'Redefining The Church: Vision and Practice', Richard Lennan ed

'Redefining The Church: Vision and Practice', Richard Lennan ed

Fr Ephraem Chifley OP

"Community ... is a malleable concept capable of use for almost any ideological purpose"

REDEFINING THE CHURCH: Vision and Practice
Richard Lennan ed
(E J Dwyer, 1995, 140 pp RRP $19.95)

Redefining the Church: Vision and Practice comes from the Catholic Institute of Sydney and is a series of essays on aspects of contemporary ecclesiastical theory. For the most part these essays contain the usual pleas for lay empowerment and maintaining the momentum of "Vatican II."

Such are the essays by Marie Farrell RSM, Greg Wilson, Patricia Egan and Camille Paul. In the introduction the editor, Fr Richard Lennan, suggests that, "This book seeks to identify the type of Church which emerges when ecclesiology focuses on the implications of Church membership, when it recognises both the theological dimension of that membership and the contemporary social context in which membership is defined. What emerges when ecclesiology is done in this way is a 'different' church."

The question to my mind is whether or not the "different" Church still remains the Catholic Church after all the redefining. I have my doubts about it.

Teresa Pirola has contributed an interesting and thoughtful piece called "Church professionalism: when does it become lay elitism?" This author asks why we should exchange an old clericalism for a new one and cites instances of "Church professionals" who, with the best of intentions, seem to restrict the participation of the simple laity in Church projects. Lay participation often becomes an avenue for the bureaucratisation of local dioceses, as Cardinal Ratzinger has pointed out on more than one occasion. Those familiar with the Church's structures will not be surprised by this information, and will find that Pirola's critique does, in fact, strike a chord with experience.

One section of the book which needs a comprehensive critique is the essay by Fr Gerald Gleeson entitled "A Living Catholic Conscience". Fr Gleeson feels that there is some disquiet about the encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, in that it appears to curtail the responsibilities and rights of individual consciences beginning with the statement of John Paul II in the encyclical, that the Church's teachings are "always and only at the service of conscience." He then uses the writings of Cardinal Newman to illustrate the relationship between conscience and the Magisterium.

It is as well to begin by putting Gleeson's citation of John Paul II into context: "The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit, and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it" (VS 64).

Gleeson labels the position "that the teachings of the Church and the formation of conscience are tied together so closely that if a Catholic reaches a judgement at variance with that of the Church, this is ipso facto evidence that conscience has not been correctly formed, as an extreme view of this relationship. It is, however, the view put forward by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor. It follows that the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because conscience is never freedom from the truth, but always and only freedom in the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess... " (VS 64). As we can see this is far from setting conscience as a supreme moral arbiter over and against the Magisterium.

Gleeson presents his position as moderate, nestling between two "extremes", making subtle distinctions in order to present a pastoral perspective to people in hard circumstances. This is a laudable intention but unfortunately this much-sought middle ground is logically and theologically non-existent. Eventually one must plainly answer the question so plainly put by Gleeson as to whether someone could "with a well-formed Catholic conscience nonetheless reach a judgement at variance with that of the Church's teaching magisterium?"

John Paul II answers this question quite clearly in the passages cited above, and also when he deals with the notion of intrinsically evil acts. "Circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act subjectively good or defensible as a choice" (VS 81).


The main weakness of Gleeson's argument is his appeal to particular cases (e.g., the case of the well-meaning married couple who, respecting and taking into consideration the Pope's teaching, still choose to use contraception because of their particular circumstances.) John Paul II, following Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, has described contraception as an intrinsically evil act (VS 80), but Gleeson would like the Church to make more room for the dissenting, erroneous or perplexed conscience.

