The Church’s Limits: Against Clerical Triumphalists and Lay Defeatists
According to press reports, the Council is preparing a schema on the "active presence of the Church in the modern world of today". There is no doubt that very many Catholics will expect a declaration of that kind. They regard the Church as the "light of the nations". They believe in a Church which has the courage, not only to proclaim an eternal life as God’s gift and the hope of men, but also to declare that, and how, man has to shape this world of his and its conditions according to the will of God. They believe in a Church which knows of a natural law and which aims at subjecting not only the sentiments of men’s hearts but also the concrete reality of life and history to the law of the Gospel. The Church for them is not only the sacramental intermediary of grace and the teaching authority for the true statement of the hidden mysteries of God, but also has a pastoral power by which it can contribute quite considerably to determining the concrete action of its members in the tangible and sober reality of everyday life. For these and many other reasons, it is understandable that the Church feels itself authorized and indeed obliged to have something to say in the name of Christ in the domains of history, civilization, economics, politics and international relations at the present time. And it is also easy to understand that very many of the faithful expect such a statement from the Church.
In such a situation sobriety is necessary. Neither side, neither the teaching Church nor the faithful "hearers", must over-estimate the possibility of the Church’s taking up a position on the concrete questions and difficulties of the world situation. This often seems to happen, however, and on both sides. There is no question here of discussing the point that within certain limits even the teaching Church in its doctrine does not always and absolutely have to be preserved from the outset from every error. We are only concerned with the possibility that the Church’s official ministry may over-estimate the scope and significance of the correct teaching which it propounds and inculcates. The ministry, or in concrete terms the clergy, has often too easily the impression, not merely that the Church has to proclaim what are certainly correct principles of social, cultural and political life, but that by that very fact it possesses, for everything of the slightest importance? the concrete prescriptions which it is only necessary to follow in order to bring about a condition of universal peace and happiness in the world, as far as such a thing is possible at all.
That is the source of the clerical "triumphalism" which was deplored and opposed at the Council. Though it is often not as great as some people think, and has nothing to do with personal pride and lack of modesty on the part of those who bear office in the Church, though it is often inspired by love of the Church and high esteem for the revealed truth which the Church proclaims, it is nevertheless impossible to deny that clerical triumphalism in the sense we mean here still exists. It often springs, as we have said, from an entirely laudable sentiment. For triumphalists of that kind, the Church is everything, the teacher of the nations, the wise and experienced mother of mankind. How then could it not be that the Church knows everything necessary to the peace and well-being of the nations, that it is sufficient to follow the Church to achieve the best possible in the life of the nations? Such triumphalists will then be inclined to attribute all the world’s ills to failure sufficiently to respect and obey the commandments of God and the Church. They will not of course explicitly contest that even the pious Christian who holds fast unconditionally to the instructions of the Gospel and of the Church can still raise innumerable questions regarding public and private life, of very considerable importance, yet cannot expect to get answers to them directly from the Church. Nor will they deny that a Christian of that kind, absolutely faithful to the Church and its principles, can make the most terrible wrong decisions with catastrophic results in private and public life, without perceiving any contradiction between his decisions and the principles of the Church which he accepts. There may not in fact be any such material contradiction, while any contradiction to certain formal principles can only be discovered with certainty when the misfortune has already happened. But triumphalists do not notice these possibilities or else they underestimate them, and so their language and behaviour assume that false tone of self-assurance and superior knowledge which repels people of the present day and makes them distrustful and obstinate towards representatives of the Church’s ministry.
The same fault, but with the sign reversed, is probably met with just as often among the laity (or among clerics with a lay mentality). They themselves demand from the official Church what the clerical triumphalists in fact think can be offered. They then reproach the Church when the Church’s ministry cannot meet this claim. According to these Christians, the Church ought to have foreseen all the consequences of the Constantinian turning-point and ought not so naïvely to have entered upon that road of symbiosis of State and Church, of Christianity and culture, which involves at least the danger of the betrayal of genuine Christianity. According to them, the official Church had the opportunity of avoiding all the errors and theological rashness which led to the persecutions of heretics, wars of religion, witch-hunting, and all the other dark and lamentable events of Church history. According to these Christians, Pius XII ought to have taken the lead in defending the Jews in quite a different fashion, and naturally in the way they today think could have been recognized even then, with a little good will, as the only right one. In short, these Christians make implicitly and as a matter of course the same claim on the official Church as the clerical triumphalists think they can fulfill. As the actual Church in fact does not fulfill it, does not advocate concrete social demands energetically enough, does not dissociate itself radically or quickly enough from dying social forms, does not stigmatize nuclear warfare profoundly enough (all this according to the opinion of these Christians, which objectively is by no means necessarily false), they experience one disappointment after another in regard to the Church, protest against it, hurt and irritated, and turn into lay defeatists. There are of course some of the latter among the clergy, just as there are also clerical triumphalists among the laity.
