O’Malley: Recent reflection on Vatican II led him to ‘rethink and radically change my understanding of several then basic categories in [the church’s] vocabulary—doctrine, theology, spirituality, and pastorality.’

Excerpt from LaCroix, April 17, 2019: The Risks of History: Does the Church Do Paradigm Shifts?, By George Dennis O’Brien.

In April 2018 Villanova University sponsored a high-level conference on Pope Francis. The keynote address was delivered by the preeminent church historian John J. O’Malley, SJ.  He noted that recent reflection on Vatican II had led him to “rethink and radically change my understanding of several then basic categories in [the church’s] vocabulary—doctrine, theology, spirituality, and pastorality.

The council dissolved the boundaries separating them and restored them to a coherence among themselves that they lost in the thirteenth century.”

Let me assume that O’Malley’s “basic categories” constitute the essential factors that any view of the church would have to include. What is the relation of the four categories?

They could be fixed and independent of one another, like the Newtonian conception of space, time, and matter. In that case, a description of Catholic life would be an inventory of the things Catholics do in each category. A more plausible view would recognize the influence of the categories on one another. Declaration of the doctrine of the Assumption would affect spirituality, or a popular devotion to Mary might pave the way for a differing theology of Mary.

This kind of mutual influence would fit O’Malley’s suggestion that the independence of the categories was “dissolved” at Vatican II. What if this mutual influence was so great as to constitute a paradigm change? 

Boundaries of Christian faith

If, as Parolin says, Pope Francis is following a paradigm change, what was the previous paradigm? History suggests that the fixed element in the previous paradigm is doctrine.

Doctrine provides the basic framework that governs theology, spirituality, and pastorality. The dominance of doctrine is clear enough in the history of church councils.

Ecumenical councils stretching back to Nicaea have aimed to define doctrine. Whether it was Nicaea asserting that Jesus must be spoken of as “truly man and truly God,” Trent clarifying the Catholic doctrine of justification, or Vatican I declaring in what sense the pope was “infallible,” the councils have been doctrinal.

Vatican II was markedly different. From John XXIII’s opening exhortation to the tenor of the final documents, Vatican II was explicitly pastoral.

As O’Malley has demonstrated in various studies, the council’s aim was not to declare doctrine, but to persuade—to speak beyond the boundaries of Christian faith to the world. Critics often regard Vatican II as a minor council precisely because no doctrines were affirmed.

Brushing up the rhetoric may be useful as a matter of public relations, these critics say, but nothing important changed; nothing new was defined. George Weigel could live with that. If, however, a pastoral council established a new pastoral paradigm for the church, then Vatican II suddenly looks revolutionary.

I can offer only the merest sketch of the difference between a doctrinal paradigm and a pastoral paradigm. Under a doctrinal paradigm, the main pastoral function is to teach defined doctrine; theology defends doctrine, and prayer must be guarded lest emotional excess edge into heresy. Teresa of Avila was not the only mystic under suspicion for valuing direct relation to God over the mediation of the church.

A doctrinal paradigm leads naturally to a hierarchical church structure that elevates teachers above the taught, clergy above the laity. Faith is distilled in the official catechism. This is not an unfamiliar characterization of Catholicism.

Under a pastoral paradigm, by contrast, the basic framework is the life of the community; doctrine will fail if it cannot create the loving community preached by the Lord.

This is reflected in the idea of “reception.” It has been argued that Humanae vitae cannot be doctrine because it has not been received in the spiritual life of the community. Newman pointed out that the failure of lay reception preserved the church from the teachings of Arian popes. Giving laity a positive role in receiving doctrine undermines a strict separation of teacher and taught.

In a pastoral paradigm, church structure is more horizontal than it is in a doctrinal paradigm. The competing metaphors of the church as a fortress or as a field hospital capture the difference between the doctrinal and pastoral paradigms. 

A doctrinal paradigm for the Church

What grounds might be offered for choosing between them? One can argue that Jesus in his preaching, his table fellowship, and his remarkable openness to women hoped to establish a community.

“Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” is the Lord’s prayer for such a community. In the deep story of the gospels, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection ground the hoped-for community.

He lives on as the eternal host at the table of fellowship, as we acknowledge his real presence in bread and wine. The doctrine of Nicaea arises three centuries later, as the beloved community learns to express the faith that sustains its hope. The community existed long before the official formulation of its beliefs.

A general argument for rejecting the doctrinal paradigm is that it misreads the Bible. The Biblical scholar and theologian N. T. Wright notes that a doctrine-first approach to Christianity bypasses the narrative character of the Bible.

[A]ll world views are at the deepest level shorthand formulae to express stories, [and] this is particularly clear in the case of Judaism. The only proper way of talking about a god…who makes a world and then acts within it, is through narration.
To “boil off” a set of abstract propositions as though one were getting thereby to a more foundational statement would be to actually falsify the world view at a basic point…. [W]hen creational and covenantal monotheists tell their story, the most basic level for their world view is history.

A doctrinal paradigm for the church tends to substitute formulae for narration, a quasi-philosophical worldview for God’s self-revelation in the history of Israel and the church.

A pastoral paradigm acknowledges that the church’s doctrinal formulations survive only in the ongoing narrative of the church’s history, and only insofar as they serve the community Christ founded.

The attraction of a doctrinal church is that it appears resistant to the changes and chances of history. Rejecting a doctrinal paradigm seems to lead inevitably to ethical relativism and doctrinal division—precisely the concerns expressed by Catholics like George Weigel.

pastoral paradigm accepts the chances, changes, and risks of history. For the pastoral church the risk of relativism is offset by the risk of irrelevance.

Doctrine is not timeless truth but eternal mystery, to be unfolded in the history of the People of God.

George Dennis O’Brien, a frequent contributor, is president emeritus of Rochester University. Among his books is Finding the Voice of the Church (University of Notre Dame)

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