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Westley is one Catholic scholar who isn’t gagging on prudence


In the present climate, it is doubtful that theology departments at most Catholic universities would invite John Courtney Murray, Bernard Häring, Yves Congar or Edward Schillebeeckx -- all influential theologians during and after Vatican II -- to speak to faculty and students.

Invite American theologians such as Charles Curran and Richard McBrien, and the local chancery would likely sprout more white hairs. Let’s face it; John XXIII would have trouble getting on campus these days to bless basketballs.

This may explain why Dick Westley, professor of philosophy at Chicago’s Loyola University, had to travel to the Lutheran Bible Institute outside Seattle a few months ago to talk to a group of resigned priests. CORPUS, the national association for a married priesthood, was celebrating its 25th anniversary with a group of speakers who were challenging the future.

CORPUS, a 1,000-plus-member organization, is an association of married priests, celibate priests, laity, religious sisters and brothers. They respect theological investigation. They are not threatened by a 70-year-old man who offered the “ultimate” challenge: “Giving Up the Faith -- In Order to Be Faithful.”

Like Bernard Häring, who died just a week after Dick gave his talk, Westley offered fresh and supple religious ideas that replaced rigid and traditional approaches. Häring staunchly opposed any legalism that made God into a controller rather than a gracious savior. Westley, too, is a powerful unmasker of all false images of God.

Westley is a philosopher and thus out of reach for the theology police. However, because his thoughts do not involve tiptoeing around a web of sins, they are generally shared only with audiences on the edge. After all, one can’t be too careful. Prudent pastors and prudent university presidents are intimidated by prudent bishops.

We are gagging with prudence while academic freedom suffocates.

Dick Westley is unafraid to pay heed to his life experiences in order to grasp their deeper significance. He remains a devout Catholic on his knees at St. Gertrude’s Church each Sunday. But he told his CORPUS audience that for the past five years he has been asking himself a question: “Westley, are you losing your faith?”

Westley traced the tension that has grown between the “faith of our youth” and the new “Exodus” that has caused many Catholics to lose or freely give up the faith “in order to be faithful.” He cites a favorite contemporary theologian and friend, John Shea, who believes that “each age is called upon to assess the state of institutions it has inherited from its ancestors and is charged and responsible for reconnecting them to their vital source -- Spirit.”

Westley told his listeners that God’s ways are revealed to us primarily through normal, everyday experiences rather than through the esoteric and specialized experiences of the mystics, the jargon-laden discourse of the theologians or the authoritative proclamations of our religious leaders.

“Life itself is our best teacher,” Westley said. “We know from the Judea-Christian tradition and our own lived experience that our God is the God of life not death ... and that the divine presence at our center makes our lives authentic fonts of revelation. ... Indeed, as we mature, become adult and grow older, this lived, experience-based truth becomes paramount in our lives. ... Thanks to the presence of God in our lives we have access to a source of sacred truth independently of what our religious leaders may say.”

Westley cited the magisterial proclamations about the immorality of contraceptive love-making between spouses and the impossibility of ordaining women as just two examples of what simply doesn’t jibe with “communally founded” adult experience.

“It is experience which should shape our theology, not theology our experience,” he told the group. It was reminiscent of Häring who wrote: “If the church does not listen to the world, then the world will never listen to the church.”

Westley, a Milwaukee native and 1950 graduate of Marquette University, spent four intense years at the University of Toronto, where he earned his MA and PhD under the tutelage of philosophical giants such as Jacques Maritain, Anton Pegis and Etienne Gilson. He has spent a lifetime in the classroom.

He remains an unredeemed old-style professor who eats lunch in the cafeteria with his students. In 1980, he was named Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year, not a bad distinction in a faculty of over 1,600.

Dick Westley has been thinking about the theology of the incarnation for a long time. I interviewed him in 1993, just after the appearance of John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”). “That thing could have been written by a Southern Baptist, a Bible-belt American!” he fumed. “Why, he has cut the bishops and the theologians off at the knees. Now, we’ve got a Protestant pope and a Protestant encyclical!”

He is saddened by what he perceives to be a closing of the windows that John XXIII tried to open in order to bring in some fresh air. He grows apoplectic at the notion that all revelation ended with the last words of the gospel.

His words got him into hot holy water. His CORPUS talk, which was to be part of a new book, has been rejected by his publisher, another victim of the forest-fire effect of paranoia. He used to get letters from the chancery that did not respond to his proffered ideas but instead reminded him of his obligations as a Catholic and his failure to submit to the magisterium.

Cardinal John Patrick Cody, Chicago’s bizarre archbishop from 1965 to 1982, used to call him “Wycliffe,” a reference to the English reformer, John Wycliffe, who preached that the good offices of the church were not necessary for salvation.

He was called “downtown” again in 1984, during the early years of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s tenure. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s office had questioned his book, Morality and Its Beyond. Westley liked Bernardin. Their meeting was cordial, but Westley found himself reminding the cardinal that authority is not a one-way street.

The session ended with Westley’s promise not to speak in parishes for at least a year. He kept the promise but never heard from Bernardin again and is now undoubtedly on some invisible Index of Forbidden Speakers.

According to the Encyclopedia of Catholicism, the “sense of the faithful” is the intuitive grasp on the truth of God that is possessed by the church as a whole, as a consensus. It is both an adherence to the public teaching of the church and an active charism of discernment, a power of practical and possessive knowledge belonging to the body of the faithful by virtue of their concrete living of the faith in response to God as Spirit.

It is found implicitly in the writings of the fathers of the church when they insist that church teaching can never contradict the universal and corporate faith of the church. John Henry Newman confirmed the concept in his 1859 essay, “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” and Yves Congar developed it further in his pre-Vatican II book, Lay People in the Church.

Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” teaches that the sense of the faithful is infallible. “The body of the faithful as a whole,” it says, “anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief.” The teaching clearly illustrates that the experience of the faithful is a source for theology.

Of late, however, the church has paid less attention to the sensus fidelium than the NBA has paid to its fans. Of late, it has made itself the sole judge of Catholic practice. It has all but forgotten the traditional theological dictum that the teaching church can only teach what the believing church believes.

Dick Westley’s hourlong talk was basically aimed at trying to rehabilitate the sensus fidelium, to change the structure of distrust, now part of the operations manual. “Be of good cheer,” he told his listeners, “A new, resurrected alternative community called church will emerge.

“For when there is no prospect for change, no openness to radical newness,” he concluded, “there is no hope. And without hope, people die inside.”

CORPUS: www.corpus.org

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he has concluded that Eve was created first, because it just makes more sense that way. You can check his sensus fidelium at unsworth@mesignet.net

National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1998