The lonely shepherd in the Vatican – Catholic moral teaching’s balancing act between faith and science
As part of my morning routine in the office, I read Vatican Radio’s daily e-mail newsletter. I’m not sure if it is aimed at a wider audience, and I wish it was shorter and more concise – and, above all, easier to understand. Let’s take, for example, this summary of Pope Benedict XVI’s meeting with the International Theological Commission in late November 2005 and try, step by step, to make sense of it.
It begins and this is an own translation of the German text:
The revelations of Christ are the fundamental normative principle of theology. Theological study in turn must be conducted in the Church and for the Church in fidelity with the apostolic traditions… The revelations of Christ, the Good News of the Risen Jesus, forms the basis of theology – and it is always to be understood as directed by the official Church.
Further in the text: The work of the theologian must take place in communion with the living magisterium of the Church and under its authority. To regard theology as a private matter for the theologian is to misunderstand that nature. Only within the ecclesiastic community, in communion with the legitimate Shepherd of the Church, does the theological task have a meaning, which, of course, requires a scientific competence but also – and not any less! – spirit of faith and the humility of he who knows that the living and true God, the object of his reflection, infinitely exceeds all human faculties.
If one wished to be uncharitable, one could interpret this as: The outcome of theological inquest can be correct only if it coincides with what the Church teaches. But surely the Holy Father doesn’t mean to say that. That passage just tells us that faith and science need and complement one another. I think the Church’s teaching authority is essential. I agree that theology is not a private matter, but it must move within that grey area between what we understand (or believe to understand) about revelation, and what we still have to learn. The Pope is right when he says that the living and true God exceeds all human faculties, but then that must apply to the faculties of all human beings – theologians included. And the same goes for the “spirit of faith and the humility” of which the papal statement speaks: humility applies not only to the theologian and scriptural exegetist vis-à-vis the magisterium, but also the other way around. It applies even to the highest guardian of the magisterium, the Pontifex maximus.
Theology can be explored only in spiritual freedom. Only within the freedom of God’s radiant children is it possible to advance our understanding of the Almighty’s secret – the origin and purpose of all life – and to fathom God’s unconditional love for us. But isn’t it exactly that freedom which troubles the custodians of the magisterium because it smells more like temporal anarchy than divine order? Could it be that this fear is rooted in the pressures of responsibility – which is entirely honourable – but at the same time making life in the Church difficult and holding us back in our increasingly fast times?
There is no question that the Church must be circumspect and take its time before making material decisions. The Church must also be conservative – for the good of the people, not out of fear of opening the gates to immorality. When I read Church statements, I often wonder why there seems to be so little trust in God among those who should have the most. Where is their longing for the Holy Spirit which blows where it wants to, not where it is ordered?
The pope anticipates these concerns as he continues: Here one might object: Is a thus defined theology still scientific and in conformity with reason? Yes! Rationality, science and reasoning in communion with the Church is not just not mutually exclusive but complementary. The Holy Spirit leads the Church in the fullness of the truth, the Church is at the service of truth, and its guidance is an instruction to the truth.
That’s true, theology and reason are not mutually exclusive – but why, I ask myself, does official teaching time and again exclude science? Why does the Church lack the courage to measure questions of natural law, morality and human behaviour against the latest scientific findings, and to develop the answers in conjunction with these? Why don’t we, as Church, explicitly acknowledge that theology throughout history has been developed, changed, assimilated and corrected? Some adaptations are more recent than often assumed. The dogma of papal infallibility, for example, is not an ancient Church teaching; it was proclaimed as recently as 1870 at the First Vatican Council. And when the first seeds of modern democracy were beginning to sprout and enthused populaces started to agitate for human rights and religious freedom, most Catholic leaders thought this was the work of the devil. Today the Church fervently defends and promotes democracy and human rights.
When I contemplate such issues and look at the Aids pandemic, the paradoxical legacy of Pope Paul V comes to mind. That great Church leader and thinker in 1968 issued the epochal encyclical Humanae vitae about the proper order of the reproduction of human life. The first part in particular is infused with a wonderful and deep spirit. But in the second part, Paul VI squanders a historic opportunity – he closes the Windows of the Church opened just a few years earlier by his predecessor, John XXIII. Modern history of moral theology writes no more tragic a chapter than that of Paul VI’s lonely decision. Ignoring the recommendations made by his own theological advisory commission, and contrary to scientific insights and against the vox populi – the voice of the people – he decided against artificial forms of contraception.
We can only imagine Pope Paul’s torments of conscience and his suffering over this encyclical – and about his fears flowing from the pressures of keeping the huge tanker called Catholic Church on course. I feel for this lonely old man in the Vatican. But I also feel for the millions of believers who despair at his decision. Our Church was torn by it, and the Church has inexorably tried to stitch the rupture since.
But when we theologians in the stillness of our chambers brood over this matter, we must concede that the tear can’t simply be hidden, we have lost authority. And we lose even more credibility when we try to base on science a proscription of artificial means to fight Aids. We cede trust when we claim that the HI virus is smaller than it really is and that it can pass through pores in condoms. By doing so, the late Colombian Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo believed he had rendered the Church a great service. But pseudo-scientific arguments don’t help; it is much more important to keep alive an uninhibited debate about superior strategies.
The fear of questioning the decisions of a predecessor can be paralysing, because it touches upon the principle of infallibility, and that can obstruct or even prevent the frank treatment of contemporary problems. It’s a horror of the Church’s whole value system starting to crumble if too much of entrenched teachings is reformed, and that the Church would then lose power and influence. For the present pope it is probably also the concern that the rampant relativism in modern society might eat through the last bastions of Christian morality.
But fear is poor counsel. The free use of scientific knowledge, which in Christian terms reveals God’s greatness, would make life much more easy for the Church and for many people – and, perhaps, also godlier. And that is why I wish for greater courage in the fight against Aids.
Translation from the book:
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Hardcover: 207 pages – Publisher: Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH (August 31, 2007)
Language: German – ISBN-10: 3462039253 – ISBN-13: 978-3462039252
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Paperback – Bastei – Luebbe –
Language: German – ISBN-10: 3404606159 – ISBN-13: 978-3404606153