Though the Church is a very diverse organization.
1. We have seen some strong actions by the Holy See in the recent past. The papacy reprimanded American nuns for their book on sexuality and there was very strong aftermath of the Vati – leaks scandal. How can one read this?Is this a push for more centralization of power in the Church, demonstration of power maybe? Or is it more a coincidence and nothing special happens?
2. Joseph Ratzinger was considered very conservative even before he became Benedict XVI. But what about the Church? Do you think that Catholic Church is becoming more liberal and maybe that worries the Vatican and propels the action?
3. Pope named German Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller to lead the Congregation for the doctrine of faith. A strong conservative, Muller is however being connected with the theology of liberation, which was strongly criticised by both John Paul II. and Benedict. How can you explain this?
Gëzim Alpion, Lecturer in Sociology, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham
1. I take it you are referring to Sr Margaret A. Farley’s book ‘Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics’. The Holy See’s reaction towards this publication is hardly surprising given that the author apparently ‘preaches’ a kind of morality which is not compatible with the orthodox version of Christianity ‘copyrighted’ and fiercely defended by the Vatican. The Vatican’s reaction in this case is of interest because it reveals once again this institution’s uneasy relationship with certain communities of American nuns, whose numbers have reduced drastically since the mid 1960s partly because of what American nuns perceive as the Vatican’s unwillingness to mend some of its ‘misogynistic’ views and failure to engage with them in a constructive way. American nuns have traditionally been more vocal in their ‘dissent’. The Church needs perhaps to engage more with its female missionaries especially in view of the fact that its 800,000 nuns outnumber priests by two to one. Whether the Church can afford for much longer to ‘castigate’ any Catholic, including nuns, as ‘outsiders’ because they express unorthodox views remains to be seen. As for the Vati-leaks, one wonders if secular institutions would have reacted much differently in similar situations.
2. The Vatican IS the Catholic Church. This institution is always run by conservatives whose main challenge remains the handling of the Church’s uneasy relationship with modernity. The greatest reforming popes have been conservatives at heart. In this respect, Pope Benedict XVI is hardly any different from his ‘revolutionary’ predecessor, John Paul II. If, indeed, the Church becomes more ‘liberal’, for any liberalizing attempt to have a chance of success it must emanate from within and have the full support of the Vatican. When it comes to the fundamental tenets of the Catholic faith, however, as in the past, they remain beyond reforming.
3. While the Church has distanced itself from liberation theology, this institution cannot do without the poor and any leading Church figure with an interest in their condition cannot be bad for the Vatican. No matter how ‘open-minded’ and as such ‘problematic’ Archbishop Müller is to his critics, they have no reasons to fear him. After all, Müller and Ratzinger have been close to each other before the later became a pontiff. Whatever differences they may have, the current Pope and the new Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are committed to promoting the unity of Christ. Müller’s appointment is perhaps a timely compromise.
Steven Avella, Professor of History, Marquette University, Former President of the American Catholic Historical Association
1. The reprimand of the sisters and the warning about Sister Margaret Farley’s book are not quite the same. The reprimand to the sisters was directed to one of their main coordinating organizations the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). This organization was created in the 1950s by the Holy See and represents the majority of women religious in the US. There has been discontent in some circles for many years about the trends in religious life for women–especially their willingness to put aside the religious habit, experiment with alternative forms of communal living and evangelical poverty, and speak out forcefully at times on social issues–e.g. the environment, nuclear war–and also theological issues such as the ordination of women. Some American Catholics have been highly critical of the sisters–and were particularly incensed when many women religious supported the Affordable Health Care Act of the Obama Administration–which was critical to its passage in congress. The bishops of the United States are opposed to health care for all–claiming that it will further facilitate the spread of abortion on demand and also the spread of contraception. The did everything they could to stop it. When it passed, they likely resolved to make sure that any element in the church that supported the bill should be silenced–and this meant the religious women. Hence, through the agency of the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law and now Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, disciplining the nuns was handed over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) which concocted stories of disobedience, doctrinal abberrations, and targeted the sisters for not speaking out more forcefully on abortion and homosexuality. The sisters are taking this challenge quite seriously–with the change in the leadership of the CDF–and the waning of Benedict’s papacy–it remains to be seen just how far this challenge will go. But clearly, this is an effort to both punish and silence the sisters for their support of health care for all Americans–a right that is enjoyed by most civilized portions of the world. Indeed, the Vatican wants to assert its power over the LCWR. They had tried an investigation of the women religious a few years ago, which under the aegis of the Congregation for Religious completely evaporated.
