Saturday, September 26, 2009

And More Synchronicity: Newman Again--Misappropriating and Misrepresenting the Facts

More fascinating synchronicity: I learn this morning from blogger Terry Weldon at Queering the Church, an outstanding blog I read daily with great interest, that he, too, noticed the thread about Newman at Michael Bayly's Wild Reed blog yesterday, and he posted a statement about that thread as well. Terry seems to have been writing his posting around the time I was working on mine. I didn't go back to his blog after an early-morning reading of it yesterday, and learned of his statement about Newman only when I saw his comment on my blog this morning.

In his comment on my Newman posting yesterday, Terry states,

One of the key lessons for me is how easily the rightwing sometimes gets away with misappropriating and misrepresenting the real facts of church history - but not in this case. We need to completely vigilant to prevent this, and to do so we must ensure that we have a good understanding of the real history ourselves.

Terry's posting at Queering the Church about these issues also notes,

This highlights for me yet another theme I have become conscious of: so much of our popular perceptions of church history (where we have any at all) are simply wrong. The hierarchy makes no attempt to correct these misperceptions, instead selectively extracting from 2000 years of history that suits and matches their interpretations of what “must” have been, not of what actually was the case.

Then another nugget: In trying to track down the quotation I was looking for, I found another excellent and useful post on McClory, “A Catholic Understanding of Dissent.” This deals with a keynote address McClory gave to a prayer breakfast, in which he spoke (inter alia) about Bishop Nienstedt, and an extraordinary action he took concerning his predecessor, Bishop Raymond Lucker.

“At that time,” said McClory, “[Nienstedt] had done something newsworthy in relation to a book entitled, Revelation and the Church: Vatican II in the Twenty-First Century. This book had been largely written and edited by his predecessor, Bishop Raymond Lucker,” explained McClory, “and, in it, Bishop Lucker said that there were a lot of things that the Church needs to think about. He listed 37 matters of authoritative Church teaching that have undergone substantial change over time – including the Church’s approach to religious liberty, the Bible, slavery, and the Jews. Bishop Lucker’s book also contained a list of 15 teachings that could change in the future, including clerical celibacy, artificial birth control, intercommunion between Protestants and Catholics, condemnation of homosexual activity, and the ordination of women. When Bishop Nienstedt came in and saw that book he said: ‘Take that off the shelf.’”

I heartily second what Terry Weldon says in these reflections. What's at stake in this discussion is separating truth from falsehood. Terry is correct to note that one of the "key lessons" of the recent discussion about Newman on Michael Bayly's blog is "how easily the rightwing sometimes gets away with misappropriating and misrepresenting the real facts of church history."

And so the need to be vigilant and to push back daily against the falsehoods.

In the discussion of Newman and the sensus fidelium at Wild Reed to which my posting yesterday linked, there are two strands of misappropriation and misrepresentation of the facts. I'd like to label these two strands the lie and the equivocation.

The lie is rather easy to detect and combat. People who say that Newman wrote about Arianism to demonstrate that bishops defended orthodox teaching about christology, while the faithful held unorthodox teaching, turn Newman on his head. They grossly misrepresent what Newman said, and why he wrote about this topic.

As my posting about this issue yesterday noted, it's easy to overturn this lie by a reference to Newman's texts. One wonders why anyone would bother trying to tell this lie about Newman's work when Newman's writings about Arianism and the sensus fidelium are easily accessible and easily understood, and when they so clearly say the opposite of what the lie wishes to maintain.

Newman wrote about the Arian crisis to demonstrate that the pastoral leaders of the church can sometimes be wrong in their doctrinal teaching, and that the lay understanding of the faith--the sensus fidelium--can be correct, and can actually save the church from error when its leaders have departed from what the laity hold as the accurate understanding of faith.

Lies about Newman's theology are easily exposed. The equivocation is harder to detect, and for that reason, is more insidious. It masquerades as something other than what it really is. It tells us it is all about concern for statistical accuracy, for correct interpretation of texts, or for legitimation of many readings of the tradition, when its real goal is to discredit this building block of Newman's theology, the sensus fidelium, in order to defend current magisterial teaching as the only possible option for faithful Catholics.

