Church Teaching?

Jun 2, 2021 | 8 comments

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.

Secular Obfuscation

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

Ireland’s Faith Formation Crisis



  1. Martin Murray

    Thanks for saying this. It feels like a weight (of verbiage) off my back. Laugh out loud image of being incarcerated in the dusty bowels of the Vatican library for five years 🙂

    Here’s another take on the same subject which arose in the course of a conversation with Mary McAleese back in June 2018 :-
    (start listening 3.50 secs in, finish 6.38 secs in, just 5 mins).
    Worth a listen. To me it makes the same important point as this article.

    • soconaill

      Entertaining right enough, Martin. No wonder Richard Rohr talks about the value of subtraction when it comes to understanding. St Paul’s insistence that love is greater than knowledge (1 Cor 13) makes the same point.

  2. desgilroy41

    Sean, a beautifully crafted incisive analysis of where “church teaching” has brought us to today and how the true mission of Christ’s church has been buried over the centuries by continuous pyramid building of both structure and so-called theology. Time to go back to basics.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the ACI were to send a copy of this article to each of our bishops with a simple request – “Please comment”. We have to hope that there has to be some among them who would find the time, effort and enthusiasm to respond. And how interesting and enlightening those responses might be.

  3. Neil Bray

    For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5.

    12 “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. – Jn 16.

    25 “These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. 26 But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you ALL things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. – John 14.

    Sean, Just passing!

    “for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” You might expound on which teachings should not have been declared? Who decides? How does one become qualified to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and that of the Pharisees (lay people?)? Common sense? Enlightenment enlightenment? Hegelian dialectic? Rohrism? Cupichism? Kungism? Hobanism? Kantism? Blondelism? Bergolianism? Pius 9, 10, 11, and 12th-ism?

    Is there really a strong correlation between the atrocities we Catholics commit intermittently and the existence of the Catholic Deposit of Faith. Can it really be said that Catholic instances of murder, rape, lynching, theft, untruth, social injustice arose because the teachings pertinent to them were buried under the said Deposit? And whither natural law?

    The simplification to the notion of God and neighbour is Christ’s. But who is my neighbour? If it’s a human being what is same? Is the unborn human person in every womb my neighbour? Should a Church teaching on this be ruled out?

    Not requesting either acceptance of this submission or a reply! Just visiting. Over and out.

  4. soconaill

    Neil Bray asks: “Is there really a strong correlation between the atrocities we Catholics commit intermittently and the existence of the Catholic Deposit of Faith?”

    I do not argue for such a ‘correlation’. I argue merely that the impossibility of knowing for certain what the said ‘deposit’ consists of renders the phrase rhetorical rather than useful. The same objection applies to ‘church teaching’.

    For example, does Neil know whether or not ‘the deposit of faith’ still includes St Augustine of Hippo’s deployment of Luke 14: 15-24 to ‘compel the Donatists to come in’ in the early fifth century – the exegesis used for at least thirteen centuries for the persecution of heretics in Europe? (The ‘Letter to Vincentius’)

    The opposite principle – that the truth can convey itself only by virtue of its own truth (Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom, 1, 1965) – must surely now be part of the said ‘deposit’, yet, to my knowledge, the earlier Augustinian ‘teaching’ has not yet been explicitly repudiated.

    So, can the ‘deposit of faith’ simultaneously contain two utterly contradictory ‘teachings’ – with the earlier Augustinian ‘teaching’ ready to hand if church and state again combine?

    It is the impossibility of knowing what exactly the ‘deposit of faith’ does and does not contain that I am protesting, Neil – as well as the consequent impossibility of knowing whose ‘faith’ is being referred to. Exactly the same difficulty applies to the phrase ‘church teaching’. Who can know for sure what is and is not included, or that anyone has ever been convinced of the totality of whatever ‘church teaching’ refers to?

    These phrases are surely rhetorical – claiming a substantive meaning they cannot sustain upon close examination. To our cost we fail to appreciate the full importance of St Paul’s distinction between love and knowledge, and the danger in the expansion of the latter (1 Cor 8: 1, and 1 Cor 13) It is time to realise the full importance of Jesus’s ‘subtraction’ – the prioritisation of the commandments of love.

    As Jesus always subjected the application of the law to the principle of love, is it not clear that in his reference to every detail of the the law being fulfilled, he could not have been justifying any unloving application of it? Was he not saying that love is itself the totality of the law of God?

    St Augustine of Hippo obviously got it tragically wrong – yet his ‘teaching’ on the great banquet was for many centuries a prized component of the ‘deposit of faith’ – and may still be part of it, for all we know – if it is true that the historical deposit cannot be subject to change.

