When - if ever - will the Church act to safeguard her authority?

When - if ever - will the Church act to safeguard her authority?

B.A. Santamaria

No purely human organisation could hope to avoid the process of dissolution if open and public attacks on its leadership from persons in responsible positions within the organisation were permitted to continue with nothing done to face the perpetrators with the consequences of their actions.

The Catholic Church, of course, is not a purely human organisation. Accordingly one may hope that, in the longer term, the supernatural factors which have operated, at different times of crisis during its long history, will reassert themselves. That, however, is small comfort for those who see the institution dissolving before their eyes, as a result of the concerted attacks upon the leadership of the present Pope, which no-one in authority lifts a finger to prevent, let alone punish.

In the Catholic system, the Pope is the Vicar of Christ. Hence, such attacks are particularly offensive, and play a large part in the present disillusionment with the exercise of all forms of authority within the Church by whoever holds it. If the Pope can be safely contradicted, even insulted, why not a bishop? Why not a theologian, who has no authority save his university degree - for what that is worth?

Late in 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the authority of the Holy Father behind it, declared that the Pope's 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was a declaration of the infallible teaching of the Church in the matter of women's ordination. It was infallible not because it had been officially defined as such by the Pope, but because it had been taught officially by the "ordinary and universal Magisterium" of the Church.

Universal practice

That is to say it had been the common teaching of all the bishops throughout the history of the Church as to the structure of the Church, 'given' by Christ Himself. It has been the universal practice without exception of the Roman Church, as well as of Eastern Orthodoxy for almost 2,000 years, and of the Anglican Church until, under feminist pressure, it revised the teaching it had practised since the Reformation; as it has, more recently, abolished Hell.

The fact of a universal and continuous teaching of all of the bishops from the most primitive ages of the Church to the present day, is as much an expression of infallible teaching as any 'ex cathedra' pronouncement by the Pope.

The reaction has been immediate, as it was following release of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994 when dissenting joint statements were released in the names of organisations of Australian religious, theologians and biblical scholars (see AD2000, August 1994, pp 3,6). The Sydney Morning Herald of December 15, 1995, reported the President of the Australian Catholic Theological Association as publicly accusing "the Vatican" of attempting to "theologically bully" the clergy and the laity into acceptance of the teaching declared in the Pope's Apostolic Letter. It is almost impossible to believe that such a statement was made: but no correction has been made, or at least published.

There is no point in disguising what was meant. "The Vatican" was 'code' for the Pope. To call the Pope, in effect, a "theological bully" is scandalous. Nothing has been done about it. Within the Church, of course, there is room for legitimate discussion as to the meaning of infallibility in general. But as Cardinal Danneels of Brussels pointed out, "there is a difference between continuing to discuss the reasons why and public dissent." The distinction is obvious. The proof lies just over the border of Belgium - in Holland.

Serious dissent within the modern Church first expressed itself in Holland in 1968. As the Cardinal Primate of Holland (Cardinal Simonis) recently observed (30 Days, 10, 1995, pp. 24ff): "... the almost total de-Catholicisation of Holland began with the National Pastoral Council in 1968." This was followed by the publication of the Dutch Catechism - in many of its propositions, heretical - whose withdrawal was demanded by the Holy See, a demand which was rejected. The objections were merely published in a separate supplement. There is a good deal of evidence that the dissenters enjoyed positive encouragement, or at the very least favourable "neutrality" from some of the Dutch Bishops. The first wave of dissent rapidly became an unstoppable tide.

In the early sixties, Holland was and had for decades been one-third Catholic, and with the exception of Ireland, it enjoyed by far the highest level of religious practice in the West. Today, the Dutch Catholic Church is a pitiful rump with a bare 5% still practising. The Protestant third is in the same condition. The consequences can be traced in almost every department of Dutch life.

The present position is clearly untenable: or ought to be in any organisation which takes itself seriously.

Formal declaration

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a statement "approved" and "ordered to be published" by the Pope, has just stated that the Pontiff "exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf Luke 22:32) has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere and by all as belonging to the deposit of the faith."

On the other hand, an influential group of Australian theologians has stated that the Pope's declaration does not have to be followed.

For instance, Rev Dr Gerald Gleeson, one of the more moderate, in a 2-page spread across the official archdiocesan paper, the Sydney Catholic Weekly, concluded his analysis by stating: "There has been no definitive or teaching act excluding women from ordination which Catholics are required to accept as a matter of faith or membership of the Church."

The two positions are absolutely incompatible.

Which is a Catholic to follow? The Pope? Or theologians writing either in the daily press or in official Catholic publications?

The resultant situation is ridiculous. No wonder that millions of ordinary Catholics have forsaken a Church which apparently does not know its own mind, or has no means of enforcing its authority.

The stakes are now very high. As the great historian of the Council of Trent, Fr Hubert Jedin, warned the German Bishops in 1968, Luther's rebellion could have been averted as late as 1519. Nothing was done. Half the Church was lost. In Holland, Cardinal Simonis now says that what is being witnessed is a second, and worse, Reformation, with a core of theologians determined to remove Papal authority in matters of doctrine and morals altogether. Are we to witness a repetition?

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