If the question at hand is, for instance, to understand what we should make of the fact that a huge majority of Catholics in the developed nations reject magisterial teaching on artificial contraception (and teachings on sexual ethics in general, insofar as they are based in a biologistic interpretation of natural law), then those dealing in equivocation will propose that this large majority is illusory. Despite hard empirical evidence for several decades now, which shows that the large majority of lay Catholics in the developed world reject magisterial teaching about artificial contraception, and that the trend is well-established and is not diminishing but increasing, those who equivocate about this topic often argue that statistics are misleading.

Or that what the empirical data are capturing consistently over several decades are sporadic "lapses" of the faithful, as they try contraception now and again and then return to the Catholic fold. Or that, if we do admit this trend exists, it exists only for Western Catholics and it is imperalistic to try to impose the concerns of those Catholics on Catholics in other parts of the world.

Since it is clear that what is happening to official teaching about artificial contraception in contemporary Catholicism so closely parallels what Newman wrote about in his work on the sensus fidelium, another line of attack in the equivocating approach is to suggest that Newman's work on the sensus fidelium is only one strand among many in his thought, and that those who focus on that strand misrepresent Newman's work in its totality.

This approach ignores--it equivocates about--the centrality of the sensus fidelium to Newman's entire body of work. It glosses over and equivocates about how Newman's work on the sensus fidelium has now become canonical within Catholic theology and magisterial teaching itself. The documents of Vatican II repeatedly enshrine the concept of the sensus fidelium in their statements about the nature and role of the church.

The equivocating position about Newman's theology of sensus fidelium stands that concept on its head as starkly as the lie does. This position seeks to subvert the plain meaning of the term sensus fidelium. As the term clearly suggests, sensus fidelium is all about the consensus of the faithful, the shared sense of many of the faithful about various Christian teachings, grounded in the lived experience of faith.

To try to twist the meaning of the phrase sensus fidelium to imply that the term means that the magisterium is always correct in its formulation of doctrine or moral teachings at any point in history is to subvert plain sense in the most machiavellian way possible. It is to take a concept that is all about listening to the laity and to use that concept to defend the magisterium when it ignores the laity's voice.

Terry is right. Somehow, how we teach Christian history and Christian theology has gotten twisted, when people of the lie can promote such obvious lies and equivocations and expect to get away with them. In my view, Terry's anecdote about how Bishop Nienstedt handled Bishop Lucker's book on revelation and the church illustrates how we have come to this point.

Though he was a bishop, Lucker had the courage to admit that the church has changed its mind about a wide range of doctrinal and moral issues in the past. Because he refused to ignore the abundant historical evidence which proves this, Bishop Lucker argued that, having done so in the past, the church can change its mind about doctrinal and moral issues in the present and future.

Bishop Nienstedt's response to his predecessor's work? It was to remove Lucker's book from the shelf. We have been living for some time now through a period in Catholic history in which some of our church leaders and some of our intellectual class think that we can control what people think and believe by simply removing contrary evidence from our bookshelves.

We have been living through a less than stellar moment in church history in which people of the lie have claimed the center of the church, and now want to lie boldly (and subtly) about matters all of us can fairly easily see right in front of us, if we open our eyes and look at what is right before our faces. And so the lie has to be supplemented by orders for us to stop seeing what we see, to stop talking among ourselves, and above all, to stop thinking. The lie has to be supplemented by distorted data and subversion of the plain sense of canonical texts.

Fortunately for those who care about the history of the church as an institution, history suggests that such authoritarian tactics of mind control will work only in the short run. They will not prevail in the long run, because people do keep thinking. And noticing the sharp discrepancies between what the official leaders of the institution teach and what they practice. And refusing to put up with those discrepancies, particularly when doing so requires that they sacrifice their own understanding of what the Christian life is all about.

Meanwhile, we are living through a time when the people most inclined to represent themselves as the only trustworthy purveyors of absolute truth are those most intent on misrepresenting and misappropriating the facts. We're living at a moment in Christian history in which Christians of the right are not only trying to outlaw artificial contraception in many places, but are inventing bogus scientific narratives about contraception which suggest that contraceptives are abortifacients and that they harm not only mothers but also children.

If a teaching is true and compelling, it does not need lies to make it palatable. When it has to rely on lies and equivocations to carry the day, something is clearly wrong with the teaching.