Changing My Mind about the Changeable Church

by Richard A. McCormick, S.J.

Richard A. McCormick, S.J., is John A. O’Brien Professor of Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.

This article is one in a series from the Christian Century magazine: "How My Mind Has Changed." Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


McCormick discusses areas in which his thoughts have shifted: The nature of the church; the church as the people of God; the church as servant; the church as collegial; the church as ecumenical; the ecclesiological nature of the church; importance of lay witness; the teaching competence of the episcopal and papal branch; the church and moral truth; the place of dissent; birth regulation; ecclesial honesty; the dynamic nature of faith.

Change (implying a terminus ad quem) is intelligible only if we know the terminus a quo (the starting point). For me as an American Catholic theologian, that terminus a quo was the immigrant Catholic Church, the kind of church nostalgically memorialized in some of Andrew Greeley's novels. I was raised in that church, and some of my deepest religious and theological sensitivities -- perhaps especially those I do not thematically recognize -- took shape within it. Eugene Kennedy has described this church as follows:

The unlettered Catholic who came to the United States in the last century fashioned a way of life within the host Protestant culture that was tight, intellectually narrow, and wrapped in an invisible and largely impermeable membrane that resisted social osmosis with the rest of the country. It was also the most successful era of development in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. This Catholic structure defended itself proudly against doctrinal and moral compromise; it was, above all, obedient to the authority which was exercised for generations without any serious challenge by its bishops and clergy and other religious teachers. Immigrant Catholicism was, in fact, held together by the vigorous churchmen who retained their power over their flocks by exercising it regularly on an infinitely detailed category of behaviors, ranging from what the faithful could eat on Fridays to what they could think or do in the innermost chambers of their personal lives ["The End of the Immigrant Church," Illinois Issues, August 1982, pp. 15-21].

The moral theology that I was taught and that for some years I myself taught reflected the immigrant Catholic community Kennedy described as well as the ecclesiology that nourished it. It was all too often one-sidedly confession oriented, magisterium dominated, canon law related, sin centered and seminary controlled.

This represents my terminus a quo. In ten general areas my mind has since changed or my perspective has shifted. Interestingly, nearly all these changes pertain to ecclesiology; but they have very significant impacts on moral theology, both its method and its ultimate conclusions. Some of these perspective changes overlap significantly. That is not surprising since all of them, in one way or another, trace back to Vatican II and its ecclesiology. That council shook up the Catholic Church in much the same radical and vigorous way that the stirrings of freedom and democracy rocked the Eastern bloc countries last year. It was bound to affect the way I viewed myself, the church, the world and God, and therefore the way I did theology.

The first area about which I've changed my mind is the nature of the church. It is easy to fall into caricature here, and I repent for that in advance. Still, I believe that my early view of the church was dominantly pyramidal, with authority and truth descending from above (pope and bishops) to rank-and-file believers (the rest of us). This model powerfully supports an ecclesiastical gnosticism that exempts the hierarchy from standard forms of scholarly accountability and reduces the theological task to mediating authoritative documents. This ultramontanism peaked during the reign of Pius XII. At that time few of us felt terribly threatened by the highly authoritarian and obediential motifs of Humani generis. That is, we thought, just the way things are. Many Catholics experienced little or no discomfort with the pyramidal model of the church. It seemed natural to them, indeed juris divini. In those days triumphalism was not a reproach.

All of this came tumbling down with Vatican II. The theological and pastoral winds that blew freely from 1962 to 1965 led to a notion of church much more concentric than pyramidal. My colleague Richard McBrien, in a talk to moral theologians at Notre Dame in June 1988, neatly summarized in six points Vatican II's major ecclesiological themes.

The first theme he emphasized is the church as mystery or sacrament. The church is a sign as well as an instrument of salvation. As a sacrament, it causes by signifying. As McBrien noted, this powerfully suggests the need to be attentive to justice issues within as well as outside the church This principle of sacramentality undergirds the statement in the U.S. Catholic bishops' pastoral letter Economic Justice for All: "All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the church and its agencies and institutions; indeed the church should be exemplary" (no. 347).

The second theme is the church as people of God. All the faithful (not just the hierarchy and specialists) constitute the church. This has immediate implications for the elaboration and development of moral doctrine, for consultative processes and for the free flow of ideas in the church.

