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The Changeable Church

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Richard A. McCormick

The first area about which I’ve changed my mind is the nature of the church. It is easy to fall into caricature here, and I repent for that in advance. Still, I believe that my early view of the church was dominantly pyramidal, with authority and truth descending from above (pope and bishops) to rank-and-file believers (the rest of us)…. Many Catholics experienced little or no discomfort with the pyramidal model of the church. It seemed natural to them…. In those days triumphalism was not a reproach.

I confess that in my early years as a theologian I thought it was my mission to have answers to the most complicated problems. Where else would people get answers? The notion that laypeople have a distinctive – and indispensable – role to play in discovering moral truth was hardly promoted by their designation as “the learning church.” I have come to see and value lay experience and reflection and am richer for it.

I’ve also reconsidered the limitation of papal and episcopal teaching competence. Catholics accept the fact that Christ commissioned the church to teach authoritatively in his name. Even though the manner of executing this commission has varied throughout history, Catholics still hold that this duty falls in a special way on the pope and the bishops in union with the pope….

It is somewhat difficult to say exactly how my mind has changed here because I think that thought on this topic is still developing. Some years ago Karl Rahner argued that contemporary official formulations of the church’s ordinary teaching competence are unnuanced. Furthermore, the American bishops in their pastoral letters on peace and the economy have distinguished between principles and their applications, and stated that the latter are “not binding in conscience.” That is an old-fashioned way of saying that episcopal competence is not the same when the bishops are dealing with applications as it is when they propose general principles….

My thoughts on the place of dissent have changed. In preconciliar decades, public disagreement with authoritatively proposed moral conclusions was virtually unheard of and would have been hugely dangerous for theologians…. I feel less compelled to claim certainty for my or the church’s teachings. The Catholic Church, especially in the hundred years prior to Vatican II, seemed to believe it could achieve clarity and certainty in most moral matters, and that at a very detailed level. The pronouncements of the Holy See both generated and reinforced this belief. I suppose that a church that sees itself commissioned to teach authoritatively on moral questions and that lays claim to a special guidance of the Holy Spirit in the process might find it uncomfortable (at least) to say “I don’t know.”….

Credit it to wisdom, age or laziness – or a dash of all three: my old compulsion to be certain has yielded to an unembarrassed modesty about many details of human life. Unlike some of my cantankerous and crusading co-religionists on the right, I am now quite relaxed in admitting with Vatican II that “the church guards the heritage of God’s Word and draws from it religious and moral principles, without always having at hand the solution to particular problems.” But of course!

I now also perceive differently the nature of effective teaching in the church. The church will always need to express itself clearly as it guards and promotes its inheritance. But this does not exhaust the meaning of effective teaching. If I have heard the following sentence once, I have heard it a thousand times: “The teaching of the church is clear.” Clear, yes. Effective? Persuasive? Compelling? Meaningful? Those are different questions, questions whose importance some church leaders minimize or even fail to recognize – as I did earlier in my theological life.

There are many ways of opening eyes other than throwing encyclicals at problems. Witness is surely one of them. For example, the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador have educated us enormously in the faith. Perhaps that is why the church treasures its martyrs: it knows that they are irreplaceable teachers. They say things textbooks cannot say….

Finally, I have a new appreciation of the dynamic nature of faith. Because God’s great culminating intervention in Jesus must be passed from generation to generation, it is very tempting to identify faith with adherence to the creedal statements that aid such transmission….

Actually, faith is a response of the whole person. It is not something that one has once and for all – like a book on a shelf, a pearl in a drawer, a diploma on a wall or a license in a wallet. It is not merely a practice, a statement or a structure. It is mysteriously both God’s gift and our responsibility. We must recover and nourish it daily, in spite of our personal sins and stupidities, and in the face of the world’s arrogant self-sufficiency. This task is much more daunting and frightening than propositional purity. It is the continuing personal appropriation of God’s self-communication.

I find it ironic that the most radical change of my mind over the years has been a keener grasp of its own inadequacy when dealing with ultimacy.