Sunday, 22 May 2011

Moving forward from the Morris Affair Part III: the place of docility, discernment and dialogue

I've suggested in the previous parts of this series that a large part of the underlying problem in the Morris affair was the inability of many in the Church today to be able to distinguish between levels of authority.

I want to pick up that issue today in the context of the question of the docility we owe to the teaching and decisions of bishops (including the Pope).

Docility yes.  But when?

We had today at Mass one of those sermons that are one of my pet peeves: full of high sounding words, but without any actual real world context or instruction on how to apply the principles set out in practice.

The conclusion of it (in the context of today’s Gospel on the ‘spirit of truth’) was that we should show docility to the teaching and directives of our bishops.

Well yes.


But what if we had lived in Toowoomba over the last nineteen odd years?

Or indeed struck a sermon teaching along similar lines from our own Auxiliary who shares many of Bishop Morris views and has said so publicly on more than one occasion?

What if we lived in a diocese where the bishop prohibits the Extraordinary Form, perhaps subscribing to the UK Tablet’s view that:

The Vatican is continuing to put ammunition in the hands the pro-Tridentine lobby in the Church, as in the latest instruction, Universae Ecclesiae, issued by the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. Does it not realise how much this will encourage divisive tensions in the Church and a spirit of reactionary rebellion against local episcopal authority, not to mention the revival of a misogynistic and elitist clericalism?

The proper response to these kind of situations, these kind of arguments is surely not just to sit back and adopt a mindless acceptance in the name of 'docility'.

Because advocacy of such a position really would, in my view at least, be clericalism in its most unfortunate and short-sighted kind.

Docility needs to be modelled by our leaders

It is true I think that docility when appropriate is not something those brought up in our current culture (myself included) are likely to be very good at!

It is certainly true that over the last few weeks we’ve seen some very public expression of a lack of appropriate docility on the part of the liberal establishment (not to mention the bishop himself) in reaction to the Pope’s decision to dismiss Bishop Morris.  This is extremely unhelpful to the faithful, particularly coming from Religious, one of whose key functions is to model for us the evangelical counsels.

But nor is it docility in my view, for our local Church leaders to simply remain silent, particularly in the face of a media onslaught attacking the Pope's decisions.  Our Church leaders have a duty to explain and defend the decisions made by proper authority even if they don't particularly agree with them.  To display, in fact, a little of that good old collegiality with regard to the decisions of Peter!  One rather late letter (plus one editorial in a diocesan newspaper) doesn't quite cut the mustard in my view.

In the longer term and broader context, the solution, I think, is not to urge passive acceptance of everything the Pope or our bishops say or do, but rather to promote a greater understanding of where docility is and isn’t required. In short we need criteria for discernment.

Criteria for discernment

So let me suggest some criteria for this process as a starting point for a discussion.

1. There should be a very strong presumption in favour of the authority of what the Pope, Roman Congregations with authority to teach Magisterially, the Pope in conjunction with all the bishops, and your own diocesan bishop actually say.

Note that while we owe all bishops respect as successors of the Apostles, it is really only Pope acting alone or in concert with other bishops, and your own Ordinary whose teaching authority impacts on the individual. The views of a bishop of another diocese may be interesting or persuasive, but they are not binding. The same thing applies to Bishops' Conferences: on most issues, they have precisely as much teaching authority as your own bishop gives them.

2. The authority of the bishop(s) is only binding when they act within the limits of their own authority.

A bishop cannot for example make unilateral decisions on the liturgy that contravene Church law – such as to allow children to make their first communion without first making their first confession, to allow General Absolutions in circumstances other than those prescribed by the proper authority, or to forbid the Extraordinary Form Mass in defiance of Summorum Pontificum.

Similarly, a bishop is bound to teach the Catholic faith, not that of some other ecclesial community or religion.

Nor are their views binding (or even necessarily persuasive) on matters of private opinion or areas outside of their expertise, for example in the realm of science or politics.

3. We must accept the dogmatic teaching of the Church

When it comes to the official teachings of the Church, whether things subject to infallible decisions or of the “ordinary Magisterium", there is no right of dissent.

There are different degrees of assent that we are required to give teachings depending on their level of certainty, but no general opt out provision, even for non-infallible teaching. That means for example, that we should work very hard to reconcile teachings of Vatican II with the tradition rather than presuming that they may be eventually overturned and therefore we can agree to disagree. There is some small room for maneuver in relation to Ordinary Magisterium - but really it is restricted to theologians putting their views in private, not just anyone with an opinion!

That said, not everything a Pope or bishop says is meant to be taken as an expression of Magisterial teaching.  We need to be careful to distinguish, for example between the arguments used to reach a conclusion (which we can generally agree with or not) and the conclusion itself; between teaching and expressions of opinion.

4. We must normally accept and obey pastoral decisions with docility

When it comes to administrative and judicial decisions however we are on slightly different ground.

It is perfectly legitimate to seek to influence pastoral decisions before they are made.

Once they are made we don’t necessarily have to like them.

