Friday, 9 May 2008

Australian bishops' meeting - confronting the world and ruling the Church

Cardinal Pell gave a sermon that one suspects must have provoked some debate at the meeting of Australian bishops this week:

He draws on the set texts for the Mass to point firstly to the problems of "...the struggles that can sometimes convulse the Church with fierce wolves invading and even Christians from within the family speaking “with a travesty of truth on their lips”."

The bishops certainly dealt with at least one issue of this kind, issuing (somewhat belatedly) a clear statement that Bishop Geoffrey Robinson's book “Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus” suffers from 'doctrinal difficulties' (

The Cardinal then went on to point out the inconsistency between the Scriptural texts he was considering (John 17) and the idea of dialogue - as opposed to confrontation - with the world.

The effects of overestimating our cultural strengths and forgetting Catholic identity that he alludes to are readily apparent in Australia. And his warning about the ineffectual nature of action for social justice that fails to be concerned about the fundamentals such as the protection of the family are timely.

I'm reading Tracey Roland's 's book Ratzinger's Faith, on the theology of the Pope at the moment, and found her chapter on Gaudium et Spes an interesting read.

Her book is easy to read, and does a useful job of setting the Pope's thinking in the context of the various schools of theology currently in play. It is however weakened somewhat, from my perspective, by her rather summary dismissal of the Garrigou-Lagrange school of Thomism and ongoing critique of traditionalist thinking.

Her summary of the different interpretations of Gaudium et Spes around at the moment though, from my limited knowledge, does seem on the money. She sees these positions as ranging from a mandate to accommodate to the culture of modernity (or a document to be rejected because it does this); a mandate for a 'proletarian revolution' within the church (ie liberation theology); a mandate for a dialogue with the best in contemporary thought; and what she characterises as Ratzinger's position, which allows for keeping abreast of non-Catholic contemporary scholarship without accommodation to it, and a rejection of any secularizing interpretation of GS.

Dr Rowland portrays the Pope as critical of the way Gaudium et Spes was framed, but trying to find ways to read it constructively. What comes through most strongly though, is the critique, rather than any great success in finding a hermaneutic of continuity for it. She concedes, for example, that his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est was certainly intended to correct the omission of any discussion of love in Gaudium et Spes' discussion of spirituality.

And she was writing before Spe Salvi came out, which arguably offers a much stronger and direct critique of Gaudium et Spes (

There are two key points relevant to Cardinal Pell's comments that one can point to in the light of Spe Salvi. The first is that it indeed affirms the idea of confronting the world (even if we have to make the effort to understand current ideas in order to do this) - though one might question whether it gives any endorsement for bishops taking on this role, rather than the laity to whom the lead role in the secular sphere arguably belongs.

The second is the relative importance of this world compared to the next. Dr Samuel Gregg, for example, has written:

“Christianity,” Benedict writes, “did not bring a message of social revolution like that of the ill-fated Spartacus, whose struggle led to so much bloodshed. Jesus was not Spartacus, he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation like Barabbas or Bar- Kochba.”

Instead Christianity relativizes politics.

Yes, Christians -- indeed everyone -- should work to make society more authentically free and humane. Politics can contribute to this end. But to assume political activism can potentially create a perfect human society is to deny the truth of human liberty and imperfection and put Man and Earth in the place of God and Heaven.

“Hence,” Benedict concludes, “while we must always be committed to the improvement of the world, tomorrow’s better world cannot be the proper and sufficient content of our hope.”

This certainly seems to be the sentiment that Cardinal Pell is echoing.

No comments: