Recently, two prominent churchmen called for a change in the Church’s teachings on sexuality. Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg said in an interview with a German Catholic news agency that the Church’s teachings on homosexuality were no longer correct and should be “fundamentally revised.” Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg took a similar line. In a magazine interview, he said that the teachings on sexuality in the Catechism should be “somewhat changed,” and that homosexual relationships were “OK.” He went on to say that the intimate lives of others are none of his business. In response, Cardinal Pell called on the Pope to censure Cardinal Hollerich and Bishop Bätzing for their statements.

Making a “Mess”

Adam Rasmussen covered this story for WPI. He explained that while Pope Francis disagrees with the stance taken by Cardinal Hollerich and Bishop Bätzing, he is unlikely to censure them. In contrast to Cardinal Pell, Pope Francis prioritizes dialogue in the Church. This commitment to dialogue means that Pope Francis tries to listen to diverse voices and initiate a conversation; when people “walk together” within such a conversation, the Holy Spirit can achieve breakthroughs that would be otherwise impossible.

I agree with Rasmussen that the Pope’s interest in dialogue helps to explain his tolerant attitude toward debate within the Church. I also think that Pope Francis believes that it is his job to “make a mess”—or perhaps more precisely, to let a preexisting “mess” become apparent and work itself out. Ever since the Second Vatican Council, currents of division and turmoil have been flowing through the Church alongside currents of renewal and development. By letting this disagreement come to a head, Pope Francis may be laying the groundwork for a future resolution of the problem.

The Story of Tradition

Whatever the prudence or utility of such a course of action, this situation provides an opportunity to reflect on the nature of authentic dialogue. What separates authentic dialogue from destructive dissent? Cardinal Pell doesn’t seem to be practicing dialogue, but what about the other two prelates involved? Are they practicing dialogue, or are they merely dissenting from Church teaching? What is the relationship between dialogue and debate and the tradition of the Church? To answer these questions, we need to ask some more foundational ones: what constitutes authentic development of the Church’s tradition? How should we understand the continuity of tradition?

Hans Urs von Balthasar has a surprising answer. In A Theology of History, he writes:

The Church is the interpreter of what has already been uttered in Revelation but is continually being illuminated in new ways as the meditation of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, presents it to the light of conscious faith.

Ultimately, the continuity of this interpretation does not reside in the human consciousness of believers or of the Church, but in the Holy Spirit. And what is continuity for him is apt, often enough, to look incomprehensibly disjointed to men.…

The believer in the Church must always be ready to make the leap from the old and familiar into the essentially new.[1]

The development of doctrine is often compared to the growth of a tree over time. But Balthasar’s view of development can be better compared to the development of a story. If you’re reading a really good novel, you won’t be able to guess what will happen next. You will probably be surprised. Of course, not just anything can happen; a good novel is tightly woven, with no loose threads or extraneous material. Still, while the developments of the plot might be quite obvious in retrospect, they are not obvious ahead of time. No single element is logically necessary, and so can’t be foretold with mathematical precision.

In an interesting article on emotional unavailability, Clement Wee compared the reactionary outlook on the world to the artificial intelligence of a computer. Such an artificial intelligence is very good at manipulating information in accordance with strict logical rules, but it isn’t very good at creating a compelling story. A computer cannot appreciate the intricate and non-logical nature of a narrative, though it can be used to analyze a finished narrative for factual details.

Trust and the Surprising Nature of God

The element of surprise in our relationship with God is something that Pope Francis has frequently spoken about. As he puts it, God “always surprises us…because he is a living God, a God who abides in us, a God who moves our heart, a God who is in the Church and walks with us; and he always surprises us on this path…just as he had the creativity to create the world, so he has the creativity to create new things every day.”

Just as the twists and turns of a narrative can lead to the resolution of a pre-existing tension or dilemma, Pope Francis calls us to realize that the work of God can transcend seemingly irresolvable contradictions. Choosing the path of dialogue rather than the path of conflict can allow the Holy Spirit to draw a deeper understanding and a greater fruitfulness out of the original disagreement. In this way, God can surprise us with his creative power.

We tend to fear surprises, however. There’s a tendency in human nature to cling to the familiar and the routine because this gives us the feeling of control. Surprise is the opposite of such control; nobody can become an expert at being surprised! This fear of being surprised and losing control explains much of the opposition to Pope Francis. He is surprising, different, and unscripted, and tends to shake up the standard view on things. In doing so, he exposes one of the fundamental temptations: the temptation to put our trust in something other than God.

