It’s the Ecclesiology, Stupid

When I was a student in canon law school, for there is such a thing, the Dean had an infuriating habit of answering every question with “It depends on your ecclesiology.” It drove us all mad as first-years, but it soon became clear to us that he was right. The longer I spend in canonical practice, the more I recognize this to be the single greatest truth I learned during my studies.

birth-of-the-church-largeIt is, when you think about it, common sense: philosophy, theology, and law are all creatures of interpretation, and of course one’s vision of what the Church is and how it should function will inform every interpretation a person makes. There are many, seemingly disparate, debates going on within the Church: on canon law; the notions of sin and crime; the definitions of marriage and family; the place of the Church in/against/next to civil society; the Catholic response to climate change; mass migration; the reality of poverty. These discussions often, sometimes appropriately and sometimes not, bleed into one another and serve to either inform or confuse matters further. The intensity, if not always the thoughtfulness, of these discussions is evidence that everyone understands, instinctively, that their sum total is the vision of the Church in the third millennium.

Taking as an example the ongoing examination of the revised canonical procedure for cases of marriage nullity, I have previously written that dispassionate legal assessment of Mitis Iudex is almost impossible because of attempts from all sides to include it within the debate about the admission of the divorced and remarried to the Eucharist. The debate about the divorced and remarried receiving the Eucharist is, in turn, conflated into a doctrinal discussion which no one (at least no one serious) is actually having about the indissoluble nature of marriage, which is itself folded into a debate about the nature of the family and the proper response of the Church to homosexual relationships.

We are left with a mass confusion of issues, exacerbated by a lack of informed commentary, which sees the misapplication of both theology and canon law in a proxy debate. As an illustration, my last post concerned a proposal for the best means of implementing the reforms of Mitis Iudex into the realities of tribunal life. It was a modest proposal and it was, generally, modestly received. I was, however, sent a comment by a lady who read it, the message read simply: “Heresy is heresy. You are wrong.” Now, I know nothing about the author of this little missive, I cannot know for sure what I was meant to glean from her tautological observations about heresy, nor if my alleged wrongness was confined to my suggestions about tribunal staff or was a more general observation about my character. Yet I suspect that she was a well meaning Catholic woman who had understood from the confluence of misinformation to which she had been exposed that Mitis Iudex was a legal means of furthering the overthrow of the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage and that I, by having any truck with it at all, was an heretic. The problem is, that isn’t the purpose of Mitis Iudex, and my article had nothing to do with indissolubility.

In fact, no one, as far as I can tell, is advocating for a change of doctrine in that regard. Whatever Cardinal Kasper’s faults, and they are legion enough to have inspired two brilliant books, he isn’t advocating the dissolubility of marriage. Rather, he and his are arguing, in a piecemeal fashion, for a change in the way the Church relates to her members and to the reality of Divine truth.

“Whatever, I’m just making this up.”

Now, I am not a theologian and I do not consider myself qualified to give an authoritative deconstruction of his proposals on the divorced and remarried from a theological perspective without feeding the very problem I’m criticizing. But the common ground of the theologian and the canonist is ecclesiology, for the Church is spirit and institution, Divine and human, unified body and hierarchy. From an ecclesiological perspective I can say that his proposals speak to a model of the Church where Divine truth is removed to the realm of aspiration, rather than experience, and concept of sin is entirely mitigated by intention, and the idea of censure, either medicinal or punitive, totally removed. And that is a problem. The Church is a complete society, not merely a part of one. She claims as her birthright the power and the obligation of disciplining her members (c. 1311), not because it is fun, but because the Church is a body first and a collection of individuals second and it is necessary that she moves, with all her members, toward holiness, not away from it, for her own sake and for the sake of the individual.

Moving back to the implementation of Mitis Iudex, it is possible that those who think that living the truth of the indissolubility of marriage (rather than simply intellectually acknowledging it) is impossible or unreasonable for some will express this ecclesiology of individual intentions by abusing the canonical procedure to declare valid marriages null. And that is a very bad thing. But it is not possible for any legal procedure to place itself beyond abuse; the law, and especially canon law, presumes the right intentions of those using it. For this reason, debate about the divorced and remarried and communion is woefully misapplied to canonical reform.

Similarly, the pastoral application of the Church’s doctrine, as being discussed by the Synod, presupposes the existence of a structure for the Church as a true society and not as a collection of individuals. The pastoral application of theological concepts like mercy lean bodily upon the support of the ministries of truth and justice to render them coherent and meaningful. If a theologian’s ecclesiology implicitly excludes these necessary supports, pastoral solicitude can become as open to abuse as an abbreviated legal procedure.

These problems cannot be resolved by discussing either separately; when we try, the resulting confusion is all too plain and the outcomes can only be incoherent. It is uncomfortable for us as Catholics to consider the fact that there is a real debate about the very nature of the Church currently taking place. But the debate would be that much clearer, as would be the correct responses to all of these questions, if we were honest about the true scope of what we were discussing.

A debate about canonical reform and pastoral engagement in the light of an articulate ecclesiology would be both fascinating and fruitful. What we are doing is the reverse: trying to construct a coherent ecclesiology from the eventual results of incoherent and overlapping arguments. This is a recipe for continued confusion, which, as Archbishop Chaput has reminded us, is the true goal of the Devil.


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