92 "The whole body of the faithful. . . cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.”
This is the last Catechism Thursday post for several weeks as I will be taking a little downtime, and Paragraph 92 is probably as good a segment as any to illustrate why I need to clear my head. The full body of the text comes from St. Augustine, writing in the early fifth century, and the belief that the Church cannot err in matters of faith and morals has been passed along as a pillar of Catholic identity through the present day. By way of review, Para. 92 is situated in the series of statements treating of the transmission of divine revelation, the first line of the Creed, “We believe in One God…”
Augustine’s phrasing has been a matter of great debate over time, and it has not always been interpreted with the necessary subtlety. Although phrased as a timeless truth, Augustine’s writing has a historical setting that bears upon its interpretation. As the renowned bishop of Hippo in Berber North Africa, Augustine faced struggles both within and outside the Church. Within the universal Church, Augustine was compelled to deal with one of the most significant early medieval heresies, Pelagianism. This school of thought maintained that the human being was born into this world as an essentially good being, not mortally wounded by Adam’s [original] sin. Its primary proponent, a British priest Pelagius, developed his teaching as a pastoral encouragement to Christians, arguing that they were in fact strong enough to overcome sin and vice.
Augustine recognized that Pelagianism undercut Christianity’s basic belief that Christ’s Incarnation and death on the cross were absolutely necessary for salvation; Augustine makes his famous case for infant baptism in the heat of this debate, and a millennium later Martin Luther would borrow heavily from Augustine in his assertion that justification comes entirely from the saving grace of God, and not the works of man. Para. 92’s command that “the whole body of the faithful…cannot err in matters of belief” can be read as a static truth or an episcopal exhortation. Given the context of the following sentence, which has a futuristic or utopian ring, the episcopal exhortation strikes the tone of a bishop calling for a unity of belief throughout the Church. (If this is your summer to take a plunge into St. Augustine, Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (updated, 2000) is the gold standard of introductions.)
The Bishop of Hippo had other problems to address, particularly to his north. In 408 A.D. an army of Goths, mercenaries, and home-grown dissenters sacked the City of Rome. By 408 the center of the Roman Empire had been moved to Byzantium (modern day Istanbul) and renamed Constantinople, so Rome itself was in political and cultural decay. Alaric’s upheaval in this context was a psychological blow. Christians entertained apocalyptic fears that the City of Peter and Paul was being destroyed, along with the religion it shepherded. Pagans, for their part, saw the Gothic invasion as the wrath of their gods poured out upon the Western Roman Empire for defecting to Christianity.
It was in this context that Augustine produced his classic City of God, where he refutes the pagan charges and develops the philosophy of history that we embrace today, a linear flow of time between creation and the Last Judgment. A thoughtful Christian long after Augustine would think of himself as living in “the middle times” or “middle ages” between creation and judgment. (Impress your friends: “Did the people in the Middle Ages know they were living in the Middle Ages?”) Augustine went on to make a distinction between the City of God (the world of the Christian believers) and the City of Man (the sinner, the unbaptized, the unbeliever). Augustine, wise man that he was, understood that it was only for God to know the citizenry of each “city.” Thus, he defines the City of God as a matter of faith, using the phrase sensus fidei to connote the inner unity and sense of belonging from bishop to layman.
The challenge of para. 92 is its application to theology, authority, and catechetics over time and particularly at this juncture where we live on Augustine’s time line. The general understanding of the Church’s assertion that as a body it “cannot err in matters of belief” is that the Church will never lose its mission of fidelity to the message of Christ passed on by the Apostles through the intercession of the Holy Spirit. Years ago, our catechisms used the term “indefectibility” to describe the impossibility of the Church losing its core mission, something of a safety net in the bigger picture of things. Vatican II’s description of the Church as “the pilgrim people of God” suggests, however, that while the core of the Apostolic Tradition remains unchanged, our understanding, our teaching, and our discipline based upon Tradition has undergone a historical development. Moreover, at times the Church has taught matters that greater experience with the Spirit has corrected, refined, or even rejected.
The phrase “universal consent in faith and morals” must be addressed carefully. Like the beatitudes, this unity is an open-ended challenge, not an established or completed fact. In this year of Martin Luther, we are well advised to reflect upon his claim that the Church is semper reformanda, always in need of change. In 1962 many of the Bishops went to the Council with a working definition of the Church as the Spotless Bride of Christ. While there may be some who still carry this ecclesiological model, the newspapers and the confessional—not to mention our honest self-knowledge—are concrete evidence that we are deeply in need of reformanda in matters of faith and morals. To speak of the Church as having reached this plateau already is an egregious stretch.
Moreover, para. 92 goes to great pains to talk about a unity of belief in faith and morals. “…from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.” It is not clear—as it was not clear to Augustine, either—precisely who comprises “the whole body of the faithful,” which is why he spoke of the body itself as mystical and metaphysical. Do Christians of other traditions, for example, share in at least a partial inclusion in this unity of faith? The bigger omission, though, is the lack of acknowledgement that all the baptized have a wisdom to share in the contemporary expression of faith, but more so in morals, which derive in large part from the experience of the faithful. Pelagius erred in his overestimation of human religious instinct. It is entirely possible that our present-day sin is underestimating it. Ordination is a sacrament of leadership, Baptism and the Anointing beget living wisdom.
I am taking some downtime, so the next Thursday post will be August 17 on Paragraph 93.
