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Nos rapports avec l'autorité dans l'Eglise

Chers paroissiens,

Préparation au baptême ou à la communion de vos enfants, accompagnement des jeunes, préparation au mariage… Vous êtes nombreux à avoir participé à des séances de formation. À ces occasions, un des arguments traités était celui du sacrement de réconciliation. Et de fil en aiguille, parfois à partir du positionnement officiel des responsables de l’Eglise sur des questions qui concernent le couple et la famille, on a souvent constaté combien les convictions intimes et la pratique de nombreux chrétiens sont éloignées de ce que les autorités proposent. Il y aurait donc aussi un problème d’autorité : comment celle-ci est exercée et accueillie dans notre communauté chrétienne ?

Pour mieux étoffer nos entretiens, vous avez reçu des documents sur la Bible, sur les sacrements et notre vécu symbolique, sur la prière… Je ne vous ai pas proposé un document sur nos rapports avec les responsables de l’Eglise. Peut-être je le ferai un jour. En attendant, j’ai trouvé dans The Tablet, l’hebdomadaire catholique publié à Londres, un article qui résume très bien l’état de la question, et que je vous envoie. Il est en anglais, évidemment, mais la presque totalité des paroissiens lisent l’anglais…





The Tablet, 19th April 2014

Clifford Longley


“When secular opinion needed resisting,
the Church undermined its own defences”


It was apparently Bishop Basil Christopher Butler OSB who coined the term "creeping infallibility". In an article in The Tablet in 1971, he dealt cautiously with the dispute that had Broken out in the Catholic Church alter the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968. But he acknowledged that certain teachings, not intended as infallible, were often being treated as if they were. Perhaps, he speculated, the example of Humanae Vitae might encourage a more grown-up and constructively critical attitude to church teaching among the laity, and a more reasonable and less dogmatic tone among church leaders.


Humanae Vitae's status as non-infallible was underlined of the Vatican's initial press conference where the encyclical was unveiled, when the official spokesman said he had the Pope's personal authority for saying so. But in practice, despite Bishop Butler's wise advice, this was quickly ignored. A literal reading of Vatican II's Lumen Gentium's paragraph 25 became the norm, and unbending adherence to every detail of Catholic teaching on sex was the new touchstone of orthodoxy.


"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 religions assent," it said. "This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme Magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgements made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will." Whatever the fathers of the council had in mind - and Bishop Butler was one of the drafters of Lumen Gentium - this became the launch pad of creeping infallibility.


But a remarkable thing happened in the following 43 years. While creeping infallibility became rooted in the more authoritarian parts of the Church's official mind, out there among the People of God the overwhelming tendency has been in the opposite direction. We have seen instead "creeping fallibility" across a whole range of issues. Traditional Catholic doctrinal discipline, often regarded as one of the Church's greatest strengths, has collapsed.


Ironically, much of the case in favour of Humanae Vitae was about the effect any reversal of policy on the issue of birth control would have had on the credibility of the entire Magisterium. If it could be wrong about such a fundamental issue, might it not have been wrong on other things? Hence, to protect papal authority, there could be no change.


As we now know, the encyclical had the opposite effect. The Magisterium has never suffered a more severe blow. People asked themselves what else the Church might have been wrong about. About gay marriage? Ordination of women? How about abortion, even? Just when the tide of secular opinion needed resisting, the Church undermined its flood defences by pushing the laity too far and too bard, relying on an aura of infallible authority and on the duty of obedience that Catholics owed to it. It was a disastrous miscalculation, proof of Edmund Burke's dictum about the monarchy in France before the Revolution: institutions which will not bend will eventually break.


Then the clerical child-abuse scandal made things worse. Those who handled it badly seemed to be some of the very bishops who had been appointed to halt the progressive drift among lay opinion, conservative "safe pairs of hands" who were, by and large, not on the first division spiritually or intellectually. They were among the most enthusiastic "creeping infallibilists". The idea saved them from having to think about difficult questions, or answer the objections of theologians smarter than they were. Their instinct was to cover up and avoid scandal.


So to adapt a slogan from American politics, "Would you buy a used car from this man?” Catholics asked themselves how much credibility did a bishop have who had ignored or even colluded in the suffering of innocent children at the hands of lecherous priests? And answer came there none, to quote Lewis Carroll. It wasn't just the worst offenders; the credibility of the entire episcopacy was damaged.


There is no obvious answer. Perhaps infallibility ought never to have been extended beyond the basic dogmas of Revelation, to which, in my estimation, most Catholics still adhere. It will be difficult for the official Church to admit that that passage from Lumen Gentium -infallible or not - was a mistake. But that is what ordinary Catholics, by and large, already think.