Everyday I print off a raft of articles and blog entries to read. Sometimes it happens that these end up entering into a conversation with each other in my mind. Here are several that lead in an interesting direction.
First, Pastor Weedon blogged on a revered Lutheran contemporary and colleague of Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Herman Sasse. Sasse pointed out (in a book called “Here we stand”–originally Was Heisst Lutherische–that:
Despite its decided rejection of false teachings which prevail in other churches, our church has never denied the presence of the church of Christ in the established churches of England and Scotland, in Holland and Switzerland, in Spain and Italy, in Greece and Russia. It has not tried, therefore, to conduct missions for the Lutheran confessional church in these countries, just as it has avoided the “evanglicalization” of Catholic territories in Germany. Let all those who accuse Lutheranism of intolerant confessionalism reflect on the fact that the Lutheran Church is one of the very few churches in Christendom which has never, under any circumstances, engaged in propaganda for itself or conducted missions among Christians of other persuasions. (Here We Stand, pp. 182, 183)
I remember reading the book twenty years ago and being impressed. I must pull it out again and read that last chapter, entitled “The Lutheran Church and the Una Sancta”.
The precise issue is “What is the Church”? We as Catholics recognise the presence of Christ–and thus also “the presence of the church of Christ” (remembering Ireneaus’ old statement that the Church is where Jesus Christ is)–in the ecclesial communities of the Protestant reformation. Like Sasses’ pre-WWII Lutheran state churches, we do not proselytise our Christian brethren and sistern either (although I suspect that the motivating theologies and impulses behind this similarity were very different). But “the presence of the church of Christ” is not the same thing being the Church of Christ. Understanding herself to “be” the Church of Christ, the Catholic Church is impelled to seek the full visible unity of all who belong, even imperfectly, to her, both within and without her visible borders. What I find conspicuously absent in Sasse’s praise of his Lutheran Church is any sense of the compulsion to seek ecumenical unity.
This issue comes up in a second piece I read today by Dr Jeff Mirus entitled “Conscience and Authority: the Protestant Dilema”. This is a must read article, as is the article it is reacting too from the November issue of First Things by Lutheran theologian Gilbert Meilaender, “Conscience and Authority” (not yet available online).
Mirus praises Meilaender’s work, pointing as it does to three essentials in the equation:
the need for the “Church” to speak with authority in order to preserve and transmit Christianity;
the need for the individual Christian to respect that authority;
and the need for the Christian to form his conscience ultimately through a direct personal relationship with God.
But he goes straight to the core again of what we mean when we say “Church”. The Church, in Meilaender’s Lutheran theology–similar to Sasse’s own idea of “Church” in the quotation above–is ultimately a sociological phenomenon of like minded believers. What sort of “authority” does such a group ultimately have? To be sure, such a “Church” has public teaching, but I am free (if I disagree with that public teaching) to lobby within the church’s structures to change that public teaching. As Mirus sums it up:
Whether we can ultimately claim the authority of that organization for our ideas depends solely on whether we win an internal battle for control. We ought not to dishonestly claim any organization’s authority to promote something contrary to its official position, but we are perfectly free to attempt to influence the organization to change its position. If we succeed, we can then claim its authority for promoting what we had all along asserted it should say.
He is quite right about this. I know it from experience. Going to Synod was like going to battle. Each opinion sought to garner support for its own ideas so that, through the democratic majority, the “Truth” would prevail. It was exactly this on the issue of women’s ordination which I faced at the 2000 Synod of the LCA (read about my experience of that on my Year of Grace blog).
Mirus asserts that it is only if there is a living Magisterium of the Church which directly exercises the authority of Christ that I can truly (and must truly) give full submission of conscience to the Church’s teaching. The only time when a personal “fight” of conscience against what a Church heirarch might teach is acceptable is when that heirarch is teaching against the Magisterium of the Church.
And that leads me to this rather strange interview that the Holy Father gave recently (reported here by John L. Allen Jnr.). The future pope candidly said that after the Council he was “too timid” in defending the teaching of the Church’s magisterium against the false claims of some in authority. But how could this happen that there were such false ideas in the first place?
“At that time, the situation was extremely confused and restless, and the doctrinal position of the church was not always clear,” the pope said. “In fact, claims were circulated that seemed to have become suddenly possible, even though in reality they were not consistent with dogma. In that context, the discussions within the doctrinal commission were full of strong positions, and extremely difficult.”
In saying this, it becomes evident that for us to be able to hold, defend and live the true teachings of the Church, there must be CLARITY of teaching–which clarity can only come with a strong exercise of the Church’s authority in her Magisterium. I believe that today we do have such clarity–the excellent teaching of Pope John Paul II (and now his successor, Pope Benedict XVI) and especially the gift of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has gone a long way to clearing up this confusion. You can add to that the instant and excellent access we have today to Church teaching through the internet–something undreamed of in the 1970s–and Catholics today cannot claim ignorance to support their free exercise of “conscience” against the teaching of the Church.
Finally I am left with Cardinal Scheffczyk’s regret (referred to in Allen’s article) that, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,
Pope John Paul II had failed to pronounce the ban on women’s ordination as an infallible dogma in formal, ex cathedra fashion.
That indeed would have given clarity in the face of confusion.
All that brings me back to our discussions we have been having on this blog about papal authority. I have come to see that what Reader (not Father) Christopher Orr has called the “unfettered, unilateral power” of the Pope to pronounce infallibly on matters of faith and morals is a great gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, for it makes possible the clarity of teaching necessary for the true formation of the Christian conscience.