Tag Archives: teaching

June 21: What is Theology Saying? X: Papal Infallibility I.

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A question you put to one side rather than asking it out loud? Friar Austin has written four posts about it, two before and two after Saint John’s day. Thank you Austin, off we go!

We have seen how Church teaching changes through the ages, and what revelation is and how it happens. But for some of the faithful the process of revelation and the development of doctrine are happenings, but they have come to an end. The end is when the Pope speaks about a matter of doctrine, and the matter is closed. When that point is reached many believe the matter in question should not be raised again; not even by a General Council or by another Pope.

Others believe that because situations change, what one Pope may have said in a given situation, may not apply currently. Culturally and socially the papacy lives in an earlier stage of history than the people say of Northern Europe and North America, and is teaching from the world it knows, and so may not appear relevant for some. Add to this the disquiet the Reformers feel on issues of the papacy – the belief that there should be no such office as pope. Things have changed – many Protestants believe all churches need a leader who is not just a functionary – like President of the World Council of Churches – but chosen, holy person set aside as a spiritual figure, voicing the conscience of the Christian community in the world – issues of peace, justice, hunger and poverty.

Many people – not Catholic – are interested in what Pope Francis is doing. They approve of what he is saying and doing, and welcome him in their own countries; especially with his desire to meet with civil and religious leaders of all faiths and none.

But there remains concern about papal infallibility; and questions are asked about the Catholic Church and its commitment to the revelation of Jesus Christ and the guiding presence of the Spirit alive in the Church in the way we regard papal teaching. Studies have taken place about what exactly the First Vatican Council meant in giving formal definition to Papal Infallibility in the Nineteenth Century. Why was it made and how does it sit with the infallibility of the Church’s General Councils, and the infallibility of faithful practice? How the claim to Roman primacy first arose, and how it was understood, have been the subject of meticulous research.

Rahner says [The Christian of the Future] that although infallible pronouncements once served the purpose of the Church, they really do not do so any longer. He sees future Popes not making such pronouncements, and infallibility will cease to be an issue. But what about Humanae Vitae? The German bishops, advised by Rahner, issued a statement telling the people the importance of the encyclical and its primary aim to protect the person and the sanctity of marriage. They also pointed out that the encyclical did not take from them their ultimate, personal decision of conscience in the matter of birth control. Some asked how this could be when the Pope had given his judgement on the matter and the Pope is infallible.

AMcC

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14 June. What do the Saints know? V: Faith and Simplicity

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We are reflecting on the kind of knowledge that the saints have and we are looking at the theological virtue of faith. It seems to me that there is a wonderful simplicity about the quality of ‘knowing’ that goes with faith. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that God is simple: God is, he says, and “faith grasps that in a simple act” (II.II Q 1:2). Faith has content, then, and that content is God Himself.

Faith is not wishful thinking. It circumscribes and protects a relationship with God. That is what it contains. Once this content has been grasped in what Thomas calls a ‘simple act’ we also find, he says, that faith does involve knowing on a more ordinary level. Faith inspires us to learn about God and his life, to discover what He has revealed, to learn about the articles of belief, and so on. And, this kind of inquiry gives joy, I find. And increases love. Here it becomes possible to see the interconnection of theological virtues. Love of God is increased through the kinds of study that are an expression of faith.

Thomas goes on: it follows that, “…it is proper to the believer to think with assent.” Let’s pause here. It is proper to the believer to think with assent. This is not the way we learned to think in school. Ordinarily, thought means taking a stance not of assent but of disagreement. It goes something like this: ‘Why should I believe that any given statement is true? Chances are, you are trying to get something out of me that is not in my best interests to give.’ Now that may well be true, and faith does not mean that we abandon all capacity for critical distance in relation to the outside world. But faith is not really a dialogue with the outside world per se. It is a dialogue with God. Therefore, a different kind of thought process goes with it.

St. Thomas explains: “The act of believing is distinguished from all the other acts of the intellect, which are about determining the true and the false. In faith, [by contrast] we accept that what God has revealed is true” (II.II Q 2: 1). Why? Because God is Truth. It is simply not necessary to doubt this. On the contrary, faith calls us to absorb God’s truth more and more fully.

SJC

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May 14: What is Theology Saying IX: We participate in the event the Apostles interpret.

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Jesus changed radically our understanding of life in a way that will never change again. The Apostles are witnesses in a way no one else can be. Their testimony would have little or no significance today if it were simply an account of a past event. What makes it significant is the fact that we are participants in the same event the apostles interpret.

