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What are “Church Teaching” and “Church” teaching?

Whenever I see references to “church teaching” on homosexuality, I get uncomfortable. Which part of teaching should we be including, here? Is only the specific aspect of sexual ethics of relevance? Or do we also include teaching on conscience and on justice and inclusion, as they apply to persons of homoerotic orientation?

Recently, I have been asking myself more fundamental questions, ever since I came across an article by Sr Jeanine Grammick for Call to Action, (carried by Michael Bayley at The Wild Reed), which was headlined, “Who Speaks For The Catholic Church?” Musing on this question, I found myself asking, what exactly do we mean by “church” teaching? Does it even exist? It is generally agreed that “the church” is far more than just the Vatican, or collection of bishops, but includes every single one of us. What is usually described as “church teaching” is in fact a body of doctrine formulated and promoted by that bishops’ collective, and particularly by its elite sub-set based in the Vatican. It is claimed, of course, that they are the only group empowered to take these decision on doctrine- but who says so? Who has given them that sole authority? Why – they have. Pursuing that line of thinking, I wonder: is there any body of doctrine, anything at all, that can truly be said to represent the teaching of “the church”, that is the whole church, and not just of the Vatican?

Sr Jeannine Gramick, in Rome for the Italian publication of her book

Of course, things are not quite as bad as that, and there is such a thing as “church teaching”. At a minimum. there is the creed which we say together as part of the Mass. As we all say it and assent to it, that can certainly be accepted. There is more, as Sr Grammick reminds us.

If we truly believe that God’s Spirit speaks through the Church, i.e., the community, then the whole community needs to hear what the Spirit is saying to individuals within the community.
Theologians need to take the community’s experiential data, reflect on it, explain the belief residing in it, and show how this belief is, or is not, a development of the Christian tradition. When a sufficient consensus emerges around a particular opinion, Church leaders need to teach or articulate this conviction as the faith of the People of God. For most issues, not just those regarding sexuality, this data gathering, reflection, elucidation, articulation and teaching of belief takes centuries.

We know there are many issues where this consensus has emerged. Sr Grammick continues by arguing that on matters of homosexuality, it has not, and that Cardinal George’s diatribes against New Ways Ministry cannot be said to be based on “church” teaching, which does not yet truly exist on the subject. She is right, but here I do not wish to go deeper into sexual ethics. Nor do I want to attempt to enumerate all those things where we can agree there is consensus, and which can truly be described as church teaching, but surely exist. My concern today is with the wider issue of language.

When the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform held a planning workshop last October for the Minneapolis Synod of the Baptised, the speakers Dr. Lois Yellowthunder and Dr. Glenda Eoyang warned about the dangers inherent in careless use of words:

Glenda and Lois talked about the power of language to influence change. Negative words can make us feel powerless, diminished, hopeless, decreasing our power to interact. Positive, affirming words build us up and give us a sense of our own power to choose our path. Using words that describe imbalances of power can diminish a person’s view of his/her place in the scheme of things. For example, the phrase “the hierarchy” puts the people referred to in a superior category within the system. A person with the leadership role might be called bishop but “the hierarchy” sets him apart and creates classes of membership. What does the word “magisterium” mean? Is everyone infused with the Holy Spirit within it? We can re-think our language to reflect an egalitarian balance of power.

Now, I find myself engaged with applying the same principle to “church teaching” , but that I think is a much easier task . “Vaticanteaching precisely describes, far more accurately, what is loosely called “church” teaching. A simple example will strikingly illustrate the difference.

Vatican teaching, as enshrined in Humanae Vitae and other documents, states clearly that artificial contraception is sinful. Church teaching, as demonstrated by the daily conduct of the overwhelming majority of Catholic couples, and the guidance given by most confessors and spiritual directors, is that it is not.

The distinction between Vatican teaching and Church teaching is an important one, which I will in future attempt to keep to carefully.

(For her important discussion of why Vatican teaching on homosexuality can not be taken as church teaching, read Sr Grammick;s article at the Wild Reed.)

Whenever I see references to “church teaching” on homosexuality, I get uncomfortable. Which part of teaching should we be including, here? Is only the specific aspect of sexual ethics of relevance? Or do we also include teaching on conscience and on justice and inclusion, as they apply to persons of homoerotic orientation?

