Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Sunday, August 01, 2010

Fr. Doyle and the ecclesiology of despair

Fr. Thomas Doyle, op., has an essay in The Tablet (24 July 2010) wherein he comments, mostly negatively, on some canonical procedural norms recently revised and published by Rome. My concern here, though, is with what I will call an “ecclesiology of despair” to which I think Fr. Doyle’s essay gives voice.

Concluding his criticisms of the new norms, Fr. Doyle asserts that: “They are tragic evidence that the hierarchical governing body of the Church is no longer capable of leading the People of God.” Now, for Catholics called to maintain communion with the Church in all things (c. 209), such an assertion, no matter what context occasioned it, is disturbing.

The “hierarchical governing body of the Church” is the pope and bishops in union with him (cc. 331, 336), usually operating dispersed throughout the world (cc. 375, 381), sometimes operating in an ecumenical council (c. 337). But let's be clear: the “hierarchical governing body of the Church” is not the ecclesiastical equivalent of, say, the Democratic or Republican Party (groups that can and do lose their mandate to govern in any number of ways), nor is the Church's hierarchy even the equivalent of the federal-state governmental system we know in America (a structure that need not have been adopted and that many nations do not follow). Not at all.

Rather, the “hierarchical governing body of the Church” is the divinely-mandated governing structure that Christ left to his Church. See Lumen gentium 8, 18-29. It is the way that Christ wants his Church to shepherd the People of God. To assert, then, that “the hierarchical governing body of the Church is no longer capable of leading the People of God” is to assert that Christ’s plan and his promise of abiding protection were insufficient to preserve (not so much individuals from sin, for they still have free will, etc., but rather, to preserve) the Petrine-Apostolic foundations of his Church from eventual collapse and, at least from then on, to save her very reason for existence from radical frustration. In short, one sighs in despair, So much for Christ and his divine promises.

Of course Fr. Doyle, blessed with free will, can urge this viewpoint, and others are, I trust, free to contradict him. But we should make no mistake about what his assertion implies for ecclesiology: if the hierarchical governing body of the Church really is “no longer capable” of governing, then it cannot function, not even to reform itself. Nor would the faithful left drifting in the wake of this purported disintegration of the hierarchy get to, say, gather themselves into some sort of world-wide “constitutional convention” and re-found Christ’s Church on X, Y, or Z principles. No, for the Church as founded by Christ would have already ceased to be, and her erstwhile members would be left only to realize that she had disappeared.

Over the centuries, to be sure, many have reached essentially the same conclusion toward which Fr. Doyle's essay seems inclined. Some later repented of it while others went to their graves convinced of it. We cannot judge their consciences. But we can say that, among Catholics, including Catholics grieved by the clerical sexual abuse of children (which is to say, all Catholics), an ecclesiology of despair in divine promises has no place.