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, June 20, 2014

The Distinctions of: Good Interpretation, Bad Interpretation, and Not Reading the Text


Upon reading Kevin Walsh’s posting yesterday on Constitutional and scriptural interpretation and mystic writing, I revisited work that I have done with the interpretation of legal, scriptural, and ecclesiastical texts over the past four decades. My interest in careful legal interpretation began during my time as a young lawyer working for a Federal regulatory agency. The horizon of interpretation expanded when I changed gears and entered the Jesuit order. My theology studies necessitated careful parsing of scripture and ecclesiastical documents. My graduate legal studies and subsequent teaching enabled me to return my love of legal interpretation. When the opportunity arose to pursue graduate legal studies, I chose to write my dissertation on developing a coherent method of using and evaluating legislative history in statutory interpretation. I realized that most textual interpretation, regardless of the genre of writing, has certain common denominators. One of them is that words are important because they convey important meanings; therefore, relating the words of a text or communication to one another is critical to the interpretative enterprise. Another one is to be familiar with the entire corpus of texts that has a bearing on the issue under examination—for all the ideas conveyed in all the relevant documents’ words again mean something that is essential to good interpretation. If the reader/interpreter is only familiar with a portion rather than the entirety of applicable texts, the interpretation can very well be incomplete. If, on the other hand, one fails to read any of the relevant texts but assumes the nature and, therefore, the meaning of their content, the interpretation of the texts and their application to human existence will be flawed.

In addition to Kevin’s posting, some of my other reading yesterday included the June 13, 2014 issue of Commonweal magazine. Of the many interesting articles published in this edition, the one written by Mollie Wilson O’Reilly entitled “The U.S. Sisters & the Holy See: A Culture of Encounter in Action?” (HERE) has a bearing on my present posting’s theme.

Ms. O’Reilly rhetorically asks why the Holy Father hasn’t intervened in the CDF’s doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious—or, as she presents the issue, “Why hasn’t Pope Francis stepped in to get the Vatican of the nuns’ backs?” Of course, no one is on the “nuns’ backs” literally or figuratively. It is easy to reach certain conclusions that every member of the Church is the same in the eyes of God. After all, each is a sinner but loved by God nonetheless. All that the sinner needs to do in his or her life is to reciprocate that love by acknowledging one’s own sins and sinful tendencies and asking for God’s mercy and forgiveness. But does this mean that everyone is equal in all other respects that concern the nature of the Church? Are we not different in some fundamental ways whether we are bishops, clerics, religious, or lay? Today, largely based on a false understanding of equality, many think that the Council established and promulgated norms which empower the faithful to minimize or ignore the teachings of the Church as reflected in the hierarchical offices of the Church. Is this in fact what the Council concluded? After all, the Council emphasized the notions and subsequent doctrines of dialogue and conversation of peers, did it not? Or did the Council conclude that the relationships amongst the People of God are different? Would the Council’s documents help answer these and related questions raised by Ms. O’Reilly? Would these texts also address concerns about the propriety of the doctrinal assessment? My point for today focuses on Ms. O’Reilly’s twice-made assertion that the LCWR’s actions which are the subject of the doctrinal assessment are consistent with the Second Vatican Council—or, as she says, “the vision” of the Council. Ms. O’Reilly’s article argues that the LCWR is in keeping with “the vision of Vatican II.” But is this a proper and correct claim? How and where do we find “the vision” of the Council? From my point of view, this issue is akin to that of the legal interpreter who is in search of the intent and purpose of the legislator.

In responding to the issues I have just raised, I should be obliged to answer them. In doing so, I am further obliged to conduct a careful reading of the applicable texts of the Second Vatican Council so that solid answers about the conclusions—“the vision”—of the Council may be ascertained as it pertains to the doctrinal assessment.

Among its many tasks and accomplishments, the Council acknowledged the importance and renewal of religious life for men and women who are members of the many and diverse religious communities that observe the evangelical councils of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Through its own citation of elements of the conciliar texts, the CDF, in its 2012 Doctrinal Assessment published on the LCWR, acknowledges and relies upon the work of the Council regarding religious and consecrated life in the Church.

What the Council concluded about religious life and any other matter falling within its work cannot be assumed—for any assumption about the Council’s conclusions can be filled with peril if the conciliar texts are not carefully examined. By reading the crucial texts judiciously, any reader can understand what the Council said and why the Pope, bishops, the CDF, and many of the faithful had and continue to have concerns about the LCWR. Whether there were and remain grounds for the assessment of the LCWR and who has the legitimate authority to conduct the assessment can be verified by ecclesial texts that are the record of our faith. When “the vision of Vatican II” as it applies to the deposit of faith is at stake, the relevant conciliar documents should contain and express “the vision.” This is the only way in which anyone can come to distinguish between the authentic vision of the Council and a mirage of the Council.

So, what do the texts of the Council say about the matters at the heart of the LCWR doctrinal assessment and of the related concerns of the pope and bishops, the faithful, and the LCWR about the assessment? To understand “the vision” of the Council as applicable to the LCWR/CDF issues and CDF doctrinal assessment, one should be familiar with the relevant documents on authority in the Church and on religious life which include: the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (LG) and the documents on bishops (Christus Dominus) (CD) and religious life (Perfectae Caritatis) (PC).

Chapter III of LG discusses the hierarchical structure of the Church with a special emphasis on the bishops. There has been much discussion, debate, and criticism about the Church’s hierarchical nature, the Petrine Office, the collegiality of the bishops, and the primacy of Peter (the pope). The Council reiterates that all the Church’s bishops are the successors of the Apostles and, therefore, are the shepherds of the Church. But they are not shepherds alone for 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 and primacy by the teachings of the Church as formulated by LG, N. 22.

