Falling for Fables

The unconvincing calls by dissident scholars for a democratic Church

Msgr. Ronald Knox, one of the greatest Catholic writers of the 20th century, observed that “the Church involves a hierarchy, not merely in the sense that one functionary is superior to another in dignity, but in the sense that each functionary derives from a superior, his commission to act in the Church’s name…. When Catholics obey the Church, they obey the voice of God.”

Throughout the history of the Catholic Church, most Catholics would have agreed with Msgr. Knox. The hierarchical view of the Church was taken for granted by faithful Catholics as bishops’ letters were read at Mass and taken to heart by parishioners. But as the concept of egalitarianism has grown, the acceptance of the concept of an ecclesiastical hierarchy imbued with the authority to issue proclamations and rules to followers has become unacceptable to some Catholics. As a result, calls continue to grow for a democratic Church in which the laity gets to choose their own leaders and determine their own doctrines.

Leading the call for what they call an “inclusive” and “adult” Church is a cadre of dissident scholars—most of them teaching on Catholic college campuses. For some contemporary theologians and historians like Fairfield University theology professor Paul Lakeland, and David O’Brien of the University of Dayton, the hierarchical view of authority—with authority vested in the papacy and the clergy—is just one more sign of what Lakeland calls the “infantilization of the laity.” Refusing to be part of what they view as the subordination of the laity, they have called for a leveling of that authority. In their published works, O’Brien calls for a “more horizontal” relationship with the Magisterium, and Lakeland demands that the laity “grow up” to “create an adult Church” or an “open Church” in which the laity “reclaims its baptismal priesthood.”

In his book, From the Heart of the American Church, David O’Brien writes, “Vatican II reintroduced an understanding of the divine human relationship that was more horizontal than vertical. God is less above the people, sending down messages through delegates, than abiding with them.” O’Brien denigrates the traditional “vertical” position of the hierarchy, advocating instead that “the more communitarian view leads to an ethical method that is anchored in the scriptures and in the experience of Christians, who necessarily must be consulted in moral formulations.” For O’Brien, the more horizontal understanding “fastens the vision of the church beyond itself, in the historic liberation of the human family.” 

Likewise, in his book, Liberation of the Laity, Paul Lakeland argues for an “accountable church” with a “liberated laity.” By this, Lakeland means liberated from the authority of the hierarchy. In fact, Lakeland, a theologian who is chair of the Religious Studies Department at Fairfield University, writes, “Helping the laity to name their oppression is probably the most important thing the theologian can currently do for the church.”  

Now O’Brien and Lakeland are joined in their criticisms of clerical authority by several Catholic historians who are attempting to convince Catholics that the current claims to authority by the bishops are not in keeping with the true intentions of the Church itself. A recent book from Oxford University Press extends the criticism of the hierarchical structure of the Church by enlisting historians as well as theologians in the battle against the current hierarchical structure of the Church. With an enthusiastic endorsement on the back cover from Paul Lakeland, The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity is a collection of essays by theologians and historians that “focus on the tensions between authority asserted and authority observed.” 

Edited by historian Michael Lacey, director emeritus of the American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, and Francis Oakley, president emeritus of Williams College, several of the essays contained in The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity question the legitimacy of the authority within the Catholic Church. In the prologue, Lacey asks the question: “Has the ultramontane papacy run its course?” With this question, Lacey sets out the argument that since Vatican II those who disagree with papal pronouncements “feel their claims to belonging, reservations and all, are rightful and cannot be trumped simply by appealing to formal authority or citing those passages in scripture that buttress the idea of divinely instituted apostolic succession and its claim to exclusive spiritual powers of discernment.”  For Lacey, “the children of the church have come haphazardly to feel like grown-ups and don’t believe they have to abandon the family estate over differences in the family.” 

An underlying theme in many of the chapters of Lacey and Oakley’s new book is the call for a democratic Church in which the laity is given a voice in all matters, from the choice of bishops and pastors to doctrinal matters, including homosexuality, abortion, birth control, and women’s ordination. Lacey asks: “what is the point of the church’s aloofness from the ideals and practices of democratic self government…what is this feeling of lofty pride in its ecclesial structure all about?”

In the first chapter, Oakley pronounces: “The past is not what it used to be.” Decrying what he called the “triumph of ultramontanism at the first Vatican Council with its twin definitions of papal infallibility and papal jurisdictional primacy throughout the universal Church,” Oakley calls for the Church to “limit or balance papal authority.” 

