The Vatican explains

The Vatican’s International Theological Commission recently published a document entitled: “‘Sensus Fidei’ in the Life of the Church.” Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service, in an article reprinted at NCR, summarized its argument: “the document emphasized the importance of assuming church leaders are correct, trying to understand the basis for their teaching and, in particular, for praying, regularly receiving the sacraments, studying and being an active member of the Catholic community before claiming to be able to discern that a church teaching needs adjustment.”

Kelly Stewart, an NCR Today blogger, had a different way of summarizing the argument. Her June 30 post about “Sensus Fidei” is entitled: “Church leaders’ condescension an affront to Catholic laity’s intelligence.”

Stewart wrote that the document “prompted me to revisit Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Men Explain Things to Me.’ Solnit’s 2008 essay is something of an Internet classic, famous largely for the feminist portmanteau, ‘mansplaining,’ that it inspired: ‘Men explain things to me, and other women,’ she writes, ‘whether or not they know what they’re talking about.’”

For Stewart, “Sensus Fidei” replays the peculiarly Catholic form of “mansplaining” she found in graduate school. When Catholic professors and students disagreed with an official church teaching, conservative Catholic students simply persisted in explaining and re-explaining the teaching over and over again.

The explanations were patient, yet conspicuously one-sided and tone-deaf. It was as if those doing the explaining, who were often men, really did not get that those to whom they were explaining, who were often women, were scholarly Catholics just like them. The explainers could not conceive that their interlocutors had absorbed the relevant information, evaluated it, and made a mature decision.

Stewart concludes that “defenders of sexual and reproductive orthodoxy seem to assume, again and again, that feminists, LGBT people, progressives, and many mainstream Catholics disagree with official teaching because they don’t know what they’re talking about….So if most laypeople reject official teaching on a given issue, it must be because they don’t understand it.”

I read this and thought: ah, how familiar.

When I was in high school, I interviewed Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George for the school paper. He observed to me that the church needed to “explain” its teachings better. A few years later, as the pontificate of John Paul II neared its close, the “New Evangelization” became a thing. I heard that we needed a “New Evangelization” because the time had come for the church to “explain” itself more fully. Then, when Joseph Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, much was said about how the new pope, a professional theologian, would “explain” the faith in a richer way.

In some quarters, “explaining” trickled down fast and hard. My former parish priest wrote in the bulletin that the great thing about the church was its 2,000 years of books and dogma. These would “explain” everything you could possibly want to know. Some of my more conservative Catholic peers pointedly chose careers based on “explaining,” such as academia, or youth ministry rooted in the “New Evangelization.” When I began to blog about progressive Catholicism, I was amused to sometimes find my posts reappearing on other people’s sites, complete with line-by-line exegesis “explaining” why I was incorrect.

I am not sure how long the “explaining” jag can last. It has inherent limits. For the first time in history, the hierarchy is confronting a phalanx of laity who are just as educated as they are. Most of the people I know with advanced degrees in theology and ministry are not priests. Most of them are not men. Never underestimate the extent to which the Vatican doesn’t actually grasp this.

We also have a profusion, indeed an explosion, of diverse voices we’ve never paid attention to before: women, LGBTQ folks, people of color, and others. Many of us never heard of their experiences, which can challenge even the most basic of our theological assumptions, until almost literally just yesterday. But that’s over now. We can’t un-see, can’t un-hear, can’t reverse it, can’t re-cork the bottle, can’t clean it up by “explaining” things. This is a “sign of the times.”

Consider: after Jesus begins his ministry, we often meet him on a plain, on a mount, on a boat, “speaking to the multitudes.” This is the part of his ministry the hierarchy most likes to emulate. But we know nothing about Jesus from the age of twelve until he turned thirty. I suspect that in those two decades, Jesus “listened to the multitudes” with his mouth perfectly shut, “explaining” nothing.

3 thoughts on “The Vatican explains

  1. You really hit the nail on the head with this post. Or perhaps I should say that you “explained” the situation very well. ;) I think one of the most frustrating thing about being part of the church reform movement is how often we get official teachings “explained” to us, as if we only disagree because we don’t “understand.” Most of the time, quite the opposite is true — we disagree BECAUSE we understand, not just the teachings, but the implications of living them out — some of which are very harrowing.

    • Thank you! What I would add is something that I don’t go into so deeply in this post, but that I’ve definitely learned to be true: the logical process behind an “explanation” doesn’t stand by itself. It is never independent. Reasoning always, always proceeds from a context. To be (as most church authorities have been since Constantine) an at least comparatively privileged European male, who is at least officially celibate, who is at least officially straight, and who comes from certain traditions of (let’s say) Roman law or Greek philosophy or Scholastic thought, does not simply put you in certain (powerful) demographic groups. It also creates a specific, self-enclosed atmosphere in which certain propositions really do seem true and make sense. But outside of that self-enclosed atmosphere, they may not be true or make sense, no matter how thoroughly you explain yourself, or how meticulously you reason. No amount of prep work can make you understand a world you are not from, except for entering that world and letting it speak to you. And the “explainers” aren’t willing to go there yet.

  2. Pingback: There’s More Than One Way to Objectify a Woman | Young Adult Catholics

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