Wednesday, 11 June 2008

On the faux history of the laity

Please excuse me as I do a little rant for a moment.

I'm reading Fr Jordan Aumann's book On the Front Lines The Lay Person in the Church After Vatican II, written back in 1990, at the moment. And it is driving me nuts.

Fr Aumann's written some excellent stuff on spiritual theology. I'm sure once I get past the 'history' section of this book I'll find some interesting and useful material in this one too. And in fairness to him, most of the material I'm getting annoyed with I think actually comes straight from Yves Congar's book on the laity.

But at the moment I'm frothing at the mouth over the general misuse of history I've found in so much contemporary theology, of which this appears to be a classic example.

History and modern theology

It seems to be one of the standard propositions of modern theology that before the Council, theology existed in a kind of ahistorical limbo, with little or no attention being devoted to how schools of thought developed over time. I haven't read enough to know whether or not this is true (although I have my doubts), but I've certainly enjoyed some of the attempts to delineate the lines of development of doctrine in various contemporary texts and I don't have any problem with the history of an issue being considered in a theological context. In theory at least.

The problem arises when the theologian, instead of trying to find out what actually happened in a particular period, reads the evidence selectively from the perspective of the particular pre-conceived axe they are setting out to grind.

We know now about the poor, rushed scholarship that led to all sorts of distortions being introduced into the liturgy based on (as it turns out quite untrue) claims that it represented the practice of the early Church. You know, the Second Eucharistic prayer allegedly being based on an 'authentic' second century eucharistic prayer - except that it isn't authentic (and even if had been, given its claimed authorship, it would have one used by a heretical sect). The claim that priests faced the people to say the mass back then - except that they didn't.

Sometimes, the misuse of history is an attempt to find support from the Fathers or Theologians for some novel proposition or other.

The classic example of this is von Baltasar's interesting (and erroneous) idea that Christ's descent into hell was a descent into suffering. Alyssa Pitstick's recent demolition job on von Baltasar's use of scripture, the Fathers and the Magisterium (Light in Darkness) is a joy to read. I hope she'll take on Congar next, because his ideas on the history and theology of the laity (and quite a few other topics for that matter) seem to me quite as dangerous as von Baltasar's.

The misuse of history typically goes hand in hand with a storyline about how horrible everything was BC (before the Council) - the 'manual tradition' destroyed moral theology; Scriptural exegesis was hopelessly old-fashioned due to the nasty restrictions placed on scholars by the Church (aimed at countering modernism); and so forth.

The history of the laity

In the case of this particular book, the storyline is that after the Council Trent, clericalization set in and the laity were passive second-class citizens of the Church who had no hope of attaining sainthood and whose only role was to 'pay, pray and obey'.

Now that this should be the role of the laity was certainly held by some at various times. But was it the majority view for most of this period? I seriously doubt it.

Far from suppressing lay spirituality for fear it was protestant, the Church put renewed effort into catechesis, through better training of priests and the launch of the Catechism of Trent.

A plethora of saints - such as St Ignatius of Loyola, St Philip Neri and St Frances de Sales - put forward new frameworks for lay spirituality.

Confraternities and sodalities grew and flourished.

The laity played a crucial role in keeping alive Catholicism in England under persecution.

Thousands of lay people were martyred rather than give up their faith in the French Revolution.

The laity played key roles both in fostering and fighting some of the movements of the period that unfortunately went to extremes, such as Jansenism (consider for example Pascal) and Quietism.

In Australia we have figures like Caroline Chisholm as models of lay activism.

I could go on and on with examples, but this is hopefully enough to give you a flavour that the laity were frequently anything but inactive and obedient sheep in this period!

So what is the basis of the faux history?

The idea that the laity had no real role in the Church during this period seems to depend on a few quotes taken out of context and some incidents (such as Cardinal Newman and the Rambler case) that I actually think attest to quite the opposite position being commonly held.

It is a claim that the Council of Trent, preoccupied with the defence of the sacraments, essentially ignored the laity (except in relation to marriage), and out of this silence emerged the concept of the Church as 'a perfect but unequal society'. The 1917 Code of Canon Law, it is said, perpetuates this silence on the role of the laity, reflecting a mentality that prevailed in the Church for 400 years.

A historian would look at the forces shaping these documents. They would look for evidence of what was actually happening in less formal documents - in the incidental records of society such as wills, business and personal accounts, and literature, sources that are often so much more enlightening that laws.

A historian would note that idea of the Church as a clericalized unequal society (not simply a hierarchically structured one) actually comes from a formulation prepared for Vatican I by the ultramontanist party that in fact was never formally considered.

A historian would also note that the Catechism of the Council of Trent gives absolutely no hint that the laity should be considered second-class citizens with no obligation to strive for holiness; quite the contrary.

The image of the Church as the body of Christ used by St Paul in Corinthians and frequently presented as a twentieth century rediscovery is actually used in the Catechism of Trent. Far from seeing the Church as simply consisting of the hierarchy as authors like Congar, Russell Shaw and Fr Aumann seem to claim, the Catechism of Trent is very clear that 'The Church consists of the faithful dispersed throughout the world', a people called to pursue heavenly and eternal things.

Someone really needs to write a new history and theology of the laity and kill off some of the nonsense that continues to be propagated. Pity I've got so many other projects stacked up!

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