Friday, July 24, 2009

"Charity in Truth": Putting the Rabbit Back in the Hat, Reconnecting Truth and Love

As the week ends, I’d like to make a few more observations (in addition to those I made a day or so ago) about the new papal encyclical Caritas in veritate. Once again, these are preliminary observations, rather than careful responses to specific aspects of the document, which I’m still reading. These are my attempt to capture what seems to me to be one of the primary intents of this document, an intent that hasn’t received much attention in any analysis I’ve read thus far.

That intent is to engage a strand of Catholic thinking that has become dominant in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict. It’s a strand of thought that directly emanates from Benedict himself, from his work as Cardinal Ratzinger when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II. In that capacity, the current pope has had enormous influence on the direction the Catholic church has taken since Vatican II.

In key respects, the legacy of Ratzinger-Benedict is very mixed, and, indeed, has been destructive to the church. In my view, Benedict sees this now as pope, at least to a certain extent, and Caritas in veritate is an attempt to correct a trend he himself set in motion in the church under the previous pope, as the watchdog for orthodoxy under John Paul II.

One other prefatory remark before I get to the heart of what I want to say. I could, if I wished, frame what I’m about to say as a scholarly theological reflection, citing significant theologians and texts. I could well use technical theological language to make my points here.

On this blog, I have chosen to write at a different level and to a different audience. As I’ve noted since I began Bilgrimage, in my view, academic theologians do a disservice to the church when they write only in an abstruse language accessible primarily to other trained theologians. The entire church has a vested interest in the theological enterprise. The calling of theologians is a ministry within the church, and that ministry builds the church when it is exercised in a way that draws “ordinary” lay people—with their rich theological insights, stemming from their lived experience of faith—into the theological conversation.

I understand why many theologians have chosen in recent years to write differently, to address a trained theological audience in esoteric language that shuts out the majority of the people of God. They’ve done so because they are afraid. And their reason for fear has everything to do with that current that Ratzinger set into motion as head of the CDF, a current entirely amenable to John Paul II. It has to do with the cowing, intimidating way in which the Vatican and its enforcers at the level of the episcopacy have used the rubric of “truth” in the church to discipline, weed out, intimidate, and control the people of God—and theologians, in particular.

Speak outside the narrow canons of “truth” established by the last two papacies, delve into the mysteries of the faith in a way that tries to make them accessible to the people of God and relates those mysteries to the contemporary age, ask critical questions about how the “truths” promoted by the last two regimes relate to the broader tradition and are to be received by the faithful today, and one can find oneself in serious trouble. During the Ratzinger-Benedict and John Paul II regimes, the church has hemorrhaged good, faithful, Spirit-led theologians, one after the other, who have been barred from teaching, run out of their jobs, and in many cases, deliberately pushed out of the church by the Vatican and various bishops.

This has done incalculable harm to the Catholic church. It has set the church back centuries and has crippled the church in its response to late modernity and the postmodern period. It has dumbed down the church, created a generation of anti-intellectual and pastorally inept clergy, and stifled careful, critical thought necessary to deepen people’s experience of faith in a complex cultural context. The reactionary moment Ratzinger-Benedict and John Paul II have fostered in the church has assured that the Catholic church has increasingly little of importance to contribute to important postmodern cultural conversations, little, that is, that is credible to thoughtful people for whom the religious enterprise is more than catechetical in the barest, least thoughtful sense of that term.

And these developments have everything to do with how Ratzinger-Benedict and John Paul II chose to regard and to talk about Christian truth in the latter part of the 20th century. The “truth” the last two papal regimes have promoted has been largely a clerical possession, and the theological enterprise in the Catholic church has, insofar as possible, been deliberately subjugated to clerical control. This is another reason that I choose not to speak in a trained theological voice on this blog. To do so at this point in Catholic history is all too often to reinforce a clerical system and a clerical worldview, which badly need to be reformed and not bolstered, if the church is to have a viable future.

Following Vatican II, there was, at the center of the church—and in Ratzinger’s CDF, in particular—an intent fear that the theological enterprise would get out of hand, out of clerical hands. Much of the emphasis on “truth” that has dominated Catholic thought and pastoral statements during the last two papacies is an attempt to assure that theology remains, if not always in clerical hands (because the numbers of priests are falling even as more lay people are becoming theologians), at least controlled by those hands.

Much of the theological vocabulary and the theological thought-world with which we’ve ended up as a result is, frankly, stultifying, anti-intellectual, and heavily skewed in a male-dominant, clerical-dominant direction. I refuse to reinforce that vocabulary and worldview. In my view, it represents the dead hand of one tiny but all-powerful and privileged contingent of the people of God, the clerical elite, on the church and its future. And because that tiny, all-powerful and privileged elite is also necessarily male, at this point in history—due to John Paul II’s and Ratzinger-Benedict’s insistence that clerics must be male—this vocabulary and worldview reek of patriarchal assumptions.

I want to speak in another voice on this blog, and in my work as a theologian. My goal is to speak in a voice that makes sense to a wide range of people of good will, whose experience of God is every bit as valuable as that of male clerics—and perhaps ultimately far more valuable to a church that wants to have a viable future.

In my view, Caritas in veritate represents a dawning awareness on the part of Benedict that the concept of truth he has enabled in the church in reaction to Vatican II—a heavily clerical concept that reflects the experience of only a small proportion of the people of God—has begun to do incalculable damage to the church. Caritas in veritate is, at one level, an attempt to correct a weapon-like notion of truth that Benedict himself has promoted, which betrays the tradition itself in some important ways.