This interpretation only has meaning to the extent we share in the same happening and reflect on it and give our own prophetic interpretation, making real here and now the conversation between God and ourselves. So, what did the apostles pass on?

First and before all else – it was the happening. How do you pass on a happening? They did it through life in community, inviting others to share the way they lived, which was how they lived with Jesus, a life energised and transformed through the experience of the Resurrection. They spoke, and what they said took on meaning for their hearers.

Out of this living experience of sharing life each generation gave its own interpretation in words. Clearly, over time, the interpretation changed quite a lot. It is tempting to ask, as a consequence, where did revelation end and theology, liturgy, catechesis etc. take over? This is the Church, the struggle to live a life of love and trust – celebrating this life in the liturgy, sharing explanations through theological reflections and catechesis – this is our participation in revelation, it is revelation. Revelation is not simply a record of what was revealed before; a record playing over and over again. Revelation is the living and intensely personal reality of our communion with God, when God communicates not some factual information but his own fully alive reality – hence the relevance of a contemplative heart.

If Christian life is such a part of revelation, does this mean that every word and explanation is just as good as any other – how do we know we are not fooling ourselves, and where does the dogmatic teaching of the Church and its moral guidelines fit?

Revelation is first of all a happening – but has to be expressed in words, which is how all human understanding comes into focus. We can’t live meaningfully without such expression. Words are a community product – my words have meaning because society has agreed a common meaning for them. When the Church wishes to share its experience, it has to agree on the way it explains itself; on its common understanding of the world, history and most especially, God. It must have a statement of its prophetic interpretation of events through which God reveals in the community – the events of Jesus’ life and the original formation of the Church. It must also have an interpretation of how God self-reveals in community – through sacraments and the life of charity.

Because salvation is a community happening, it is counter-productive to promote chaos and disruptions in our search for unity through understandings of life already achieved. Our continued sharing in revelation is guaranteed in the unity of the Church – requiring continuity in teaching and authoritative judgements. This presumes that continuity is guaranteed through living dialogue and that authority is exercised as a form of serving the life. Continuity would be pointless where it an empty shell formed from the past, now withered and gone. Revelation is real when it is alive, and it is alive when people are creatively involved.

Revelation did not end when the apostles died out; because it is not a collection of factual information about happenings beyond our experience, but the self-communicating of God. Revelation is not a finished product, it does not consist of unchanging truths, but of the living reality of God-with-us. Revelation was not closed with the death of the last apostle, rather was it opened in the way of a love affair which is not completed when two people marry, but marks a real beginning.

AMcC

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13 May: What is Theology saying? VIII: Our faith confesses Jesus as Lord

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Our faith confesses Jesus as Lord, uniquely Son of God, and therefore the definitive Word of God spoken in history. Which only makes sense if we understand that it is a fully human word that is spoken. He struggled to express in the Aramaic words of his culture and his own experience, his human understanding of the divine meaning of his own life and existence in the world. Likewise with typical Jewish gestures and signs, and in the way he shaped his life and responded to the way others shaped it.

When the Apostles began passing on his message, they didn’t begin by reporting what he said. They first mention their own Easter experience, their experience of the Resurrection. What they saw was his way of meeting death and bursting its bonds. For them, the meaning of Jesus was something that could not be contained entirely in words; and Revelation could not be entirely communicated in words.

What was this Revelation? It was first and foremost the full experience of his presence, his companionship and friendship giving meaning to their own lives. Only secondarily, and within the embrace of friendship, did they receive explanations in which Jesus gave his own prophetic interpretation of why he was present with them. They received his words through living with him and living as he lived. Only by doing this did they come to reflect on what he said, and because of this proclaimed the reality in their own words; a further prophetic interpretation – extending the presence of Christ further into the world.

We have the classic collection of these words – the New Testament. We also have a collection of prophetic interpretations of what the apostolic community was like passed on to us by tradition; consisting of liturgical and catechetical formulae of all kinds [e.g. the Creeds]. These testimonies are more elusive because they have been worked out and refined through the centuries. This asks an important question about Revelation. If a text or prayer is written after the time of the apostles, does this make it less sacred or less revealed? Did Revelation stop when the last apostle died? Obviously, the interpretation of the apostles is special, indeed unique, simply through their personal presence at the heart of the Christian event.

If Jesus is the Revelation of God because of the conversation we now have with God – which he achieved during his life as it unfolded, and because of the way he met and overcame death, then those who walked with him had an experience definitive for all time. He changed radically our understanding of life in a way that will never change again. The Apostles are witnesses in a way no one else can be.

AMcC

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9 May: What is Theology Saying? IV: Every believer has a part to play.