Recently, I have been asking myself more fundamental questions, ever since I came across an article by Sr Jeanine Grammick for Call to Action, (carried by Michael Bayley at The Wild Reed), which was headlined, “Who Speaks For The Catholic Church?” Musing on this question, I found myself asking, what exactly do we mean by “church” teaching? Does it even exist? It is generally agreed that “the church” is far more than just the Vatican, or collection of bishops, but includes every single one of us. What is usually described as “church teaching” is in fact a body of doctrine formulated and promoted by that bishops’ collective, and particularly by its elite sub-set based in the Vatican. It is claimed, of course, that they are the only group empowered to take these decision on doctrine- but who says so? Who has given them that sole authority? Why – they have. Pursuing that line of thinking, I wonder: is there any body of doctrine, anything at all, that can truly be said to represent the teaching of “the church”, that is the whole church, and not just of the Vatican?

Sr Jeannine Gramick, in Rome for the Italian publication of her book

Of course, things are not quite as bad as that, and there is such a thing as “church teaching”. At a minimum. there is the creed which we say together as part of the Mass. As we all say it and assent to it, that can certainly be accepted. There is more, as Sr Grammick reminds us.

If we truly believe that God’s Spirit speaks through the Church, i.e., the community, then the whole community needs to hear what the Spirit is saying to individuals within the community.
Theologians need to take the community’s experiential data, reflect on it, explain the belief residing in it, and show how this belief is, or is not, a development of the Christian tradition. When a sufficient consensus emerges around a particular opinion, Church leaders need to teach or articulate this conviction as the faith of the People of God. For most issues, not just those regarding sexuality, this data gathering, reflection, elucidation, articulation and teaching of belief takes centuries.

We know there are many issues where this consensus has emerged. Sr Grammick continues by arguing that on matters of homosexuality, it has not, and that Cardinal George’s diatribes against New Ways Ministry cannot be said to be based on “church” teaching, which does not yet truly exist on the subject. She is right, but here I do not wish to go deeper into sexual ethics. Nor do I want to attempt to enumerate all those things where we can agree there is consensus, and which can truly be described as church teaching, but surely exist. My concern today is with the wider issue of language.

When the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform held a planning workshop last October for the Minneapolis Synod of the Baptised, the speakers Dr. Lois Yellowthunder and Dr. Glenda Eoyang warned about the dangers inherent in careless use of words:

Glenda and Lois talked about the power of language to influence change. Negative words can make us feel powerless, diminished, hopeless, decreasing our power to interact. Positive, affirming words build us up and give us a sense of our own power to choose our path. Using words that describe imbalances of power can diminish a person’s view of his/her place in the scheme of things. For example, the phrase “the hierarchy” puts the people referred to in a superior category within the system. A person with the leadership role might be called bishop but “the hierarchy” sets him apart and creates classes of membership. What does the word “magisterium” mean? Is everyone infused with the Holy Spirit within it? We can re-think our language to reflect an egalitarian balance of power.

Now, I find myself engaged with applying the same principle to “church teaching” , but that I think is a much easier task . “Vaticanteaching precisely describes, far more accurately, what is loosely called “church” teaching. A simple example will strikingly illustrate the difference.

Vatican teaching, as enshrined in Humanae Vitae and other documents, states clearly that artificial contraception is sinful. Church teaching, as demonstrated by the daily conduct of the overwhelming majority of Catholic couples, and the guidance given by most confessors and spiritual directors, is that it is not.

The distinction between Vatican teaching and Church teaching is an important one, which I will in future attempt to keep to carefully.

(For her important discussion of why Vatican teaching on homosexuality can not be taken as church teaching, read Sr Grammick;s article at the Wild Reed.)

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17 Responses

  1. Terence,

    Excellent post. There is a little of something for everyone to think about.

    I would challenge the idea that “the Vatican” is somehow different than “the Church”, or that “the Church” and “the People” are synonomous. The People and the Vatican are contained within “the Church”, although certainly neither is a full expression of it. Because the Holy Spirit is the center of the Church, there can be no true claim to “the Church” by any group no matter how inclusive.

    My Catholic teaching taught me that there are three different elements that combine to form a full moral teaching. First, and always foremost, is the Scripture. Second, the Traditions of the Church and the Magisterium interpret, expound, and clarify the Scripture and its message. Lastly, the conscience is always the final arbiter.

    I like the idea that the Sister has proposed that the theologians need to take the experiential data of the people and meld it into some cohesive body of understanding. As the Sister points out, it may take years and even centuries for “the Church” to come to a understanding that justifies a change in the official teaching.

    • Thanks, David. You and I differ often enough, so it’s always pleasing to find areas of disagreement. Only by searching through difference for commonality, across a wide front, can we expect to reach eventual consensus. It is just such a process that should be part of the process involved in formulating agreed teaching. Only a portion, mind – you are quite right to point out the important additional roles of Scripture, Magisterium. and the Holy Spirit: but then we get to the difficult old problem of identifying precisely what it is that each of these has in fact said, Even “tradition” is not as clear-cut as we might expect. Historians have shown that there are many issues on which the practice and teaching of the early Church are simply not as the Vatican presents its “constant tradition”. The tradition is constantly changing, and we often find that the past is not what it used to be.

