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.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Catholic Identity Once Again


As the Mirror of Justice is a web log dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory, it is probably a good idea to take stock of what being Catholic means from time to time. As a contributor to this page for seven years, I am confident that my fellow contributors and I consider the meaning of Catholic identity on a regular basis. This does not mean that we always agree on every point, but for the most part we are united in the central role this identity must exercise in our common enterprise.

Of course, not everyone who uses the term Catholic always does the same. For instance, I just read an interesting essay by Joe Orso dated June 8, 2012 entitled “Power of the dying hierarchy is an illusion” in the National Catholic Reporter (online) HERE. This title suggests that the bishops may be a breed on the verge of extinction. The title also indicates that, notwithstanding the gist of the first assertion, the authority the bishops wield is not. Mr. Orso has some intriguing notions about what it means to be Catholic. He uses the template of the visitation and doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the report of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to argue his case. The tenor of his article pits the “nuns” and faithful Catholics against the hierarchy. This “we versus them” mentality is not apt for explaining what is the Church, her essence, or her nature. By way of short digression, there is nothing in Mr. Orso’s essay to suggest that it may very well have been women religious themselves who asked for the visitation and doctrinal assessment. I think this not only possible but probable. The explanation of the visitation and doctrinal assessment that it is the Vatican and bishops versus the poor nuns is inept and erroneous. A reading of the CDF report, moreover, is clear in its respect for the work of women religious in the United States. It is also clear that there are problems within the leadership of this particular conference.

Mr. Orso quotes an unnamed sister who claims that the Eucharist “will live only if we find a way for it to live outside of the Mass.” Who the “we” are in this contention is not clear. This is a strange appeal to make. He then offers the remark of another anonymous woman religious who contends that, “the hierarchy is like a dying dragon, breathing fire on those around it as it flails through its final collapse. But don’t worry… it is dying and someday something else will resurrect.” The author then expresses his agreement with both statements. In his estimation, the “Vatican” used “bad manners,” relied on “hypocrisy,” but he expects “such behavior.” His critique continues by declaring the hierarchy is “like a senile old man, babbling, impotent and chastising anyone within earshot.” Elsewhere, he describes the hierarchy as a “fading ghost.” They are, he concludes, “disappearing beneath [their] own silliness.” In addition, he insists that their actions are “absurd.” The hierarchy does not understand the pressing issues of the day such as “ecological balance” and “biodiversity.”

Two quick comments are needed at this point. The first is that, with regard to his concerns about the environment, Mr. Orso might wish to read this, this, this, and this along with NN. 166, 180, 299, 319, 340, 345, 359, 360, 458, 461, 465, 466, 467, 472, 473, and 486 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church for starters. The second is this: is it really the hierarchy who is dying? They seem to be doing well going about God’s and the Church’s business in a world that is not always welcoming of evangelization. Many of them know that much of the world is hostile to the Gospel, but most of them don’t seem to be deterred by that. There is good news, too, about the rapid growth of women religious in the congregations affiliated with the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. It is, when all is said, the congregations affiliated with the LCWR that seem to be in difficulty not only with “the hierarchy,” but also with the future and survival. This is something that Mr. Orso and many others who are criticizing the visitation and doctrinal assessment avoid discussing.

Elsewhere he declares that he has “shed the institutional Mass as a weekly practice.” While others may not consider him a Catholic, he identifies as Catholic and his “strongest experience of Catholicism has been with the good sisters and those who gather around them.”

I hope that I can help those who are attracted to Catholicism to better understand what it is and what it is not about in the context of who and what the Church is. I would recommend them to read the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and the complementary texts on the bishops, priests, laity, and members of religious and consecrated life formulated by the Second Vatican Council.

In a nutshell, the Church—Catholicism—is this:

Lumen Gentium, without doubt, is the foundational text of the Council. Among all the documents issued, it establishes the framework for explaining the Church and who she is. In particular it is the following sections of the Dogmatic Constitution that are vital to my response to Mr. Orso: (1) the people of God; (2) the hierarchical structure of the Church, with special reference to the bishops and priests as their collaborators; (3) the laity; and (4) persons in religious life.