The case of Sister Margaret Farley may be related, but likely is more understandable as a feature of the Vatican’s efforts to crack down on “errant” theologians, especially those who deal in the critical area of moral theology. Farley’s book uses the rubric of “justice” to evaluate traditional Catholic teaching on a number of sensitive areas, particularly sexual morality. She is a respected moral theologian and her book’s methodology ranges far and wide over a number of issues–she probes and explores new areas—in a manner similar to many theologians, including the great Thomas Aquinas who forged a new relationship between church theology and Aristotelianism in the 13th century. However, the Vatican will admit of no divergence from established lines on moral theological questions–e.g. the existence of intrinsic evil, the objective immorality of certain acts (e.g. abortion), and totally rejects any notion that moral theology can in any way be relativized. Sister Farley is just one of several moral theologians and others who have had their works severely criticized by the Vatican. There is a “chill” on the work of theology now that the church has not seen since the early days of the 20th century when Pope St. Pius X condemned “modernism.”
2. I’m not sure if the word “conservative” is the best to apply to Pope Benedict. He is a diligent theologian, fully cognizant of the demands of his discipline and has worked hard to ground his speeches and writings in solid theological methods. Of course, as with any other academic discipline, there are people who disagree with his approach to sources or his orientation. These differences are the spice and soul of the theological discipline. Theologians have been arguing with each other for centuries.
It is hard to answer if the church is more liberal or conservative because the church is a very diverse organization and the ideological orientation of its members varies from region to region–or even within one country. Here in the US, the church is increasingly more polarized between its conservative and progressive wings. The conservatives have the upper hand at present–most of the bishops and an increasing number of young priests as well as a strong cadre of laity control the power of dioceses, publishing outlets, media and command tremendous power over the kind of message going out to people in the pews. Some of what they say rings true and people follow it. On other scores, there is a significant disregard for official church teaching, e.g. birth control and increasingly homosexuality. In the US, Catholic social teaching is largely underplayed, but likely if it was pressed as hard as the current bishops press against abortion and homosexuality, most Catholics would react very negatively. American Catholics–especially caucasians–have become quite conservative and even reactionary–they would not like to hear anything about economic justice, the redistribution of wealth, or justice in immigration matters. The most reactionary members of our Supreme Court are Catholics–Antonin Scalia (whose son is a priest), Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito. They totally reject Catholic social teaching in their jurisprudence. I am not sure how it works in other countries, but I suspect there are spectrums of opinon and practice in every land. Some are more “liberal” others more conservative.
3. Mueller’s name and resume have been in the press for a long time–as he has long been considered the pope’s pick to succeed the outgoing Cardinal William Levada. He comes from Regensburg a place where the current pope found a congenial academic home after his very unsettling experience teaching in Tubingen in the 1960s. I don’t know enough about Mueller’s written corpus to make a good judgment, but I suspect he is very much a Ratzingerian in his approach to theology and church affairs. He is likely a good scholar with respect for his peers in the profession–e.g. Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru, the leading liberation theologian of our day. I doubt however that the academic friendship translates into support for Gutierrez’s positions on things. I am sure Benedict, feeling beseiged now by the Vati-Leaks scandal and the perceived disarray of the Roman curia, is glad to have a fellow German in the curia. Benedict also appears to have a concern for the well-being of his homeland church. Pope Benedict is 85 years old–one of the oldest men to still be functioning in the papacy. His energies are obviously waning and controlling the Curia has been a task that has evaded most popes. All of this public exposure via Vati-Leaks has been very unsettling as it reveals some very difficult things, e.g. that the pope today considers the ban on women’s ordination by his predecessor to have been an “infallible” statement. The Vatican operates in secrecy and without an inordinate amout of regard for what those of us in the English common law tradition call “due process”. Vati-leaks opens up the world of Vatican intrigue-a not unknown or uncommon practice to anyone who has spent any time in the Vatican archives. How well these practices play with the faithful throughout the world remains to be seen. My suspicion is that most people in the US will regard them with mild interest, continue to be loyal to the pope as a person and a spiritual figure, but pretty much ignore what he has to say when it contradicts their own experience.