Challenges to the Catholic Left

20125 began the way I should like every day to begin, with a great sermon from the Holy Father. And, I think his sermon has a lot to say to those of us who range ourselves on the Catholic Left and hope that we shall take up the challenge.

Pope Francis was preaching at the Mass for the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. This required the use of the now-fraught “gender language.” After all, Mary is a mother, not a father, and as the pope pointed out, the Church is understood by the tradition as a mother. I am sure those who wish to wash away gender differentiation were appalled. I wish such people would be made to spend time in the delivery room at a maternity ward and then tell me that there is no real difference between the genders!

Of course, as I have noted before, differentiation can lead to simplistic and hoary categorizations and to stereotypes. In my house, mom was the disciplinarian, the one who said, “No you can’t” and, when asked why, at least when we were young, the answer was “Because I said so!” My dad was, and is, the parent who could never really make the word “no” come out of his mouth. The attributes traditionally associated with motherhood – gentleness, compassion, perseverance – these are often found in men as well as women. The traditional attributes associated with manliness – determination, strength, boldness – these are readily found in women. Adjectives and metaphors are descriptive, not exhaustive, so I do not recoil at the traditional associations we attach to these words, especially in a Church that is, after all, built on tradition. And, speech that deprives itself of such language for fear of being offensive will prove to be an impoverished speech.

It is time to get past the left’s concern with politically correct speech and pay attention to what is being communicated. I had to chuckle at the fact that the Catholic Left complained that last November’s USCCB meeting had a protracted discussion about liturgical translations, claiming that such discussions were unimportant when so much is astir in the pontificate of Francis. But, thirty years ago, it was the Catholic Left that would have insisted on the importance of translations and been shocked to find anyone dismissing their significance.

But, back to yesterday’s homily. The pope went on to speak about the Church and said this:

Without the Church, Jesus Christ ends up as an idea, a moral teaching, a feeling. Without the Church, our relationship with Christ would be at the mercy of our imagination, our interpretations, our moods.

Here we find what I might call an affirmation of solidarity in divine knowledge. None of us is vouchsafed the truth unto ourselves. Gnosticism, in ancient times and today, claims such privileged access to knowledge apart from the Church and it was a heresy then and it is a heresy today. The antidote to Gnosticism is membership in the Church and, yes, submission to the Church in the belief, actually the awareness, that the whole is greater than the part and the additional belief that the Holy Spirit is vouchsafed to the Church, the whole Church, and not to me privately.

In my researches into evangelical Protestantism, I have always found their commitment to sola scriptura puzzling. Chesterton has a line about this which I can’t seem to locate this morning but went something like this: If you believe only because the Bible tells you so then, in some important sense, you are a Christian because you happened to have been born in a place with bibles lying about. The Church established the canon of Scripture. The Church passes on the Scripture from age to age. Anyone can encounter the Bible as a book of literature but only within the Church can we encounter it as the Word of God. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, drew out the relationship between Scripture, tradition and the magisterium in the clearest terms:

But the task of getting an authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the church alone. Its authority in this manner is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This magisterium is not superior to the word of God, but is rather its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it….It is clear, therefore, that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred tradition, sacred scripture and the magisterium of the church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute to the salvation of souls.

There is nothing static here. “Working” is an active verb, and this work is “under the action of the Holy Spirit” who is neither dead nor departed. And, the verb “working” is exact. It is work, undertaken by the whole Church, deepening our understanding of the Scriptures, examining and re-examining the tradition, and listening in our own time to the magisterium, really listening, not just finding things we agree with or things we think best ignored. Too frequently do we in the Catholic Left approach an issue, say contraception or same sex relationships, and start with our own bias and then go off in search of justification. We need – and I include myself in this – we need to ask ourselves if God might be trying to teach us something, to tell us something, or maybe that a given tradition is being held on to under the inspiration of the Spirit because a future generation will need it badly in ways we do not perceive that we need it. The pope’s construction in the sermon is, to my mind, a great invitation to humility and all of us in this most assertive of cultures could use a dose of that.

So, this is my challenge to my fellow Catholics on the left. Pope Francis, in this homily and others, is really challenging the whole Church in various ways. On the left, we are all thrilled that Pope Francis seems intent on making moral theology serve pastoral theology, in contrast to the idea that pastoral theology is a kind of subset of moral theology, which seems to have been the modus operandi of the past 35 years. We can celebrate the invitation, so obvious in the questionnaire for the next synod, to employ inductive reasoning, starting with human experience, in our moral and theological analysis, instead of deductive, syllogistic reasoning. But, we must rise to the challenge to be serious, to ask ourselves again and again if we are thinking with the mind of the Church and with what Father Robert Imbelli has called a “Christic imagination.” Of course, we must always follow our conscience, but will we take steps to inform our conscience? Will we re-read Gaudium et Spes and recognize that it indeed calls us to discern the “signs of the times” but also insists on “objective moral norms,” and not ignore the latter by concentrating only on the former, holding these two assertions in their full tension and doing the work, the hard work, of reconciling them in our conscience? Will we heed the pope’s call to reach out to those on the margins and at the peripheries of life, but not confuse the periphery with the fringe? Hint: People living in the United States, with advanced degrees, sometimes from Ivy League schools, those are not people at the margins. Will we be suspicious when we find our attitudes conforming to the cultural norms around us or will we follow what I have called the James Carroll method, in which we believe Vatican II cleared away all the encrustations of the centuries, permitting us to get to the real Christ, only to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth looks a lot like James Carroll, urbane, cosmopolitan, the kind of person to be acknowledged at a tony restaurant near Copley Plaza? Will we, in light of yesterday's homily, stop referring to "the institutional church" as if there were some other church, more real, less institutional? 

In the past year, I have not been shy about calling out those on the right who try and twist Pope Francis’ words, or who seem reluctant to engage this pontificate and the challenges it poses, reminding them that, at the end of the day, the Holy Father is only calling on them to stretch. We on the left can bask in the glow of Francis, and it is surely nice to feel we have the wind at our back. But, will we stretch too?





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