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The ebb and flow of fallible church teaching

Maureen Fiedler and Linda Rabben, editors
Crossroad Publishing Company, 243 pages, $19.95


Looking for a satisfying and uplifting book? Want an easy read that will bring you chuckles along with insights as you breeze through essays by distinguished writers describing the practices and teachings of our wondrous but oh so fallible church? Rome has Spoken demonstrates how church teaching has evolved over the years in 16 areas and provides selections from relevant church documents. The effect is to encourage reform-minded Catholics not to lose hope.

The book demonstrates that today’s archconservatives -- who, one might reason, would respect church history -- disregard it so thoroughly. This disrespect, or plain ignorance, never seems to stop them from clubbing their chosen “infidels” of the moment. Nor does it keep them from demeaning decent Catholics who have given their lives to keeping the best of the faith’s ideals alive. Rome has Spoken dips into history to remind us that change, not consistency, has been the framework of our Catholic heritage. More change will surely come, the book’s message implies.

Sister of Loretto Maureen Fiedler and Linda Rabben, both of the Washington-based Quixote Center, explain that in recent years papal statements have been mistaken for gospel truths and the sole measure of orthodoxy. This, they contend, is not healthy for the faithful, nor does the practice reflect church traditions. What we see around us, they say, is a kind of “creeping infallibility.” It’s unhealthy, causing many Catholics to become disaffected. Those “who disagree with papal statements on birth control, the role of women, or gay/lesbian relationships, often feel alienated or baffled by absolutist positions,” the editors write.

“They see themselves as adults with the right to exercise good conscience. They are confused about the importance and weight they should give to papal statements. Often they have little knowledge of the history of papal pronouncements or the evolution of Catholic dogma. They want change but think it is impossible.”

Rome has Spoken sets out to set the record straight -- or at least place current official church teachings in their proper historical context.

The editors say that Catholicism is not on a journey to perfection in teaching; rather, Catholic pastoral practices and teachings on important matters of faith simply change -- for better and sometimes for worse.

For example, the shift in Catholic teaching from its early embrace of Christian pacifism to the “just-war” acceptance of conflict may not be viewed as positive movement by some. Others might find the move to exclude women from all priestly functions, culminating in recent papal pronouncements banning women’s ordination for all time, to be a distortion of the gospel’s message of inclusive love.

Examining church attitudes on women, Pope Gregory I, writing about the year 600, revealed an anatomically fixated, misogynist mind-set: “When a woman has given birth ... she should abstain [from entering a church] for 33 days if she had a boy, 66 if she had a girl.” He also wrote, “As for the man who sleeps with his wife, he should not enter a church without washing.”

Not that women have fared much better in the 20th century. We are also reminded of a gem from 1917 Code of Canon Law: “A female person may not minister. An exception is allowed only if no male person can be had and there is good reason. But female persons may in no case come up to the altar, and may only give responses from afar.”

Rome Has Spoken traces the history of Catholic teachings on subjects that include infallibility, primacy of conscience, scriptural interpretation, religious freedom, ecumenism, the Jewish people, slavery, democracy in the church, dissent, women, celibacy, sexuality, contraception, divorce and remarriage, Copernican theory, evolution, war and peace, and usury. After brief introductions, documents are provided exemplifying “the most significant official attitudes of the age.”

These are followed by essays by writers versed in the field. For example, Robert McClory on infallibility, Rosemary Radford Ruether on democracy in the church, Jesuit Fr. Richard McCormick on theological dissent, Sister of the Divine Savior Alice Laffey on scriptural interpretation. Each chapter concludes with discussion questions.

The reader will appreciate Fiedler and Rabben’s able editing. The essays are crisp and readable. The topics chosen are on the mark. Both women bring rich backgrounds to the book. The Quixote Center, founded to seek and teach justice in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, has long reasoned that for Catholicism to be an effective agent of world justice it must get its act together. The center’s history of church renewal work has grown out of this insight.

Fiedler in recent years has headed the center’s Catholics Speak Out program, advocating ecclesial reform through wider lay and religious participation. Rabben is founder of the center’s Human Rights Umbrella, an organization that seeks to assist people, groups and institutions struggling to overcome human rights abuses.

No document or essay captures the full flavor of this resourceful book, one that religious educators and others will want to keep handy. I was again taken by the fresh spirit of a passage in the Vatican II’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty” (1965): “The human person sees and recognizes the demands of the divine law through conscience. All are bound to follow their conscience faithfully in every sphere of activity. ... Therefore, the individual must not be forced to act against conscience nor be prevented from acting according to conscience, especially in religious matters.”

In sharp contrast, I found on the adjacent page the church’s strong authoritarian hand in a statement taken from one of John Paul’s audiences in 1988: “Because the church’s magisterium has been instituted to enlighten the conscience, any appeal to this conscience in order to contest the truth of what has been taught by the magisterium involves the rejection of the Catholic concept of both the magisterium and moral conscience.”

It was in 1906 that Pope Pius X stated in Vehementer Nos the idea that “the state must be separated from the church is a thesis absolutely false, a most pernicious error, ... an obvious negation of the supernatural order.” By contrast, Pope John XXIII, in Pacem in Terris, in 1963 wrote: Everyone has the right “to worship God in accordance with the dictates of one’s own conscience and to profess one’s religion both in private and in public.” As Fr. Charles Curran, an essayist, writes, “It is almost inconceivable that less than 35 years ago, Catholic teaching did not accept religious liberty.”

Chapter 7 recounts our church’s sordid history in support of slavery, justifying it as part of the “natural order.” Chapter 9 traces the ebb and flow of official acceptance of church dissent. Notes McCormick: “Most topics in this book have undergone more or less gradual changes. Positions formerly regarded as correct are now seen as gravely inadequate (on usury and religious freedom, for example). This is not quite the developmental path we see where theological dissent is concerned.”

Chapter 11 documents the way the Roman Catholic hierarchy permitted a married clergy in the first millennium and began to forbid it in the second millennium, at least until recent years. It also shares with readers a list of some of our church’s non-celibate popes. Anthony Padovano leaves no mistake about his view on mandatory celibacy, concluding that “a male-only priesthood violates biblical values, apostolic practice, human rights and spiritual norms. It tells the Christian community that men are preferable to women, celibates to the married, church policy to the gospel.”

Rome has Spoken indicates that, contrary to popular belief, Rome can and does change its mind. (So hang in there.) The book does not necessarily throw new light on church history, but it does fill out some important stories, covers a lot of ground and brings often inaccessible statements to a wider audience.

I found it oddly reassuring to see our church’s fallible ways. In our collective imperfections, we mirror the wider world, perhaps making ourselves more approachable. But only if we recognize these fallibilities. Failing to do so can make us simply unbearable, and the church not a very happy place to be.

Catholics will find the book has done a lot of homework for them, presenting important material on critical church topics. Put this one on your Christmas list, if you can wait that long.

Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, December 18, 1998