05Oct The Catholic Church has a real authority problem

Summary of points:

A. There is a problem of authority in the church today.

B. Why is there a problem?

C. How do people respond to the authority problem?

D. What is the reaction of the hierarchical church in general?

E. What is the reaction of the hierarchical church to falling numbers in the American Catholic Church?

F. How should those of us working for reform react?


A. There is a problem of authority in the Church today, obviously in moral issues.

In 1992 in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II recognized what he called “a genuine crisis in the Church caused by the fact that teachers of moral theology, even in seminaries, often disagree with official Church teachings.” And he went on to say, “Not only is it theologians, but many other people in the Church also disagree.” So he was willing to recognize that this was a crisis and a problem.

An interesting study was done by Bill D’Antonio and a group of Catholic sociologists. They have been conducting polls of Catholics from 1987 to 2011, raising the same questions each time. And one basic question has been: “Who should have the final say about what is right or wrong: church teaching, individuals, or both?” The percentage of respondents saying the Church leaders should have the final decision in these matters have decreased since the poll was first taken in 1987. On most of the questions asked, over 50% of the respondents maintain that the individual should have the final say. So it’s not simply a question of theological dissent, but there are many Roman Catholics in practice who disagree with moral teachings of the Catholic Church.

There are other authority issues in the Church: the pedophilia problem; celibacy; above all, the role of women in the Church.

In the last two years, a number of priest groups in various places in the world have come together to try to change many of these things.

For example, a group of Austrian priests, now representing more than 10% of all the priests in Austria, issued a very strong initiative entitled, Appeal to Disobedience. They said in the light of what was not happening in the Catholic Church, it was necessary for them to disobey rulings of the bishop and the pope:

• The signers will not deny Communion to people of good will, especially divorced and remarried people, and members of other churches.

• They will avoid, as much as possible, celebrating multiple times on Sunday liturgies, because the bishops think this is the only way to deal with the shortage of ordained ministers in the Church.

• They will ignore the prohibition of preaching by competently trained lay people, including women.

• They will advocate for a married clergy, including women priests.

Obviously this is a VERY STRONG statement. What ultimately will happen here nobody knows?


Second example: The Irish Association of Catholic Priests. They support in a statement at their opening meeting:

• Full implementation of the vision and teaching of Vatican II, with special emphasis on the primacy of the individual conscience,

• The status and active participation of all the baptized,

• The task of establishing a Church, who are all believers, who will be treated as equals.

• In particular they support a number of issues:

o The redesigning of the ministry of the Church to incorporate the gifts of all male and female.

o A re-structuring of the governing system of the Church based on service, not on power.

o Encouraging at every level the culture of consultation and transparency.

o A reevaluation of Catholic sexual teaching and practice that recognizes the profound mystery of human sexuality and the experience and wisdom of God’s people.

The Church in Ireland has come a long way. But it’s interesting that it’s priests groups who are recognizing the problem. So that’s the first point; doesn’t need much proof. There is a problem of authority in the Church today.


B. Why is there a problem?

There’s no doubt that at Vatican II, and subsequently, the Church changed so much of our thinking and our ideas. But the basic problem has been that Church law and structures HAVE NOT changed.

Three aspects:

• The understanding of the Church itself.

• What Vatican II said about the role of bishops.

• The role of lay people in the Church.

 1. First of all, the understanding of the Church.

Lumen gentium was a marked change from the older understanding of the pre-Vatican II Church. We used to say that the Church was a perfect society. The document on the Church started out by saying the Church is a mystery; the Church is a sacrament. And then it used nine biblical metaphors to understand the Church. The primary emphasis was not on the Church as an institution. In fact, the Church is the people of God! Only later in the document does it talk about the hierarchical structure in the church. That is the teaching! But, unfortunately, the Code of Canon Law that came out in the early 1980’s, and subsequent actions, have really gone back to the old model of the Church. The Swiss Italian canon lawyer, Eugenio Corecco very strongly points out that the new Code of Canon Law does not give primacy to what he calls the ecclesiology of communio. This is a communion of all the baptized. But instead more often than not it sees the Church as a societas, a society with office holders.