Clerical triumphalists and lay defeatists start from the same principle and make the same claim for the Church’s ministry. They differ only in their judgment of the question whether the official Church in fact does justice to this claim. The clerical triumphalists affirm it and attribute in consequence the misery of real human existence to the disobedience of the wicked world. The lay defeatists deny it and attribute the real misery of the world, or a good part of it, to the failure of the official Church.
It may be of some use, therefore, to undertake a short reflection on the limits of the Church’s possibilities of coping with mundane situations, whether of a private or social kind. Though attention is chiefly focused on these limits of the Church’s capacity in the public and social sphere, what is said also applies to the private domain of the individual, and in fact can often be more easily grasped in his case, for the Church’s limitations there are perhaps even plainer and are more indisputably present to ecclesiastical consciousness. The import of our theme must of course emerge from the reflection itself.
Four preliminary considerations
Before the actual thesis regarding the essential limits of the official Church in influencing life in the concrete can be stated, even in respect of the knowledge necessary to such an influence (and not merely in respect of the factual attainment of such knowledge), a number of preliminary considerations are necessary. A little patience is required with them, because their importance for the theme is not always immediately easy to grasp.
1. Principles of action even in the secular sphere can and must be proclaimed by the Church. They must be respected by Christians and are of great importance for the concrete life of men. This proposition is really self-evident for ecclesiastical awareness of the faith and for a real Christian. But it must be stated here at the beginning of our reflections, so that there may be no misunderstanding about the meaning and limits of what we have to say about the limits of the Church in its teaching regarding the concrete life of men. The salvation of men is won or lost in the concrete realities of their earthly existence. For that very reason the Church does not deal in its teaching and precepts only with certain ultimate human attitudes to God in an abstract interior life, but also with the concrete earthly life of man: Thou shalt not steal, not commit adultery, not lie, etc. The Church knows an objective structure of reality which is anterior to and binding on the free decision of man and which as such stands under God’s will and sanction. For that reason the Church teaches moral maxims with specific content to be observed by the faithful in every case where the inner structure of reality to which these principles apply is actually present and where this presence is recognized by the Christian.
Such specific regulative principles, which of themselves exclude any formalist situation ethics, even of a Christian type, have also great practical importance. They cannot be proclaimed and inculcated too often or too clearly, for it is not the case that the will to respect and observe them always and everywhere exists. Even if we were to assume with absurd optimism that all men in all situations of their lives are of good will, so that only offences of an objective but not of a subjectively guilty kind against the objective structures of reality and moral principles occur, even then perpetually renewed preaching and inculcation of these specific maxims would still be of the greatest importance for men’s earthly happiness. For even a purely objective and, from the point of view of salvation, indifferent infringement of these principles produces on the whole disorder and misfortune in the world. This is because transgression of the objective structures of reality, by producing pain, works out as the "revenge" taken by reality, even if the contravention occurred in good faith. Consequently, throughout our reflections there is no depreciation of the importance of preaching all the principles which are of significance for the individual or social life of men, nor is it meant that the Church by such preaching is engaging in a pointless activity, as if there were no difference of opinion about the correctness of principles and as if all the argument were simply about their concrete application. That is not so. The Church has a great, necessary and salutary task in the proclamation of principles. And Christians have the duty of assimilating them more and more profoundly. They cannot assume as a matter of course that they already possess sufficient knowledge of principles and sufficiently serious respect for them.