Chapter II of the Dogmatic Constitution discusses the Church as the People of God. While God, throughout human history and across all races, loves those who fear Him and do what is right and avoid what is wrong, His salvation is directed both to individuals and to the body of them as one people—a body that acknowledges God truth and serves Him in holiness. The covenant with God, ratified in Christ, brings together Jew (old) and gentile (new) in one Spirit. This unification by covenant is the People of God (N. 9). An area that has been a source of confusion for many is the concept of priesthood that intersects the People of God. Mr. Orso might find this treatment illuminating.

Chapter III of the Dogmatic Constitution discusses the hierarchical structure of the Church and the special emphasis on the bishops. Understanding the structure that is crucial to the nature of the Church proceeds from recognition of “the variety of ministries” that exists within Her to which allusion has already been made. This is a point often overlooked by those, like Mr. Orso, who are critical of the Church as a hierarchical institution. The Council acknowledged that the Church’s bishops are the successors of the Apostles and, therefore, are the shepherds of the Church. (N. 18) Their vital unifying force is the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, the permanent and visible source and foundation of the unity of faith and communion. The pope is fortified in his office by the teachings of the Church, the perpetuity of the institution, the meaning and reasoning of the primacy of his office, and the infallible magisterium. (N. 18) As the Council Fathers stated, “this Council is resolved to declare and proclaim before all men the doctrine concerning bishops, the successors of the apostles, who together with the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church, govern the house of the living God.” (N. 18)

Bishops must be always mindful of the fact that, fortified by the Holy Spirit, they have been given great responsibilities rather than privileges. The bishops, in order to complete the tasks of their ministry, have the clear authority and office of teaching within and governance of the Church that “can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college.” (N. 21) Thus, if there is no communion with the pope, the authority of teaching and governance is lacking. As the Council acknowledged, “the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, i.e., as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power.” (N. 22) In essence, the bishops remain subject to the supreme power of the pope who is entrusted with the authority of Peter over the universal Church. While the bishops are leaders of the local flocks, the pope is shepherd of the entire flock—for he, Peter, expresses the unity of the flock in and of Christ. (N. 21)

As I have already implied, hierarchy does not mean or necessitate entitlement to perks for the office of bishop is not a conferral of privilege or prerogative but is a commission for service with the authority of an Apostle—that is diakonia or ministry. (N. 24) Inherent in these responsibilities is the further duty to combat errors that may or do threaten the souls entrusted to their care. In the twenty-first century we witness on several fronts—clerical, religious, and laity—sources of error which become the responsibility of bishops to address with charity, wisdom, and authority. This is a point that has particular application to the issues raised by Mr. Orso. Here, a critical passage of Lumen Gentium must be considered: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” (N. 25)

Every legitimate celebration of the Eucharist is under the tutelage of the local bishop. (N. 26) I don’t think Mr. Orso shares this principle. While the authority of bishops is extensive and relates to the office of the Roman Pontiff, their exercise of authority is not in their name but in that of Christ. While the pope is the Vicar of Christ, bishops are not the vicar of the Roman Pontiff because they exercise their authority that is proper to them as holders of a particular office in the hierarchical Church. (N. 27)

The Council’s explanation of priesthood states that, “Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ.” (N. 10) Importantly, the ministerial priest, i.e., a member of the presbyteral order, by operation of his “sacred power,” has a specific role to teach and rule the priestly people as he acts in the person of Christ. (N. 10) The priesthood of faithful laity, on the other hand, exits in their joining in the offering of the Eucharist and by their participation in the Church’s sacramental life and prayer. (N. 10) Mr. Orso has stated that he has removed himself from the “institutional Mass” but pines for the Eucharist. To have the latter, he needs the former.

In addition, the lay faithful have active responsibilities, too, particularly in the temporal order of the world. Mr. Orso doesn’t say much about this. The laity have a responsibility, as branches engrafted on the vine of Christ, to spread and defend the faith by word and deed as “true witnesses of Christ.” (N. 11) While there are differences, there is also a unity in the different roles attributed to the nature of those in the presbyterate and those in the laity through Holy Communion in the Body of Christ. Again, the inextricable connection between Mass and the Eucharist is clear.

The universal dimension of the People of God must never be forgotten. Regardless of the nation of which one is a member, the universality “which adorns the people of God” exists to bring all members of the human family back to its source and head who is Christ. (N. 13) This fact demonstrates the “catholicity” of the Church. This universality consists of different ranks based either on the duties of individuals such as “sacred ministry” or on one’s condition and state of life such as family or religious life. Another important point about the “particular Churches” is that while they may have their own traditions, they must not oppose the primacy of the Chair of Peter. (N. 13) This is something which critics of the “hierarchy” must consider. The pope has a crucial role that must be exercised in the Church’s true nature.

