This homily, delivered on the Feast of Corpus Christi, comes courtesy of Rev. Robert Beloin, the Catholic chaplain at Yale University:
It’s been a busy week for Catholics! Following on the heels of recent leaked papers from the Vatican, the firing of the head of the Vatican bank, the arrest of the pope’s butler, in-fighting among Curial cardinals…on Monday of this week, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published its ‘notification’ about Margaret Farley’s book, Just Love: A Framework For Christian Sexual Ethics.
The ‘notification’, signed by Cardinal Levada, pointed out that some conclusions that she holds are contrary to the official teaching of the Church. That is true. But, in her statement, she points out that she did not set out to write a book about Catholic moral theology. (It’s like if I sat down and wrote a homily for a wedding and someone came along and said “well, that’s not an appropriate homily for a funeral.” I didn’t set out to write a homily for a funeral.) Well, Margaret did not set out to write a book reiterating Catholic positions on some contemporary moral issues. She set out to explore some moral issues from the starting point of Scripture, Tradition, anthropology and human experience. She brings a different methodology to the table.
On Thursday of this week, the members of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America issued a statement concerning the “Notification.” In part, it states: Professor Farley’s purpose in her book is to raise and explore questions of keen concern to the faithful of the Church. Doing so is one very legitimate way of engaging in theological inquiry that has been practiced throughout the Catholic tradition. The statement goes on to make an important point: The “Notification” risks giving the impression that there can be no constructive role in the life of the Church for works of theology that 1) give voice to the experience and concerns of ordinary believers, 2) raise questions about the persuasiveness of certain official Catholic positions, and 3) offer alternative theological frameworks as potentially helpful contributions to the authentic development of doctrine.
Such an understanding of the nature of theology inappropriately conflates the distinctive tasks of catechesis and theology. With regard to the subject matter of Professor Farley’s book, it is simply a matter of fact that faithful Catholics in every corner of the Church are raising ethical questions like those Professor Farley has addressed. In raising and exploring such questions with her customary sensitivity and judiciousness, Professor Farley has invited us to engage the Catholic tradition seriously and thoughtfully.
I think that it is helpful to remember the document, Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria published by the International Theological Commission, signed by Cardinal Levada, in March of this year. Over a seven year period, the Commission took up the issue of the relationship between theologians and bishops. The report acknowledges that there will be “inevitable tension” between theologians and the Magisterium for bishops and theologians have distinct callings and must respect each other’s distinctive competence, lest the Magisterium reduce theology to a mere repetitive science or theologians presume to substitute the teaching office of the Church’s pastors. In her book, Margaret makes no claim to be the Magisterium!
The report states that bishops, in their pronouncements, should draw on the work of theologians in order to demonstrate a “capacity for critical evaluation.” And, the document acknowledges the plurality of theologies within the Church (that was not the case in patristic times). There is within theology more and more internal specialization into different disciplines: e.g., biblical studies, liturgy, patristics, church history, fundamental theology, systematic theology, moral theology, pastoral theology, spirituality, catechetics and canon law. This development is inevitable and understandable because of the scientific nature of theology and the demands of research. (76)
The plurality of theologies is undoubtedly necessary and justified. It results primarily from the abundance of divine truth itself, which human beings can only ever grasp under its specific aspects and never as a whole and moreover never definitely but always, as it were, with new eyes…Because of the diversity of the objects it considers and interprets…and the sheer diversity of human questioning, theology must inevitably have recourse to a plurality of disciplines and methods…The plurality of theologies reflects, in fact, the catholicity of the church which strives to proclaim the one Gospel to people everywhere, in all kinds of circumstances. (77)
Taking up that task is an exciting enterprise. Personally, I don’t get discouraged by the controversies before us because, honestly, it is what we Catholics do. There have been controversies since the ministry of Jesus. There were controversies in apostolic time. Read Galatians. I am energized to be living in a Church where there is conversation going on in homes and gatherings and in Small Church Communities during the week about the real issues with which people struggle that is at the heart of the Second Vatican Council’s decree on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes. It has taken us FIFTY years; we’re right on schedule! When you look at the 21 ecumenical councils in the Church’s history, it took at least fifty years for what the Council taught to get into the consciousness of people. So, here we are, fifty years later, taking seriously the challenge in the opening words of Gaudium et Spes: The joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people (men) of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. (1) And later: The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in light of the Gospel.(4) And later: A change in attitudes and in human structures frequently calls accepted values into question…The institutions, laws and modes of thinking and feeling as handed down from previous generations do not always seems to be well adapted to the contemporary state of affairs. Hence arises an upheaval in the manner and even the norms of behavior. (7) We have arrived, finally!