But whether or not we succeed in influencing them or not, in general we are required to accept and obey such decisions once they have been made (so no, I don't think you can refuse to call Pope John Paul II Blessed, whatever your view on the merits of the decision!  On the other hand, no one can force you to pray to him in particular either).

Catholic Religious Australia...

Here is where I think Catholic Religious Australia gets it badly wrong. In her letter to the Nuncio Sr Anne Derwent asks:

"1. How can all in our Church be heard and empowered by our ecclesiastical leaders and processes when private and confidential opinions are given such importance?

We understand that a confidential report by the Apostolic Visitator to the Toowoomba Diocese indicated that the Diocese was in theological and disciplinary decline. Yet closely following the Visitation letters of pastoral support for the bishop were signed and sent to Rome by all Pastoral leaders and members of the Diocesan Pastoral Council and the majority of the priests (except three) of the Diocese. We wonder how the words of this group were heard in this process."

The reality is that we rarely know precisely how decision-makers weigh the various materials they draw on to make a decision. The jury in a trial for example is not supposed to disclose the nature of its deliberations on the evidence, only the verdict is public; when it comes to national; public policy, Cabinet discussions are supposed to be strictly confidential. There are good reasons for this.

Moreover, in the Morris case we really don’t know if in fact Bishop Chaput’s report was decisive at all.

Thanks to Bishop Morris’s defense team, we actually know that there was a long paper trail of disputed issues between the Vatican and Bishop Morris. Then there was that 2006 Advent Pastoral Letter, setting it all out in black and white. 

In reality the Visitation Report may have been nothing more than opportunity for Bishop Morris and friends to put their side of the story – to accord him natural justice in fact – given his refusal to go to Rome to discuss the Letter as requested by the Pope.

The matters in front of the Pope don’t really seem to have been matters of opinion at all, but rather of fact – did the Bishop suggest options for the priesthood incompatible with Church teaching and disciple? (well yes) Did he allow liturgical abuses to occur? (Well yes)  Was he prepared to change his ways? (Well no).  The opinion that the bishop was a good chap doing good things, no matter how widely held, is completely irrelevant to the questions at issue in this case.

An assessment of the statement of the diocese from a duly appointed objective Visitor is just one more factor to weigh in the equation.

5. But there are occasions when we can and should work to overturn pastoral decisions

There is a famous principle that states Roma locuta,  causa finita (Rome has spoken the case is closed).

When it comes to cases like the dismissal of a bishop, then we clearly are in that territory and the proper response is indeed docility.

Even if the decision is, we are convinced, utterly wrong, we should surely offer it up as a suffering. Many falsely accused priests in abuse cases are in this situation.

Still, as traditionalists more than anyone should be conscious, the Church does from time to time, at both local and universal level, make bad decisions.

The Church might, for example, introduce a liturgical form that is a radical rupture with the past. It might compound the problem with a horrendously bad translation of the Latin. It might allow the use of female servers, or communion in the hand just to take a few random examples! 

Should we just docilely accept these decisions? Or do we in fact have a duty to work to preserve the tradition?

Most traditionalists I think, would surely accept that Rome didn’t suddenly come to its senses one day in response to a vision, and miraculously hand down the various permissions to say the EF Mass.

Instead it responded to ongoing agitation and action of the faithful. There were communities of priests and laypeople around the world who refused to let the traditional mass die – a good example, dare I suggest it, of the sensus fidei at work.

Similarly, the current ills of the Church - rampant modernism, widespread liturgical abuse, and neglect of key doctrines in the areas of morals in particular - won't be fixed purely by prayer, important as that is, nor by spending all of our our time gazing pretty pictures, now defunct sequences, clocks and other antiquarian curios, uplifting as those may be (it is a nice blog.  But does it really warrant an ad in our parish bulletin as the sole recommended reading each and every week!?).  God gave us mind and bodies and expects those capable to use them to his causes.

And if we accept that, then we need to at least accept the possibility that the liberals too might occasionally have the right to object to a decision. Provided of course that they are not just advocating for something because it is easier, consistent with the culture, or the opinion of the majority: the test is surely indeed whether it is consistent with the spirit of truth that has guided the tradition handed down in the Church through the generations.  Together with true docility when that is appropriate.

1 comment:

PM said...

This is very good.

I recall a perceptive piece on obedience by a distinguished student of Aquinas in which he pointed out that we need to get rid of the voluntarist assumptions that have grown in influence since William of Ockham and stop seeing obedience as simply one person imposing his will on another. Rather, the first obedience is to the truth, and it binds the superior as much as the subordinate.

That means, of course, getting rid of the canard of 'blind obedience' - which, as my Thomist author said, makes as much sense as blind learning. Infallibility has never applied to prudential decisions, as opposed to doctrinal definition, but we owe our support abd solidaity to our bishops unless the circumstances are exceptional - and even then we must respect the bonds of charity. Better to stay with St Thomas, whose counsel about prudential decisons we dislike was to accept them as a penance and offer them up.