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Keeping your balance in the Church today

The art of committing to one's core values while being open to other opinions

  • Fr. Desmond de Souza, Goa
  • India
  • November 13, 2012
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In secular United States newspapers today, I read stories about three divergent issues affecting the Church. One was about Vatican efforts to “rein in” the US nuns from “flouting core doctrine and taking an overly liberal feminist bent.” The second addressed Vatican overtures to ultra-traditionalist Catholics of the Society of Pius X in a final bid to end a quarter-century of schism. A third article discussed Vatican approval through its nuncio of US bishops engaging in civil disobedience protests in favor of religious liberty against certain aspects of the Obama administration’s policy on contraception and abortion. How can an ordinary Catholic understand the basis of the Vatican’s approval or disapproval of core values of the Catholic faith? Put another way, how does one keep one’s balance in the Church today when confronted by such divergent trends? A good many of the religious problems facing the average Catholic lay person, priest or nun, all of whom make no claim to be specialists or scholars, stem from the new air of freedom of theological thought and discussion resulting from Vatican II. This new freedom gives tremendous opportunity for the circulation of fresh ideas, for the reformulation and restatement of ancient truths; but it also gives the opportunity, as Pope John XXIII himself declared, for the introduction and circulation of false and erroneous opinions contrary to the core beliefs of Catholic faith. This places a burden on ordinary Catholics to sift through what they read and hear about religious matters, a chore they were not required to do before and for which they are inadequately prepared at the present. There are suggested guidelines for this difficult task. Easily the most powerful means of news communication is the secular press, radio and television. It is often fragmented, biased and taken out of context. It often caters to sensationalism. That does not mean it is false. If the secular press is so obviously slanted in favor of particular points of view, would a report about religious news be different even in a Catholic newspaper? So the first principle in sifting news – any news – is not to consider it infallible truth, but a perspective, a viewpoint on the issue and not the last word, even if it suits one’s own way of thinking. Another fundamental principle in sifting news, especially religious news, is to distinguish opinion from certainty. Vatican II encouraged a trend that has always existed in the Church: a continuing search for new insights into old truths, a constant delving into the message of Christ for a deeper and more comprehensive understanding. Vatican II encouraged the Church to undertake a process of re-examination, renewal and reform. This process cannot be isolated from new developments in the world – new technologies, new theories, new discoveries. After all, the mission of the Church is to continue the life-giving mission of Christ to the people of his time and all time: that they may have life, life in its fullness (John 10:10). Theologians, who are considered “the thinking mind of the Church,” must constantly enter into dialogue with the world, try to understand its problems, speak its language, so that the Good  News of the Risen Christ may bring abundant life to the seven billion that constitute all humankind, not just the one billion that are Christians. So individual, concerned and responsible Christians air and share their opinions with other responsible persons. This produces debate which only gradually leads to consensus. Even the new opinions get refashioned and reformulated as a consequence of the debate. Not to have fresh ideas, new insights into the meaning and relevance of Christ’s life-giving message for today, means that the Church has fossilized the message of Christ so that it is no longer life-giving. No matter how simple and easy things were in the past or how much one may wish for the good old days, of faith encapsulated in a catechism book, those days are gone, never to return. To live is to change; the more fully one attempts to live, the greater the demand for change. A more difficult principle in sifting the theological truth in the presentation of religious news is to distinguish inductive logic from deductive logic. These two methods of thinking and presentation of truth are not contradictory but complementary, different but inseparable. But they have certain philosophical presuppositions ingrained in them. During Vatican II, these two methods of thinking and their philosophical presuppositions clashed with each other during the sessions of the Council. The final documents were efforts at compromise for the sake of unity. These past trends are the fundamental cause of the present tensions in the Church today. Deductive logic has been the preferred method of thinking in the Church over the centuries. It begins from the teachings of earlier Church documents and applies them for today. The philosophical presuppositions ingrained in this method are essentially that human nature does not change over the years. It deals with abstract concepts like man, woman, God and the world in their essential or unchanging aspects, which have continuity with the past and will validly continue into the future. It emphasizes the underlying abstract, unchanging aspects of reality. It is based on the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas who Christianized the ancient philosophy of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Inductive logic begins with living, pulsating, exhilarating reality as it is and tries to make sense out of it. Its ingrained philosophical presuppositions are existential, dealing with the feelings, actions and reactions of living human persons as they interact daily with each other, the world they live in and the God they seek to encounter in the hurly-burly marketplace of life. It serializes life, capturing sporadic outbursts of sensationalism and creativity, without attempting to hold them together within a paradigm or framework. That is why inductive logic captures the imagination in a way deductive logic never will. Deductive logic is usually conservative. It begins with first principles or core values. Many US bishops, like bishops all over the world, follow deductive logic. They stand rigorously for pro-life, i.e. anti abortion, anti-contraception, core values that are perilously close to endorsing the Republican political agenda, which is followed by usually conservative, white (Caucasian) Christians. But the U.S. nuns are pro-life like the bishops, though they transcend the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate that some vocal US bishops are imprisoned in. The nuns following inductive logic are pro-all life issues including life for the poor and the jobless. They support options for the poor that go against the Republican ideology of enlightened self-interest like supporting the rich so that some of their wealth will “trickle down” to the poor. So there is a serious divide within the US Catholic Church between the so-called “conservative” bishops and the supposed-to-be too “liberal” Catholic nuns on one side. On the other side are the “traditionalist” Catholic groups like the St. Pius X Society that make the past tradition sacred and therefore unchangeable even if it lacks relevance for the people of today – Latin Mass, clergy monopoly, an obedient and non-participative laity. To keep your balance in the Church today means to be committed, but not rigid to what one holds as core Christian values. It means to be open and eager to understand what others are professing as their core values. During my days as executive secretary of the FABC Office of Human Development, one of the bishops who followed strictly deductive logic used to say to me, “I disagree with everything you say, but I like listening to what you have to say.” I guess that’s what it means to keep your balance in the Church today. Redemptorist Father Desmond de Souza formerly served as the executive secretary of the Office of Evangelization in the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference. He was closely associated with the Churches in Asia from 1980 to 2000. He is now based in Goa
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