Pope Francis & Authority

by Michael Sean Winters

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The issue of authority within the Church, indeed the authority of the Church, is back. (Spoiler alert: It never left!) My colleague here at NCR Robert McClory writes about a “a sudden outburst of hierarchical moves to parade power and retake the high ground” and lists a variety of recent decisions by Pope Francis, or decisions taken on his authority, that strike McClory as the kind of thing he was hoping Pope Francis would not do.

Fordham theologian Charles Camosy has a different take on the issue of authority and Pope Francis. Writing at CatholicMoralTheology.com, Camosy takes a different point-of-departure and reaches a different conclusion:

But claiming Catholic identity, I think, compels us to engage in this kind of (often long) difficult and uncomfortable struggle–and not dismiss the tradition when it conflicts with another deeply-held belief. Submission to authority doesn’t mean to submitting to the proposition itself (it isn’t clear what that would even mean if one doesn’t, in fact, believe the proposition), but we should submit to the authority of the teaching in its capacity to compel us to struggle to understand how it is true. It requires a kind of intellectual humility that many academics (including me) struggle to cultivate, but if we are to genuinely enter this struggle we must reserve the right to change our mind in light of new arguments and evidence proposed by those who argue for the Church’s teaching.

I actually do believe we Catholics are bound to “submit” to a proposition that is taught on the authority of the Church, even when it forces us to change our minds, and can give a recent example. I had grave reservations about the canonizations of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. But, my reservations were overcome by the decision of the Church. John Henry Newman had grave reservations about the doctrine of papal infallibility, but once the First Vatican Council proclaimed the doctrine, Newman similarly said he could submit in good conscience because of the authoritative nature of the proclamation.

This is not to say that we should simply become unquestioning sheep. Sheep may be dirty and we may be stupid, but those who shepherd us will get cold in the winter without our wool. We have a role to play in the development of doctrine, and that requires us to explain our difficulties with certain teachings of the Church. The teaching authority of the Church requires more than authority to justify its decisions, it requires reasons. Insofar as faith is belief in things unseen obviously it cannot be subjected to standard, or scientific rational criteria, but it must be reasonable. And, at times, the Church grows lazy and tired, and needs a kick in the rear end to get itself thinking more deeply about a given issue, to confront new data and new perspectives, to find a way to keep the tradition alive, to keep the tradition from becoming a museum piece, set on a mantle, dusted once a week, but of little value or significance to the occupants of the house.

What is interesting about Pope Francis’ exercise of authority so far is that he is quite willing to call those who have taken vows of obedience to order, but he seems very concerned not to be wagging his finger at the laity. I think this distinction is important. Yes, he has permitted the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s oversight of the LCWR to continue and did not publicly castigate Cardinal Muller for the tongue-lashing Muller imparted. But, Pope Francis, yesterday, delivered the tongue-lashing in person to the Italian bishops conference. He has removed prelates like Cardinals Burke and Rigali from positions of influence on the Congregation for Bishops. He has appointed a child protection commission that, lest it get caught up in the curia’s internal cat fights, appears nowhere on the organizational chart of the curia and reports directly to him. Pope Francis has warned priests not to be “little monsters” to their flock. If anyone thought Pope Francis was a libertine rather than a Jesuit, they were bound to be surprised. And, besides, do his critics think the vows of obedience that bishops, clergy, and consecrated men and women took, that those vows are only meant to be followed when the person agrees with their superior? Who would need a vow of obedience if that were the case?

I know that authority can be abused and has been abused in the past, including the recent past. But, I know too that without authority, the unity of the Church would collapse in a matter of years, perhaps months. (And, lest we forget, the Master called us to unity explicitly.) In our hyper-individualistic age, we value our autonomy too highly, and no autonomy is valued so highly as that of our own opinions. Woe to him who challenges me in my opinions. But, we seem to know this is not quite right. Have you noticed the very common literary or verbal construction when someone says or writes, “Well, it’s only my opinion but….” Why is this phrase inserted into speech and writings? It is not informative. We know to whom the opinion belongs because it is coming from their mouth or their pen. No, I suspect it is inserted because we know our opinions can be wrong. Any honest accounting of one’s decision-making surely would point to various miscues and mistakes. Yet, when our opinion is challenged by the authority of the Church, our reticence and humility are set aside, the Church becomes the “institutional Church,” and we fashion our self-image so as not to appear as proud, recalcitrant know-it-alls but as the prophets of the future.

Please. I confess that when I hear someone invoke a “prophetic” vision or call or claim, I cringe. This is especially so when the person so invoking the mantle of prophecy is, in fact, mouthing the latest, most common opinions of the ambient, putatively enlightened culture. And, it is even more obnoxious when the prophetic utterance seems to confirm its self-validation by pointing out that it is in dissent from the official Church, the institutional Church, as if American culture has not since its infancy been a culture that lionizes dissent and confers all manner of cultural validation upon the dissenter. Cardinal Francis George discerned all this years ago when he was still Fr. Francis George writing his doctoral dissertation.

The other Francis, Pope Francis, is certainly open to dialogue, but he is also, like Cardinal Francis, a man who is not afraid to recognize that the tradition is normative, dissent is unhealthy, and that the wisdom of the Church is often found most lively among the simple people not the sophisticates. I think every decision Pope Francis makes and every utterance he gives is likely to be mis-characterized in its significance because, let’s face it, none of us have much of an idea of what he is dealing with on a day-to-day basis. He could agree with the indictment of the LCWR for its flirtations with “Conscious Evolution,” or he may not have much of an idea what is going on with the whole process, or he may have other, bigger fish to fry with Cardinal Muller at this moment in time. I don’t know. Even if he wants to change the way the CDF deals with theological controversies, shifting away from suspicion and accusation to dialogue and trust, such a change will take time and it will take partners on both sides of the hoped-for dialogue. And, at the end of the dialogue, the pope may have to conclude that this theologian is wrong and that the wrongness is of a kind that must be addressed. (Spoiler alert: Some theologians are wrong too!)

Camosy is on to the key issue for all of us in determining how we respond to the authority of the Church. Do we think the Church has something to prove to us? Do we expect Pope Francis to conform to our visions? Or are we willing to allow the authority of the Church to challenge us to approach the world differently from the way a non-Christian would? Are we willing to ask ourselves how we can conform our visions to the challenges the pope gives us? There is solipsism on the Catholic left as well as in the curia, on the Catholic right as well as in the academy. What is needed – and what is, I believe, the real promise of Francis’ pontificate – is not that he will announce that all the rules are gone, and everyone can spout whatever theory they want. My hope is that some of the suspicion will dissipate, some of the mistrust, and that everyone will view their own ideological agendas with less certainty and ask what the Lord, through the Church, is asking of us at this moment. We never know what tomorrow will bring. The Lord is preparing His Church for tomorrow in ways we can’t perceive for problems we can’t predict. Why would we not trust?  

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