Why is it that the more ‘Church teaching’ expands, the less interested we become?
Within weeks of first news of Ireland’s projected ‘Synodal Pathway’ on March 10th, 2021 – and before anyone knew what initial feedback Irish bishops had received by May 23rd – deep pessimism had set in among some. “It is extremely unlikely that the synodal process will generate significant renewal,” judged one Irish Times correspondent on May 27th, and this was the trend.
His reasoning? Irish bishops had by then declared on their own website: “Pope Francis has been clear that Synods are not instruments to change Church teaching but rather help to apply Church teaching more pastorally.”
So much about our Irish Church impasse is summed up by this clichéd use of a phrase that cries out for protest! If the Irish bishops Conference had wanted to present their ‘synodal pathway’ as a complete waste of time they could not have come up with a more discouraging way of describing what Jesus spoke of as the treasure hidden in the field.
To be charitable, the bishops’ intent was probably to reassure the nervous that what is central and essential to Catholic faith cannot be compromised by any synodal process. They should know, however, that the phrase ‘church teaching’ for most of us refers to everything from the Bible and the Apostles Creed to the latest papal encyclical and the entirety of canon law – as well as the literary residue of every church council and every bishop’s pastoral letter ever – an overpowering, unmappable historical labyrinth of recorded verbiage that has expanded annually since the earliest Christian decades – and is still expanding.
The prospect of being subjected to an attempt to ‘apply’ all of that more pastorally over five years is about as attractive as a proposed incarceration in the dusty bowels of the Vatican library for the same length of time – with a mere promise of pastoral tea and biscuits every afternoon to make up for the tedium!
How ‘Church Teaching’ became a Turn-Off and a Stumbling Block
What all bishops need to realise is that Catholic ‘Church teaching’ over the centuries has suffered a fate that parallels in an uncanny way what happened to the law of Moses in the many centuries before the time of Jesus.
History records that in the thirteen centuries that followed Moses, the ten commandments received by the prophet on Mount Sinai had become multiplied into more than 600 ‘laws’ by Jesus’s time. These included, for example, detailed instructions on how water may be drawn from a well on the Sabbath.
To aid understanding Jesus radically restated the essence of the law in just two Great Commandments – to love God above all and our neighbour as ourselves.
In the two thousand years since then this simplicity has been expanded yet again into an unknowable continent of Catholic utterances, declarations, encyclicals, rules and regulations – a vast labyrinth that only a doctor of canon law can master – and then only if one already has doctorates in theology and ecclesiology and half-a-dozen of the many other supposed ramifications of scripture.
If all of these ‘teachings’ could obviously serve the cause of love and justice, that might be defensible – but instead a very different consideration – ‘natural law’ – is adduced as the rationale for many. The church’s abstruse understanding of ‘natural law’ – an obsession not obviously shared by Jesus in the Gospels – has become another maze of tunnels in the labyrinth
In sum, and for this same reason, Jesus’s key rules for a happy life have been extrapolated by religious professionals into an immeasurable, unbearable and inexplicable straitjacket and head-scrambler. ‘Catholic teaching’, taken as a whole, has become unteachable, even by Irish Catholic schools – the very opposite of the light yoke left to the Church by Jesus himself.
A ‘Hierarchy of Truth’?
It is true that church leaders speak sometimes of a ‘hierarchy’ of truth – from which we may infer that somewhere there must be a marvellous summary of the whole, from which everything else can be deduced. Search where you will, however, no such ‘summit’ document exists. To interpret even the Apostles Creed we are told we need a 778 page Catechism of the Catholic Church.
There is an even greater tragedy. What is central and always liberating in Jesus’s teaching has sunk almost entirely from view. How can any close reader of the Gospel not see that Jesus was as intolerant of religious mystification as he was of social injustice? Always he is searching for the pithiest description of, or metaphor for, that treasure hidden in the field.
For proof that this core truth is right there in the story, just notice how from the same Gospels the American Baptist minister Martin Luther King concluded that the Christian God was on the side not of the white Christian enslavers who had given his African ancestors the bible, but of his own people who could be lynched without penalty in his own time, in ‘the land of the free’. There too, in the United States of America, Catholic bishops and religious orders once owned slaves and banned African Americans from ordination – despite the labyrinth of Church teaching at their disposal.
Hiding the Treasure
Somehow the treasure hidden in the field had become hidden again, even from the church – so what exactly is it?
My own summary is that in overthrowing the judgement of the Roman empire – the greatest broker of honour and shame of his own time – Jesus broke forever the power of any overbearing force in any culture, in any era, to determine how any of us must think of ourselves.
He had also shown how ten Jewish religious laws, intended to assist the great commandments of love of God and neighbour, had expanded to prioritise something else – legalistic OCD, an obsession driven simply by the social, ecclesiastical and commercial potential of legal religious expertise.
The collapse of respect for the Catholic church’s own vast legal apparatus has not guaranteed the victory of freedom, love and truth in our own time, however – even in Ireland. Now it is the secular brokers of honour and shame – an alliance of politics, commerce and media – who exploit daily our human need for affirmation, for self-respect and for belonging. Subtly we are taught by this alliance that our right to value ourselves as individuals is always subject to the judgement of others – rather than a birthright. Told in one moment that we are all equal we are assured in the next that full realisation of our own ‘potential’ can only be attained by the ‘winning’ of something or other, in a variety of media arenas – many of them socially destructive.
In Jesus time to be crucified was the worst fate of all. In our time the equivalent is to be a media-adjudged loser – for only winners matter.
On the contrary the great message of the Gospels, and of the Creed, is surely that no one should ever fear that his or her value can be decided by others. To insist that Jesus is judge of the living as well as the dead is to question all other judgement. The fear that far too many have in our own time that they are worthless follows simply from immersion in the world of the great 21st century brokers of honour and shame – and now especially the world of electronic social media.
It is Jesus’s assurance to all sinners, surely, that lies always as the living wellspring of what the church calls the ‘hierarchy of truth’ – we are all already loved, and therefore lovable, equally and unconditionally.
True Teaching is Relational – a Matter of Loving Service
Until Pope Francis reminded us that Christian authority rests on service, Catholic church authority had become overwhelmed and hobbled by the unmapped continent known as Church teaching. The sheer quantity of Church verbiage had long ceased to serve its primary purpose. Far from revealing the treasure hidden in the field, the church’s vast verbal library had been put to use to determine the clerical church’s own honour pyramid: the more of it one could absorb and quote, the higher one could climb.
We all need to ‘get real’ about ‘Church teaching’. The latter is simply Church utterance and church literature – what churchmen have, at one time or another, believed, declared and written.
No teaching ever happens until someone is taught.
Sean O’Conaill, June 1, 2021