"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Crisis of Catholic Authority

It has been a commonplace that the Catholic Church has been undergoing a crisis of authority ever since the promulgation, in 1968, of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae on contraception. But in fact debates over authority in general, and papal authority in particular, go back through the medieval period all the way into the first millennium and were controverted at the ecumenical councils.  For Eastern Christians such debates have, of course, great ecumenical importance and implications in our day, as I have shown elsewhere. Nonetheless, the debate of the last forty years has been especially intense. Now a new book has come out to look anew at that debate and its many questions:

Michael J. Lacey and Francis Oakley, eds., The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2011), 392pp.

One of the most scholarly of voices in this debate over the last several decades has been the medievalist Francis Oakley, author of very important previous works on conciliarism and the Council of Constance (which I reviewed earlier), of kingship, and political-legal authority, and several works of intellectual history. Especially relevant are Oakley's early works that blurred the boundary between philosophy, history and ecclesiology.

Now, in this present volume, Oakley contributes the first chapter (a résumé, it would seem, of his recent book on conciliarism) and an epilogue. He and his co-editor Michael Lacey have assembled an impressive cast of academics to contribute the following chapters:

Prologue: The Problem of Authority and Limit. Michael J. Lacey

Section One: Historical Background - Contested Pasts
1. History and the Return of the Repressed in Catholic Modernity: The Dilemma Posed by Constance. Francis Oakley
2. Leo's Church and Our Own. Michael J. Lacey
3. Benedict XVI and the Interpretation of Vatican II. Joseph A. Komonchak

Section Two: Theological, Canonistic, and Philosophical Issues - Stubborn
Challenges, Emerging Directions.
4. Catholic Tradition and Traditions. Francis A. Sullivan, S.J.
5. Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Law: Canon Law and Its Discontents. John P. Beal
6. A Teaching Church That Learns? Discerning 'Authentic' Teaching in Our Times. Gerard Mannion
7. Moral Theology After Vatican II. Lisa Sowell Cahill
8. Retrieving and Reframing Catholic Casuistry. M. Cathleen Kaveny
9. Magisterial Authority. Charles Taylor

Section Three: Practical Limits - Authority in the Lived Catholicism of American Laity and Clergy.
10. American Catholics and Church Authority. William V. D'Antonio, James D. Davidson, Dean R. Hoge, and Mary Gautier
11. Souls and Bodies: The Birth Control Controversy and The Collapse of Confession. Leslie Woodcock Tentler
12. Assessing the Education of Priests and Lay Ministers: Content and Consequences. Katarina Schuth
Epilogue: The Matter of Unity. Francis Oakley
Appendix: Remarks on Interpreting Vatican II. Pope Benedict XVI

Oxford University Press provides the following blurb:
The essays in this volume shed new light on the paradox of power in the life and thought of the Catholic Church today, focusing on the tensions between authority asserted and authority observed. It is fairly clear that, while Rome continues to teach as if its authority were unchanged from the days before Vatican II (1962-65), the majority of first-world Catholics take a far more independent line, and increasingly understand themselves (rather than the church) as the final arbiters of decision-making, especially on ethical questions. The conflict between "look it up Catholicism" and an evidently increasing selectivity regarding moral teachings among believers defines two distinctive subcultures within contemporary Europe and the U.S. How are the tensions between these two groups to be acknowledged and resolved? This collection of essays explores the historical background and present ecclesial situation, explaining the dramatic shift in attitude on the part of contemporary first-world Catholics. The overall purpose is neither to justify nor to repudiate the authority of the church's hierarchy, but illuminate for the reader some of the complexities and ambiguities of the tradition of belief and behavior the leadership speaks for, and the kinds of limits it confronts - consciously or otherwise.
I very much look forward to reading The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity, a book of obvious importance not merely for internal Catholic affairs but also to the on-going Orthodox-Catholic debate about papal authority. It will be reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.

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