Quo Vadimus? – lessons from history
(address to A.C.P. Thursday, 02.06.2011)
If I were to speak only from my experience as a layperson in Church, I would be silent for the next 10 minutes. So I come here also as a theologian – something that, to quote Jeremiah, “burns within my bones” and allows me to speak.
Sometimes it is obvious that history is in the making. Queen Elizabeth’s respectful visit to Garden of Remembrance at Parnell Square was one such historic moment. It is not difficult to understand why.
Sometimes, despite the prophetic voices, it is only in retrospect that we realise… “that was the moment!” …the moment when things could have been done differently. There have been many such moments in the Church’s history – the obvious ones relate to great and regrettable schisms. The repudiation of Gallileo’s observations is another. The failure to engage with the new sciences is yet another…not to mention the refusal to engage with early 20th century biblical scholarship. The list goes on….
Since Vatican II we also have had our historical moments. I see three where things could have been done differently – where taking the road less travelled could truly have made all the difference.
Chronologically they are :
Humanae Vitae. Now that was a moment that was recognised as it was happening, and courageous priest-theologians spoke up and took a stand. They paid a price….some heavier than others…but their courage remained a light in the darkness.
The second moment was the refusal to face the issue of clerical sexual abuse in the 1970-80s not just in Ireland, but worldwide.
The third was Ordinatio Sacerdotalis – John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the non-ordination of women.
And now, we are presented with a fourth moment – the translation of the missal.
Learning the lessons of history
For now, I would like to concentrate on the third moment – when the door was closed on women’s ordination. This moment is not simply as an issue of sexism, and the substantive issue of women’s ordination, but something with broader implications which is my focus here. For in this we see much of the architecture of why we are where we are as a church and why something like the forced implementation of the missal is happening. And why it will not stop with the missal.
When there is a problem to solve or a concept to wrestle with, the most important thing to do is to “frame” the problem – to reach an understanding of the core issue. How we understand a problem will direct our attempts to solve it. We are – all of us – subject to belief bias where we abandon logical reasoning in favour of personal beliefs. This bias distorts or even blocks our intelligent appropriation of the issue at stake and impedes our reasoning. This bias operates both at the individual and group/corporate (Church) level.
When the issue of women’s ordination arose, the question was framed in a reasonable way: “Whether or not women can be ordained to priestly ministry (especially as ministers of the eucharist and as leaders of the Christian community)”
The attempt to find a solution was equally reasonable – an instruction to the Pontifical Biblical Commission (all Reverend gentlemen, no women/lay biblical scholars) to study the evidence from Scripture in the light of that question. The commission duly reported that its forensic examination of Scripture could not answer the question one way or the other. So no Scriptural barrier could be found to women’s ordination. Therefore, one might expect, if intelligent reasoning were applied, these results would be evaluated, the evidence considered and a process of discernment on validating women’s orders would commence.
But this is where reason disappeared. Instead of embarking on the road of developing a programme for women’s ordination, the CDF issued Inter Insigniores, which reaffirmed the three original ‘arguments’ against women’s ordination. A classic case of group bias impeding reason.
(The document was not put into the public domain. If a French version had not been leaked to the press, we may never have known the result of the Commissions deliberations. In its list of documents issued by the Pontifical Biblical commission on the Vatican website (1905-2008) the commission’s 1976 report is omitted. The chronology jumps from 1974 to 1984).
The three “very fundamental reasons” for excluding women from ministerial priesthood are:
1. The example of Scripture of Christ choosing his apostles from among men;
2. The constant practice of the Church which has imitated Christ in only choosing men
3. The living teaching authority of the Church “which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.”
So let us examine the argument. Immediately, we can dispense with Premise 3, because, even though it is supposed to be offering a contemporary reason, it is simply a reiteration of Premises 1 & 2.
The example of Christ’s actions in Scripture and constant practice based on an understanding of those actions are our premises. But we know that Scripture does not prohibit women’s ordination, so Premise 1 does not hold. Premise 2, constant practice (tradition) is dependant on Premise 1, and so, I argue, cannot hold either. It had been valid inasmuch it arose from a particular understanding of Scripture. But once that interpretation of scripture has been shown to be flawed, the argument flowing from it can no longer stand.
