Friday, November 3, 2017

Footnote to Discussion of Elevated Theology of Priesthood and Who Gets Invited to Table: Truth Claims of Doctrine Require Verification in Real Lives

This posting is a footnote to a string of interrelated postings I've made here recently, for which I have provided links below. Readers who have read that string may not see a common theme in it. I do, perhaps because I tend to think in an idea-links-to-idea way as I make postings here. This footnote is my attempt to make explicit an idea that, to my way of thinking, runs through the thread of postings listed below.

Key to the discussion we've been having with all of these postings is a distinction between theory and praxis that, as I see it, runs through much of Catholic culture since Vatican II, and accounts for some of the major splits that have occurred in the Catholic church as a result of Vatican II. The "old" theological universe that Vatican II decentered understood doctrinal statements in the theoretical, propositional way highlighted by an unnamed English priest quoted by Andrew Brown in a recent article about Pope Francis' enemies.

This priest, who says he loathes Pope Francis because Francis is undermining the theoretical foundations of magisterial teaching, says, "What I care about is the theory." He expresses consternation that anyone would question the theoretical underpinnings of Catholic dogmatic statements by suggesting that there may be pastoral leeway to apply those statements differently in different situations. In the view of this unnamed priest, the "theory" embodied in Catholic magisterial teaching is immutable, and suggestions that magisterial teaching might be applied with more or less leniency in various situations lead to the dangerous, horrible idea that this "theory" is not, in fact, as all-obtaining, all-explanatory, and immutable as it purports to be.

Praxis muddles theory. Praxis demonstrates that theory by itself can be inanely misplaced in what it theorizes. Theory needs praxis as a test of its validity. There is a hermeneutical circle between theory and praxis which requires that theory put itself into practice, and then refine itself on the basis of what it learns as it puts itself into practice — over and over again.

These are taken-for-granted insights in many academic disciplines today. That these insights are still resisted by some Catholic theologians and many clerical types, who seem to imagine that immutable theory can stand apart from praxis, and that the church's task is to teach take-it-or-leave-it truths to a laity who must receive those truths passively and obediently, illustrates the extent to which the governing sector of the Catholic church has turned itself into an intellectual ghetto at this point in history.

Mary Condren's brilliant theological observation is patently obvious to increasing numbers of Catholics who think outside the ghetto-formed boxes the magisterium wishes to impose on Catholic theologians and lay Catholics, as it exalts the truth claims of doctrine and lifts them out of the experiential realm — in the process exalting the ontological status of those proclaiming these truths crafted by and serving the interests and needs of the clerical sector of the church:

Enlightened theologians examine theologies not only for their internal logic or truth status but also for the effects of truth: the healthiness or otherwise of theological stories.

The truth claims of doctrinal teachings, of magisterial proclamations, depend on real-life human beings to verify (or disprove) them in their real lives and via their real-life experiences. The two cannot be separated in the way that the unnamed English priest quoted by Andrew Brown (and countless other Catholics who have not accepted Vatican II) wish to do. What we learn from how real human beings receive doctrine is not incidental to the truth claims of doctrine: it's part and parcel of how doctrinal truth claims are verified.

When doctrinal teachings (e.g., homosexual persons are intrinsically disordered) have ugly, hateful effects on real human lives, something is radically awry about those doctrinal teachings. They are, in short, not true

Catholic theology once depended almost exclusively on philosophy to frame its truth claims. In the world that has come into being after the Enlightenment, it now needs the social sciences as its dialogue partner, if it hopes to make any sense at all to people living in post-Enlightenment cultures. It has to use the social sciences to study how the "truths" it proclaims to the world are received by real human beings living real lives in a real world — and it must then weigh the truth claims of its doctrines against what it learns from such social-science soundings of its teachings.

This is why I am so insistent on asking how proposals for Catholic leaders to build bridges to the queer community— made by clerics, we cannot avoid noting — are playing out in the real world. This is why I keep asking for verification that any such bridge-building is actually taking place in the real world.

This is why I keep asking whether the groups pushing such projects are themselves actually reaching out to fellow Catholics who have been so marginalized that they are now living far beyond all bridges with the name Catholic on them. This is why I keep suggesting that, no matter how wonderful the clerical voices that some of these groups respect happen to be, the framework with which such groups are working as they talk about Catholic identity and Catholic pastoral projects is cripplingly narrow and clerical in its orientation — and as a result, these valuable projects have little effect in the real world, outside the parochial circles that constitute Catholic identity for these groups. 

To ask these questions is to run the risk of being called uncharitable by those who define Catholic truth in a narrow, parochial, institutional, clerically dominated way. But anyone who cares not only about Catholic pastoral outreach but about the very truth claims made by Catholic teaching needs to ask them.

Because this is the kind of world in which we live in today and have lived ever since the Enlightenment. . . . It's a world that demands some congruence between the theory we preach as doctrinal truth and the lives affected by this truth, as real human beings receive it and put it into practice in the real world. It's a world that demands such congruence if those proclaiming "truth" expect anyone to take their proclamations seriously at all.

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