Friday, September 30, 2011

The silence of Jesus and ecclesial caution

In yesterday’s post on the silence of Jesus, I neglected to bring up an important concern: In Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, Jesus told the apostles in general, and St. Peter in particular, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” In other words, the Church has the power to declare teachings binding on the Christian’s conscience.

This, I hasten to add, is not a blank check, nor has the Catholic Church ever construed it as such. Contra Lord Acton’s assertion of the papacy’s absolute power (and how it tends to corrupt absolutely), the pope and the bishops are “accountable to God’s revelation, to the fundamental structure of the Church given it by Christ, to the seven sacraments, to the creeds, to the doctrinal definitions of earlier ecumenical councils, and to ‘other obligations too numerous to mention …’”.[1] Nevertheless, the authority to bind and loose knocks the pins out of the claim, “Jesus didn’t say it, so I don’t have to believe it.”

But this point led one person to ask:

OK ... But then wouldn’t the Church have the authority to change at least some of these things later? I’m not saying that it necessarily should, but if you have a reform movement and a status quo movement (on say women as priests) it seems a tad convenient to say that Jesus’ silence on the issue can be used by the status quo side as evidence, while also supporting the power of the Church to modify, fill in the gaps, etc.


This is a very good question, and deserves a very good answer. Let’s see if I can provide one:

When Hewlett Packard elects a new chief executive officer, her job is not to switch the company over from making computer devices and peripherals to producing foodstuffs and construction materials, but rather to make the business of making computers and peripherals more profitable for the shareholders.

Similarly, the Church’s job is to “[teach disciples] to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20) — not “whatever happens to strike you as a good idea at the time”, not “whatever notions happen to be popular”. That makes the Church’s function essentially conservative and preservative.

Before we go further, let’s draw a distinction between doctrine (that which is taught) and discipline (how doctrine is taught and applied in the life of the Church). Doctrine comprises everything the Church teaches on matters of faith and morals, and ranges in theological certainty from de fide (“of the faith”), which cannot and must not be changed, to opinio tolerata (“tolerated opinion”), which is permissible to be taught but not considered certain, let alone authoritative or incontestable.[2]

Discipline is far more malleable than doctrine, though it’s often guided by tradition and precedent. For instance, clerical celibacy is a matter of discipline, not of doctrine; Pope Benedict could dispense with it tomorrow if he had good reason to believe it was no longer needed or helpful, though I believe it would be a very bad idea.

But even where opinion and facts are fairly solidified, as in the case of the Immaculate Conception, the Church’s conservative nature demands that it take time — and plenty of it — before rubber-stamping a teaching as infallible dogma. As for discipline, the Church wants to make sure that the practice to be adopted, or that dispensing with a current practice, won’t lead to spiritual confusion and disruption. From the perspective of two millennia, a movement merely forty or fifty years old has a long way to go to prove its permanence.

Another factor to be considered is the difference between authentic reform and mere innovation. C. S. Lewis captured the distinction perfectly in The Abolition of Man: “It is the difference between a man who says to us: ‘You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?’ and a man who says, ‘Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.’” In our context, an authentic reform should actually bring us closer to the intent of Jesus, the apostles and Church Fathers, not discard them as irrelevant or outdated.

Now, how does all this relate back to Jesus’ silence?

Let’s agree that to use Jesus’ silence in support of the status quo is “a tad convenient”. Again, I stress, this is why we don’t look at Jesus’ silence by itself; we also look at what came before him and what came after him. We operate on two presumptions: 1) the guidance of the Holy Spirit as promised by Jesus in John 14:26 and 16:13; and 2) the relative proximity in time of the apostles and Church Fathers to Jesus’ ministry.

We’re also given a couple of clues that Jesus taught the apostles things not recorded in Scripture (Jn 21:25; Ac 1:3, 20:35). While it would be hasty — and not a little disingenuous — to dump all traditions into the “Jesus taught but the gospel writers didn’t report” basket, it gives us yet one more reason to believe the early Christians understood Christ’s teachings much better than a modern person equipped only with the gospels would.

Finally, to those who would quote the passage about “interpreting the signs of the times” (Mt 16:2-3; cf. Lk 12:54-56), it doesn’t follow that because the weather has changed something must be thrown overboard; the ballast you want to jettison might be more necessary than ever. The fact that you’ve seen some signs doesn’t mean you’re interpreting them correctly. The “sense of the faithful” is equally tricky to discern and apply; it doesn’t consist of opinion polls, and it doesn’t act as a wrecking ball to the demands of Scripture, sacred Tradition or the teaching Magisterium of the Church.

Nor is it necessarily Jesus breaking his silence.


[1] George Weigel, The Courage to Be Catholic (2002), p. 117-118.
[2] Doctor Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma is a handy resource for checking out irreformable doctrines.