In the twenty-first century, we witness on several fronts—those of clerics, the members of religious congregations, and the laity—sources of error which become the specific responsibility of bishops to address with charity, wisdom, and authority. A source of recent error, contested by the LCWR, is some of the activities of the LCWR and particular members of the organization. In this regard, a critical passage of Lumen Gentium needs to be recalled:

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. LG, N. 25.

The clarifications offered by LG about matters intersecting the LCWR doctrinal assessment are complemented by the Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church (Christus Dominus, or CD). The first chapter of this decree speaks directly to the issues about which this posting is concerned. The Council recalls how Jesus sent the apostles into the world to glorify God and to build up the Body of Christ, the Church. As St. Peter’s successor, the pope is charged with the overarching duty of protecting the faithful who are Christ’s people. With this commission comes “supreme, full, immediate, and universal authority over the care of souls by divine institution.” CD, N. 2. As the first bishop, the pope is solemnly charged with the care of and the common good of the universal Church and of all the churches within it. In essence, the primacy of Peter is the primacy of the pope. This primacy belongs to no one else.

A principal duty of each bishop is to be a teacher of the Gospel to all within his territorial jurisdiction—“let them teach with what seriousness the Church believes these realities should be regarded.” CD, N. 12. The responsibilities of the episcopal teaching office cannot be taken lightly nor should it be ignored.

Good teaching is an acquired skill necessitating patience, diligence, and perseverance. Every bishop is primarily responsible for ensuring that the faithful and all others understand the doctrine of the Church—especially on those matters dealing with “the human person with his freedom and bodily life, the family and its unity and stability, the procreation and education of children, civil society with its laws and professions, labor and leisure, the arts and technical inventions, poverty and affluence.” CD, N. 12.

But the Pope and the bishops are not the only ones who labor for Christendom and the Church; after all, they require helpers in the furtherance of the work entrusted to them by Christ. The group of workers relevant to my discussion in this posting is the LCWR. Two texts of the Council quickly apply to this group of the faithful. The first is, once again, LG which addresses the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience that have long been the cornerstone of religious life in the Church. The counsels are instruments which make the men and women religious effective collaborators of those to whom hierarchical office has been entrusted. LG, NN. 44-45. The evangelical counsels also provide the structure for vigorous apostolic or contemplative life that serves the welfare of the entire Body of Christ, the Church. Through the fraternal association that is inherent in the counsels, the “militia of Christ” is reinforced. LG, N. 43.

The Council fathers expressed with clarity 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 through the exercise of the gifts of apostolic or contemplative life as overseen by the competent authorities of the Church. LG, N.43. Hence, it is the duty of the ecclesiastical hierarchy to regulate the practice of the evangelical counsels for they have a momentous bearing on the Church and her welfare. LG, N. 45. 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 in diverse but rich ways. LG, N. 44. Moreover, the counsels are a means to ensure that men and women religious maintain their dedication to their vocations and to those individuals who are competent ecclesiastical authorities. LG, N. 45.

Today there is evidence, some of it cited by the CDF doctrinal assessment, that some members of the LCWR, by word or by deed, distance themselves and their activities from these competent ecclesiastical authorities. The potential for this happening was recognized by the Council fathers who 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 in some other fashion follow the evangelical counsels. LG, N. 45. Thus, members of the religious institutes are obliged to “show reverence and obedience to bishops” because of their pastoral authority in the local churches where the religious institutes work and pray for the “need for unity and harmony in the apostolate.” LG, N. 45. To claim that “conscience” entitles anyone to depart from the Church’s authentic teachings that are essential to following Christ is a perilous course that hinders the work to which men and women religious are called to perform in fulfillment of their individual and corporate ministry.

The Decree on Religious Life, PC, acknowledges how the Church profits from the diversity of experiences, charisms, and talents which each of the religious institutes presents to the People of God. PC, N. 1. But if these gifts are to flourish, it is essential that men and women religious remain uniformly faithful to the original spirit of their institutes as appropriately adapted to the “changed conditions” of the modern world. PC, N. 2. Otherwise the justification for their existence becomes ambiguous or, worse yet, irrelevant.

Although the Council urged renewal of religious institutes that would include the abandonment of outdated laws and customs, PC, N. 3, it was simultaneously noted that the approval of the Holy See to the renewal process is essential due to the nature of its office. PC, N. 4. This principle is consistent with both the hierarchical structure of the Church and the Church’s need for universality. Renewal does not mean reinventing or compromising the faith and the moral life that must accompany the faith. By living, working, and praying in fidelity to the Church and the charism of their respective institutes, men and women religious are able to serve the Church with their entire selfless being by a vigorous practice of particular virtues that include obedience, humility, fortitude, and chastity. PC, N. 5. Daily prayer and the Eucharist are therefore essential to the vitality of religious life as they cultivate a stronger bond with the universal Church’s mission. PC, N. 6. As with priestly formation, religious formation must be accomplished by selecting directors, spiritual fathers, and instructors who “are carefully chosen and thoroughly trained.” PC, N. 18.

While this is a bird’s eye view of the relevant conciliar texts that have a bearing on “the vision” of the Council as it applies to the LCWR doctrinal assessment, my presentation, first and last, takes account of what the Council actually said about the pope, the bishops, and religious institutes and their organs regarding the issues presented and charges made in Ms. O’Reilly’s article. The relationship of the persons who hold the offices and statuses discussed here are a part of “the vision” of the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, if “American women religious draw their remarkable strength in part from a half-century’s experience living out the vision of Vatican II” as the O’Reilly article contends, the authenticity and durability of this strength must be established on what the Council actually said and not what it did not.


RJA sj 


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