      I certainly did not intend to suggest that the Church and the Vatican are distinct, just that they are not identical. The Vatican is a subset of the totality that we call “Church”, as are the people. Indeed, there is an argument that we should consciously include in the meaning the whole body of saints who have gone before us. I really do not want to set “Vatican” and “Cnurch” teaching at loggerheads, just to plead that we should use the words far more carefully, with a view to identifying the moral force we should place on any specific teaching.

      I also agree that Sr Grammick’s idea of incorporating experiental data of the people into account for melding into a synthesis, is one that I found compelling when I first came across the same idea, expressed just a little differently, in Dick Westley’s book, “Redemptive Intimacy”. Westley argues that we should all be putting great store in small, intimate faith-sharing groups where at a deep level we can reflect on our life experiences, prayerfully search for interpretations in the light of faith, and feed our conclusions back to the wider church as the raw data for precisely that kind of theology built on experience.

      This principle sounds compelling to me – and highlights the problems with the Vatican attempting to work alone on matters of family, relationships and sexuality, where they can have virtually no experience of their own to draw on, and where the distance that celibacy puts between them and the rest of us means that most Catholics simply do not discuss their full experience of these things openly frankly outside the confessional: and for most people, confessional disclosures by their very nature will not include a full range of positive experiences.

  2. Terence,

    In today’s world, I think there are graver dangers in being dismissive of the Magisterium’s teaching than there are in being submissive.

    The Magisterium’s yoke is light, and easily broken. It is easy to claim to be a Catholic, yet to reject the claims of Catholicism when faced with the trials of practice. For example, the vast majority of Americans and American Catholics supported the Iraqui war. Pope John Paul II’s statements against the war seemed to have had little effect, even among devoted Catholics.

    The Magisterium also has substantial expertise in the science of theology. When I am sick, I go to the doctor. Even though the doctor has no personal experience with the problems that I have, he listens to my symptoms, tests my bodily functions, and draws inferences based upon his knowledge and experience with other persons. The fact that the doctor hasn’t had the same medical problem doesn’t disqualify him as an expert.

    Democratic systems are not well-designed to arrive at the truth. Such systems are designed to ensure liberty and the consent of the governed. In many ways, the Magisterium has to guard “the Church” against the dangers of liberty, and the false security that comes with the consent of the majority.

    The dangers of democratic systems are especially grave today where so many people have placed their faith, not in God, but in men and man’s systems of justice, peace, liberty, and morality. A Church too heavily reliant upon democracy runs the risk of suppressing debate and truth in favor of voting and tolerance.

    • David, I assure you that I do not in any way “dismiss” the magisterium. All I have said, is that we must be careful with our language. The Church is bigger than the Vatican, but most certainly contains it. Recant Vatican teaching should not be automatically be assumed to have the full force of Magisterium, but may become an integral part of it. Certainly we should not dismiss Vatican teaching, but nor should it be blindly accepted: the Vatican has bee wrong on numerous issues in the past, there is no certainty that it is necessarily always right now.

      • Terence,

        I agree that we need to be careful with language. We also need to be careful with scope.

        For example, the experience of the Catholic lay faithful is profoundly important in Catholic teaching on issues such as homosexuality where the magisterium’s experience is relatively limited. However, the question of whether sexuality issues should be determined according to “natural law” or some other theory of sexuality is not an area that lay faithful have much experience, and in which they have no particular competence in rendering a “teaching”.

        That being said, I think the Vatican’s teaching on issues is often, and perhaps intentionally overstated. The Catechism does not state that homosexuals are disordered. It says that the acts of homosexuality are disordered. To read more into the teaching than is there can be a cause for confusion of both language and action.

        • David, you repeatedly deny that the Church teaches that homosexuals are disordered, citing the catechism. But the catechism is not the primary document here, the “homosexualitatis problema” is. That document, and others clearly state that the “homosexual condition” is disordered. This is a much more sweeping statement than one that refers only to “acts”. I suppose one might argue that there is a distinction between being a disordered person, and having a disordered condition – but I cannot for of me see what difference such a distinction might make.

          I wish it were true that we were “overstating” the Vatican statements, but I assure you, that having studied a wide range of them very carefully, I assure you that is not so.

          • Terence,

            I have heard that argument. It does overstate the position. The actual position, whether from the homosexualitatis problema or the Catechism, is the one you state – the distinction between the person, the “condition”, and the acts. Even then, the acts part is a relatively limited statement, and does not encompass the entire teaching.