Subsequent chapters continue the attack on magisterial authority. In his contribution to the collection, theologian Charles Taylor writes that “authoritative pronouncements on issues where contingent circumstances are crucial to our judgment cannot be taken as definitive, let alone infallible.” Like Lakeland, Taylor complains of the “infantilization of the laity” by the Catholic Church. For Taylor, the hierarchy of the Church has not always respected and provided for the inherent limits of its teachings. He believes that there has been a habit of oversimplifying its moral prescriptions, of not trusting the laity to deal with the complexities involved.   

Taylor carries his criticism of Church teachings on abortion to Church teachings on women’s ordination and homosexuality. Labeling such teachings as “false sacralization,” Taylor charges that the Church has held a “too simple and direct reading of natural law, which accounts for the lapidary judgment that homosexual love is an objective disorder.” And he questions whether we aren’t “sacralizing certain historically based conceptions of gender identity when we conclude that women should not be ordained priests.” 

Boston College theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill shares similar sentiments in her chapter on “Moral Theology After Vatican II” when she calls for a “historically developing interpretation of what nature and nature’s good demand, given that humans are reasonable, free historical creatures.” 

Fr. John Beal’s chapter continues the criticism of paternalism and infantilization within the Church when he writes that “in the absence of genuine reciprocity between the governors and the governed, the latter are reduced in fact, if not in theory, to dependence on the paternal benevolence of the former.”

Summarizing the chapters, Oakley’s epilogue charges that the Church’s “authoritarian willingness to impose all or nothing teachings on the faithful tends to be seen as in some measure analogous to King Canute’s mythical attempt by royal fiat to prevent the tide form coming in.” For Oakley, traditional Catholic thinking has focused  “too exclusively on its divine dimension—eternal, stable, and unchanging—and underestimating the degree of confusion, variability, and sinfulness that goes along with its human embodiment as it forges its way onward amid the rocks and shoals of time.” 

St. Paul cautioned Timothy of the need for “correcting, reproving, appealing, and constantly teaching, and never losing patience.” He told Timothy, “The time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but, following their own desires, will surround themselves with teachers who tickle their ears. They will stop listening to the truth and will wander off to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-5). 

In an address entitled “Sacred Duties, Episcopal Ministry,” Bishop Robert Francis Vasa (at the time bishop of Baker, Oregon) told listeners that “teachers who advocate a popular, ear-tickling message are more likely to be admired and warmly received and accepted by our secular age…such an approach may lull the evildoer with an empty promise of safety.”  Bishop Vasa cautioned: “There is prudent silence, but there is also imprudent silence. There is indiscreet speech, but there is also discreet and bold speech.” 

Recognizing that people have lost a tolerance for sound teaching,  Bishop Vasa said that too often pastoral documents tend to make appeals without necessarily being too direct or critical. As a result, the bishop is viewed as offering mere opinion on issues rather than authoritative teachings. Last year, when Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted declared that St. Joseph’s Hospital could no longer call itself Catholic because medical professionals at the hospital had performed a direct abortion, hospital leaders claimed that the advice they had received from a Marquette theologian contradicted the opinion of the bishop. They chose the advice of the theologian.

Bishop Olmsted responded to the administrators by saying that “you have not acknowledged my authority to settle this question but have only provided opinions of ethicists that agree with your own opinion and disagree with mine.… As the diocesan bishop it is my duty and obligation to authoritatively teach and interpret the moral law for Catholics in the Diocese of Phoenix.”  

The bishops are beginning to respond to such challenges to their teaching authority. Most recently, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine issued critical statements concerning The Quest for the Living God, a book by Fordham University theologian Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson, and a book entitled The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology by Creighton University theology professors Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler. For the Salzman and Lawler book, the bishops reminded the writers that “the Catechism insists that the historicity of the natural law does not negate its universality…the natural law remains as a rule that binds men among themselves and imposes on them, beyond the inevitable differences, common principles.” 

When the Catholic Theological Society of America wrote a scathing letter complaining about the “lack of dialogue” from the bishops, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, responded with a letter entitled “Bishop as Teacher,” which spoke forcefully about the roles and responsibilities of bishops and theologians in the Church.

Before he became pope, Joseph Ratzinger wrote that “it must once again become clear that in each diocese there is only one shepherd and teacher of the faith in communion with the other pastors and teachers and with the Vicar of Christ.” A growing number of courageous bishops are finally reminding us of that.

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About Anne Hendershott 104 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH