I reached out last week to my colleagues at this blog, and in the email thread that followed, it was suggested that we make our conversation more public by developing a series of posts. I agreed to start us off. The views expressed in this post are my own and do not reflect the positions of anyone else.
I had been asked in January to serve as a panelist at an event for Catholics in my local area, and accepted the invitation with enthusiasm. My contact at the organization, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit national organization with local chapters, told me that I would be asked to speak about a virtue and how that virtue applied to my life of Christian discipleship. Other panelists would speak from their experience about this same virtue, and there would also be time for networking and prayer. It sounded great. I was asked to send my bio and a picture for the marketing materials; I did. I made arrangements to have child care coverage for that evening and set aside time to prepare my remarks. Some time went by, and then I received an email asking me to sign the statement below, to make sure “that those who speak at our events are committed to Church teaching.” Unsure exactly what that meant, I opened the attachment.
FAITHFULNESS TO CHURCH TEACHING
In order to preserve X’s faithfulness to Catholic Doctrine and Church Teaching, constituents who speak on behalf of and/or publicly represent X are asked to indicate their commitment to the following tenets of Church Teaching:
- Eucharist: The Holy Eucharist is the real Presence of Jesus Christ.
- Contraception: God designed conjugal love between a husband and wife as the complete gift of self; God’s plan for married love excludes the use of contraceptives.
- Sanctity of Human Life: All human life is sacred from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.
- Papal Infallibility: As the successor of Saint Peter, the Pope possesses the charism of infallibility in regards to matters of faith and morals.
- Premarital Sex: God has given the gift of intercourse exclusively for men and women as a fruit of the bond of Holy Matrimony.
- Immaculate Conception: From the moment of her conception, the Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from original sin.
- Holy Orders: Only a baptized man can validly receive sacred ordination.
By signing this form, the constituent acknowledges his or her agreement with and public adherence to Catholic Doctrine & Teaching. Note: this agreement is used for internal X purposes only and will not be published or shared publicly without signer’s consent.
My heart sank. I knew immediately that I could not sign this. But I was puzzled. Why was I just learning about this faith statement now, instead of when the first invitation had been extended? Why did the statement assume I would be speaking on behalf of the organization? I thought that perhaps I could still participate, by persuading the organizers that (1) I speak only for myself, and not for my department, university, diocese, or this organization; (2) I am a baptized Catholic and an active member of a parish community, and I could ask the pastor there to sign a letter to that effect if I needed to, as I had to do when becoming a godparent; (3) I would be willing to sign a statement affirming that I would not misrepresent authoritative church teachings during my public remarks, which is a commitment I make to my students in the classroom each semester. In further communication with the organizers, these attempts at a middle way were ultimately unsuccessful and I withdrew from participation in the event. I have not been able to figure out who crafted this “faithfulness to church teaching” statement, and have respected my contact’s request that I not name the organization in this post. This means I cannot share their website (although I searched, and could not find, this “faithfulness to church teaching” statement on their website). It seems to be something that the national office requires of local chapters.
Analysis of the Document
The seven “tenets of Church Teaching” in this document present a mix of sacramental, moral, and Mariological teachings that set apart Catholic teachings from some other Christian churches. But the principle of organization is not the creed. In fact, it is difficult to discern what the principle of organization is. The seven statements are not grouped by content and do not seem to be ranked. But why these seven? Why is contraception #2? I was not being asked to affirm my belief in the Triune God. I was not asked to affirm Jesus as the Christ, the Holy Spirit as giver of Life, or the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. The Nicene Creed, when proclaimed in our liturgies, is an opportunity to confess that Jesus is true God, from true God. In my personal life I strive in my everyday life to grow in my understanding of what the gospel means and how to better live a life in service following the example of Jesus. But that wasn’t enough to pass the test because in order to speak in front of this group, I needed to affirm material beyond the biblical testimony and creed.
Hierarchy of Truths?
In Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio, 1964), one principle that was encouraged for Catholic theologians in dialogue with theologians from other Christian churches was to proceed “with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility.” Further, Unitatis Redintegratio encourages Catholic theologians to recall that there is a hierarchy of truths “since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith” (no. 11). If I were to assemble a “faithfulness to church teaching” statement, I would want to be sure that the statement reflected the core dogmas of the Catholic faith. Simply put, this statement does not reflect the core dogmas of the Catholic faith. Many scholars have debated the relative weight and doctrinal authority of various magisterial teachings; it will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I find the arguments of Francis Sullivan SJ, Richard Gula, PSS, Richard Gaillardetz, Elizabeth Johnson, Gerard Mannion, and Sandra Schneiders, IHM, to have been persuasive for me in my emerging understanding of the role of the magisterium and the limits of magisterial authority. My purpose here is not to describe and analyze their positions but rather to acknowledge that this is a complex conversation in both the church and the academy, and no single-page “faith statement” can adequately attend to the complexity of these debates.
Hierarchy of Virtues?
Pope Francis has continued to remind Catholics that the core of our faith is found in relationship. When we encounter the Triune God in our everyday lives, we renew our commitment to the attunement of the heart and a life of virtue. Assent to doctrine has its place, but a hyperfocus on ‘faith’ as belief-system instead of a ‘way of life’ can distract from what is most important in the journey of faith. In Pope Francis’s Gaudete et Exultate, he reminds readers that “the life of the Church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few. This can occur when some groups of Christians give excessive importance to certain rules, customs, or ways of acting. The Gospel then tends to be reduced and constricted, deprived of its simplicity, allure, and savor” (no. 58).He goes on:
We do well to remind ourselves that there is a hierarchy of virtues that bids us seek what is essential. The primacy belongs to the theological virtues, which have God as their object and motive. At the center is charity. Saint Paul says that what truly counts is ‘faith working through love’ (Gal 5:6). We are called to make every effort to preserve charity: ‘The one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom 13). “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Gal 5:14). … Jesus clears a way to seeing two faces, that of the Father and that of our brother. He does not give us two more formulas or two more commands. He gives us two faces, or better yet, one alone: the face of God reflected in so many other faces (no. 60-61).
The Role of the Theologian in a Public Space
I am a Catholic theologian. I understand theology as the task of faith seeking understanding. I am committed to seeking a contemporary understanding of the Catholic faith and to living my faith in the real world. I am often asked to serve as a panelist at public events so that “the Catholic position on x” can be presented. I enjoy those opportunities, and when I understand that my role is to explain official teaching on a particular issue, I prepare materials to that effect and can do that, citing relevant documents and noting how the ecclesial document interprets Scripture and tradition and other relevant social science data as appropriate. I can explain church teaching, the methodology of church teaching, and how it has developed over time. Depending on the context, it is sometimes appropriate for me to explain my own position on the issue, and sometimes it is not appropriate.
That is a different posture than a theological argument I would put forward in a journal article, conference, presentation, or blog post in which I am articulating my own position on an issue (for example, my December essay in Theological Studies on the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae). To be part of a community of scholars does not mean that I am always right about everything. It means that I can put forward an argument, and my colleagues will tell me where they see the weaknesses of that argument, and the discourse continues.
Francis Sullivan, in Creative Fidelity, describes the possibility of development in magisterial teaching. Sometimes we need to simply acknowledge where church teaching stands now. But sometimes we can point to the possibility of something different. He writes:
The changes in church doctrine that have actually taken place in the course of history show that a tradition could hold firm until advances in human knowledge or culture obliged the church to look at the question in a new light (184).
Ultimately, that’s my hope for some of the “tenets” on this list I was asked to sign. I think we are seeing advances in human knowledge and culture that oblige us to look at these in a new light.
What’s Next from CMT Colleagues
In upcoming posts, CMT contributors will weigh in on their analysis of this faith statement. I look forward to the dialogue that can emerge from this as we think together about our vocations as theologians, our role in public spaces, and what it means to be part of this ecclesial communion we call church.