From time to time this column looks to issues of authority in the Church. And rightly so, because the way it is exercised and the way it is received are enormously important for our future.
The two extremes, and I do not think that I exaggerate, range from an instinctive aversion to any authoritative decision to an instinctive condemnation of any Catholic who criticises any aspect of the Church’s discipline. Both extremes verge on fundamentalism: the tension between authority and the recipients of authority in real life is more nuanced than either, and the boundary line between them continuously variable.
It may be valuable to look at a couple of recent examples.
The first concerns Bishop William Morris, recently obliged to take early retirement from his Diocese of Toowoomba in Australia. Bishop Morris has a very high reputation as a pastoral bishop, and has been a shining example of how to create a genuine listening and sharing community in his diocese. His own priests speak highly of him, and he is clearly much valued by his brother bishops. What happened?
He had issued a pastoral letter in 2006 on the shortage of priests in his diocese. And the problem is a serious one because by 2014 the diocese will only have six priests aged 65 and younger. He suggested that this crisis should ready us to consider options which are currently being debated at different levels. His list included the ordination of women and the recognition of Anglican and some other Protestant orders.
Bishop Morris was wrong. His position precluded him from raising options which the Church has quite clearly closed down. He may not have intended to be provocative, but he should have been wise enough to know that he was putting the Holy See into an impossible position. The only outcome, apart from his forced retirement, is likely to be a stronger defensive barrier against any views which smack of liberalism. For all I know one day such questions may be considered more kindly than they are now. But he will not have helped to bring that day any nearer.
The second example that I look at is Caritas Internationalis, which is a federation of 165 international Catholic charities. Here I read that the Vatican wishes to exert greater control over this federation. A Vatican official said: “Caritas Internationalis, as a public entity of the Church, is authorised to speak and act for the Church in the international forum. Because of that right and duty, it needs to speak the Church’s language and make sure that its activities, and its agreements with non-Catholic agencies, reflect what the Church teaches.” And Caritas would need to acknowledge the Holy See’s authority over finance and personnel issues.
Once again, it is hard to take issue with the rationale of the official position. Unfortunately it is likely that the federation’s agencies, who know exactly what is needed in their local areas, will feel that the “dead hand” of the Vatican will bear down ignorantly and tactlessly on their vital work, and in so doing will harm their relationships with other agencies with whom they must work. Nor will they feel that the Vatican has been entirely free from financial scandal, and – forbid the thought – they may suspect that this is a power grab. Their view may be coloured by the Vatican’s recent refusal to renew the contract of the last secretary general of Caritas, notwithstanding her fine reputation.
On the one hand we have a liberal bishop who appears mighty surprised that he has been relieved of his diocese for publicly flouting an important and explicit teaching. On the other, an overarching authority which is feared rather than loved because it is seen to provide ineffective leadership on an autocratic model which is more than a century out of date. These illustrate two aspects of dialogue within the Church.
I have written at length before about the use and misuse of the principle of subsidiarity by the Magisterium and also on the need for proper flows of communication at every level throughout the Church. I will not repeat myself here. But I would like to look for a moment at the proper conduct of dissent.
It is necessary to start by being absolutely clear that the Church has a God-given authority, not only to teach doctrine and morals but to set the rules for the conduct of the communion. Our immediate instinct must be to accept this authority, and to do so not only willingly but with a sincere effort to understand the reasons why – so that our obedience is internalised rather than automatic.
If, despite our willingness, we still want to dissent, our genuine effort to understand the whole issue will certainly have helped us to make our criticisms in a constructive way. Indeed we can often show how our view is truly consonant with the Church’s deeper objectives. And Christian courtesy should be the hallmark of our approach. Indeed constructive courtesy is far more likely to influence than irritable sallies often, at least by implication, questioning the motives of our opponents.
But, you may say, will our authoritarian Church reciprocate? Perhaps, yes; perhaps, no. But let us first be ready to answer for our own behaviour, for that is the only part of the communication which we can control. And, not surprisingly, the soft answer turneth away wrath, and so is more likely to succeed.
And if you don’t believe that people can argue courteously even on matters in which they strongly disagree, pay a visit to http://www.secondsightblog.net, and see how it’s done.