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Change artists

NCR Staff

Church teaching changes. Call it development, call it a dramatic reversal: It’s a fact.

In sure -- if sometimes oblique -- assault on recent Vatican efforts to fortify controversial teachings with appeals to tradition, speakers at an annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America offered example after example of shifts in major teachings over time. The combined effect was to show that change, even dramatic reversal, is far from rare.

At the same time, organizers of the mid-June event hoped, by avoiding highly sensitive issues such as women’s ordination, to mollify critics without compromising historical truth.

The society was stung after its 1996 conference when Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston described it as a “wasteland” and Jesuit Fr. Avery Dulles characterized it as a showcase for dissent. Theologians at that conference had, by overwhelmingly affirmative vote, opposed the Vatican’s arguments against ordaining women.

This year Dulles was featured on the program.

Among major speakers, church historian and federal judge John T. Noonan Jr. traced shifts in teaching from outright condemnation of lending money at interest to acceptance of the practice; from support of slavery and the death penalty in the recent past to even more recent condemnations of both.

Barbara Hilkert Andolsen of Monmouth University in New Jersey pointed out that even teachings that reflect centuries of tradition are sometimes overturned. “Sometimes the church comes to understand that a belief or norm proclaimed by an earlier generation was, from perspective of a later generation, wrong or even pernicious,” she said.

One such case, she said, was a centuries-long anti-Semitic stance. It culminated in the teaching that “Jews or heretics and schismatics,” along with others outside the Catholic faith, should anticipate the “everlasting fire [of hell]” unless they joined the Catholic church before death. The teaching was curious precedent for present-day Catholic teaching that Jews and Christians are brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham. Yet it was proclaimed by Pope Eugenius IV with backing of the Council of Florence.

Distressed by attack

In a debate with Dulles over the nature of authority and the role of dissent, Jesuit theologian Fr. Richard McCormick of the University of Notre Dame came back again at the church’s ban on contraception. He argued that it was a wrongheaded application of a sound moral principle: that marriage and procreation should be inseparably linked.

In an interview after the convention, the society’s president, Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, said many members had been distressed by Law’s attack. “We hoped that a fuller understanding of the CTSA would be visible, particularly in this convention,” she said.

“I worked very hard to make the convention inclusive of the many voices we have in theology and in the church today,” Farley said, “so when it was over I think it could not be said that the CTSA only privileges liberals or conservatives. My hope was that we would get beyond those labels by talking together about the substantive questions.” Farley said she also made an effort to include people from different age groups. “Ages make a difference in every enterprise today,” she said.

Among voices called in was that of Dulles, a theological giant who had chastised the society in the March [27], 1998, issue of the Jesuit magazine [Commonweal]. Although Dulles had not attended the 1996 meeting, he said his concerns were based on the society’s annual report of proceedings, which includes major convention talks. Dulles, of Fordham University in New York, is a longtime society member. He received its highest award in 1970.

“Most notoriously,” he wrote in America, “the convention had collectively opposed the church’s teaching that its ban on ordaining women is irrevocable. A “landslide vote” on the matter, 216 in favor, 22 opposed and 10 abstentions, “was widely, and I believe correctly, interpreted as a dissent not only from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s declaration on the subject but also from the pope’s call for definitive adherence to his teaching,” Dulles said.

This year, Dulles, a staunch supporter of Pope John Paul II, agreed to debate McCormick, another theological heavyweight and a critic of the pope’s centralized approach to church authority. Calling their two-part session “The Nature and Authority of Doctrine: A Search for Common Ground,” the two men set forth their differences over the magisterium’s role in formation of doctrine and the appropriateness of dissent. (See accompanying story.)

Noonan, a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth District, and author of several books on doctrinal history, addressed several areas in which church teaching has shifted in response to human experience through time and cultures.

For example, church teaching condemning usury -- lending for interest -- was officially declared sinful in the 12th century and condemned in successive papal bulls. By the 19th century, though, Noonan said, the teaching was gone, buried mainly by “the customs of the market and public finance.” Previously condemned “innovations” of theologians in support of lenders had prevailed.

Death penalty opposition recent

The death penalty has only in very recent times, under Pope John Paul II, begun to be condemned by church leaders. Although bishops even in the patristic era sometimes urged mercy in particular cases, no “established, coherent fundamental opposition” was in place, Noonan said. By the Middle Ages, death became the punishment for heretics, a practice supported even by St. Thomas Aquinas. At first the church turned heretics over to the state to be killed, but later punished heretics on its own.

“There was now not even a fiction,” Noonan said. “It was the church that punished capitally. In the papal states, the death penalty was an ordinary part of criminal law enforcement, used against brigands and heretics alike.”

It was only at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that the church would affirm religious liberty. It was well after World War II, when most European states turned against capital punishment, that a pope would finally declare that the death penalty was wrong.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II asserted in Evangelium Vitae that those instances where society’s defense required the death penalty were “very rare, if in fact they occur at all.” As recently as January of this year, Noonan said, the pope described the death penalty as “both cruel and unnecessary.”