Ladislas Orsy, a well known canonist, now at Georgetown, and 91 years old, and going strong, is even stronger in his criticism of the code and contemporary policies for not incorporating the centrality of the communion ecclesiology. Unfortunately today, Church law and structure continues to stress the centralization of power and authority in the papacy; and there has been no structural change.

 2. Now, secondly, in regards to the role of bishops in the Church.

What Vatican II rightly did was to stress the collegiality of bishops. All the bishops together with the pope have a concern for the total Church, and a role to play in leading the total Church; and that each individual bishop in one’s own diocese is by one’s own ordination is not a vicar of the pope, but is truly a bishop of the diocese, who again has solicitude for the total Church as well. (Vatican I taught only about the Petrine primacy and infallibility; and then, when the armies came into Rome in the 1870, they had to call it all off.) But then Vatican II rightly stressed that you had to balance it out with the role of bishops in the Church. Unfortunately, however, the canonical legal structures have not put that understanding of Vatican II into effect.

So we have a problem there. Let me quickly illustrate this change with regard to dissent in moral matters. In 1967 the West German bishops explicitly recognized, “This teaching authority of the Church can and on occasion actually does fall into errors.” That non-infallible teachings involve a certain element of the provisional, even to the point of being able of including error. The United States bishops, with a real help from John Francis Cardinal Dearden, had that in their document in 1968 talked about the legitimacy of theological dissent when three conditions are met. You haven’t heard a conference of bishops in the last 30 years make similar statements — just to indicate the change that has occurred.

 3. The role of lay people in the Church.

With regard to lay people in the Church – the document on the Church said, “All the baptized share in the priestly teaching and ruling function of Jesus.” But unfortunately, the Code of Canon Law is very bad on “the role of lay people in the Church.”

Canon 1291. Those who have received sacred orders are qualified according to the norm of the prescripts of the law for the power of governance which exists in the Church by divine institution and is also called the power of jurisdiction. 2. Lay members of the Christian faithful can cooperate in the exercise of this same power according of the norm of the law.

Yes, they can cooperate in it, but they don’t participate in it. In other words THEY CANNOT HAVE governing power in the Church. The result of all of this, then, is a continued centralization of the Church in the papacy. John O’Malley from Georgetown, a brilliant historian of many things in the millennium, wrote an article that said, “What has been the greatest change in the Church in the second millennium of its existence?” And his answer was, “Without any doubt, it was the papalization of the Church.”


C. How do people respond to the authority problem?

First of all, with regard to moral issues, there is what has been called the internal forum solution, or the solution of conscience. Let’s face it, the vast majority of Catholic women practice contraception in marriage, but they and their husbands have made up their minds they can do this, and still be loyal Roman Catholics. And who knows the difference? The same thing is happening, in many cases, in regard to divorced and remarried people. The same thing is happening, in some places, with regard to gay marriage and gay people. People that have decided in their own conscience they can disagree with Church teaching and still consider themselves loyal Roman Catholics. I wholeheartedly support that understanding; but it does create a credibility problem for the Church. How can your teaching be credible in many of the other areas, when many of your own people don’t go along with it in other areas?

You can’t solve structural problems in the internal forum. Structural problems have to be solved by putting a new structure in place – women priests, married priests, whatever it might be. You can’t solve that in the forum of conscience. Some people can try, but then the Church authorities will say, ‘Well, you’re no longer in the Church.” But you see the problem: you can solve the internal moral issues in the forum of the conscience; you can’t with regard to the structural problems.

But there’s a third option how people react; and that is to leave the Church; and this has been pointed out in the famous Pew Study, the Pew Research Center; their study, which was published about 2009. Basically, what they said was: one out of three people born and raised in the Catholic Church is no longer a Roman Catholic today. One out of ten people in the United States is an ex-Catholic.