2. The Church and the Church’s ministry are not the same. When we refer to the Church, make a demand on it or deplore its failure to act, we very often do not mean the Church at all but the official ministry and its representatives. If we make a demand on the Church, we must always examine precisely whether it is really addressed to the hierarchy and its members as such, or to the Church, that is, to all of us Christians, and precisely in the sphere where the official Church does not teach and act authoritatively. It may well be that the Church has a function and obligation which does not belong to its officials as such. Not all the activity of the Church, which is the totality of the baptized united in faith and love, proceeds so plainly from the hierarchy as to be simply the carrying out of official orders. Consequently when we have to determine limits in the function, competence and possibilities of the ministry in the Church, that certainly does not mean that precisely the same limits are found, similarly located, among Christians as members of the one Church and, in this sense, in the Church itself. The obedience of a St Francis of Assisi to his heavenly vocation was obedience to a call which did not come through the intermediary of the Church’s hierarchy, however true it may be to insist that it remained within the limits of the official Church and was tested and approved by the Church’s ministers. Yet it was an event for the Church itself, not merely an action in a private interior life which had nothing to do with the life of the Church. Church and ministry in the Church must be distinguished; the limits of the Church’s possibilities and those of its official hierarchy are not to be regarded from the outset as identical.
3. What cannot entirely be dealt with in didactic propositions is not ipso facto morally indifferent. There is no doubt that some decisions in human life cannot wholly be made available to explicit reflection as regards their moral significance. Probably only in the rarest cases (metaphysically it would be more correct to say, never) is the choice of a profession or of a husband or wife made in such a way that all the decisive and operative motives and impulses are present to the mind expressly, formulated in propositions, with the relevant moral decision determined only by the motives which are present in that wholly explicit and conscious fashion. But it would be false to identify morally important with explicitly conscious factors in a moral decision. Introspective reflection never entirely recovers a more radical and direct free commitment in the depth of the free being. These spontaneous factors of a free decision not articulated in propositions, not explicitly focussed, not recoverable by introspection, can of course ex supposito never be critically judged and elucidated by reflection and theoretical verification, by express confrontation with the explicit precepts of the natural law, the Gospel and the Church. But we cannot on that account adopt an attitude of simple indifference to motives, even to the extent that they are not accessible to reflection. For as well as theoretical reflection on the moral significance of a decision, there are other ways and means by which a human being can either become clear about the rightness and conformity to God’s will of a decision, or at least improve the conditions for its correct formation: the general cultivation of courage, unselfishness, self-denial, the practice of the art of making vital particular decisions which cannot be deduced by purely theoretical consideration as this art is taught by the masters of the spiritual life. These and similar ways of discerning the morally good in the concrete, where it is not simply the individual "case" of a moral universal susceptible of theoretical formulation, imply, however, as their converse that the reality of moral good, the scope of man’s responsibility, extends farther and deeper than the sole domain of theoretical moral reflection and a casuistry which operates with universal maxims.
4. The matter and circumstances of humanly and socially important decisions have become so much more complicated at the present time that the change amounts very nearly to a change of kind. This statement requires more detailed explanation, because it is what will provide the essential basis for our actual reflections here. Human action has an object and occurs in a definite situation. Both must be known (whether expressly or in a direct and global way), if the moral quality of the action is to be perceived and the action performed in a morally responsible way. In former times, however, the object and situation of a free human action were simply ready-made data, presented in fact with almost static fixity and repetitiveness. With a certain simplification of the state of affairs, which however brings out more clearly the decisive factor without falsifying it, we might say that formerly the object and situation of a man’s action were simply data supplied by nature with which he was in contact and by simple human realities which recurred from generation to generation again and again. To the extent, however, that in earlier ages man nevertheless did change his situation and the whole setting of his existence in the long run, these active and not merely passively undergone alterations were so much a matter of "micromutations" -- if we may so use the term -- that they were made entirely without explicit reflection and scarcely involved any real moral decision. Consequently, people knew what, morally, they had to do. If it was said: Honour thy father and thy mother, Thou shalt not steal, not lie, not commit adultery, people knew exactly what was involved, they had a precise idea of their obligations as something concrete and experienced as identical countless times over. It was quite simple to know whether they had been fulfilled or broken. And what is decisive, when people fulfilled these definite, easily handled maxims, they had in fact complied with the greater part of their task in life as far as that life was subject to freedom. What did not fall under and was not covered by these simple norms, although falling within the scope of freedom, was so minimal that it did not create any very serious problem, at least in the mind of society as such. The task of the Church was correspondingly simple: to proclaim principles which of themselves could be applied to concrete reality by the individual, because that reality was simple, limited, static, always the same.
Today things are quite different, though naturally not in every respect. The characteristic features of the present age could of course be detected in former times as faint traces, so to speak, because man was always to some degree the inventor and active manipulator of his own situation and the creator of himself. Conversely, the old situation is still to a considerable extent present even today in the midst of the new. Both these facts can convince those who prefer not to be disturbed that nothing has altered very much in the moral situation of man. Nevertheless the situation is different. In the first place, it is enormously more complicated than in former times. And not only when we compare it with the setting of the life of Stone Age men, but also when we measure it by the framework within which the Church itself lived in those earlier times which constituted the classical periods of the Church’s life and teaching. The sum of the treasures of knowledge and culture has increased to such a degree that the individual in the time available in one lifetime can no longer have any direct contact with the whole of the benefits of civilization available nowadays and which are in fact known and enjoyed by one person or another. Whereas a learned man in the 18th century could still know more or less all the knowledge present and accessible within his own circle, and therefore within the scope of his own action, today we are all becoming less well-informed, in the sense that the proportion between supply and assimilation of available knowledge by the individual is deteriorating, and inevitably must do so. In this connection it must be noticed that this knowledge, which we know is unknown to us, does not stand in the same relation to contemporary man as, for example, the history of the 15th Dynasty in Egypt did to Leibniz. Within the setting of his life, such knowledge was quite unimportant, whereas what we mean by knowledge available but unknown to us actually contributes to determine the conditions of our own lives, and because we know it is not familiar to us, gives them a threatening and sinister character. Furthermore, the present situation is marked by the fact that it is not simply a given datum, but produced by man himself. Man today reacts to nature as an environment available for his free disposal, as material at his command, so that in contradistinction to earlier times he changes it decisively. Consequently, he sees the realities which he directly meets in his daily life as things which not God but another human being has made by his own deliberate planning. Man no longer lives in nature but in a civilization, in a world which is perhaps very inhuman, because made by man, but at all events in a man-made world. And this civilization is no longer what he produces each time from nature by his own work, but is the prior datum which is the starting point of the individual’s life, and without which he cannot live at all.
What is strange about this simple fact is that by it man’s situation does not become easier to comprehend and to calculate, but that the contrary is the case. The greater the extent to which elements which derive from the free decision of man are present in the situation with which freedom is confronted and with which it deals, the more problematic the situation of man’s freedom becomes. He is no longer dealing with realities which are simple, which cannot be otherwise and therefore can be taken as constituting God’s ordinance from which there is no appeal, as the expression of God’s own mighty and loving will. Man is dealing directly and perpetually with himself and the works of his own freedom. His situation thereby assumes a character of arbitrariness, of what may at any time be modified because it has only just come into existence, and also of what is obscure. The world of man in which his action is placed, being man-made, cannot simply be accepted as nature was in former times, even where it was mysterious, for even there its incomprehensibility appeared as something divinely matter of fact. The present day calls for mystery-free clarity, because it is made by men. But it does not fulfill the demand, because even free planning simultaneously creates more and more unforeseen factors, brings about situations with which the planner had not reckoned, simply because even the subtlest planning must always and will always have to reckon with an unplanned and not wholly intelligible material and because the planning itself even in the future will never originate from a single planner but will perpetually come into ever greater conflict with the plans of others which have not been taken into account. Through the rationalization of human existence the irrational does not really diminish. On the contrary, it increases faster than what is rationalized, by the very fact that with each plan the unrationalizable residue, together with the remote effects of the planning, involves more and more consequences. The irrationality of nuclear weapons is greater than that of the old knives and cannon.
To the extent that the man-made setting of man’s life and the setting which was naturally antecedent to human freedom are specifically different, the latter being characteristic of earlier times and the former of the present, we are now living in a setting which almost in its very essence is more complicated and intractable and inaccessible to the understanding of the individual than was ever the case before.