According to the ordinary knowledge of the universe current at the time, it could not have occurred to the theologians or Church authority that when Genesis speaks of the six days of creation, and itemises what happened on each day, that this was poetic rather than literal. Today, the increasing knowledge of the universe, along with the rapidly accumulating evidence for the unified and organic evolution of the universe and all things in it, caused many to say that the traditional way doctrine was taught no longer makes sense. The Church while not denying doctrine, reformulated it radically, so that believers could take it seriously. Today people are more comfortable with an account of creation that has incorporated all we currently know of evolution. Thirty or forty years ago many were still worried, and fifty years ago almost all Catholics believed evolution contradicted faith.

Theological development: every believer has a part to play, but not all are properly equipped to do so. When the faithful say that existing explanations do not make sense any more, it is a wake-up call to theologians that it is time to reconsider why these formulations were made in the first place, what was the important message and the historical circumstances leading to such a formulation. Having made this study, theologians then attempt to reformulate doctrine in a way faithful to the Christian message, but which is also up to date for contemporary believers. Not an easy task! They try to do it in different ways, according to what their people share with them. The way theologians think in Italy and Spain will differ from those in Central Europe, for example.

Dogmatic development: because the experience of various kinds of believers is so different, there are often clashes between different schools of theology – sooner or later, because of differences, they will ask the teaching authority of the Church to intervene with an official version. There are usually many ways of expressing the truth; there has never really been only one correct way of doing it. The teaching authority of the Church has no hot line as to which is the better way. Even when infallibility is invoked by the Holy See or a General Council it does not mean that this statement was made on the basis of a new revelation. It means that it claims to be the authentic interpretation of what the faith of the people as a whole has always explicitly been or implied.

Such statements tend to be conservative, because that is their purpose. This does not mean there has been no dogmatic development. It takes third place because there cannot be a judgement on something until it has been discussed [the role of theology], and cannot be discussed until human experience has given rise to the query [the role of all faithful]. Some feel guilty when thinking differently from official pronouncements. They should respectfully and responsibly express this mismatch, because this is how development of doctrine has always taken place, and must continue to do so.

AMcC

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8 May: What is Theology saying? III: A new way of being human

The Church teaches the same doctrine, but continues to make explicit what is implicit. An example: Peter preached God raised Jesus from the dead. What is implicit is that Jesus died, which the Creed makes explicit: was crucified, died and was buried…

However, Rahner insists there has been much development of doctrine that cannot be explained only by showing what was contained in words of previous formulations. What is handed down in the Christian tradition is much more than words; it is a new way of being human. The more we live it, the more we understand and try to express in words what is involved. Doctrine helps not only when we study words already written, but in trying to reflect on further implications through reflecting on the daily experiences of living this new way.

An example: the love between man and woman, parent and child. Certainly poetry and art forms have helped us see this wonderful gift in deeper ways, as indeed has scientific research. But common sense tells us the most realistic way to know is to experience it. The written word can only tell us about it. Experience lets us know it ever more deeply. The Church has developed a theology of prayer – but this is valuable, not because of study, argument or research, but through the real presence of praying people. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray – the way they had seen him at prayer – he simply sat down within who he was, the beloved of Abba, and let this wash over and through him, and produce its own response.

Newman and Rahner, among others, tell us that from the apostolic times through till now there have been three necessary elements for the development of doctrine: all the faithful, trying to live the Gospel – theologians trying to make this understandable – Church authority intervening occasionally to select an official explanation. Notice the right ordering of these three. Doctrine develops first at the level of ordinary human experience. Each generation has its own catechesis of the faith they cherish. This stage is obviously influenced by the contemporary understanding of the universe, of humankind, social relationships within time and space as then understood.

As new things are learned and uncovered about all of these, there is the ongoing need for renewal and review, realising from time to time that there is something in the current formulation of faith that doesn’t seem to fit, in terms of their experience of life. All through the ages this has been voiced, and it is this that has provided the agenda for theological research. Take for example the way Genesis says in the beginning – speaking as if God physically shaped clay with his hands, and spoke the words. The Church was already aware that God doesn’t have hands or voice, and that this Genesis account is poetic not intended to be taken literally.

AMcC

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6 May: What is theology saying today? I: How to change without losing the essentials.

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Secular society changes its laws, its structures and even what it believes. Most of us have been brought up to believe that the Church did not do this. The answers given in the catechism would always be valid; God guides the Church to teach truth.

Indeed, people worry when it seems the teaching is changing. Examples: more inter-faith dialogue; greater involvement of the laity in Church matters; relaxing the laws of fasting; changes in the Mass… People are entitled to worry about these things, and are entitled to ask questions before accepting such changes. Changes are not necessarily good. We need to know what to change without losing the essentials.