Contrary to popular narratives, this fear of surprise is common to groups across the ideological spectrum. Conservatives and reactionaries obviously fear surprises. They insist that “the old wine is good”; at least they know what they’re getting with the old stuff. They don’t want to think of the tradition of the Church as a story—or rather, they wish the story was already finished. They act as though they have just finished reading a neat, well-bound novel; having finished the novel themselves, they are now experts on the subject. There are no more surprises in store because all the surprises have already happened. Instead, they find themselves characters stuck in the middle of a complicated and still-developing plot. Quite understandably, they are rather annoyed.

On the other hand, progressives don’t like surprises either, and for the same reason: surprise is the opposite of control. Progressives certainly do want the story to continue, since they aren’t happy with the ending of the last chapter; but they want to write the next chapter, to ensure that everything “turns out OK”! Instead of being mere characters, they want to be the authors of the text—or at very least, subeditors. Unlike the conservatives, they can be quite creative, but they are not patient or docile enough to appreciate the slow unfolding of the story.

When it comes right down to it, neither the progressives nor the reactionary conservatives really trust God. They might say they trust him, but vulnerability is the test of trust. If you’re going to let someone surprise you, you have to trust that they have your best interests in mind. Both conservatives and progressives, however, are too afraid to let God surprise them. They fear that if they let God write the lines, the future of the Church will be in danger.

Trust is an essential aspect of the Christian Faith; its absence is gravely detrimental to the spiritual life. As Rasmussen writes:

All the “information” of our faith derives from and points back to his self-revelation. The reason it’s important to assent to any propositions, such as that God is love (1 John 4:8) or that he made us in his image (Gen 1:26), is that these beliefs bring us closer to God. They help us to entrust ourselves to him without reservation.

Speaking and Listening in Dialogue

Trust doesn’t mean that we just sit around and wait for God to act. As Pope Francis has said, God does not hand us the world “all wrapped up.” We have real agency, but we need to act in accord with God’s plan—a plan that we never fully understand! How can we ensure that we have not “lost the plot” of this complicated divine story in which we find ourselves playing a part? Contemplation, study, and reflection all play a role in such discernment, as does dialogue. In fact, discernment is impossible without dialogue, since discernment is ultimately a communal process. (This is why the Church has the final say about any private revelations.)

To continue our analogy, we could say that dialogue allows the characters of the divine story to learn their roles as they participate in the next chapter. Obviously, the controlling attitude which grows out of fear will hamper this process. Neither the progressive nor the reactionary conservative really see any value in dialogue, since one of them is sure the story is finished and the other already has a rigid idea about what the next chapter should look like. Only by listening to the other characters in the drama can all involved play their parts well. Rasmussen reflected on the important role listening plays in authentic dialogue:

Dialogue refers to the Catholic principle of reciprocal listening. It is rooted in the dialogue that God initiated with the human race through divine revelation, which reached its climax in the incarnation of the God-man, Jesus Christ (Dei Verbum 3-4)…For starters, it means listening…The process of listening requires generosity of heart and a mind disciplined and capacious enough to entertain various ideas without betraying one’s own convictions. This is hard for human beings to do, and sometimes we Christians, because we have strong faith convictions, are bad at it. As Pope Francis mentions again and again, we should look to Jesus as our model here, who was willing to eat and speak with all sorts of people. He was unconcerned about being perceived as “lax” or a sinner by the more pious among his contemporaries…Respectful listening requires patience.

Of course, for a good conversation, we need “good speaking” as well as “good listening.” We need to cultivate the talent of listening properly; but we also need to cultivate the talent of speaking properly, so that we can provide something that is worth hearing! Even if the “other side” in a conversation is not listening or speaking well, we are not excused from fulfilling our responsibilities. We have to practice “good listening” even when the other side is not practicing “good speaking,” and vice versa.

An important aspect of dialogue is learning to ask the right kind of questions in the proper manner, and it is in just this aspect of dialogue that progressives and reactionary conservatives tend to fail most dramatically. Questions must be open-ended, or they are not really questions. Reactionary conservatives, of course, don’t want to leave a question open-ended; such openness might invite a surprise. Neither do the progressives desire such openness. They typically ask many questions, since a hallmark of progressivism is the “questioning” of current Church teaching and practice. But a truly open question might receive a negative answer! And a negative answer can be just as valid as an affirmative answer. Progressives don’t want to recognize this.

