Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Rebellion against Church Leadership

Patrick Brennan in a recent post (Nov. 25) asks why women religious would not answer questions posed by the Vatican. I think a part of the answer is provided in the report from the National Catholic Reporter to which he links: “Several women said canon lawyers told the women they were not required to answer all the questions. Religious, unlike bishops, priests and deacons, who make up the clergy, are not officially part of the church's hierarchical structure. According to this reasoning, women religious are responsible to their congregation leadership and to their constitutions.”


I see the Vatican probe as part of a larger phenomenon. It is no secret that millions of American Catholics no longer respect the moral authority of Church leaders. The birth control encyclical is certainly a major cause. An overwhelming percentage of American Catholic disagrees with it despite claims of moral authority. The Vatican newspaper stated that those Catholics who disagree with the encyclical should leave the Church. Millions of American Catholics ignored that too. The sex scandal mightily contributed to that lack of respect as did the leadership’s teaching about the role of women in the Church among many other things.   


The Bishops, of course, are fully aware of this phenomenon. Indeed, in my view, it is the failure of so many millions to respect their authority that has led them to make even more strident claims of their authority. The claims derided as forms of “creeping infallibility” seem to me based in reaction to the rebellion. As a part of this the American Bishops put out a statement indicating that those who “obstinately” do not follow the Bishop’ moral teachings should not present themselves for communion. Conspicuously they do not indicate which moral issues they have in mind. This statement so far as I am aware has also been ignored.


Cardinal George’s recent initiative explicitly references the failure to respect the Bishops (because of the sex scandal) as motivation to exercise leadership. His notion is that passivity is not an option; only effective leadership in his view can speak to the problem. But I very much doubt that declaring some magazines and universities as sectarian or not really Catholic will have a significant impact. Some will leave the Church to be sure. But, in my view, the lack of respect for Church leadership runs deeper than that. Many millions of Americans no longer care what the Bishops say. Their conception of the Church is not Vatican focused. Their conception is focused on Jesus, the sacraments, the Eucharist, (Mary for many of them) and the People of God. They believe the People are the Church, not the Bishops. I do not see this rebellion as based on arguments about the biblical source of authority for Church leadership. Obviously, Protestants and Catholics have debated for centuries over the meaning of the relevant texts and it strikes me that there are respectable arguments on both sides. Rather I think the reaction of those who reject the moral authority of Church leadership is based on the adage that by their fruits you shall know them. They look at the fruits and they do not see the Holy Spirit working.


I believe this description has relevance for the Vatican investigation of the women religious. The Vatican seeks to assert its authority and the women religious resist. I do not know what degree of respect the women religious have for the Church leadership. Some may have quite traditional views of Church authority. For most, I would guess, however, that such respect is not high.


On the other hand, I believe both sides believe they are doing what they are called by God to do. 


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