In our legal system, if we don’t like a law, we push for new laws and elect new legislators who might listen to us. When it comes to interpreting and applying existing laws, we hire the most skilled attorneys we can afford, whose job is not to seek the truth but to present our side most effectively. Even if we lose at trial, we can still pursue our cause through various avenues of appeal, all the while using the media to put pressure on the government.
We have many “disciplines” in the Church which are “positive law,” meaning that they’re the product of human invention. While Church leaders in general make the best pastoral judgment they can, such disciplines may turn out to be good, bad, or somewhere in between, and they may be in effect for a week or for 100 years or more.
Church disciplines have been subject of “lobbying,” especially in our time, from altar girls and Communion on the hand to a wider, more readily available access to the extraordinary (Tridentine) form of the Roman rite. The laity have the right to be heard on such matters, though in the meantime the current discipline calls forth our obedience and filial respect for the Church.
But when it comes to the deposit of faith–what the Church teaches in the area of faith and morals–American democratic concepts simply are out of place. No matter how many petitions are signed, no matter how fervently and repeatedly dissent is allowed to foment and lead people astray, what God has revealed through Christ as proclaimed by the Church is not up for grabs.
Some dissenters express frustration that some “celibate old man” in Rome can say that I have to believe and act in a certain way. Clearly there is a misunderstanding of authority here. The Pope does have considerable juridical or legal power, but in matters of faith and morals his authority is that of guardian and mouthpiece, not scriptwriter or legislator.
For example, if someone has a problem with the Immaculate Conception, the problem is not with Pope Pius IX, but with the way God has chosen to come among us to save us. If someone has a problem with the Church’s teaching on contraception, the problem is not with Pope Paul VI, but with the way God has created the human person and human society.
If I were given a speeding ticket and appeared before a judge to contest it, what would happen if my defense proceeded as follows:
”But your honor, modern legal scholars say that traffic laws are repressive, archaic, and the product of a male-dominated, pre-modern era and do not speak to the contemporary citizen . . .”
Obviously the judge, depending on his or her temperament, would either laugh at me or cite me for contempt. Let’s note that there are two distinct problems with my defense. First, the argument itself is defective. Most people would agree that some traffic laws are necessary to promote public safety.
The second issue problem is what possible authority does some “scholar” have to change the law? In deciding the case, the judge will have to ascertain the actual speed limit where I was driving, how fast I was going, and consequently whether I exceeded the speed limit. The scholar’s opinion regarding the speed limit is utterly irrelevant.
The same two problems exist today regarding some theologians. First, what they teach is contrary to the deposit of faith. (In plain English, they’re wrong!) Second, their opinions are accorded weight in some circles not only because they’re the product of “scholars” or “experts,” but also because they purportedly represent the “modern Catholic.”
As the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith set forth over a decade ago in its Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, theologians do play a critical role in the Church’s understanding and communication of the faith. What all of us, especially theologians, need to keep before us, however, is that we have a teaching that is not our own, but one that has been handed on to us. Our faith seeks understanding, but presupposes content.
This week we have the opportunity to reflect on our nation’s independence. Behind our laws, values, and culture is a blending, or melting pot, of our founding fathers’ ideals, diverse ethnic and religious cultures, pragmatic court decisions, legislative compromises, narrow agendas, and special interests that continue to evolve. And we must admit (as has become part of Barack Obama’s political mantra) that such evolution has an ever-increasing bias in favor of that which is new–in other words, change.
Behind the teaching of the Church, however, there is Jesus Christ, the Mediator and sum total of Revelation, who not only is with us always (Mt. 28:20), but who is “the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb. 13:8).