for humanity is undeserved and unlimited and hence a little "crazy", the people who are especially embraced by the Holy Spirit manifest a love of God-and-neighbour beyond measure and thus appear a little "crazy," at odds with bourgeois common sense. Chapter 5 is a tour de force revealing the powerful spiritual reality that Catholics recognize as the essence of Catholicism, even if they remain stuck in their own unexceptional lives. ˛

Gregory Baum is Professor Emeritus at McGill University's Faculty of Religious Studies. His most recent book is Nationalism, Religion and Ethics (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001).


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