Third, the church as servant. Besides preaching the word and celebrating the sacraments, the church's mission includes addressing human needs in the social, political and economic orders. This suggests that these orders are also ecclesiological problems and that moralists and ecclesiologists must cooperate closely. It also suggests that moral theology, following John Courtney Murray, must continue to probe the relationship between civic unity and religious integrity.

Another theme is the church as collegial. The church is realized and expressed at the local level (parish/diocese/region/nation) as well as the universal. Understanding this helps raise and rephrase the question of the use and limits of authority in the moral sphere, and the meaning of subsidiarity and freedom in the application of moral principles and the formation of conscience.

Fifth, the church as ecumenical. Being the whole body of Christ, the church includes more than Roman Catholics. The obvious implication is that Catholic officials and theologians must consult and take account of the experience, reflection and wisdom resident in other Christian churches.

Finally, McBrien noted the ecclesiological nature of the church. The church is a tentative and unfinished reality. It is in via. A fortiori the church's moral and ethical judgments are always in via and share the messy, unfinished and perfectible character of the church itself

That such ecclesiological themes have deeply affected my own thinking and theological work should be self-evident. Indeed, the following nine points are explications of these basic ecclesiological shifts.

I've also changed my mind about the importance of lay witness. Before Vatican II, conscience formation by Catholics was one-sidedly paternalistic. The individual would approach a priest, usually in confession, expecting him to be prepared to give the answers. The person would detail the facts; the confessor would assess them with a licet or non licet. This reflected the neat, if artificial, division of the church into the teaching and learning church.

Vatican II shattered this easy compartmentalization. It insisted that "it is for God's people as a whole with the help of the Holy Spirit, and especially for pastors and theologians, to listen to the various voices of our day, discerning and interpreting them, and to evaluate them in the light of the divine word." It went on to issue a remarkable summons to laypeople.

Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give them a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role [Gaudium et spes].

I confess that in my early years as a theologian I thought it was my mission to have answers to the most complicated problems. Where else would people get answers? The notion that laypeople have a distinctive -- and indispensable -- role to play in discovering moral truth was hardly promoted by their designation as "the learning church." I have come to see and value lay experience and reflection and am richer for it.

I've also reconsidered the limitation of papal and episcopal teaching competence. Catholics accept the fact that Christ commissioned the church to teach authoritatively in his name. Even though the manner of executing this commission has varied throughout history, Catholics still hold that this duty falls in a special way on the pope and the bishops in union with the pope. The formula used since the Council of Trent to state the reach of this hierarchical competence is de fide et moribus (matters concerned with faith and morals). Thus Vatican II stated: "In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent of soul." The vague and sprawling nature of the phrase "faith and morals" fosters the idea that pope and bishops are equally and univocally competent on matters concerned with faith and morals.This would be particularly the case in a church conceived in a highly centralized and authoritarian way. In the encyclical Magnificate Dominum, Pius XII asserted that the power of the church over the natural law covered "its foundation, its interpretation, its application."

It is somewhat difficult to say exactly how my mind has changed here because I think that thought on this topic is still developing. Some years ago Karl Rahner argued that contemporary official formulations of the church's ordinary teaching competence are unnuanced. Furthermore, the American bishops in their pastoral letters on peace and the economy have distinguished between principles and their applications, and stated that the latter are "not binding in conscience." That is an old-fashioned way of saying that episcopal competence is not the same when the bishops are dealing with applications as it is when they propose general principles. This is significant when we remember that most of the controversial moral questions (for example, contraception) are matters of application of more general principles.

Just how we should state this hierarchical competence is not altogether clear. Undoubtedly, Pius XII had an overexpansive notion of his competence, built on the neoscholastic ecclesiology of his time. I do not suggest that pastors of the church should not offer moral judgments on human activities. Rather, I mean that the pope and bishops simply must consult those who are truly competent. Authority is not competence. Also, even after such consultation they must show appropriate caution and modesty. Horizontal activity in this world does not belong to the church's competence in the same way the deposit of faith does. Only with the ecclesiological moves made by Vatican II was I prepared to see this. Furthermore, I believe that a significant number of Roman curialists still do not share this view.

I have also reexamined ecumenism's role in the search for moral truth. Prior to Vatican II, serious ecumenism was in the quite lonely hands of a small band of theological pioneers. Official attitudes and practices were structured by the conviction that non-Catholic Christians were the adversaries of our central religious and moral tenets. Canon 1399,4 symbolized this. It forbade the reading of books written by Protestants that expressly treated religious themes. The very separation of non-Catholics from the one true church constituted disparagement of their religious and moral thought. My preconciliar attitude toward the work of my non-Catholic peers was condescending tolerance, a civil nod that said, "Yes, but we have the last word."