Universal doctrine and individual decision
On these assumptions the following must now be said if the limits of the influence exerted by the Church as ministry are to be clearly recognized. The distance between the moral principles which the Church proclaims and -- leaving aside for the moment the question of the Church’s pastoral office -- which alone can be propounded doctrinally, and the concrete prescriptions by which the individual and the various human communities freely shape their existence, has now increased to an extent that introduces what is practically a difference of nature as compared with earlier times. Of course there has always been a gap between general principles, which state what is fundamental and universal, and concrete prescriptions which aim at something individual here and now. It is the distance between the abstract concept and concrete reality, between reason which as such can grasp expressly only what is universal or the universal in the individual, and freedom which concerns and brings about the individual as such. To that extent there has always been this distance, this anthropological difference. The Church was always only able to proclaim universal moral principles, where the Christian acted as bound by the teaching of the Church, he always had to keep his action within the framework of the principles of natural law and of the Gospel which were taught by the Church. And certainly by that, in a situation which was a ready-made and easily grasped datum, a quite definite concrete action was in fact imposed in innumerable cases which covered the greater part of his life.
But even in those earlier times the difference we are concerned with existed in principle and was quite perceptibly felt in individual and social life. Even in those days the official Church could give the individual no unequivocal concrete information about the choice of a profession or the choice of a wife or husband. In very many instances in actual life the Church had to leave the individual to his own conscience, even though it was neither easy nor sure for the individual to draw from general Christian principles a concrete prescription for a definite course of action at a definite point of space and time in his life. And neither the individual Christian nor the Church regarded this handing over of responsibility to the individual conscience for the concrete decision as exceptional or dangerous. It was probably only in the rarest cases that the Church in earlier times officially adopted a particular attitude to definite practical questions in the field of politics, culture and economics, although these were of great consequence for human societies and could involve much misfortune. For the most part the Church was silent and limited itself quite serenely to proclaiming very general principles of political, cultural and economic life. Even the differences of opinion among moral theologians, sometimes very considerable differences, which were tolerated by the Church for centuries and not settled by a doctrinal pronouncement, especially on points where it was a question of an attempt to give concrete form to general moral principles, show that the difference we are concerned with has always existed to some extent and therefore does not involve an absolutely new situation for the Church today.
Once again, however, this does not exclude but on the contrary includes the fact that in earlier times the difference was considerably smaller, that it made itself much less felt in human and Christian life as a whole. Consequently it scarcely represented a problem that was really experienced as fundamental. At the most it was one when philosophers and theologians disputed about the precise relation between universals and concrete particulars. That controversy over universals had, however, no practical significance for the life of the Church or of the individual Christian.
Today the situation is different. The difference between the general moral principles taught by the Church and concrete reality is everywhere perceptible and constitutes an extraordinarily difficult state of affairs for the Church and the individual Christian. It is not that the general principles are no longer valid, unimportant or should be replaced by a situation ethics because they are of no consequence. Nor are we concerned here with the gap between the principles taught by the Church and the actual respect shown to them. It has already been emphasized that that is not our subject. In fact it could with justice be said that the principles are all the more important as ultimate orientation and guides, the more complicated, obscure and inaccessible to total conscious analysis the reality becomes which man himself creates and in which he must morally subsist. The difference is nevertheless almost so much greater now as to be of a different kind. It is directly tangible everywhere, painful and menacing. The reason has already been indicated. The subject-matter and circumstances of important human and social decisions have increased in complexity to such an extent that the whole context has practically changed its nature.
Reflection on general principles, the further and to a certain extent always possible elaboration of such principles in the direction of greater concreteness cannot in principle keep pace with the increasing complexity of subject-matter and circumstances of individual and social decisions. The gap irresistibly widens. The causes of the inevitability of the growth of this difference cannot be gone into in detail here. We shall only point out that the greater the area of freedom which man actively makes for himself, the more incalculable that area of freedom becomes, because it brings with it new and fluid situations which are only thoroughly analysed when they already belong to the past.
It must not be overlooked that because the Church has to announce a revelation which came to an end with the apostles, it is engaged in a history of reflection on the natural law committed to its care. That history is not at an end and is only accomplished in connection with concrete events. The Church necessarily experiences a gap between the general principles which it transmits from apostolic tradition or which it first has to formulate by express reflection as part of the history of recognition of the natural law, and the new concrete realities which emerge in the history of its members. Only someone who had an absolutely unhistorical conception of the way men come to discover truth could imagine that men can respond immediately to every new situation that arises with a concrete application of their general principles to the situation. Only someone who overlooks the fact that this answer itself has a real history which is a history of the reality reflected on as well as of the reflection itself, can think that the Church with its principles, because they too can be given concrete form, is always able to follow directly on the heels of what is new in the changing course of history and that only by its own fault and failure could the Church lag behind events in its theological reflection on morals. In many respects it was only possible to speak with full theological accuracy about the Constantinian turning-point, the feudal State of the Middle Ages and innumerable other events in the life of the Church, when these events already belonged to the past. In principle there are innumerable realities in regard to which we can only really become wise by experience, and so actually never can. For when the damage is done, the things in question are already past and gone.