The problem with arguing from the particular case is that respecting the dignity of an erroneous conscience in one case can lead to the same demand in other cases. In questions of morality the universal and particular cannot be so easily separated. He does acknowledge this problem but deals with it rather superficially, quoting the late W. Daniel SJ, "It is wrong to argue that if we accept the dignity of the erroneous conscience in an ordinary person we must logically accept the dignity of conscience of a Hitler or a Stalin." According to Daniel, Hitler and Stalin are to be thought of not as merely having consciences which tolerate larger crimes, but as having closed their hearts entirely to goodness and fidelity to others. They are not to be thought of as following conscience at all.

This appears to be a nominalist solution to the problem. Redefining conscience does not make the problem go away. If we allow that it is morally permissible in some sense for individual consciences to choose to perform intrinsically disordered acts against the virtue of chastity, then why not against other virtues such as justice? Hitler and Stalin cannot be thought of as special cases.

As John Paul II pointed out in Centesimus Annus (cited in VS 101): "If there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism." There is an interior connection between ethical relativism and political disorder


Gleeson's appeal to Cardinal Newman lends little weight to his overall argument. One feels, moreover, that Newman would be perplexed at the use to which his writings have been put in this instance. Newman's Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, for example, is frequently cited, but I suspect somewhat misunderstood. It is clear from the context that Newman is addressing the question of the Pope's non-infallible decisions in the areas of politics or ecclesiastical policy, not in the area of solemn definitions of faith and morals.

Newman has no doubt that a Catholic must universally obey the infallibly defined teaching of the Church, if one wishes to remain a Catholic. He was addressing himself to the concerns of English Catholics of the time that the newly defined papal infallibility would lead to the Pope's interference in secular politics. It has nothing at all to do with 'dissent' from defined teachings. Anyone who has any doubts about this should simply read Newman's letter. It is lucid, elegant and orthodox.

Fr Neil Brown has also contributed a piece to this collection entitled "Christian Morality: a Communal Project." As the title suggests, this essay is a plea for community involvement in the project of forging a moral system. Brown considers that there is a danger of the Magisterium "short-circuiting" this community process. "It is only the Church community as a whole which, by its participation, ensures that a Christian ethic truly emerges from the Church's sure grasp of its own faith."

The notion of "Church" involved here is not clearly stated and it is in this confusion that we find the main drawback to Brown's position. Do we mean the universal Catholic Church, the local parish, the diocese, a Basic Ecclesial Community, or simply the people I happen to like and pray with?

The local community does not participate in the charism of infallibility. A diocese or even national Church is not the Catholic Church. It is certainly a part which manifests and makes present the whole Catholic Church, but as history shows us, parts of the Church can wither and die because they lose the interior communio of Apostolic Faith with the rest of the Church. Whole national Churches can err gravely in faith and morals, in theory and in practice, and have done.

Another unclear notion is that of community. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of community participation is a malleable concept capable of being used for almost any ideological purpose, and it often is. What it usually disguises is a fatal attraction for bureaucratic procedural forms. Community equals committee in most cases. Participation in decision-making requires leisure or money, or both. The "lay elitism" mentioned above by Teresa Pirola is a potent disincentive to moving in the direction suggested by Brown.

Pastoral councils, lay synods or whatever method of consultation was envisaged would inevitably result in a narrowing of the sociological profile of those involved to those with the time, those with private incomes or those paid by the Church. Far from being an inclusive concept, "community participation" often entails the disenfranchisement and disempowerment of those without photocopiers and fax machines.


What both Brown and Gleeson end up advocating in theological terms, after they have relativised the universal applicability of moral norms, is a form of casuistry. The discussion of principles becomes sidelined in order to discuss particular cases, especially in the area of human sexuality. This sort of method was characteristic of the Counter-Reformation theologians but later fell into disrepute.

While there are many things one can say in favour of casuistry, especially in the hands of its Baroque proponents, one must also agree with Fr Gilby's view about casuistry: "... when tribute has been paid to a certain gallantry which inspired it, one is tempted to paraphrase the French general who watched the Charge of the Light Brigade, and murmur, it is magnificent, but it is not moral theology."

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