Vatican II changed all that. Not only did it recognize the ecclesial reality of other Christian churches, but it stated explicitly that "whatever is wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can contribute to our own edification." Many of us in the field of moral theology learn more from our non-Catholic colleagues than we do from some Catholic theologians. The perspectives of the '40s and '50s that shaped many of us strike us now as incredibly defensive and parochial. At that time to think of the Lambeth Conference as a possible source of enlightenment appeared theologically ridiculous. Now it seems to be required.

My thoughts on the place of dissent have changed. In preconciliar decades, public disagreement with authoritatively proposed moral conclusions was virtually unheard of and would have been hugely dangerous for theologians. Yves Congar, O.P., has noted that the ordinary magisterium reached a kind of high watermark of one-sidedness in the pontificate of Pius XII. In Humani generis the pope stated two points. First, the ordinary magisterium of the pope requires total obedience. "He who listens to you listens to me." Second, the role -- or a role -- of theologians is to justify the declarations of the magisterium. The pope went so far as to say that once he had expressed his judgment on a point previously controversial, "there can no longer be any question of free discussion among theologians." In that atmosphere a dissenting theologian was doomed.

At the practical level what changed many of us -- certainly me -- was the 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae on birth regulation. I suspect it is very difficult for non-Catholics to appreciate the profound effect this had on Catholic theologians. For decades before that, theologians wrote and taught that artificial contraception was a serious moral wrong threatening spiritual health and ultimately salvation. Some even argued that the matter was infallibly taught in Pius XI's Casti connubii. The issue began to come unstuck in the mid-'60s when the so-called Birth Control Commission's majority argued that the traditional teaching could and should be modified. Then came Humanae vitae, reasserting the intrinsic moral evil of contraceptive acts. Most theologians viewed the reasoning as obviously flawed and indeed as discontinuous with major emphases in Vatican II. Their integrity demanded that they say so. They did.

Perhaps more important than the issue of birth regulation are the implications of this massive dissent. It suggested that the magisterium could be inaccurate even on an important moral question. It meant that "the light of the Holy Spirit, which is given in a particular way to the pastors of the church," as Humanae vitae describes it, does not guarantee lack of error or replace human analysis. It meant that the pope can choose the wrong advisers. It meant that a preoccupation with authority can itself lead to false steps. It meant that the church must be willing to examine its past formulations openly and critically, for there can be deficiencies "even in the formulation of doctrine," as Vatican II put it. It meant that honest theological input is called for both before and after official statements. All this indicates, of course, that respectful dissent should be viewed not as a disloyal challenge to authority but as a necessary valuable component of our growth in understanding. The Humanae vitae debate opened my eyes to my critical responsibilities as a theologian. I am comfortable with this even though the present policies of the Holy See are attempting -- misguidedly, I believe -- to dismantle the theological foundations of this comfort.

Therefore, I am no longer as certain of what is changeable and unchangeable in the church. The Catholic Church has endured for two millennia (notwithstanding some quite gaping holes in the bark of Peter). Catholics believe that it will, because of God's provident presence to it, endure to the end of time. It is easy to promote the idea that because the church will endure, so ought everything in and about it. This is particularly true in a community that sees itself uniquely commissioned to guard the deposit of faith, even to the point of infallibly proclaiming it. Thus it happens that we come to regard as unchangeable what is actually changeable. In doing so we provide powerful theological and emotional supports for institutional inertia.

One of many examples of this is the official teaching on contraception. The pope's connecting this matter with abiding doctrinal truths is theologically unjustifiable -- a point the Cologne Declaration of German theologians underscored. Another example is the ordination of women. Official appeals to "God's plan" and "the will of Christ" try to transform the changeable into the unchangeable. I confess that prior to Vatican II, I would have viewed the ordination of women as forever impossible. Not so now. I have come to see it as not only possible but desirable and inevitable. I can cite two influences as largely responsible for this move. The first is the theology of Karl Rahner, who showed so often and so convincingly that what we once viewed as unchangeable really is not. The second is the privilege of experiencing personally the ministry of women. This has dissolved emotional obstacles that were far more formidable than any theological analysis anyway.

I would conclude, then, that by changing my attitudes on several deeply ingrained matters (such as contraception and women's ordination), I have uncovered a remarkably unthreatening attitude toward the changeable and unchangeable in the church in general.