Two popular slogans reveal this lack of openness. Progressives say that we can’t “constrain the Spirit,” by which they tend to mean that we can’t rule out change. This is true—but it is also possible that the Spirit wants things to stay the same! Conservatives say that we “can’t have an agenda,” which typically means that they dislike the agenda of their progressive opponents. It is certainly true that agendas are harmful—but this is just as true of the conservative agenda of keeping everything the same! From Rasmussen’s article:

If you only want to get your way in the Church—whether that be a liberal, conservative, or traditionalist version of “my way is God’s way”—you will not be able to dialogue in the way that the Church asks us. Those who are impatient, perhaps claiming the excuse that this is “too important” to wait on or dialogue about, fail to think with the Church. Pope Francis plays the long game, because the Church plays the long game, and above all God plays the long game! Instead of converting the world in an instant by his omnipotence, God has chosen to spread the Gospel slowly, over two thousand years and counting, with many fits and starts. We cannot say this is contrary to his will, because it was he who chose to create us with the capacity to reject himself. But he always speaks to our hearts, nudging us with his grace. Imitating God, let’s be patient with all our brothers and sisters, including the bishops and cardinals.

Laying Down the Law and Turning to the Press

With this in mind, we can see that all three of the participants in the ecclesiastical drama mentioned at the beginning of this essay failed to engage in authentic dialogue. None of them is asking questions in the proper way. This is obvious in the case of Cardinal Pell; calling for censures is not a good way to ask questions! But in the spirit of true dialogue, we should ask what prompted his call for condemnation. Whatever the merits of his own actions, Cardinal Pell was probably correct in seeing the actions of his opponents as dangerous—a concern apparently shared by quite a few other bishops around the world. Instead of asking questions, Cardinal Hollerich and Bishop Bätzing laid down the law. They said that the current teaching was “wrong” and “should be changed.” This is no way to ask questions or start a dialogue!

What if, instead, they had asked some truly productive but challenging questions? For instance, they might have asked questions such as the following: “Many young people today see the Church’s teaching on sexuality as a mere burden; what can we say to them?”; “Do modern scientific findings change the way that we view Church teachings on sexuality?”; and “How can traditional teachings on sexuality be harmonized with the Gospel’s call to show unconditional love for each and every individual?” Of course, such questions would have to be coupled with a genuine openness to the full range of possible answers.

The way in which Cardinal Hollerich and Bishop Bätzing turned to the popular press also manifests a serious lack of dialogue. Such appeals to the press have been condemned by the Vatican in the document Donum Veritatis, “On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian.” The relevant passage reads as follows:

In cases like these, the theologian should avoid turning to the “mass media”, but have recourse to the responsible authority, for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders service to the truth. (D.V. 30)

Rasmussen’s article commented on this aspect of the controversy:

In the light of synodality, it would be ideal for Cardinals Hollerich and Pell and Bishop Bätzing to sit down together and talk about this face to face. Not a public debate geared towards the watching global Catholic audience, but a private dialogue. We Catholics are all are in this together, and all sides should be able to sit together and discuss church teaching, including sexuality, with charity and without compromising our own convictions.

Dialogue and Division

As can be seen in this current dispute, a lack of authentic dialogue leads to division in the Church more broadly. Appeals to the press and the adoption of entrenched positions lead to a rupture in the unity of the Church. The laity find themselves confronted with competing claims on their loyalty, and factions grow up. Catholics join “team Pell” or “team Hollerich,” much as their distant ancestors in the Faith joined “team Paul” and “team Apollos.” Such factions are much worse than the initial doctrinal dispute; they directly contradict the heartfelt wish of Christ’s last prayer before his Passion, in which he asked that we all might remain one as he and the Father are one.

Christ’s own call for unity also underscores the importance of achieving definitive answers in any discussion of morality or doctrine. Dialogue is vitally important, but eventually, the Church (not individuals, even individual bishops!) needs to step in with a definitive answer. The promulgation of such definitive answers does not mean that dialogue has been suppressed. Rather, it sets the stage for the opening of a new chapter in the ongoing story of the Faith. The ongoing dialogue will now be able to take this new teaching or ruling as a starting point, developing it or bringing it into greater harmony with other teachings.

