Sex and the Church's authority crisis

 Michael J. Lacey and Francis Oakley, The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity, Oxford University Press $41.95

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According to some commentators, the crisis of authority in the Catholic Church is little more than disobedience on the part of many Catholics who keep on going to Sunday Mass while being selective in what they accept of Magisterial teaching, writes Fergus Kerr in The Tablet.

This collection comes from the "liberal progressive" side, as the names of the best-known authors would confirm, as well as the fact that the book is dedicated to Judge John T. Noonan Jr (author of a famous book on contraception many years ago).

In the essay of most enduring significance, the eminent Jesuit theologian Francis A. Sullivan takes up the question of distinguishing between authentic Catholic tradition and what turned out eventually to be dispensable traditions.

This question was raised at the council by Cardinal Meyer of Chicago but not discussed, as the young Professor Ratzinger regretted at the time. It is no mere academic question.

In discussion with his colleague, the late Cardinal Dulles, who regarded them as "developments", Sullivan argues that there have been "reversals" in Catholic teaching. For example, the long-standing tradition that viewed slavery as morally acceptable was simply "reversed" when the Church recognised the inalienable dignity of the human person.

Again, the doctrine that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church is no longer understood as it was at the Council of Florence in 1442 ("not only pagans but also Jews or heretics or schismatics … will go to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" etc.) – a topic on which Sullivan has written an important book.

For Sullivan it is beginning to look, since the teaching of Pope John Paul II, as if capital punishment will prove incompatible with the doctrine of human dignity. In short, not all traditional teachings retain their authority.

On the whole the crisis of authority is mostly to do with sex. Dealing explicitly with "the lived Catholicism of American laity and clergy", the last three chapters spell this out. While mentioned in passing, the mishandling by bishops of the sex-abuse scandal is not discussed as a major cause of the collapse of respect for their authority. It will take decades in some places (as perhaps in Ireland) for bishops to win back the trust that was previously taken for granted.

FULL REVIEW: Traditions, authentic and less so (The Tablet)
The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity (OUP)
The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity (Google Books Preview)

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