I feel less compelled to claim certainty for my or the church's teachings. The Catholic Church, especially in the hundred years prior to Vatican II, seemed to believe it could achieve clarity and certainty in most moral matters, and that at a very detailed level. The pronouncements of the Holy See both generated and reinforced this belief I suppose that a church that sees itself commissioned to teach authoritatively on moral questions and that lays claim to a special guidance of the Holy Spirit in the process might find it uncomfortable (at least) to say "I don't know." When I look over the book-size notes I drew up for my students -- on justice, sexuality, cooperation, the sacraments, etc. -- I blush at the extent to which I shared this discomfort.

Credit it to wisdom, age or laziness -- or a dash of all three: my old compulsion to be certain has yielded to an unembarrassed modesty about many details of human life. Unlike some of my cantankerous and crusading co-religionists on the right, I am now quite relaxed in admitting with Vatican II that "the church guards the heritage of God's Word and draws from it religious and moral principles, without always having at hand the solution to particular problems." But of course!

I now also perceive differently the nature of effective teaching in the church. The church will always need to express itself clearly as it guards and promotes its inheritance. But this does not exhaust the meaning of effective teaching. If I have heard the following sentence once, I have heard it a thousand times: "The teaching of the church is clear." Clear, yes. Effective? Persuasive? Compelling? Meaningful? Those are different questions, questions whose importance some church leaders minimize or even fail to recognize -- as I did earlier in my theological life.

Viewed from the perspective of the taught (rather than from the authority of the teacher), teaching is much more a matter of having one's eyes opened to dimensions of reality previously opaque. It is a personal and liberating appropriation, not submission to an authority.

There are many ways of opening eyes other than throwing encyclicals at problems. Witness is surely one of them. For example, the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador have educated us enormously in the faith. Perhaps that is why the church treasures its martyrs: it knows that they are irreplaceable teachers. They say things textbooks cannot say. In this respect John Paul II is most effective as a teacher through his symbolic acts and liturgies and least effective when he explicitly sets out to teach. Somewhat similarly, the Catholic Church will remain a muted prophet if the witness of its own internal life speaks louder than its words -- for example, in the area of fairness and human rights.

I have become more convinced of the imperative of honesty. The distinguished exegete John L. McKenzie recently noted that the Catholic Church is never further from Christ-likeness and the gospel than when it exercises its magisterium. Because McKenzie has not always conquered dyspepsia, it is easy and convenient to write off such a blast as the pouting of a habitual malcontent. That would be a mistake.

McKenzie's immediate concern is what he regards (rightly, I believe) as the injustice of the procedures against Charles Curran. But the matter is much larger than that. It is a question of honesty in magisterial procedures. I do not believe it is the cynicism of advancing age that emboldens me to note this. I think it is genuine love of the church.

Why is it that Rome generally consults only those who already agree with it? Why does Rome appoint as bishops only those who have never publicly questioned Humanae vitae, the celibacy of priests and the ordination of women? Why does a bishop speak on the ordination of women only after retirement? Why are Vatican documents composed in secrecy? Why does the Holy See not at least review its formulations on certain questions that it knows were met with massive dissent and nonreception? The coercive atmosphere established by the Holy See in the past decade provokes such questions about the honesty, and ultimately the credibility, of the teaching office. In my earlier years I would have thought that love of the church requires benign silence on such issues. Now silence appears to me as betrayal.

Finally, I have a new appreciation of the dynamic nature of faith. Because God's great culminating intervention in Jesus must be passed from generation to generation, it is very tempting to identify faith with adherence to the creedal statements that aid such transmission. This is especially true in the West, where reflection on the faith was for centuries eagerly hosted by universities. The Reformation understandably deepened the emphasis on propositional orthodoxy and thus contributed significantly to a one-sided view of faith that has endured even into the present, and especially in the coercive atmosphere of the present.

Actually, faith is a response of the whole person. It is not something that one has once and for all -- like a book on a shelf, a pearl in a drawer, a diploma on a wall or a license in a wallet. It is not merely a practice, a statement or a structure. It is mysteriously both God's gift and our responsibility. We must recover and nourish it daily, in spite of our personal sins and stupidities, and in the face of the world's arrogant self-sufficiency. This task is much more daunting and frightening than propositional purity. It is the continuing personal appropriation of God's self-communication.

I find it ironic that the most radical change of my mind over the years has been a keener grasp of its own inadequacy when dealing with ultimacy.