Yet, he said, “the moral rule was still in flux” because the pope, while describing state executions as “a species of homicide, an attack on human life,” stopped short of labeling governors “murderers.”

As to slavery, the practice had the support of church leaders and theologians into the 19th century, well after many Protestant leaders had begun to denounce it. The practice earned official condemnation only in 1839, by Pope Gregory XVI. “As late as 1866, the Holy Office ruled that buying and selling of slaves was not contrary to natural law,” Noonan said. “It was only as part of a general European revulsion against slave trading in Africa that Leo XIII issued an unequivocal moral condemnation of human bondage.”

Discovering evil of slavery

Finally, in John Paul II’s encyclical Splendor Veritatis, he described slavery as “intrinsically evil.” Noonan noted dryly that the pope reversed this moral teaching while “expending no effort on explaining how this universal precept had been allowed to sleep for centuries.”

In looking at “whose experience counted” in forming moral judgments in the church, Noonan said, “two broad levels of experience may be distinguished: that of persons subject to or affected by the rules and that of the persons enunciating them” -- people who in numerous cases -- Koestler, Camus and the American Protestants, for example -- were not members of the institutional church.

In all five examples of doctrinal development, Noonan said, “the experience at the first level -- that of the people affected by a practice -- had to be translated into a second level of experience, that of the decision-makers in the church.”

“These developments would not have occurred without challenges to convention, without argument, without conflict, without prayer, without the assistance of the Holy Spirit and without connection with the core constituents of Christianity,” he said.

Noonan’s paper was third in a series of four major talks. The first, by John Thiel of Fairfield University, Fairfield, Conn., asserted that doctrinal conflicts in the church derive from different understandings of how tradition develops. Against those who think of tradition as rooted in “an authoritative past,” Thiel said continuity in doctrine is more accurately recognized in retrospect, by examining the past through a present-day lens. As in a novel, Thiel said, from the standpoint of the reader, “the story’s coherence is ever being reshaped as plot unfolds, sometimes most meaningfully through narrative shock.”

Thiel noted that “the judgments that the gospel of John was divine revelation, that Nicea taught orthodoxly on the eternal divinity of the Son of God,” were made later, as the church, seeking to verify a belief, sought to affirm continuity with the past.

In response to Thiel’s talk, Andolsen of Monmouth University asserted that what is defined as tradition is too often in the hands of male clerics. “I propose that we need to give close attention to the role of ordinary believers, especially those without formal education and others with less social power, in the determination of authentic tradition,” she said.

Francine J. Cardman of Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., drew from themes of Augustine to urge charity in church conflicts. She noted that Augustine had first urged charity and communion over uniform doctrine practice in dealing with the Donatist crisis, a fifth-century theological battle well-known to church historians. Donatists, followers of Donatus of Casea Nigrae, were a schismatic group that first appeared in North Africa in the fourth century. They argued that Catholics who had denied faith under imperial persecutions were not truly Catholics, and their sacraments were invalid.

Later, Augustine shifted his position, arguing that it was “a work of charity” to force Donatists to return to the Catholic Church through through imperial power. Earlier a proponent of the church of “wheat and tares,” a church that tolerated pluralism until its “perfect holiness” was revealed at the end of time, Augustine began acting out of fear and, ironically, succumbing to a kind of “Donatist purism,” she said.

Similarly today, Cardman said, “this characteristic Catholic inclusiveness and generosity has become suspect, hemmed in by the same constraints of zeal and fear as was Augustine in his dealings with the Donatists. Investigations of theologians anonymously accused of falling short of norms of doctrinal literalism are one manifestation of this fear. The current Roman zeal for exacting doctrinal uniformity and excluding unworthy voices represents, somewhat ironically, a kind of Donatist purism that sweeps away the chaff now rather than waiting for God’s good time.”

Fr. Robert J. Schreiter of Catholic Theological Union, the society’s outgoing president, argued that tolerance for pluralism will be increasingly important as globalization increases and Catholics of divergent world views attempt to communicate with one another. “Premature talk of unity ... may be a way of suppressing difference rather than actually dealing with it,” he said.

Dulles said he had been pleased with this year’s convention. “I think the general mood was one of serious effort to be with the Catholic tradition and not a mood of challenging the magisterium,” he said. “It wasn’t the same kind of one-sided meeting they apparently had in 1996.”

As for what Farley described as “the neuralgic issues” -- women’s ordination, reproductive issues, for example -- “we didn’t consciously avoid them,” she said. The topics that were explored “were utterly relevant to those issues, but didn’t just spin around them.”

Farley said she had made a serious effort to encourage U.S. and Canadian bishops to attend this year’s convention, but few did. Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., a regular at the conventions, was kept away by a recent surgery. Bishop Remi De Roo of Canada was there. Archbishop John C. Favalora of Miami delivered a brief welcome at the opening session on June 10.

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999 [corrected 08/13/1999]