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The Best Way to Defend the Faith


  What Happened to Collegiality?

  What Is the Threat?

  Teachings Have Evolved Over Years

Pope John Paul II’s recent move "to protect the Catholic faith against errors" caught even bishops and theologians by surprise. The apostolic letter "Ad Tuendam Fidem" ("To Defend the Faith") obliges Catholics to assent to teachings "proposed definitively," even if not infallibly.

With this apostolic letter, the pope is making two changes to the Code of Canon Law for both the Western and Eastern Churches.

It is the pope’s job to safeguard the faith, so the fact that he can initiate such action is not surprising. Also, Church watchers of late have detected a pattern of ever more restrictive pronouncements from the pope and Vatican congregations.

But this pronouncement is surprising for three reasons: It was issued by the pope on his own initiative (motu proprio); the threat which prompts this letter is unclear; it is out of character with the pope’s recent humble apologies for Church wrongs of the past.

What Happened to Collegiality?

The bishops, like the faithful, first learned of this change through newspapers and television. They were not consulted about it, unlike the 18-year process of preparing the 1983 revision of canon law. And that slow, painstakingly careful, very consultative process of revision was in fact attempting to codify Church changes made by the Second Vatican Council, itself a consultative process.

There was an accompanying commentary by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on behalf of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This commentary calls for no distinction between the kind of assent needed to divinely revealed truths and those taught definitively by the magisterium. And it singles out as examples of definitive teaching the reservation of priestly ordination to men, the ban on euthanasia, the illicitness of prostitution and fornication.

But theologians, to whom this letter is particularly directed, are perplexed. What teachings are taught definitively? How do we recognize them? If the Catechism of the Catholic Church contains the body of definitive teachings, it’s also true that not everything contained in its 803 pages is equally important or agreed upon. For instance, the teaching about angels is not equivalent to that on the Trinity. The Catechism contradicts itself on occasion, such as whether Adam and Eve were real individuals.

What Is the Threat?

When Jesus came to earth, it was to a particular time and place. It is the task of the theologian to incarnate God’s message in this age, in this culture. Over 2,000 years the 20 councils of the Church have sought a deeper understanding of divine truths.

St. Anselm defined theology as "faith seeking understanding." The theologian is to articulate beliefs, and to carry on the dialogue between that religious tradition and current human experience. Then the magisterium is to pronounce and teach what we—the whole Church—do and must believe.

If theologians cannot question, how will the Church stay on track? Some questioning is just for clarification.

Perhaps the pope sees some great threat to the faith, feels besieged on all fronts and wants the Church to speak with one voice to be heard in the modern world.

But most agree that a lone theologian in Sri Lanka, the women’s ordination movement or even the German bishops’ questions on divorce are no major threat to the Church, nothing like what Communism posed, say.

Teachings Have Evolved Over Years

One of Pope John Paul II’s themes in preparing for the Third Millennium is reconsideration of Church history without triumphalism, a collective examination of conscience. In that light, Luigi Accattoli’s new book When a Pope Asks Forgiveness: The Mea Culpa’s of John Paul II (Pauline Books and Media) collected some of the 94 times this pope has admitted Church culpability in its treatment of people and ideas over its history, for events like the Crusades and Inquisition.

For instance, in Mulieris Dignitatem in 1988, Pope John Paul II apologized to women for blaming only Eve for original sin. And only three years ago, in his Letter to Women, he admitted: "Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women." Who knows how far this conditioning prevents us—even now—from "setting women free from every kind of exploitation and domination," the pope’s expressed goal?

Another example is the Church’s reconsideration of the Galileo case. Galileo’s idea, like Copernicus’s, that the earth moves around the sun shook the very roots of Scripture interpretation. From 1633 until 1822 heliocentrism was considered dissent from Church teaching.

The point is that we should not declare too quickly or easily what is definitive Church teaching. Was Paul a dissenter when he stood before the Council of Jerusalem? Why did Thomas Aquinas have to struggle to have his teachings accepted? Listening to original thinkers and dissenters, dialoguing with them, being willing to reconsider what was previously thought to be definitive, we may come to a fuller understanding of definitive and even foundational teachings.

Truth doesn’t change, but our grasp of it does. This is no time to lose faith in truth, in its unity and in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church.—B.B.

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