D. What about the reaction of the hierarchical Church?

How has the hierarchical Church dealt with this fact of the number of people who have left the Church? With regard to moral issues Church authority is obviously aware of the practice of some Catholics. You can’t not be aware of it! But this authority strongly rejects public dissent by theologians – might leave the door somewhat open for quiet dissent; but also there’s been no change whatsoever in regards to these teachings. And, in fact, they have continued to be repeated.

There was always the recognition of human frailty; the fact that people will never live up to the fullness. In fact, this is what has really been a horrendous effect of putting all this emphasis on the law, because you distorted an important part of the Roman Catholic tradition here, and that is the forgiveness of God for the sinner. The law is a blunt instrument: it’s got no place for forgiveness.

Then the question is raised, “Why are church authority, why are popes, unwilling to change on issues such as contraception?” I mean if 98%, the Goodmaker Institute says, of good Catholic married people practice contraception,” why is the Church unwilling to change? And we have to deal with this issue. And I’m sure that power is part of the whole thing; but I also think it is important that we try to recognize what is the strongest argument that those of us who disagree can propose? So what is the strongest argument that can be proposed as to why the Church and the pope should not change Catholic moral teachings? In the document on Humanae Vitae in 1968 Paul VI said that, “Yes, people are proposing all of these arguments; but I couldn’t change the teaching, because this has been the constant teaching of Church authority.”

How do you respond to that argument? There’s a number of points could be made.

• The Church has claimed too much certitude for its positions. If it only said every time it taught it, this is a non-infallible teaching. And, even then, non-infallible is circa locuta. What does it obviously mean? Fallible! Problem solved. We claim too much certitude for it and now we are suffering. We did not properly label what that teaching involved.

• Church authority has changed its teachings on a number of moral issues. I mentioned before that, in my judgment, the role of women is probably the most significant difficult internal issue today. But in the history of the whole Christian Church, there is nothing worse than our teaching accepting slavery. It was really only in the 19th century that we finally came to say that slavery is wrong. For 19 centuries we didn’t do that; and look at the horror that it caused so many people. So, we have been wrong on many other issues as well.

• We admitted that we had to change our teaching on religious freedom.

• We admitted long ago that we changed our teaching on usury. In fact the Catholic Church condemned usury, which is taking interest on a loan. We condemned that for 16 centuries, and, unlike artificial contraception, had a scripture quote to prove it. Luke says, “Lend, expecting nothing in return.” But the Catholic Church changed. In the 16th century there were three papal documents saying usury is a sin, taking interest on a loan. A century later everybody was doing it.

• We changed our teaching, for example, with regard to the meaning of marital sexuality and the criteria for marital sexuality. The early Church, with Augustine for example, said that there was always venial sin involved with sexual intercourse; but then, interestingly enough, we said so the only thing that justified sexual intercourse was procreation. But then we gradually realized that there was another end of marriage: love, union, and that sexual intercourse helped those two ends of marriage: procreation and love union. But then, interestingly enough, that innovator, Pius XII, comes along and says not only do you not have to intend procreation, but you can even try to prevent it by using the rhythm system. Now that’s a huge development; a huge change.

One of the primary reasons why Church authority is afraid to change it is, because, if you change on this issue, you’re going to have go change on other issues; and you’re going to open the door – Pandora’s box.


E. What is the reaction of the hierarchical Church to falling numbers in the American Catholic Church?

If your organization, your business, your group lost one-third of its members, wouldn’t you try to do something about it? The American Catholic Church has barely mentioned the problem, let alone done anything about it.

On a worldwide scene, including the American scene, they do recognize there’s a problem. In fact, no one has recognized the problem more than Benedict XVI. Benedict XVI, from the day he became pope, and much sooner, pointed out the problems of Europe: that the Catholic Church was dying in Europe. He wasn’t denying the facts. He recognized them, and pointed out the problem, as we’ve got to do something about it. That’s why he even took the name Benedict, because what Benedict had done for civilization in his time, we now had to do for European civilization in his time. So, to his great credit, he has recognized the problem, and has tried to deal with it. Unfortunately I don’t think he has dealt adequately with the problem.

