Friday, 31 May 2013

Co-responsibility of the laity and the 'theology of the laity'

I posted yesterday on two talks at the Vatican II Great Grace Conference that talked about the concept of the 'co-responsibility of the laity'.  In that post, I suggested that the two speakers seemed to be coming from a rupture theory approach to the Council.

Today I want to expand on that a little and try and sketch out some directions that I think might prove more fruitful in making the case for a genuine realisation of the vision of co-responsibility.

The hermeneutic of continuity and renewal

A genuine narrative of continuity, I would suggest, needs to take into account all of the history of the Church without arbitrarily jettisoning large chunks of the tradition.

For this reason, the attempt by some, following von Balthasar and others denigration of spiritual classics such as the Imitation of Christ, to develop a new 'spirituality of the laity' that altogether rejects religious life, for example as a reference point for the laity, seems to me a false direction.  And one that has been largely rejected by the laity voting with their feet given the continuing exponential increase in the number of lay 'oblates' and the vast number of books devoted to making works like the Rule of St Benedict relevant to lay life.

But at the same time, I don't think the principle of continuity means we have to stick with pastoral approaches that have proved to be based on a flawed theology, did not work in practice, or have simply outlived their usefulness.

The Council of Trent, for example, was a response to an era when heresy flourished widely.  In the face of a laity who were often more theologically literate than priests, it decided to try training priests better through the establishment of seminaries, and then emphasizing their teaching authority, in order to combat the then prevailing errors.

Was that the right solution?  Perhaps at the time, but unfortunately in our time the seminaries have mostly become part of the problem rather than the solution!

So this time around it probably does make more sense to make use of that educated laity, and even empower them to act in the name of the Church, rather than to attempt to suppress or bring under formal clerical control all lay initiated activity.

Similarly Trent put an emphasis on uniformity in the liturgy in order to be able to distinguish clearly between Catholic and protestant services.

But these days the problem is not so much protestant services trying to like Catholic, as Catholics trying to look protestant.

Perhaps its time then, to rethink the effective ban on lay groups and individuals being able to hire (and fire) the chaplains of their choice, as the medieval guilds and larger households once did?

In my view, then, we need to look critically at what has been said and done in the past, ensure where we go now is firmly based in dogma and the tradition, yet not be afraid to make even radical changes when they are truly needed.

But in making those changes, a lot of care and support is needed through the formal structures of the Church.

Parents as educators

A good example of some of the issues at stake is the example of the recognition of parents as the primary educators of their children for example, which a reader reminded me of through some comments offline.

The principle that parents are the primary educators has been articulated many times by the Church, including through a series of nineteenth and twentieth century encyclicals.

What this has been taken to mean in practice, however, has changed dramatically.

Prior to Vatican II, you might recall, Catholic parents had no right to either homeschool their children or send them to a non-Catholic school.  Many parents in this country endured the horrors of ex-communication rather than have their children be handicapped for life by the poor quality of some catholic schools in the pre-Government funding era.

Accordingly, many welcomed Vatican II's Declaration on Christian Education, which, on the face of it, takes an almost directly opposite approach to Pius IX's Divini illius magistri.

Pius IX acknowledged the primary role of parents and their direct accountability to God for this. But he then went on to declare the family to be an 'imperfect society' in need of the correcting influence of the Church, and then proceeds to condemn assorted innovations (such as co-education) and reaffirm the requirement, set down in the then Code of Canon Law, to send children to Catholic schools only.

Vatican II, on the other hand, gave greater weight to the principle of subsidiarity, and flowing from this recognised greater rights - and duties - to parents, including the right to choose which school (if any) to send their child to.

Few, I would suggest, even (perhaps especially given the number of homeschoolers) amongst even the most hardline traditionalists, would want to go back to the previous regime.

Yet it has to be said that as a result both of parents choosing to opt out of the Catholic system, and the chaos that prevailed within the system for many years, the net result has not been an entirely happy one.

Children and sexuality

Perhaps the most fraught area of all has been education on sexuality.

A reader has pointed me to a useful articulation of that position in the The Pontifical Council for the Family's 1995 Guidelines for education within the family on human sexuality issues.

But why did it take until 1995 for this to appear!

My reader also drew my attention to a good new resource, launched by Bishop Eliot of Melbourne in the last few weeks, aimed at supporting parents in this area, Sexuality Explained: a Guide for Parents & Children by Louise Kirk, published by Freedom Publishing.

It is a good example, perhaps, of the laity stepping up to the plate to address the relative paucity of resources in this area.

Consultation and active engagement

But one wonders why the Church couldn't have engaged the laity properly many years ago on the question of what was really needed to support the newly recognised role of parents, and made sure the gap was properly addressed one way or another.

It seems to me that a properly functioning system of consultation and engagement with the laity that would have identified just this kind of area.

And similar principles apply in many other areas of activity.

Blogs, for example, are arguably in part a response to the shortage of priests and the consequent lack of    appropriate catechetical and general support for formation and daily living that was arguably once more readily available.  I'm focusing here firstly on their role in relation on the practice and content of the faith - their 'teaching' if you will, rather than on their other role in providing often critical commentary on church affairs.

To the extent that bloggers often touch on domains once seen as reserved for clerics, they do seem to touch on some clerical nerves.  Yet in a way they are nothing more than the modern equivalents of medieval monasteries, guilds and confraternities which provided spiritual support structures that complemented the role of parishes rather than supplanted them.   Medieval monasteries, as well as being the social welfare agencies of their day, for example, provided pilgrimage sites and propagated particular spiritualities by copying and circulating books and more.

Similarly, when it comes to the role of blogs and other forms of social media in providing (hopefully constructive) criticism and commentary on Church affairs, perhaps greater recognition needs to be given to their role as a source of the very engagement of the laity that Vatican II's Apostolicam Actuositatem (Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People) envisaged.  A nice example of this is the petition currently running through Linen on the Hedgerow protesting the provision of Muslim prayer rooms in Catholic schools in the English diocese of Southwark.

But rather than waiting for petitions and trying their best otherwise to ignore us, wouldn't it be better if bishops and parishes actively engaged with the blogosphere (and I don't just mean by starting their own blogs, though that can be a positive thing to do as well)?

Some attempt to dismiss blogs such as this one as the product of one (deranged) person's ramblings.  No doubt some blogs do fall in that category, but most, including this one, get a surprisingly large number of hits each day; regularly have posts cross-referenced by others; and frequently gain an even wider audience when individual posts are picked up by social media aggregation services like Pewsitter, Big Pulpit, New Advent, Spirit Daily and so forth.

 It is true that the Vatican has made a number of statements about the positive role the social media can play.  But in practice social media enterprises such as Mr Voris' Church Militant TV for example, more often seem to be viewed by the hierarchy as the enemy to be marginalized rather than as potential allies.

Of course, viewing those who are often critical as allies does imply a willingness to be open to alternative approaches and engage in active listening: and of the legitimacy of the co-responsibility of the laity.

There are of course many great lay initiatives one can point to.

All the same, for all the rhetoric about role of the laity, the current situation seems more the product of benign and not so benign neglect (for example in relation to the running of our schools and Universities); fear of controversy; and an undue focus on protecting the empire, rather than on using every means available to advance the Church's mission.

But perhaps I'm being unfair?

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