Engaging Church Teaching

Last summer, I was asked to reply in our parish bulletin to the question of how Catholics can and should engage official church teaching, especially when it might seemingly be difficult, non-sensical, unartistic, or just plain vacuous. I present the essay in slightly edited form, and it seems especially timely given the coming new liturgy translation.

It may be timely to consider how Catholics can approach Church teaching. Scripture, Church councils, the pope, conferences of bishops, individual bishops, and pastors: all these have an interrelated authority. Some teachings call special attention to themselves as being matters of key importance on faith and morals. They may be ordered in something of a “hierarchy of truths.” Does that mean we only have to pay attention to the life-and-death issues? Does that mean Catholics can take what they like and leave the rest? Is it okay to disagree with the pope or even the Bible and still be a good Catholic?

Wrestling with those questions could take a whole book. I would like to carve off a small piece of this challenge—a method that worked for me when I first found myself objecting to religious authority when I was in college.

Our campus minister, Fr Bill, started making changes in the liturgy around 1980, bringing music and liturgical practice more in line with official guidelines. I found myself objecting to some of these developments: a gradual ending of our use of dialogue and unofficial Eucharistic Prayers, less “freedom” for music groups, among others.

Bill, in turn, challenged me and others who protested to consider better liturgical practices: singing the Mass parts and the psalm, getting our noses out of the book during the Mass, bringing unity to our three weekend liturgies with a common repertoire of music. He also encouraged us to read the liturgy documents, not only to see what Rome and the US bishops were teaching, but to understand why they taught as they did. A better liturgy for all was envisioned by this teaching, and his summer liturgy studies at Notre Dame in these years returned him to our Newman Community a changed liturgist.

It also changed me, because I was urged on by something–the Holy Spirit, hopefully–to get beyond being a pew Catholic and explore the liturgy that had brought me to God and had enriched my life as a Catholic Christian.

I can’t deny there was wisdom in Bill’s approach, and I’ve tried to continue to apply it. I know some Catholics who react to Church teaching with quick dismissal. Sex outside of marriage and contraception are two examples that come to mind. “The pope is totally impractical,” some complain. “This teaching cannot work.”

I think back to my first experience of dissent. Bill encouraged us students to engage Church teaching directly, and now I look forward to the theological dialogue. I try, at first, to avoid the commentaries. And while the reading is hardly ever fluffy, I also attend to the Scriptural footnotes and source material in the Vatican II documents and the like. This isn’t to say I don’t always like where the theological conversation is heading, but at least I can say I didn’t walk away from the engagement before it even started. Given the scarcity of reasonable and charitable dialogue in some corners these days, at least I can say I’ve tried to be constructive about it. My hope is that more of us can claim this to be so.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Engaging Church Teaching

  1. Liam says:

    Before dismissing a teaching, one should strive hard to understand the perspective(s) and purpose(s) of the ones who proposed it, and I don’t mean a strawman or caricature thereof. One should very especially consider how rejecting the teaching might subvert or undermine one’s own goals, however unwittingly.

    Another angle: strain to resist the ever-present Catholic temptation to toggle the pontification switch from asking questions about a teaching to proposing a different teaching in its place, particularly if one is certain that the new teaching is correct (because, if one can thus be infallible, then why can’t the pope or bishops?). It’s harder to stay in question mode, but more honest.

    Yet another angle: if X is not important enough to accept/believe/follow, how is it important to not accept/believe/follow?

  2. Brian says:

    Even before I converted, the arguement ““This teaching cannot work.”” has always twisted my nose. In the time, I imagine many felt the same way when faced with the suggestion to …”turn the other cheek…”

    My thoughts are inclined towards “this teaching is flawed because…”. The problem with this approach is that it takes work – Read the CCC, read the references ~in context~, cross reference to supporting writs…and after all that, finding oneself supporting the teaching to which the original objection lay. Fruitful failure?

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