Can speech be free in the Catholic Church?
Some 60 years ago the German Catholic theologian Karl Rahner wrote a pamphlet on free speech in the Catholic Church. His explorations may seem now to be very tentative, but were daring at a time when the Pope took positions on disputed questions and demanded acquiescence.
Rahner's Catholic world was different from that of today. In discussions about the Synod on the Family, cardinals have differed publicly on how to approach irregular relationships.
Priests in England drafted a letter, invited other priests to sign it, and made it public. In turn, English Cardinal Vincent Nichols rebuked them for caucusing.
Meanwhile Pope Francis has insisted that the participants in the Synod are free to express their opinions, urged them to give priority to people at the margins of church and has proclaimed a Holy Year of Compassion to coincide with it.
In Rahner's time free speech was looked at from the perspective of the teachers of faith. The questions concerned the content of faith, what was open to discussion and what was closed, who could speak authoritatively about it, and what were the responsibilities of those being taught.
Within this framework Rahner tried to enlarge the area left free for discussion, and to expand the responsibilities of those receiving teaching beyond passive acceptance. He agreed that public conversation about faith should avoid confusing people or diminishing that the expression of opinions should not confuse people about faith or diminish respect for teaching authority.
Pope Francis also takes for granted that teachers will teach and Catholics will receive Christian faith. Like Rahner, he encourages lively conversation about its implications, believing that this will enhance the credibility of what is taught and that the truth will commend itself. His confidence distinguishes him from many Bishops who emphasise the danger of error and confusion among ordinary Catholics living in a culture antipathetic to faith. This difference underlies some of the divergences in responses to the Synod.
But the deeper differences arise out of Pope Francis' distinctive perspective on the communicating faith. He is less concerned with the content of what is taught than with how it is understood, particularly by those who are at the margins of the Catholic Church. He is concerned that preoccupation with explaining the whole Christian message in technically correct language often leaves people at the margins of church alienated from what they see as bad news. So he asks how the Gospel can be heard as good news by those on the edge of Church and society. He answers that Bishops and priests responsible for teaching faith should go out compassionately to people at the edge of church, not to judge them but to enter their world. Then they will find words and gestures to communicate the Gospel as Good News. To teach faith to the marginalised you need to live and learn faith at the margins.
Pope Francis clearly hopes that the way the Synod responds to questions about the family will be received as good news by people marginalised in the church. But that will depend on the participants having entered their experience and being open to it. That is why he emphasises the importance of conversion - a new way of seeing the world.
Pope Francis' take, based on Jesus' example, is radical. It naturally stirs debate. He and all the Bishops, though not all Catholics, are agreed in accepting received church teaching on faith and moral practice. They differ, however, whether particular disciplinary practices, such as the exclusion of the divorced and remarried from receiving communion, are demanded by Catholic faith. Many bishops differ with the Pope about what should have priority in Catholic life: commending faith to people at the margins of church, or strengthening the faith of those who at the centre. Because Bishops hesitate to disagree with Popes in public and because the move to the margins by Pope Francis has been so popular, these differences are not always articulated. But they are clearly present.
Finally, many Bishops would differ with Pope Francis about whether open discussion and expression of disagreement at the Synod and more generally in the Church will encourage Catholics to recognise the truth or will lead them into confusion.
Open letters and the gathering of petitions raise further questions. Although these forms of expression are integral to free speech in society, one would expect neither Pope Francis nor Bishops who disagree with him to welcome them in church life. For Pope Francis they will turn people away from openness at the margins to defence of the centre. For most of his opponents, public disagreement or politicking from beneath lead to disunity and confusion.
But opinions about faith can be passionately held. And no one likes being on the losing side.
By Andrew Hamilton | 08 April 2015 |
Republished courtesy of Eureka Street.com