OPINION: RECENT PAPAL inquiries into the doctrinal orthodoxy of well-known Irish priests and the pope’s letter to the German Catholic bishops’ conference insisting that they, too, change the Eucharistic prayer to state that Christ died “for the many”, rather than “for all”, raise serious questions.
(1) What is the context of these moves?
(2) What is the authority of a pope in relation to the documents of a council?
(3) What do these church political decisions mean for Catholics and church life?
(4) How is authority to be understood in the post-Constantinian era of a pluralist democracy co-founded by diverse traditions?
1. The wider context is the theological dispute of the last quarter century on the implementation of the Second Vatican Council’s renewed understanding of faith.
More recently, there have been moves towards the reintegration of the Society of Pius X, founded by the late archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who was excommunicated for breaking canon law by ordaining his own bishops. The society is being welcomed back like the prodigal son. What were the issues that drove it away from the Vatican II church?
The central cause of division is the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom. It epitomises the Catholic Church’s acceptance of the modern history of freedom in contrast to the position taken by Popes Pius IX and X in the anti-modernist struggle which held that “error has no right”.
Vatican II moved from this objectivist view to the insight that truth, especially in religion, can only be the truth of the person called by God to respond on the basis of their own free will.
2. What changes have occurred where the Society of Pius X is concerned such that they are now being considered for readmission to the Catholic Church – leaving aside the outcry, followed by the pope’s apology, for not having known about the society’s Bishop Richard Williamson’s Holocaust denial?
One core point is the acceptance signed by Marcel Lefebvre after negotiations with Cardinal Ratzinger in 1988 of one passage in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, No. 25, concerning acceptance of the magisterium.
Of the entirety of the council’s documents, and all the breakthroughs contained in them, one specific passage is selected.
It asserts the centralist pole, and has to be read in conjunction with its counterbalance, the collegiality of the bishops who stand for the local churches.
At issue is whether a pope has the authority to suspend what the church’s highest level, a council, has agreed on. How can the claim to speak for the whole church be legitimated by an administration that makes these documents optional?
3. The priority given by the Vatican to reconciliation with anti-modern, breakaway factions implies an unstated ranking regarding the new forms of parish life, celebration of sacraments, and shared initiatives with civil society. These developed as a result of the Second Vatican Council’s move away from a post-Reformation and post- revolution self-enclosure towards a critical support of modernity.
The effort spent on traditionalists treats ordinary church life with contempt, and regiments its expressions of faith.
The new literal translation of the missal imposed by Rome, with a prayer over the Eucharistic gifts that puts in doubt the universal scope of God’s salvific will for all humanity, alienates the faithful who understand God’s truth as unrestricted. As recipients of a recent encyclical entitled Caritas in Veritate, they would like to see how both charity and truth can be safeguarded, instead of merely invoked.
4. Surveys over the last 10 years on the sensus fidelium (faithful) show 75 per cent of Irish Roman Catholics disagree with Rome’s refusal to ordain women and to lift the celibacy rule, and with the minority position it espoused in 1968 in its document on contraception.
A church that values learning as a two-way activity would stop to consider, not prohibit, such reflections. Authority cannot be claimed – it has to be earned, both by leaders of the state and of churches.
Pope John Paul II championed religious freedom, and the sixth century Benedictine rule inaugurated the election of abbots. Ample precedent for a tradition-conscious papacy!
Maureen Junker-Kenny is professor of theology at Trinity College Dublin