But let us leave epistemological considerations of a fundamental kind regarding the inevitability of that gap. Let it suffice to indicate the fact that a difference has become greater and is becoming ever greater, and then try to illustrate it by a few examples. The Church can lay down basic principles for the organization of economic life. The Church does so, and these principles are certainly very important and very fruitful, and to transgress them can have catastrophic consequences. But the Church cannot offer a concrete model of the economy as it might be today and as in certain circumstances it ought to be, in such a way that to realize this model would be a binding moral duty on those in charge of economic life. The general principles of the Church on the abstract theoretical level admit of realization in various concrete models of an economy. Yet in a certain situation one particular model among these models, all of which are legitimate on general principles, may be the only correct one effectively to achieve the humane purpose of an economic order. Or it may be the model which alone is to be chosen in a certain historical decision if an economy is not to be damaged by a chaos of opposing tendencies, even if the model in question were not the only factually and therefore morally correct one objectively imposed by the actual situation itself prior to a free historical decision. Now the Church cannot determine in official pronouncements which of these numerous models is in one or other of these senses the correct one. And yet the answer to such a question can be a matter of life and death for a civilization or for the whole world. Nor can it be said that such a choice is shown to be morally indifferent by the very fact that it cannot definitively be regulated even by a pronouncement of the Church’s magisterium and that it is merely a question of greater or less earthly happiness without moral relevance. Such an opinion would presuppose the false theory that all that is moral is susceptible as such of being brought completely and explicitly before the mind by reflection. No one can deny that the difference between the moral principles of the economic order and the concrete model of an economy which ought to exist today, is becoming greater and greater. It is not that those principles are contradicted by the actual concrete economy -- that is not the question at the moment -- but the formal abstract character of the principles is becoming increasingly evident, and so is the fact that a concrete model and a clear guide for practical action cannot be derived from them.
The case is similar, as probably no one will really deny, in the domains of social policy, culture and education, in the attitude of Christians to thermo-nuclear and other modern weapons and in innumerable similar questions of public life at the present day. Everywhere even earnest Christians, unconditionally devoted to the teaching of the Church, are quite emphatically in disagreement on such matters, as soon as the attempt is made to pass from general principles to a concrete prescription. In most instances the Church is at pains not to adopt a definite attitude. The ultimate reason is not cowardice or unprincipled oscillation between old and new, or mere tactics, but the realization, even if not a fully explicit one, that the Church in principle cannot in most instances adopt a definite attitude. For the difference between concrete and universal is itself impossible to abolish. Moreover, it has almost changed its nature today because in human life it has widened so enormously, whereas the Church, being simply the teacher of the universal natural law and of apostolic tradition, cannot do more than proclaim general principles.
Of course in virtue of its pastoral office the Church can also certainly give concrete instructions which are prescriptions and not merely principles, primarily in the domain of the Church’s own life. Furthermore, the Church, in accordance with its doctrine, can certainly also regulate by prescriptions and not only by principles the conscience of the faithful. For the Church can negatively proscribe definite concrete modes of action, social institutions etc., as incompatible in concreto with its universal maxims. For example, the Church may forbid membership of a particular political party, secret society and so on. But that does not decide the question to what extent such a negative operation of the Church’s pastoral office, which goes beyond its teaching authority, must necessarily be objectively correct in any individual instance. Nor does it tell us whether such a negative concrete instruction can be translated back again into a fundamental principle of a positive kind. And what is the source of this right of the Church to issue negative precepts? What limits has it as a consequence? What special possibility can there remain in such cases for the conscience of an individual who thinks otherwise, and who in our hypothesis cannot help thinking otherwise, without his becoming ipso facto a schismatic? To what extent is such an instruction of the Church, which by the very nature of the case is determined by certain conditions of its time, not rendered obsolete by a change of circumstances, even without an express declaration of the Church?