In traditional Catholic thought, truth and love have never been separated—never separated, that is, in texts or movements regarded by the tradition as orthodox. The way in which “truth” has taken on a life of its own in the Catholic church in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict—as a vigilant, reactionary, watchdog force in the church intent on pummeling anyone who strays from its dictates—is not orthodox at all. It is the antithesis of orthodoxy.

It is a viewpoint that subjugates what passes for eternal salvific truth, but is really a temporally conditioned and mutable disciplinary ruling of the church, to what always has to be central in the church, if the church is to be credible in its claim to live according to the way of Jesus: love. Truth without love is nothing. It is dead. It is, indeed, a dead hand on the life of the church, which must constantly be animated by love, if the church is following the Spirit of God who is love.

John Paul II's Veritatis splendor certainly made the points I am making. But those who wanted to read this document as the vindication of truth over love—as the vindication of a vigilant, reactionary, watchdog notion of truth intent on pummeling anyone who strays from its dictates—did not hear that aspect of John Paul II’s encyclical. And it must be admitted, they did not hear that aspect in part because Ratzinger and John Paul II did not want that aspect to prevail.

They wanted the reactionary watchdog notion of truth to prevail. And now they are faced with the results of that choice: a church in which groups claiming to stand for “the” truth do everything in their power to hound others out of the church, while maintaining that they represent the best of papal thinking and of the tradition, even as they use the tradition very selectively and in ways that betray the core of the tradition. And while they seem, quite frequently, to be oblivious to the demands of charity in their crusade to assure that the church abides in the truth, in their truth, in historically conditioned and mutable expressions of the tradition that do not capture that tradition for all times and all places . . . .

In my view, Benedict has written Caritas in veritate as a reminder to his own disciples, to those who now claim the center of the church and who claim to represent orthodoxy and tradition in all its purity, that truth without love is nothing at all. It is certainly not orthodox, traditional, or rooted in the gospels.

What has been lost sight of in the church in this period of perfervid professions of faith by those who own the truth exclusively, and use that exclusive ownership to rule others out of communion, is that the concept of truth is multi-faceted and complex in Catholic tradition. There are salvific truths, truths necessary for salvation. And there are disciplinary “truths,” historically conditioned statements and stances taken by the church at official levels and imposed on the whole church in the name of truth, which do not reach the level of salvific truths. And which may therefore be questioned and changed . . . . .

Traditional Catholic theology has always recognized that there is a hierarchy of truths in the church, and that not every assertion of the teaching church and its pastoral leaders deserves the same degree of obedient response. The truths that stand at the center of the faith, those necessary for salvation, are not numerous. The classic credal statements of the church capture those truths.

They point us to the kind of truth the scriptures regard as salvific and transformative—truths centered on relationship, not on formulas to be memorized and repeated. The scriptures focus on God as the ultimate truth, the truth whom we must encounter with our whole hearts and minds if we expect salvation. Formulas that lead us to the God who transforms our hearts and minds operate at a level of truth secondary to the truth who is God. They capture in halting human language what transcends language. They encapsulate classic responses to the divine that frame our experience of the divine in later generations, and induct us into the salvific encounter with God in our own lives.

The concept of truth, the various levels at which the term operates in Catholic thought, the crucial distinction between the biblical and the dogmatic notion of religious truth: these have been muddled and leveled in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, with lamentable results. Now, every statement that emanates from Rome or from bishops’ conferences is likely to be regarded as truth—as absolute, salvific truth—no matter the level at which that statement functions.

Disciplinary “truths,” statements designed to establish boundaries within which the faithful are expected to live, are conflated with salvific truths, as if the teaching about artificial contraception (or homosexuality) functions at the same level and is to be received with the same deference as the teaching about the divine-human nature of Christ. “Truths” that are merely disciplinary rulings by pastoral leaders now operate, in the thinking of many Catholics, as weapons to be used to divide the sheep from the goats, the saved from the unsaved. With seriously destructive consequences for the church as a whole . . . .

What is temporal, historically conditioned, what has developed over time and can change (and must and will change eventually) is being treated by many Catholics today as immutable, salvific, truth that must be held by all Catholics who expect salvation. And demands are made in the name of that immutable salvific truth to weed from the faithful anyone who dissents in good conscience from truths that do not touch on the heart of faith, that are merely disciplinary regulations of pastoral leaders, and that can well be questioned and changed.

As a theologian, Benedict is aware of these distinctions. As a pastor, I think he’s becoming aware, now, of the damage that his conflation of salvific truth with disciplinary truths has done to the church. And of the need for charity, even as we discuss truth. Especially of the need for charity, as we discuss truth.

And so he has written an encyclical that tries, after the fact, to reconnect the two, truth and love, at this point in the history of the church, in a period in which what passes for truth has all too often taken leave of love in the church. The encyclical certainly continues the hard emphasis of John Paul II-Benedict on truth as a central aspect of the Christian way of being in the world. And it continues the creeping infallibilist conflation of salvific truths with disciplinary "truths."

But even as it does so, it does so with a new awarenessI believeof the damage that has been done to the church in the name of "truth" in the past several decades. And so it seeks to correct, after far too much damage has already been done, what ought never to have been set in motion in the church—the disjunction of truth from love, as mutable, historically conditioned disciplinary rulings from the center of the church have been imposed on the people of God as truths necessary for salvation.