In 2010 the pope announced the formation of a new department – if you want to call it that – in the Roman Curia: the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. And Benedict is the last one to start a new bureaucracy, because, as you know, he is opposed to most bureaucracy, but he thought it important to start this new council for promoting the new evangelization. Its task is to promote a renewed evangelization in the countries where the first proclamation of the faith has occurred long ago, but are now “experiencing a progressive secularization of society and an eclipse of a sense of God.” He blames the whole problem on secularization. Now, a year later, he addressed the participants of the plenary assembly of this new pontifical council and repeated the same basic themes: “The crisis comes from those countries that were long ago evangelized, but now are losing many of their members.” And, in fact, in 2012 there will be a 13th Ordinary Synod of Bishops on this precise topic of the New Evangelization.

And in preparation for it, the Vatican has sent out a working paper – they call it an instrumental laborus, but it’s a working paper of what they should discuss. But, here again, the primary problem is secularization; and this is a huge problem. So most of the documents say the problem with the Church losing numbers is the secularization out there. Now even in this instrumental laborus draft working document, they give one paragraph of about seventy talking about, “Well there might be some internal Church problems causing it, and they are:

• Weak faith,

• The imperfect witness of Christians and bureaucratic structures,

• Routine liturgical celebrations, and even,

• The counter witness of some Christians.

But there is nothing wrong that the hierarchical Church has done. And that’s the problem.


F. How should those of us working for reform react?

There are no easy answers. I will suggest to recognize again the Church is mediation. To me, one of the greatest of Catholic theological traditions is its emphasis on mediation, the divine is mediated in and through the human.

The best of the Catholic theology said, “I don’t belong in the Church because I like the minister, because I like the music, because I like the people. I do it because this is the way God has come to me through a community, and I am to go to God through this community.” And that’s why one belongs to the Church.

Don’t forget the positive things the Church does.


• These edited highlights of Charles Curran’s address at the Central Methodist Church, Detroit, USA on 11 September 2012 were published on New Catholic Times Sensus F’s facebook page. Submitted for publication by Mary O. Vallely.

3 Responses

  1. Gene Carr

    It seems to me that Curran’s diagnosis of a ‘crisis of authority’ in the Church is based on the widespread withdrawal of consent to Church teaching on the part of theologians, clerics and laity. Yet this assumes that the teaching authority of Mother Church is based onn the idea of ‘consent’. But is it not the case that the Vatican 1 definition of Papal Infallibility specifically includes the words “and not by the consent of the Church”? Some might and do think that these words were put there by the manical macinations of Pio Nono, while protected by French bayonets. But is it not just as possibile that, anticipating the future editoral line of such as the National Catholic Reporter, the Holy Spirit made a pre-emptive strike.

    The question that every Catholic priest must ask himself is this: is it my mission to persuade the Magisterium to teach what the faithful practice, or is my mission to persuade the faithful to strive to practice what the Magisterium teaches and has always taught? Maybe we have a perceived ‘crisis of authority’ precisely because too many clerics choose the first course.

  2. Stephen Edward

    Today (Oct 7th) Doctor Edward Norman a prominent Anglican is to be received into the Catholic Church. His reason is that there is no authority in Anglicanism and that they believe that a majority can decide what is true and may dispense with what was previously regarded as true. We Catholics have authority and should spend a significant part of our prayer time, thanking God for it.

  3. Joe O'Leary

    Curran is a rock of sanity.

    Indeed, if the entire body of the faithful reject a given teaching, we may assume that the teaching has not been “received” by the Church. This would apply even to statements put forward as “infallible” — IF received they are infallible ex sese non ex consensu ecclesiae, but if not received they are a dead letter.