Above all, such a negative function of the pastoral office does not of itself mean that the Church can, through its pastoral office if not its magisterium, issue always and everywhere positive concrete prescriptions for the concrete life of the individual and of society. The Church not only does not do so, the Church cannot do so, for the Church would be going beyond what is possible to it. The contention that the Church ought to do so, or the complaint that it does not, are both false in principle. That does not mean that these limits can never actually be overstepped either way, by too little or too much official decision and pronouncement by the Church.
For the professional theologian a further observation may be added. We know that in what has been said, we have not taken into account all the possible objections to our thesis which could be drawn from the Church’s pastoral office or from certain marginal phenomena of the Church’s doctrinal magisterium. It could be pointed out that the Church’s magisterium can establish what are termed "dogmatic facts", that the Church can infallibly know that a particular human being is in heaven, and so on. It is impossible to go into all these objections here. Only this can be said: The fact that throughout its whole history and in innumerable cases of intrinsically incalculable importance for the well-being of men, the Church has given no concrete binding judgment (who is the unjust aggressor in a particular war; which concrete social tendency is the correct one; what kind of colonialism is permissible, and what precise kind is immoral; what particular mode of education truly forms human beings, which in the long run does not do so sufficiently; what apertura a sinistra is necessary and salutary, which is a deadly danger for a community and so on) shows that the Church in principle cannot do that kind of thing, at least in most cases. For otherwise the Church would have acted against its duty and capacity in a way and to an extent which the theologian cannot ascribe to a Church which as a whole is indefectible in the love of God and not only in its truth. In very many cases what is called the Church’s failure to act is an absence of competence for which the Church cannot be blamed. For example, the Church need not have any greater foresight into the future than is possible to the normal average decent person. And the few more clear-sighted prophets there may also be in the world need not necessarily be found among the Church’s ministers and may perhaps have to preach to that ministry in vain.
It follows from what has been said that the clerical triumphalism and the lay defeatism mentioned at the beginning are equally false. They both spring from an exaggerated view of the possibilities of the Church’s ministry, both in regard to the magisterium and the pastoral office, and particularly in respect of our present historical situation. If a common root is sought for these two false attitudes, the overestimation of the Church’s possibilities of directly shaping the world is founded on an underestimation of the Church’s own proper function. Both the lay defeatists, who lament that the Church pitiably lags behind its present day task, fails to act and time and time again backs the wrong horse, and the clerical triumphalists, who proclaim with ardent enthusiasm the principles of the Church and think that the mondo megliore would radiantly dawn provided these principles were generally accepted, underestimate theoretically and existentially the proper, religious function of the Church. That the Lord’s Supper is celebrated and his death proclaimed until he returns; that in the name of the triune God baptism is administered and God’s justifying Word is preached; that we are the Lord’s in life and in death and therefore in our first and in our last failure; that we believe, hope and love -- to proclaim and mediate that is the proper function of the Church.
Certainly Christian life, which is nothing other than the acceptance of the ineffable mystery of God as love, must be accomplished in the concrete details of earthly life, which is determined by the secular forces of science, of politics, of power and also of guilt. Certainly the Christian life which the Church has to mediate is not a ghetto-like idyll carefully safeguarded and cultivated in the margin of the rest of life, solely in the gentle inwardness of conscience or in the respectable Sunday churchgoing of a family seen as the last oasis in the omnipotence of a pitiless new age. The grey harshness of everyday economic and political life, of the most secular research, of that art which is not addressing explicit hymns to God, in short, the secular world itself is the stage and the material and the genuine objectivation of Christian existence and life. In comparison with it, what is expressly Christian and ecclesiastical in profession of faith, prayer and worship occupies quite justifiably in time and quantity a relatively modest proportion of people’s lives. It is of course true that the expressly Christian and ecclesiastical elements are of irreplaceable importance as objective expressions of a grace which is incarnational in structure, and as a source of strength to endure the secular world as a Christian vocation. But for this Christianity in the world itself, the decisive task of the Church is definitely not a facile preparation of concrete patterns for such a Christian life, of such a kind that it would only be necessary to copy them obediently, conscientiously and comfortably for one to be ipso facto a good Christian. For that life the Church does not offer patterns, but strength to endure it even without patterns, and it offers this strength precisely by fulfilling the religious function which properly belongs to it.
