I just finished reading James Carroll’s Practicing Catholic, which was highly recommended to me by my friend Joe. Carroll is an acclaimed author and columnist and was formerly a Catholic priest. As someone who has struggled (and continues to struggle) mightily with the question of what it means to say I am a Catholic and who is currently writing a book about my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism, I tremendously enjoyed reading of Carroll’s personal spirtiual journey….a journey of faith, love, and often, pain and sadness.
Among the questions taken up by Carroll is what he terms the great question put to faith by modernity, the question whether religious doctrine can develop. There is a tendency in the Church, and among many Catholics, to view the “deposit of faith” as fixed. Yet such a notion seems impossible to sustain in the face of so many examples to the contrary. One of the examples Carroll gives is the view of the Immaculate Conception. As Carroll notes, “[e]ven though this belief about Mary is said to be entirely consistent with Tradition, there was nothing driving it inexorably toward such formal proclamation,” and the “definition of the Immaculate Conception as an article of faith was, in fact, the first time a pope had ever presumed to make a declaration of dogma apart from his fellow bishops meeting in general council.”
Carroll also talks about the fact that only gradually did Jesus’ friends think of him as a Messiah and “even more gradually, as the Son o God, meaning that “sacred texts evolved slowly out of oral traditions, and that the sacred texts themselves were only gradually selected from among many others, equally honored but never officially deemed ‘inspired.’”
Whatever other lesson one draws from his examples, it seems to me that they invite us into a deep humility. It is so easy to assume we have all the answers, to develop fixed notions of Church teachings. It is true that some things are immutable – the command (or invitation) to love God and each other, for example. But we run a risk if we treat too many things as unchanging law and, correspondingly, fail to consider that we may uncover new truths along the way. We need to always be open to the possibility of new revelation by our God as the world in which we live changes.
You are really hitting on a key point – the meaning of the deposit of faith.
Is it static and was it fixed forever at some point 18-19 centuries ago. Or is it living – without falling into relativism.
Jesus’ own understanding of himself as “he grew in wisdom and age and grace” along with the apostles growing understanding of Jesus (They did not understand”) as well as Peter learning from Paul about the deeper meaning of the “deposit of faith” about unclean foods all argue for a more flexible understanding without falling into relativism.
I think the following provides much to reflect on …
“There is bound to be formed a solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists. There is bound to be formed a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new possibility. But what will count is a perhaps not numerous center; big enough to be at home in both the old and new; and painstaking enough to work out one at a time the transitions to be made.” (Bernard Longergan S.J.)
I too read Carroll’s book, which in some ways set me back in my return to Catholicism. But I agree with his take on dogma, and with your conclusion that the lesson should be humility. That’s a big word, much overused, but seldom seen in practice, and seemingly sometimes altogether forgotten by those among us who deign to pronounce that they, and only they, know how to reach the kingdom of God. As always, a great post. Thank you.