91 All the faithful share in understanding and handing on revealed truth. They have received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, who instructs them and guides them into all truth.
I taught a course in Ecclesiology, or the theology of the Church, last month. I hadn’t treated the subject in a lot of years, so I purchased a 2015 work to fortify and update myself, A Church with Open Doors, eds. Richard R. Gaillardetz and Edward P. Hahnenberg. Open Doors is a collection of essays from specialists in the field featuring a variety of attempts to square a circle. [Incidentally, I was surprised to see that this specialized text was available through Walmart. Who would have thought?]
In the present day, the field of ecclesiology is wrestling to put meat on the bones of Vatican II’s general mandate that the laity enjoy greater participation and responsibility in the Church. The Council is now over a half-century away in the rear-view mirror, and what progress has been made has been the result of necessity: the declining numbers of clerics and particularly religious women has made the mind and the muscle of lay baptized Catholics a near sine qua non in the execution of the Church’s mandate to teach and serve the poor. The overall consciousness that a Catholic should be doing something meaningful in his or her parish besides showing up is a tangible result of the Council, one that is often overlooked.
For all of that, one can hardly say that Paragraph 91 of the Catechism--a definition of the power and office conferred upon all the Baptized and Confirmed to guard and pass on the Tradition—applies to the present-day operational governance of the Church at any level. When you begin the study of ecclesiastical authority, you find that the “models” of structural authority can be divided into two groups: (1) the clerical-monarchical structure of authority centered with the office of the papacy, the Bishop of Rome, and (2) a whole bunch of other ones promoted by various constituencies who sense exclusion from Church teaching and governance in matters of profound importance to and impact upon their lives.
Gaillardetz et.al. break down the writings and theories of how lay Catholics might be best incorporated into the Church as para. 91 describes. A common complaint across the board is a kind of one-sided authoritarian “cookie cutter” approach to all continents, peoples, domestic ethnic and cultures, etc. A news story that slipped under the radar in June was Pope Francis’ angry exchange with the priests of a Nigerian diocese who rejected an appointed bishop from another diocese because he was not of their tribe. I noticed that some bloggers accused the Nigerian priests of racism, but Floridians complain about new pastors who are new to American culture, too. Attempting to redefine the Church in terms of its cultural diversity is a task long overdue, though I am not equipped to spell out what a new framework would look like.
What captivated my interests most profoundly in Gaillardetz’s survey was the essay from feminist theologian Sister Mary Ann Hinsdale, IHM. It is no exaggeration that some of the best innovative Catholic theology today is being produced by women, particularly women religious; Hinsdale cited twelve published scholars in her essay. Feminist theology is not monolithic; its scholars are branched into several subsets, the most basic being the question of the meaning of gender itself as a definitive categorization of the human species. Hinsdale describes the influence of Pope John Paul II’s writings on the nature of men and women in such documents as Christifideles Laici (1988).
The pope writes in CL that “The condition that will assure the rightful presence of woman [sic] in the Church and in society is a more penetrating and accurate consideration of the anthropological foundations for masculinity and femininity with the intent of clarifying woman’s personal identity in relation to man, that is, a diversity yet mutual complementarity, not only as it concerns roles to held and functions to be performed, but also, and more deeply, as it concerns her make-up and meaning as a person.” Aside from its length, there is an offensive imbedded clerical and male superiority in the very language of the text. The ancient scientist Archimedes, the inventor of the lever, is remembered for his “give me a place to stand and I can move the world. John Paul states that he already has a place to stand when preaching to “woman:” from the clerical and magisterial assurance of manhood; woman finds identity in her complementarity with man.
John Paul II is not the only pontiff to speak to women as if they were somehow a population of outsiders drifting about looking for Catholic identity. Vatican II’s language was hardly inclusive, and even Pope Francis frequently speaks of the Church as addressing women—as if women are not part of the Church now and do not already enjoy the gifts and powers referred to in para. 91. Feminist theologians continue to work to address an ecclesiology built upon the assumed preeminence and predispositions of cleric males. One tack in this effort has been the consideration of the ordination of women. This is a matter too complicated to address here, but I have often wondered if ordination is not seen as the only path to an assurance of female self-identity and respect within the Church.
An intriguing chapter of this book is called “Liturgical Ecclesiology,” which draws heavily from the Orthodox theology of Baptism, Anointing, and Eucharist. Susan K. Wood examines the works of current Orthodox theologians who, quite frankly, have a better grasp of the full implications of the initiation sacraments. The Orthodox tradition has always spoken of the initiation sacraments (Baptism, Anointing, Eucharist) as “an ordination of the royal priesthood to participate in the Eucharistic assembly…an ordination of “laics,” understood as all the members of God’s people…. Thus, the Church consists of those who are ordained…. Theologically, there can be no lay people in the Church.” (p. 143)
The Orthodox stance is foreign to the Roman Catholic ear, but it is true that for centuries the Roman Church has regarded Baptism as a remedial sacrament—the forgiveness of original sin—more than as a consecration of the Holy Spirit and a change of identity. Ironically, the official language of the Sacrament of Orders in the Roman Catholic Church speaks of an ordained cleric as “ontologically changed,” or “changed at the core of his being.” It may be that in a future age the Catholic Church may return to its own roots—which the Orthodox Church has preserved—of revering the initiation sacraments with a primacy of identity within the Church. Para. 91 opens the door to that possibility…but it remains a long way to Tipperary.