The desirability of such definitive answers should be obvious. What if, for instance, the Church had never closed the Arian question, and we were all still debating the Divinity of Christ? How could the Church have endured with such a fundamental question left unanswered? And yet the definitive answer given at Niceae and reaffirmed at the First Council of Constantinople was not the end of any discussion on the topic. Quite apart from the later Christological controversies that were the subject of later councils, the Divinity of Christ is an inexhaustible field of exploration, in which the Church will be discovering new insights and new understandings till the end of time. The definitive answers along the way function as signposts that point toward future discoveries, rather than as gates barring the way to further progress.

“Heroes” in the Story of the Gospel?

The story of the Gospel goes on, despite all of our failures, mistakes, and sins. We each have a part to play, even though we don’t know exactly how it will all turn out. And fortunately, we don’t need to know. Our actions should be guided by a child-like trust that God can write straight with crooked lines and will bring the story to a “happy ending.” This trust flows out into authentic dialogue with the other characters in the story. Since we don’t have to control the outcome, we are free to be open to the Spirit and to one another in the present moment.

Ironically, by trying to seize control and become the “heroes” of the story, we run the risk of losing the plot and becoming the “villains.” Like Satan at the beginning of creation, we may become so enamored with our own version of the story that we lose sight of the big picture of God’s story. Notably, there is a tradition that portrays Satan’s fall as the result of the Incarnation; the highest of the angels refused to accept the humble ways of God. In a similar way, Peter tried to convince Jesus that the story of the Gospel should not include the Crucifixion—and in response, Jesus rebuked him as a “satan,” an adversary.

The story does indeed include such adversaries, but we do not need to take an adversarial stance toward them. Rather, we can rest secure in the knowledge that they are unable to change the outcome of the story. Through the marvelous providence of God, the adversaries themselves serve to fulfill the plan. In a beautiful passage from The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, Charles Péguy portrays God as reflecting on his creation. God says:

I am so resplendent in my creation.

In the sun and the moon and in the stars.

In all my creatures.

In the stars of the firmament and in the fish of the sea…

In the ant, my servant.

And even in the serpent…

Who tricked the woman and who for that crawls on his belly.

And who is my creature and who is my servant.

The serpent who tricked the woman.

My servant.

Who tricked man my servant.

I am so resplendent in my creation.

In all that happens to men and to peoples…

In all the good and evil that man has done and undone.

(And I am above it all, because I am the master, and I do what he has undone and I undo what he has done.)

There are no enemies, but only fellow servants before the Lord. Even in the face of evil, we must cling to a trusting hope in God. In particular, this perspective of trust should keep us from viewing our fellow human beings as mere enemies. Through the overwhelming grace of God, those who seem like adversaries today may become our fellow citizens of heaven for all eternity. If our brothers or sisters have lost the plot, we can be certain that the plot has not lost them. Most of all, we can be certain that we and our supposed adversaries are held together in the loving embrace of God. He gives us everything, and in return, he merely asks us to trust in the goodness of his great story of love.


[1] This is a longer selection from Balthasar’s A Theology of History which contains the quote used above:

Since…truth is infinitely richer and deeper than what can be comprised in a body made of letters, [the Spirit explains] to the Church that which he has heard, in the Church’s tradition…The Church is the interpreter of what has already been uttered in Revelation but is continually being illuminated in new ways as the meditation of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, presents it to the light of conscious faith.

Ultimately, the continuity of this interpretation does not reside in the human consciousness of believers or of the Church, but in the Holy Spirit. And what is continuity for him is apt, often enough, to look incomprehensibly disjointed to men.… In a sort of generatio aequivoca [spontaneous generation], he can bring up what seem to be new mysteries out of the depths of the revelation accomplished in Christ; mysteries which were indeed present in it, but hitherto not noticed or suspected or regarded as possible by anyone at all. When he does this, he never fails, indeed, to show the point at which the “new” things are linked on to the old, the crater out of which they erupt, the “letter” which they interpret.

But what he will not tolerate is having everything new and fresh in the Church’s history reduced, in the name of tradition, to what is old and has “always been known anyway”, if only implicitly…The truths that come into new prominence can never contradict the old, but nevertheless the Spirit can in every age blow where he will and in every age can bring to the fore entirely new aspects of divine Revelation…The fulfillment given in the New Testament was certainly present, as promise, in the forms of the Old; yet, when it came, everyone who was not prepared to be led on beyond anything he had previously understood, imagined and longed for was scandalized. And by analogy, the believer in the Church must always be ready to make the leap from the old and familiar into the essentially new.

Image: Synod 2018. Vatican News.

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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