But the issue did not go away….the hand of the Holy Spirit? The discussions gathered momentum, but were then brought to an abrupt halt in 1994 when John Paul II issued Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, unilaterally declaring that there was a Scriptural basis for women’s exclusion (despite the commission’s report which found no exclusion and despite the fact he was not a biblical scholar). Not only that, but he declared that exclusion of women from orders was to be definitively held. This is a very disturbing term that is used to give a document the cloak of ‘infallibility’ even though it does not fulfil the criteria for such a declaration (and infallibility is a whole other discussion). Once again, we have a case of individual and group bias impeding reason. This time not only using flawed arguments to uphold a doctrinal position, but using (abusing?) the power of position to insist they be accepted without question.
Despite all this, the issue remained live. And again, nothing seems to have been learned from this constant bubbling up of women’s ordination. But now there is a development even more disturbing than ‘creeping infallibility’ of the 1990s. It is the tyranny and oppression that are the stock-in-trade of all totalitarian regimes (regardless of origin). Those priests who have the courage of their convictions and speak out on either women’s ordination or homosexuality (another neuralgic topic) are being threatened with immediate dismissal from their priesthood if they persist. Two cases that have been publicised recently are Fr. Ray Bourgeois of Maryknoll Fathers and Bishop William Morris of Twowoomba, Australia – both of whom, openly advocated listening to, and accepting, women’s vocation to priesthood. We have had our own champions here in Ireland; can we be so naïve to believe that they have not been threatened too?
So, we have the abandonment of reason; the imposition of de facto infallibility without the fulfilling requirements; and bullying and threatening behaviour that comes very close to a type of blackmail. There is no measure whereby these could be regarded as healthy foundations for doctrine or, for that matter, the liturgical life of the Church.
Where to from here?
There are questions of leadership, certainly. There are questions on women’s full participation. But I see it as a problem more fundamental than that. It is a problem of what we might call of ‘perception’ or ‘world-view.’ This is the belief that the Church does not err, cannot err; that all competence for its administration is ultimately vested in one person, the Pope. We need nothing less a paradigm shift – our own ecclesial equivalent of a Copernican revolution. The Church does err and history has shown this. It cannot but err, made up as it is of human beings. To see the Church as a perfect entity that exists independent of humanity does not make sense. It exists in and through the people who comprise it.
This does not conflict with our belief that the Holy Spirit remains with the Church to protect it and save from error. The Spirit works in and through all of us, through our gifts, through our challenges, though our discernment of failure – when we assess our mistakes, and learn from them. It is thus possible to believe the Church will be protected from permanent error – but only if it first realises and accepts its own fallibility.
As we all know, the word tradition (with capital or small ‘T’) comes from the Latin trado, tradere – meaning to hand on, hand down. Embedded in that notion of ‘handing on’ is a sense of continuity and unbrokenness. It is sobering to note that words betrayal and traitor also have their roots in trado, which also includes the meaning to hand over, in the sense of ‘to betray.’
So this brings us back to our current historical moment number 4 – the missal translation. I have made my arguments elsewhere (Doctrine & Life, Vol.61, No.4 April, 2011, Dominican Publications) as to why this is not just misguided, but wrong. And this is where the possibility of a different leadership arises, one which is coherent with the idea of an erring Church.
We give our trust to our leaders, not as a sign of our inferiority, but a symbol of our hope and expectation that they will honour that trust in truth and discernment. Should our leaders betray our trust by abandoning reason, or submitting to bullying and threats, or just by passivity, wringing our hands and convincing ourselves of our helplessness is no answer – that, too, is a failure of leadership. Leadership is not just about the individual ‘in charge’. Leadership is about being an adult in an adult world. It is about recognising the moment when we know something is wrong and need to act, not waiting for someone else to take responsiblity.
The current English missal translation is wrong. Having it forced on us is wrong – the question remains – what are we going to do? It will be tempting for priests generally and members of A.C.P. to say that ‘we have done our best. We have made our protest as best we could, there is nothing else we can do.’ There is though, but I don’t know if anyone has the appetite for it. It has been made very clear that Rome will not listen to reasoned arguments and will bully and threaten to get its way. So trying to present a reasonable challenge was bound to fail. All that is left now is resistance – a refusal to implement the translation. You cannot be forced to act against your conscience. Look at history again – there is a record of peace-loving individuals using passive resistance to avoid collusion with an oppressive regime. Not without cost, certainly! The same applies to those of us in the pews – we can also be passively resistant by choosing to be silent in church and offer no response. If, of course, we have not already left.
This is pivotal moment in church… and no one involved with the forced implementation of this missal will have the luxury to look back and say, “if only we had known…”
Quo Vadimus? – lessons from history