On October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican council, much to the dismay of his nemesis Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ottaviani would work hard to undermine and derail the work of the council. In the end, of course, John’s vision prevailed. History here offers a contemporary reminder.

Theological polarization at the managerial-hierarchical top of the institutional church is nothing new. Fifty-two years ago, it was Pope John and people like the Belgian Cardinal Suenens on the “progressive” side. Today we see Pope Francis and people like Cardinal Kasper in theological dissonance with “conservative” hierarchs like Cardinal Raymond Burke and the current head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who warn that adherents to the Kasper viewpoint are “heretics.” So what is going on here?

John Allen, formerly of the National Catholic Reporter and now at the Boston Globe and most recently as well at Crux, says it is the reappearance of “gradualism” in Catholic theology. In fact “gradualism” is a euphemistic way of saying that life changes, our understanding of life changes, and therefore our theological and ethical understandings change. Our developing understanding of the human condition has always had major theological and ethical implications. Fifty years ago, we called that “reading the signs of the times.”

Frankly, I really don’t like using the terms “conservative,” “traditional,” and “liberal” or “progressive.” They don’t help today. Many of my friends call me a “progressive” Catholic, yet I would contend that I am very much anchored in Catholic “tradition” and trying to “conserve” it.

A far better way of understanding contemporary Catholic polarization is to see two approaches to living-out our faith today: (1) a theology of unquestioning adherence to official doctrinal formulations — many more than a thousand years old; and (2) a theology that reflects on contemporary lived-faith experiences.

Cardinal Müller would strongly uphold the first approach. Cardinal Kasper the second. Although it is still difficult to clearly read what is gong on at the Synod in Rome, there are indications that more than a few bishops would now align themselves with Kasper rather than Müller.

This past Thursday, October 9, the head of the Canadian Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, for instance, said he saw a major shift — a new starting place for theological reflection — by bishops at the synod.

What’s happening within the Synod, Durocher observed, is that we are seeing a more inductive way of reflecting; starting from the true situation of people and trying to figure out, ‘what is going on here?’….We are finding that the lived experience of people is also a theological source…a place for theological reflection.

Not all Catholics and Catholic organisations, like “Voice of the Family,” are pleased with the life-based approach of people like Archbishop Durocher.

This morning, October 14, I read the reactions of Patrick Buckley, Voice of the Family’s Irish representative. He writes:

The Synod’s mid-way report represents an attack on marriage and the family. For example, the report in effect gives a tacit approval of adulterous relationships, thereby contradicting the Sixth Commandment and the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the indissolubility of marriage.

The report undermines the Church’s definitive teaching against contraception, by using the coded language of ‘underlin[ing] the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control.’ This language is the code of those who wish to reduce the Church’s doctrines to a mere guide, thus leaving couples free to choose contraception in so-called ‘conscience.’

The report accepts wrongly that there is a value in the homosexual orientation. This contradicts the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1986 Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.

Nevertheless….the days of the flat-earth society are over. (Even Medieval Latin has been finally jettisoned as Vatican-speak meeting language.) Lived-experience theological reflection is contemporary and real; and it challenges completely the rigid doctrine-based-rule-of-life approach of people like Cardinal Burke and groups like Voice of the Family. Their theology often leads to archaic solutions for contemporary problems, because it is so closed-minded and rigidly unchanging.

Catholic belief and official Catholic teaching do and must always change. We are discovery people, always on pilgrimage. And we believe that the Spirit of Christ had not abandoned us.

Unchanging Catholic teaching? Not my experience, actually. I remember when official teaching said women were inferior to men, that Protestants (like my Dad) were followers of a “false religion,” that the “ordained” were, thanks to their sacramental character, intrinsically superior human beings and on a higher spiritual plane than “ simple lay people.” I remember when the “insidious Jews” were denounced as “Christ-killers.” And I will never forget when eating a hamburger on a Friday was a one-way ticket to hell, unless one got to confession….But…..we grow in our understanding….and we move on.

A word of warning: when reflecting about doctrine-based belief and contemporary-life-based belief, I am not saying it is matter of choosing one system over the other. It is both and…… The “and” is that each theological approach must critique and help clarify the other. That is no small task. It demands and requires mutual respect, clear and open dialogue, and a great deal of humility. No one has all the answers. We travel toward the truth….and we must travel together. That is the nature of a community of faith.

I really don’t know what will finally result from the current Synod in Rome. I don’t know what the lasting impact of Pope Francis will be. I have no doubts however that contemporary Roman Catholic management people have now accepted the fact that theological pluralism, like multilingualism, is now a contemporary Catholic reality.

Who knows what this will bring?

I had a dream last night….A future head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith went on Vatican radio and television and solemnly proclaimed: “Progress in Catholic belief is now our most important product.”


4 thoughts on “Contemporary Catholic Belief: Change in the Air?

  1. Generalities are easy. Are you willing to step up and tell us that people who use birth control, fornicators, people involved in gay relationships, and the remarried sans annulment are going to be told they can receive communion without first a confession to a priest with the “firm purpose of amendment”? Are women going to be ordained? Same-sex marriage granted “sacramental” status? Are the U.S. bishops going to stop obstructing Obamacare at great expense to taxpayers? Betty  

    1. Perhaps generalities are easy but my point is that change is in the RC air. Either the change-makers will begin to truly reform and update the institution or they will simply move on and out of the institution and the RC church will implode.

      In any event I have no doubts that this is a big turning point for the Church of Rome. We are the edge of either a major RC reform or the edge of a major reconfiguration of Christianity that will make the sixteenth century Reformation look like small-time stuff. Betty I do appreciate your reactions to this recent post. Jack

  2. Another brilliant column. I love reading these.

    The solution to this is simple. Traditionalists who believe in unswerving obedience to the magisterium of the church should listen to what these bishops are saying, and obey unswervingly. No?

    I am puzzled why traditionalists, who believe in unswerving obedience to the pope and the bishops, only offer that unswerving obedience to popes and bishops with whom they happen to agree. Oddly enough, as their focus shifts, strategically, from obedience to the hierarchy to obedience to “tradition,” they themselves—often activist lay people—set themselves up as the arbiters of tradition, and sit in theological judgment over bishops and popes with whom they disagree. Now, isn’t THAT ironic. Shouldn’t they just agree with the magisterium unquestioningly?

    It reminds me of the lovely, argument of Peter John Olivi (who, let it not be forgotten, wrote in medieval Latin!): True popes are infallible. They are incapable of heresy. If, therefore, a pope says something heretical, he is not a true pope.

    A rather different reading of infallibility…allowing the observer to judge what is heretical! So if the traditionalists decide they disagree with the current pope, they may soon find themselves as radical anti-papal Spiritual Franciscans! Might that lead them to an Olivian denunciation of clerical wealth?

    So much for fantasizing. Thanks again for your enjoyable and insightful blog.



    PS. I think my dad, Patrick Nugent of Cambridge, MD, also writes to you from time to time, and I don’t think he’d want us confused with each other!

    Patrick Nugent

    548 Howell Ave.

    Cincinnati, OH 45220

    (513) 549-6843

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