Theology tells us there is only one good way to discover the criteria for change – it is the common sense way of looking at the history of Church teaching. Teaching developed very slowly and even stormily over the ages.

Jesus did not give the Apostles a catechism or creed. They didn’t explain things as they are explained now. The Apostles and generations after them would not have understood the catechism. They probably would have said it went against the teachings of Jesus, and made everything complicated. The Catechism was accepted as Church teaching on faith and morals.

Church teaching has constantly changed and will continue to do so. But if we would understand what is happening now we need to ask about the process used for changing explanations of faith and the rules of morality in the past. Newman in the 19th Century was very concerned about this. As an Anglican he pondered the claims of the Catholic Church to make pronouncements about doctrine – how would one know what was a true development of doctrine and what was erroneous? The Protestant Churches at that time accused Catholics of changing the teachings of Jesus constantly.

Newman’s basic premise for change: doctrines are ideas, ideas always change because they exist, not in books, but in people. Ideas change as people change through varied experiences and new insights resulting from them. When our experience of living in our world changes because of new inventions and the discoveries of science, our ideas about everything will be shaped accordingly.

AMcC

Roman Gate, Lincoln.

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22 April: the Hireling’s Vocation.

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My apologies for being gloomy on Good Shepherd Sunday! I was listening to the Gospel reading, until the words about the hired man running away when life got difficult.

It came home to me that public servants are now treated simply as hirelings. Successive governments have eroded the conception of vocation, checking simply whatever inspectors can measure. They price up every task and every worker but know the value of none: teacher, nurse, doctor, probation officer, bus driver. Mammon, alias the Market, is god in Britain.

Many find it hard to reconcile their sense of their vocation with these measurements. All too easily creeps in a culture of deceit. I have seen official advice to primary school teachers not to be generous in early assessments so that children can make progress – on paper. Something similar must be at work, if unconsciously, a few years into a child’s career. I’ve lost count of meetings where secondary teachers tell their primary colleagues their assessments are too generous, ‘so-and-so is a level or more beneath where you had her.’ While accusing neither of conscious dishonesty, both have an incentive to show that their school is enabling the pupil to progress through the levels.

And will the pupil become a better spouse, parent, neighbour, worker for all that measuring?

Many staff who leave cite overwork – especially paperwork – as a factor in their decision. What lies behind this is that they feel expendable, not valued. I am blessed to be at the natural end of my career but still able to work at the margins, where I pick up Pope Francis’s famous ‘smell of the sheep’, working one-to-one with young people who cannot get on with school. I’m not sure I could.

There’s no disguising the weather in which this mountain shepherd is gathering his sheep. On the slopes of Pen-y-fan, Brecon, Wales.

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September 3. Introduction to ‘Jesus beyond Dogma’.

austinBefore leaving Canterbury as FISC closed, Friar Austin gave a series of talks that he entitled, ‘Jesus beyond Dogma’. I was able to attend most of them, and might have challenged him to call the series, ‘Jesus BEFORE dogma’.

This fortnight’s posts contain the working texts of those talks, so they are longer than our usual posts. I hope you find them thought- and hope-provoking. Do let Will hear your comments!

MMB.

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August 31: L’Arche and Care V – So who is helping whom to achieve what?

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I’ve had a ‘portfolio’ of teaching jobs over the last twenty years, since I became unable to work full-time in classrooms, so it was easy enough to ease into the current L’Arche approach to work and leisure activities where people commit to a weekly portfolio of activities that might include candle-making, gardening, brewing beer, swimming and the weekly grocery shop.

That’s when we meet our friends, often enough. Our local metro supermarket can seem very crowded when three or four people stop to chat in the narrow aisles! We’ve also joined an informal leisure gardening group that includes core members, assistants and their families.

Jobs can take a little longer … for example, setting up a core member to saw wood safely, despite physical challenges. (I’m grateful for the training I received in task analysis as a young man!) but then three eight-year-old girls want to join in, so it’s time to set up the other saw bench and provide them, too, with encouragement rather than hands-on help.

So who is helping whom to achieve what?

Dear reader, I’ll let you puzzle that one out.

But working with core members and children makes me stand and stare and chat. Stand and let others work, stare at the problem of how to let them work safely. Chat while the job is done, encouraging, praising, suggesting, sharing the satisfaction of a job done, a skill acquired.

Let us be ready to receive from others. Didn’t Jesus get the idea of foot washing, that James talked about on Tuesday, from a couple of women?

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