If by the power of God’s grace we are in a position to accept ourselves as pilgrims, as mortal men seeking their way with difficulty through the darkness, as failing again and again and yet bound in duty to an earthly task; if the Church effects that acceptance by celebrating the death of the Lord, and makes us men of prayer who are really conscious of the future judgment of God, if the Church sends its children strengthened with God’s grace out into their own maturity which burdens them but sets them free, then the Church by its official ministry has done what it alone can and must do. If we understand these limits of the Church which at bottom are its strength, because the Church is ultimately the Church of the Gospel and of the liberating and merciful grace of God and not the Church of an ever more detailed and minutely differentiated law, then we shall be more moderate both in praising what the Church’s ministry can directly achieve for the earthly well-being of the world and in blaming it for its manifold failure.
All that has been said about the limits of the Church’s ministry in the concrete shaping of the world must not itself be regarded as a formula with the help of which all problems regarding criticism of the Church can be solved. Even if what has been said is found acceptable, differences of opinion may persist about various particular questions of history and the day to day life of the Church, and in fact remain insoluble, and therefore have to be borne in patience. This is so even in regard to detailed questions of what the Church’s ministry in particular cases could and should have done and what it should not have done. Even someone who is no triumphalist can in certain circumstances lament that at such and such a point even the simplest principles which the Church proclaims were disregarded. Someone else who is no defeatist may be of the opinion that the Church’s ministry has not yet sufficiently thought out afresh these despised principles for them to be likely to be accepted. He can hold that the Church’s ministry has failed because it has not proclaimed the principles loudly enough, or has failed in the appropriate calculation of relative emphasis in proclaiming the many principles which often dialectically neutralize one another, or has made too little courageous use of the possibilities of the pastoral office. In precisely the same instance another Christian may hold the contrary opinion, without necessarily being open to suspicion of being a triumphalist on that account.
Just as the various Catholic "moral systems", as formal rules for resolving a problem which cannot be solved directly on its data, do not offer an easy solution for the individual cases, because they themselves are controverted, so too it is not possible with the help of the reflections we have put forward to settle all conflicts among Catholics. In the complicated situation of the present day, we shall very often have to argue in real earnest and bitterly, and precisely while appealing to Christian principles and the Christian spirit. But this can be done in love and knowing in faith that even we in our arguments possess that ultimate unity, through the Church, in what is the Church’s real nature. But we should not quarrel over points where it would be possible with moderation and love and the help of a few principles to reach agreement or peaceably concede to each other the right to a different choice and decision.
Until now we have spoken about the limits of the Church’s official ministry in regard to the concrete shaping of our world. This must not be misunderstood. It does not mean that the limits of Christians as such in regard to such a shaping influence are located at precisely the same point. While respecting the universal principles of the Church, the Christian by his own conscience and his own inquiry, which is a duty incumbent on him as an individual, has to seek for the concrete prescription by which he will shape his own life and endeavour to contribute to determining the actual form taken by public life. We have in fact already emphasized that Christian and moral responsibility is not at an end by the mere fact that one has not demonstrably come into conflict with the general principles of the Church concerning earthly life.
Just as someone has not made a morally responsible choice of profession or of wife or husband solely by the fact that a confessor does not or cannot oppose the choice, so also, for example, a Catholic at the beginning of the Third Reich had not with certainty done what he had to by the mere fact that by his actions he had not come into conflict with episcopal or papal pronouncements. The reason is not that a moral precept is binding even if it is not proclaimed by the Church with sufficient clarity, although the Church could and should do so. It is because a particular moral action of an individual is not simply and solely identical with the observation of general principles, but as well as this involves something additional and proper to the particular instance, for which the individual as such must take moral responsibility. The same thing of course also holds good of the historical decisions of collective bodies.
It is impossible here to pursue further this difference between the function of the Church in the sense of the official ministry and the function of the Church as the community of Christians, that is, between the Church as a society governed by the binding authority of the Church’s ministry and the Church as forming, as well as this, a community guided by the conscience of the individual and by the Spirit. But there is this which must still be said: when Christians as such act, the Church acts in them. Their action is an activity of the Church, not, it is true, wholly directed by the Church’s hierarchy, but inspired and guided by the Spirit of the Church. This to a certain degree non-official activity of the Church in the human beings of the Church under grace is an historical manifestation of the eschatological unconquerable grace which God has linked inseparably with the historical phenomenon of the Church as the primal sacrament of grace. It is a manifestation of the Catholic truth that to the Church as such there belongs not only the institutional ministry, but all the baptized, and the Spirit of God himself, that Spirit who blows where he wills.