            If one accepts the following premises: 1. That sexual organs are designed for procreation (hard to deny), and 2. That a homosexual sex act cannot result in procreation (true), the conclusion that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered follows logically, not theologically. Within this very limited context, the Vatican is right. What is outside the purview of the teaching are other substantial, questions regarding the proper use of human sexuality.

            For example, if we accept the additional premise that God has created people who have a homosexual “condition” (hard to deny) then, for that person, the sex organs should not be used for procreation. In fact, it seem to be a grave sin for a homosexual to engage in procreative acts with a heterosexual person just because the organs, in the universal are designed for that purpose. In fact, the Church teaches that potentially procreative acts, outside the context of marriage are considered sins. Moreover, even within the context of marriage, the procreative act does not reign supreme in the particular, even though it does in the universal. In that sense, the Church’s teachings are consistent.

            I view the theology dealing with sexuality outside of the procreative, married context to be a developing theology which the Vatican has erred on the side of caution. Others seem to suggest that the Vatican should let the experience dictate the theology.

            I suppose one could take the position that the Church doesn’t like gays. By the same measure, one would also have to take the position that the Church doesn’t like adulterers, fornicaters, divorcees etc. Of course, neither is true.

            This is immense opportunity for the gay community to help in developing a theology of the body that honors the sacredness of the creation of human life through procreative acts, the sacredness of marriage, and the sexuality given to us by God. But, I don’t think it will happen by in-your-face demands to make a gay marriage a sacrament. There just isn’t the proper amount of theological, and spiritual development available at the present time. Further, so long as the soundness of the present teaching, within its limited context, is challenged there is little opportunity for the gay community to work with the Vatican in developing a fuller and richer sense of God’s gift of sexuality.

          • David, you have made these arguments before, and I am not going to turn this thread, over an observation about care with language into yet another repetition of a discussion on the tactics of the gay community. I am pleased that you recognise that there is an opportunity for the gay community to make a contribution to the development of a theology of sexuality. I wish that the Vatican would recognise this, and find ways to talk to us, instead of merely at us and about us: this need for discussion is my primary concern.

            I cannot imagine why you have raised ” in-your-face demands to make a gay marriage a sacrament”. I have certainly never made such demands, nor am I aware of any else who has,

          • Terence,

            You have made some very good points about care of language being important.

            One of my points was that the language contained within the Catechism and other documents does not say what many accuse it of saying. It is more tolterant and more narrowly focused than accusations leveled against it.

            I believe the Vatican has made sincere efforts to address the “homosexual problem”. It has probably occupied more than its share of resources given the other issues the Vatican could address.

            There have been substantial resources expended, and goodwill lost by a failure on the part of many lay Catholics to acknowledge what is true and right in the Vatican’s position.

          • The Catechism is a dumbed down summary of the content of teaching across a wide range of primary sources, best known for its use in teaching children by rote. The modern version is better, but I still cannot understand why otherwise intelligent adults use it as a substitute for thought.

          • Terence,

            And you would propose what as the textbook?

          • I wouldn’t.

          • Terence,

            What are you proposing as “the Church’s teachings”? How is a layperson, such as myself, supposed to inform himself on the Church’s teachings?

          • David, I cannot reply to this in a short comment, so have done so in an independent post.

            I also realise I have not yet replied to you thesis. “If one accepts the following premises: 1. That sexual organs are designed for procreation (hard to deny), and 2. That a homosexual sex act cannot result in procreation (true), the conclusion that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered follows logically, not theologically.”

            Of course, it is not hard at all to deny your premise, which I do. Once again, though, I do not want to take this further in a comments thread, and will amplify my ground for denying your starting premise later, in an independent post.

          • Terence,

            I appreciate your willingness to engage in a discussion.

          • David, that ideally is what this site is for, not for simple point scoring. I am sometimes a little curt in my responses, because I just don’t think that comment threads are suitable for lengthy dialogues or complex arguments – which I why I placed my reply in an independent post instead. Please remember that if you (or any other reader) would like to take advantage of the same privilege, and use the more extend space of a full post to put your own views, all you have to do is ask. I will always be happy to place a guest post from any reader who has a coherent point to make in good faith, whether we agree with it or not.

    • It can be a subtle and therefore easily misunderstood distinction, but while “democracy,” I agree, is not the channel to truth, magisterial teaching, apart from genuine dialogue with the faithful, loses the force of authenticity. For instance, the U.S. bishops did not even bother to dialogue with gays before they issued their last–and most recent–statement on homosexuality. Church, if nothing else, is relational. Tell me, in what mature, respectful, loving relationship would is sort of behavior command obedience?

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