The Church, through all of its members, has been given the responsibility to go out to the world and preach the Good News. (N. 17) In doing so, she must assist those who may otherwise be prone to falling into doctrinal error. This is a problem with and for the LCWR. However, these are the obligations of every disciple who follows Christ. (N. 17) Here the Council Fathers saw need to explicate the specific duties of the various members of the Church taking stock of her “hierarchical structure.” But it is this very structure that is the cause of problems for Mr. Orso and perhaps not a few others. His concentration is on the “good sisters.” So let’s spend some time considering what the Church asks of and gives to the religious.

Chapter VI of Lumen Gentium begins by concentrating on the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience that have long been the cornerstone of religious life in the Church. The faithful are reminded that the counsels are not a burden but a gift from God and afford the stable foundation for religious life in men’s and women’s communities. (N. 43) As a member of one religious institute, I, too, need to ponder the significance of this point intentionally when I find temptations that lure me away from the life to which I and many others have committed ourselves. Moreover, the counsels provide the structure for vigorous apostolic and contemplative life that serves the welfare of the entire Body of Christ, the Church.

The Council fathers were clear that religious life is not some middle ground or hybrid entity between lay and clerical life; rather, it draws from both of these groups to serve as witness of the gift of the evangelical counsels in the prayer and work of the Church and by a special bond to God. (N. 43) In short, the life of the evangelical counsels consecrates the person fully in service to and for the welfare of the Church and God’s people. (N. 44) The use of the coordinating conjunction “and” is crucial.

Today there is much evidence that some members of religious institutes by word and deed distance themselves and their activities from the competent ecclesiastical authorities. This seems to be the reason why the visitation and doctrinal assessment were called for. The Council fathers emphasized that it is the proper duty of the ecclesiastical hierarchy to regulate the practice of the evangelical counsels and those who profess vows or similar pledges to them. (N. 45) Neither Mr. Orso or other defenders of the LCWR appear to take stock of this. While the rules of the religious institutes are presented to the hierarchy, the latter have the solemn responsibility and authority to approve and adjust them. (N. 45) In this way, the competent ecclesiastical authorities have the further obligation to insure that the religious institutes remain faithful to the plan of the orders’ founders. This element is, I contend, a major concern in the visitation and doctrinal assessment.

Members of the religious institutes are also obliged to “show reverence and obedience to bishops” because of the latter’s pastoral authority in the local churches where the religious institutes work and pray for the “need for unity and harmony in the apostolate.” (N. 45) It is relevant to note that the Council saw religious institutes not as a parallel ecclesiastical structure but as an element of the one universal Church for the members of these institutes are called to a life to assist in the “increased holiness of the Church, for the greater glory of the one and undivided Trinity, which in and through Christ is the fount and the source of all holiness.” (N. 47) Complementing these fundamental principles is the Decree on Religious Life.

This decree acknowledges how the Church profits from the diversity of experiences, charisms, and talents which each of the religious institutes and communities presents to the People of God. (N. 1) For these gifts to flourish within the Church, it is essential that the wide variety of communities of men and women religious remain faithful to the original spirit of their institutes as appropriately adapted to the “changed conditions” of the modern world. (N. 2)

While the Council urged renewal of religious institutes that would include abandoning out-dated laws and customs (N. 3), it was also noted that the approval of the Holy See to this process was essential. (N. 4) I think that this is an element of the charge given to Archbishop Sartain as he begins his work with the LCWR. Renewal does not mean compromising the faith and the moral life that must accompany the faith. Daily prayer and the Eucharist are essential to the vitality of religious life as they cultivate a stronger bond with the universal Church’s mission. (N. 6) Mr. Orso appears to have some difficulty with this.

So, this is a little bit about the nature of the Church and Catholicism of which all of us who are interested in Catholicism or claim to be Catholics need to recall and study. I am sure that Mr. Orso means well in coming to the defense of the LCWR, but he and, most likely, many others who criticize the nature of the Church need to do some homework. In the meantime, my own homework continues.


RJA sj



Araujo, Robert | Permalink

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