    If it is not merely a rhetorical abstraction, where can this ‘deposit’ be interrogated – to establish what it does and does not contain?

  5. Paddy Ferry

    Excellent article, Sean. Thank you.

    It never did occur to me that our bishops in America and our religious orders owned slaves and that our church banned African Americans from ordination. Black lives obviously did not matter.

  6. Neil Bray

    1. What is the basis for claiming that St Augustine’s interpreted interpretation of the said part of St Luke or the persecution of heretics are part of the Deposit of Faith. (not a rhetorical question)

    2. Does the development of doctrine not require accretions to the deposit of faith? At what stage should a halt be called to the work of the Holy Spirit in guiding Catholics into “all truth?”

    3. How did Christ communicate His love for them to those lay people known as Pharisees?

    No one needs to know all the contents of the deposit of faith. There are things we know we must believe and do. There are things we know of but have not sufficient knowledge of. And there are the unknown unknowns. The latter are there for Catholics in situations which as St Paul says (Rom 2) that what is required is “already written in their hearts.” So people like Saints Thomas More or John Henry Newman when faced with extremely challenging decisions can have access to appropriate sources of Church teaching and seek to allow the “spark of Divine Love that is innate in us ” (St Basil) which has been received in advance to become activated. This approach is probably an initial sine qua non for synodal pathways. Otherwise they can become spectator sports.

    As you imply there is here some distinction between love and knowledge but not an absolute distinction. Gospel Love consists in keeping the Commandments, which rely on knowledge and correlate with reason. But one is not relying on a knowledge articulated in concepts or a treasure throve of retrievable concepts. One’s Catholic being (not exclusive to Catholics!, Rom 2 again) is constitutively in keeping with God. (Made in the image etc) The gift of grace steadies the will when one faces problems of absolute conviction about a teaching of the Magisterium. Facing a beheading does little to cultivate absolute conviction. “I believe so that I may understand.” Through grace and a life guided by the “fear of God” (Acts 10: 34-35) the law written in the heart can seek and get with help assistance from the deposit of faith, which ever aspect of same applies. The same law written in the heart transmits a message not to abandon awkward aspects of the faith or pursue an autonomy where nothing is posted higher than the self.

    In effect everybody, whether Catholic or other, is a la Cornelius, on the basis of the human nature of each, waiting for the Deposit of Faith.

    But “The Knowledge” a la London taxi drivers is not a required burden.

  7. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    I’m done – I’m submitting a request to be taken off the Global Catholic Climate Movement map. With the Pope’s failure to provide an apology (the Vatican lawyers appear to be calling the shots) to indigenous peoples in Canada in regards to the Indian Residential Schools, I’ve had it with the hierarchy. I’m in the process of creating a graphic highlighting Church, State, and Protective Services complicity in the whole affair – the “2” will be made of crosses – the “1” will be Canadian flags – and lastly the “5” will be Royal Canadian Mounted Police badges. 215 and counting.


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ACI’s Campaign for Lumen Gentium 37

The Promise of Synodality

What we have experienced of synodality so far gives ACI real hope that a longstanding structural injustice in the church may at last be acknowledged and overcome.

As all Irish bishops well know, the 'co-responsibility' they urge lay people to share - as numbers and energies of clergy decline - has been sabotaged time and again by canonical rules that deny representational authority and continuity to parish pastoral councils.  ACI's 2019 call for the immediate honouring of Lumen Gentium Article 37 becomes more urgent by the day and is supported by the following documents - also presented to the ICBC in October 2019.

The Common Priesthood of the People of God and the Renewal of the Church
It was Catholic parents and victims of clerical abuse who taught Catholic Bishops to prioritise the safeguarding of children in the church

Jesus as Model for the Common Priesthood of the People of God
It was for challenging religious hypocrisy and injustice that Jesus was accused and crucified. He is therefore a model for the common priesthood of the laity and for the challenging of injustice - in society and within the church.

A Suggested Strategy for the Recovery of the Irish and Western Catholic Church
Recovery of the church depends upon acknowledgment of the indispensable role of the common priesthood of the lay people of God and the explicit abandonment by bishops and clergy of paternalism and clericalism - the expectation of deference from lay people rather than honesty and integrity.

For the full story of ACI's campaign for the honouring of Article 37 of Lumen Gentium, click here.


"Come Holy Spirit, Renew Your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to Your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen."

Saint Pope John XXIII, 1962 - In preparation for Vatican Council II, 1962-65.

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