Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Reflections on Chimney Watch

            As to be expected, the national and international media have been publishing numerous articles on the election of the new pope. These articles highlight how many within the Roman Catholic Church desire change in their church. The problems are well-known: clerical sex abuse scandals and their mishandling by bishops and archbishops; bureaucratic infighting, turmoil, and scandal in the Roman Curia; the decline of Catholicism in Europe (and its potential decline in the US, were it not for mostly Hispanic immigrants); competition from Pentecostalism in Latin America; and ongoing calls for the church to update itself further, beyond the momentous decisions that were made fifty years ago at the Second Vatican Council.

            While traditionalists want to maintain the rules on clerical celibacy and a male-only priesthood, and some would even like to reverse many of the decisions from Vatican II, many liberal Catholics (most living within western liberal democracies) want the church to accept the conclusion of the magisterial sixteenth-century reformers, namely, that the apostolic Scriptures and ancient church tradition do not prohibit priests from being married. (Of course the Roman Church has been granting some exceptions to married men who are allowed to serve as ordained priests in extraordinary situations.)

            Following the lead of several twentieth-century Lutheran and Protestant churches, many Catholic laity and some clergy think the church should also allow women to serve as priests. As the Pontifical Biblical Commission concluded already back in 1976, there is nothing within the biblical texts, when properly interpreted, that would prohibit a woman from serving as an ordained priest. It needs to be pointed out that some nuns have been doing just that, clandestinely, for decades. As an example: when I lived in Portland there was a nun who had been authorized to administer the Eucharist within the institution she was serving. She kept a low profile. Nobody complained. Just the opposite. Many appreciated her pastoral, eucharistic ministry.

            Certainly Jesus Christ is the same "yesterday, today, and forever," but not every biblical statement or apostolic teaching means the same today as it did when it was first uttered. Because of the actuality of change in meaning over time, the hermeneutical approach that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer takes to the US Constitution ("a living document within a living democracy") is better suited for biblical interpretation within the living church of Christ than the one taken by Justice Scalia, who views the Constitution as "a dead document," whose meanings are entirely bound to what the texts meant when the founders first wrote them. In Justice Scalia's view, the meaning of the Constitution does not change over time. (If that were actually true, we would not today think it "cruel and unusual" to put people in stocks or give them twenty lashes for certain crimes or hang horse thieves--all common punishments in the eighteenth century. Other examples could easily be given to disprove a strict "originalist" position vis-a-vis the Constitution.)

          Rather remarkably, some contemporary Roman Catholic priests and theologians sound a note that echoes the 28th Article of the Augsburg Confession, namely, that at least some apostolic commands that have been understood a certain way for a long time, can through cultural change and theological criticism be legitimately set aside. The sixteenth-century Augsburg Confession identified several: the eating of blood, the eating of non-kosher foods, the covering of women's heads during the divine service. The hermeneutical principles that AC 28 follows include the centrality of the gospel, the dictates of Christian love, and the need to avoid binding human consciences to transitory apostolic commands and human traditions.

          In other words, AC 28 reflects a hermeneutical position that parallels the hermeneutics of Justice Breyer. He identifies his approach under the category of "Active Liberty." AC 28 (and Apol. 28) identify the evangelical hermeneutic under the category of "Christian liberty" in service to the gospel. (See Stephen Breyer, Active Liberty: Interpreting a Democratic Constitution [Oxford, 2008]. His approach to the Constitution strikes me as a wonderful parallel to an evangelical-catholic approach to the apostolic Scriptures and their interpretation over time and cultural change.)
          Today we hear from within the Roman Church many calls for change. One veteran priest, active in an African setting, frankly stated to a mainstream correspondent that the church must evolve, that clerical celibacy ought to end, that women ought to be allowed to serve as priests, and that the church ought to recognize the importance of dissent. (See The Economist [March 9 2013], 61)

          How I would love to talk with that elderly priest! While I suspect that he and I might eventually run up against the age-old conflict between Augustine's doctrine of grace and his doctrine of the church, I also surmise that we might have a lot about which we agree.