The fundamental issue before us, I think, is that of the development of doctrine. In our first Calabresi Fellowship lecture, Judge John Noonan of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and a devout Catholic, delivered a lecture entitled The Church that Can and Cannot Change that he later published in a book by the same title, in 1995. It is well worth the read.
The challenge is to figure out what changes may reflect a justifiable, even necessary, adaptation to new knowledge or circumstances or be a watering down and contradiction of religious truth. The messy task is to reconcile an authentic development of doctrine with the church's claim to preach the same essential message that Jesus did 2,000 years ago. How do we achieve that goal?
Noonan clearly showed that some Catholic moral doctrines have changed in the course of history. History, he shows, does not support the comforting notion that the church simply elaborates on previous teachings. He examines Church teaching on slavery, usury, religious freedom and marriage law as four particular examples. His four case studies clearly show the fact of the Church’s change in teaching. (Change is marriage law is easily seen in the introduction of the Pauline Privilege in 1803 and its extension into the Petrine Privilege in 1924. They both concern circumstances where the pope can dissolve a marriage – a power that had never been previously claimed.) But how does one identify a legitimate development of doctrine? Noonan points to an unchanging element in Catholic teaching: a core continuity from Jesus to our present day. He insists that genuine development arises from experience deepened by empathy. St. Paul wrote, (Phil 1:9-10) I pray that your love abound more and more in knowledge and in insight of every kind so that you can test what really matters and Noonan repeatedly refers to this linking of love, knowledge and insight. He adds St. Augustine's rule of faith: a true understanding of divine revelation is one that will 'build up that double love of God and of neighbor.'
The great Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray declared 40 years ago that development of doctrine 'is the underlying issue' of Vatican II. It remains fundamental for Catholicism, (Judaism, Islam and other faiths too.) And so maybe Margaret is right and what she is teaching will be the official position of the Church in a hundred years. And maybe she is wrong and further research will prove that. But as we sort out the messiness of theologies, we hold together the unity of the community gathered around the Lord’s table as we work and pray together trying to be faithful ministers of the gospel.
And with that acknowledgment, we come to today’s feast: Corpus Christi, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. It offers us a wonderful opportunity to see how Church teaching has changed over the centuries. Most Catholics think of the presence of Christ in terms of transubstantiation.
The Fourth Lateran Council in 13th century, spoke of the bread and wine as "transubstantiated" into the body and blood of Christ: (I quote) His body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been transubstantiated, by God's power, into his body and blood. The Council of Trent in the mid-16th century defined transubstantiation, using it as a noun, for the first time.
So, for more than 1,000 years the Church understood the presence of Christ in the Eucharist without even using the word. When you are in conversation with Catholic friends or also in ecumenical dialogue, instead of focusing on the meaning of the term transubstantiation, read the sixth chapter of John’s gospel together and discuss that!
For those who think in terms of and understand Aristotelian natural philosophy, it can be helpful language. But say that to a person studying quantum physics, and their eyes glaze over. There is not one language for talking about mystery. That pertains to the mystery of the Eucharist and to the mystery of human sexuality.
But, if I am excited by the challenges before us, I know of many who are frustrated. And so I close with Fr. Jim Martin’s Prayer for Frustrated Catholics, which he posted on Wednesday of this week.
Rev. Robert L. Beloin
Chaplain, Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel & Center at Yale University