There has been a great deal of talk in the Church lately about a supposed opposition between rules and reality, theology and life, doctrine and pastoral considerations. Some of the talk has gone to extremes, suggesting that rules, doctrine, and organized thought matter little in comparison with the pastoral needs of the immediate situation.
Such talk, like other extreme positions, can sometimes be useful to make a point, but made habitual the approach would destroy order and rationality by substituting the Deed for the Word. Within the Church it would lead to a combination of willfulness and tyranny, since those in authority and those on the spot could do whatever seemed good to them at the moment, while in relation to the world at large it would deprive the Church of her specific mission, which has to do with things that rise above immediate goals, and reduce her to a humanitarian NGO with unusual rituals and a quirky way of talking about things.
The Church’s pastoral approach and ways of thinking should of course be based on reality, but what reality? Are we speaking of the reality of people’s situations as they interpret them, or perhaps of secular trends or sociological studies? Or are we rather speaking of the realities with which the Church has always been most concerned, for example the reality of what men and women are, of what marriage is, and ultimately of the Most Real Being?
With respect to marriage, for example, it seems that the key point is not rules proposed by Pharisaical doctors of the law, but the reality marriage brings into being, the physical, social, and spiritual union of man and woman, which is the basis of the family and therefore as real, permanent, and undeniable as the relation between parent and child or brother and sister. To detract from that reality would not only promote falsehood but attack the position and dignity of ordinary people in their family connections. For the rulers of the Church to do so would be a betrayal that would help the wealthy and powerful reduce the people to an aggregate of production and consumption units, with no connections among themselves that need be respected. Why would that be pastoral?
Still, talk that sometimes suggests practical antinomianism, like most talk among experienced people in responsible positions, points to genuine issues. There is always a gap between the formal teachings of the Church and the actual or at least practical beliefs of her members, including many hierarchs. That gap seems unusually wide today, but even with the best will it could not simply be abolished, since there is always a tension between theory and practice.
It’s an awkward tension to deal with, in part because it’s so resistant to clear understanding. As someone said, in theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is. That means theory can’t see the issue, so it can’t comment on it, but practice can’t explain it either, because practice acts rather than explains.
The awkwardness becomes all the greater in a religious setting. Religion must be practical, because it must transform life, but it can’t be merely pragmatic, because it transforms it by reference to realities that go beyond what is visible. It tells us that this-worldly ways of grasping reality fall short, and we must supplement them with faith, “the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.” Doctrine articulates faith, and makes it usable as a path to truth, so the Church must take it very seriously even in the face of difficulties. As Paul said, she must preach the Word in all patience—reprove, entreat, rebuke—even out of season.
Today taking doctrine seriously is often enough called “fundamentalism.” For the most part that’s a term of abuse, not useful for analysis, that simply means “religion that tells people something that doesn’t seem sensible to present-day secular progressives”—in other words, religion that matters. It’s a way for left-wing culture warriors to say that Southern Baptists and orthodox Catholics are just like ISIS. After all, don’t they all say crazy things—things people don’t say at Harvard or in the New York Times? And once people start saying crazy things, who can tell what they will do?
So complaints about fundamentalism are most often a way of shutting people up by appeal to supposedly authoritative social consensus. Even so, the term does have a legitimate use. Catholicism is a religion of reason and not of fideism or fanaticism. That’s part of what it means to place the Word before the Deed. We accept natural law, cultivate the arts and sciences, have a long history of theological speculation, and believe that the different departments of human thought and activity illuminate each other.
With that in mind, Catholicism features a certain amount of back and forth between religious understandings and other aspects of life and thought. They require each other to complete our understanding of the world: how we understand the Bible is affected by the development of the secular sciences, even as our understanding of those sciences, and how we place them within the scheme of human life and the world as a whole, is affected by the Faith.
As in all complex affairs, it’s possible to go wrong in many ways, and the true path requires a balance. Within the Church that balance is maintained by Tradition, Scripture, reason, the example of the saints, and the living authority of the Church. Without those things working together—without, for example, mutual support between clergy and tradition—there’s no reliable way to understand the Faith and its application.
In recent times the balance seems to have become very difficult to maintain. Tradition has been debunked, authority and reason overvalued as well as undervalued, and the sense lost that truth should provide the ultimate standard. Hence the supposed conflicts among doctrine, theology, human reality, pastoral considerations, and so on.
When the balance falls apart people grab whatever fragments they can. Some go with sacred texts and inherited understandings in a literal-minded and individualistic way, and become genuine fundamentalists. Others go with what seems most consonant with their experiences, reasonings, and understanding of the demands of the hour, and turn the Faith into a therapeutic approach or merely human philosophy.
Hence the attempts, most recently during the pontificates of Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI, to re-establish doctrinal and to some extent disciplinary coherence. Such attempts have had their benefits, but the coherence of a system can’t depend too much on the statements and actions of a single participant, so it’s not clear how far they were able to turn the tide. At present the effort seems in disarray, leading to open conflicts of opinion on basic matters at very high levels of the Church, and talk of downplaying doctrine and discipline in favor of decentralization and practical judgments in particular situations.
Such an approach seems unlikely to support the reliable system of thought and action people look for in a Church that claims to be One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, and capable of speaking for the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It makes life easier for functionaries, and lets people with problems that seem overwhelming avoid dealing with them in their gravity, but it will evidently lead to the Church mattering less and less to anyone. That’s not good if what the Church has to say is supremely important.
So what to do? What any of us can do is limited. The most essential point to remember, though, is that the truth about the most important things does not change, and the Church can’t simply be identified with her current state from a human perspective. It did not change the Catholic doctrine of marriage, which is a simple statement of the reality of the situation, when Pope Alexander VI threatened his mistress with excommunication if she went back to her husband. Nor did it transform papal authority when ninth and tenth century popes fell into the unfortunate habit of invalidating each others’ acts, and in one case mutilating each others’ corpses. For the rest, it seems we can’t go with the flow and leave things of the spirit to others as much as some of us might like. Now more than ever, it is up to each of us to do what he can to know the Faith and bring it to life here and now. That, after all, is what we are here for.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared January 14, 2016 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above, which depicts Peter preaching in Jerusalem, is located in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, Italy.