          His comment brought to mind the editorial ("A Vatican Spring?") by another Roman Catholic that I admire, namely, Dr. Hans Kueng, Emeritus Professor of Theology at Tuebingen University, that was published in the Feb 27th edition of the New York Times. Dr. Kueng had been the previous pope's colleague (and friend) when they both taught at Tuebingen, but then Kueng had his falling out with a previous papacy over papal infallibility. Subsequently, Dr. Kueng and Dr. Ratzinger (aka Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI) grew more and more distant. (When Cardinal Ratzingen was elected pope in 2005, Dr. Kueng bluntly stated, "Er ist nicht mein Pabst.")

Here's an excerpt from Dr. Kueng's editorial:

Of course, the system of the Catholic Church doesn't resemble Tunisia or Egypt so much as an absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia. In both places there are no genuine reforms, just minor concessions. In both, tradition is invoked to oppose reform. In Saudi Arabia tradition goes back only two centuries; in the case of the papacy, 20 centuries.

To this day the Curia, which in its current form is likewise a product of the 11th century, is the chief obstacle to any thorough reform of the Catholic Church, to any honest ecumenical understanding with the other Christian churches and world religions, and to any critical, constructive attitude toward the modern world.

There is no way to ignore the church's desperate needs. There is a catastrophic shortage of priests, in Europe and in Latin America and Africa. Huge numbers of people have left the church or gone into 'internal emigration', especially in the industrialized countries. There has been an unmistakable loss of respect for bishops and priests, alienation, particularly on the part of younger women, and a failure to integrate young people into the church. One shouldn't be misled by the media hype of grandly staged papal mass events or by the wild applause of conservative Catholic youth groups. Behind the facade, the whole house is crumbling.

In this dramatic situation the church needs a pope who's not living intellectually in the Middle Ages ... It needs a pope who is open to the concerns of the Reformation, to modernity. A pope who stands up for the freedom of the church in the world not just by giving sermons but by fighting with words and deeds for freedom and human rights within the church, for theologians, for women, for all Catholics who want to speak the truth openly. A pope who no longer forces the bishops to toe a reactionary party line, who puts into practice an appropriate democracy in the church, one shaped on the model of primitive Christianity. A pope who doesn't let himself be influenced by a Vatican-based 'shadow pope' like Benedict and his loyal followers.

A recent poll in Germany shows 85 per cent of Catholics in favor of letting priests marry, 79 per cent in favor of letting divorced persons remarry in church and 75 per cent in favor of ordaining women. Similar figures would most likely turn up in many other countries. Might we get a cardinal or bishop who doesn't simply want to continue in the same old rut? Someone who, first, knows how deep the church's crisis goes and, second, knows paths that lead out of it?

If the next conclave were to elect a pope who goes down the same old road, the church will never experience a new spring, but fall into a new ice age and run the danger of shrinking into an increasingly irrelevant sect. [End of Kueng excerpt]

As I read Dr. Kueng's editorial, I couldn't help but think that his words apply to my own church body as well, the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. We, too, have our curia (CTCR) that enforces church tradition and ensures that any dissent is rejected on the basis of church tradition. Like Rome, which also trumpets the importance of church tradition, the LCMS CTCR utilizes synodical traditions (statements, resolutions) to squelch all attempts at faithful theological reform.

At least the Roman Church accepts mainstream scientific knowledge (e.g, theory of evolution) and rejects fundamentalist biblicism ("creationism"), unlike the LCMS. But in so many other ways, the current LCMS mimics Rome when it consistently allows church tradition to trump critical, theological engagement with the biblical texts and our contemporary world. As a result, the method of the LCMS is identical to Rome: church tradition is the norm of doctrine and practice and serves as the sole basis for squelching dissent within the synod on matters like the ordination of women.