We were chatting over the coffee trolley at a mid-morning break. The bishop was telling me about a conversation he had with a woman in his diocese about LGBTQ issues. He was gratified to discover that they shared a lot of common ground. But then—he spread out his hands as if to say “what can you do”—she said, well, the only real solution is that the Church changes its teaching.
I told him about the piece I’d read by the late Jesuit theologian Philippe Bacq (En Question, 2014). Bacq elegantly and succinctly outlines how for almost two thousand years the Church, in line with secular society, taught that there was a natural hierarchy within the family, according to which the husband ruled over the wife, whose duty it was to obey. Appeal was made to various Scriptural texts to support the teaching—Genesis 2 and 3; Pauline texts like I Cor 11:3 and Ephesians 5: 22-24, and there was ample patristic and scholastic corroboration in the tradition. The teaching was undisputed up to the 1940s. Then, in the light of the post-World War II societal evolution, Church teaching too evolved. By the time of Vatican II, the Church was stressing the equality of both partners in marriage, founded on a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity, without reference to the traditional scriptural texts but now, instead, quoting the Song of Songs and I Cor. 7: 3-6. And then, to complete the evolution, in 1988 in Mulieris Dignitatem Pope John Paul II reiterated the teaching of Vatican II, and reinterpreted the traditional scriptural texts to accommodate the new teaching.
The bishop and I parted then, both of us, I suspect, with food for thought. For my part, I was struck by how many such conversations, formal and informal, are now taking place along the “synodal pathway” initiated by Pope Francis. And I reflected how tricky it is for bishops, brought up to instinctively exercise a conservative function in preserving the “tradition,” to think outside the box, not least when they read this from the Pope himself: “It’s important not to confuse Catholic doctrine and tradition with the Church’s norms and practices. What are under discussion at synodal gatherings are not traditional truths of Christian doctrine. The Synod is concerned mainly with how teaching can be lived and applied in the changing contexts of our times” (Let Us Dream, 84-5).
But this is the Pope who also said, “Tradition is not a museum, true religion is not a freezer, and doctrine is not static but grows and develops” (Let Us Dream, 57). And it is the same Pope who stated in his Motu proprio entitled Spiritus Domini (15 January, 2021) that the change in Canon Law permitting women to be lectors and acolytes represents a “doctrinal development…arrived at in these last years that has brought to light how certain ministries instituted by the Church have as their basis the common condition of being baptized and the royal priesthood received in the Sacrament of Baptism.” In an accompanying letter he noted that this development occurred due to a number of Assemblies of Bishops, and cited in particular the Final Document of the Amazon Synod.
In truth, we know that from earliest times and throughout history—think of the outreach to Gentiles in Acts 15; the consubstantiality of Nicea; the attitude to slavery; the shift from “error has not rights” to the Declaration on Religious Freedom—church teaching has changed, due not least to the sensus fidei fidelium, which is at the heart of the vision of Pope Francis in commending synodality as the way forward for the Church in this third millennium. And often this change is far from a smooth, almost linear-like development: rather it bears the bumps and bruises of dialectic, the change through “anomaly” described by Edward Hahnenberg in his notes on a theology of ministry (A Church with Open Doors, 2015). Viewed in this light, terms like “orthodox” and “tradition” assume new meanings. Any bishop who wishes to be ‘orthodox’ in today’s ecclesiological context needs to listen carefully to the ‘sense of faith of the faithful’ in his own diocese and represent this faithfully to the rest of the Church. Otherwise, a mere repetition of teaching that has not been received runs the risk of becoming ideological, in that it systematically screens out what we now understand to be a vital source of evidence. This too often creates the effect of teaching without learning, which is no kind of teaching at all.
In a divided Church, as Robert Mickens put it so well in his blog last month, synodal conversation will require that at its core is the prayer of discernment and contemplation, that encounter with Jesus which brings conversion. This is especially true if we dare to broach doctrinal and not just pastoral issues. The Pauline reminder (2 Tim 1: 7) that God has given us a spirit of power and not timidity is apt for us all, bishops and faithful alike.
Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.