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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
How Can Catholics Have “Rights”?

By James E. Biechler

Most people think of Catholics as people who follow authority in religion.  In fact, if I’m not mistaken, some are attracted to the church precisely because of its strong sense of authority; Catholics know what to do.  Obey.  How can ARCC come along and talk about Catholics having “rights” over against church authority?  You’re trying to create a new church.
D.S.S., Freeland, MI

Perhaps your question arises because of a notion of authority as independent of those over whom it is exercised.  Such “authority” is known to the New Testament.  Matthew has Jesus saying, “You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.”  Down through the centuries bishops and popes have often exercised this kind of authority, the kind that “lords it over” people.  Bishops were lords and even today cardinals call themselves “princes” of the church.

ARCC came into existence after, and because of, the Second Vatican Council.  That council developed a series of interrelated doctrines which bear on the subject of authority.  First of all the council affirmed an inherent equality of all members of the church, the People of God.  The dynamic interrelationship of these equal members is described as one involving participation, collegiality, communio—different expressions for the essentially Trinitarian structure of the Christian community. 
It is not only the structure of the church which is Trinitarian.  Its activity and even its doctrine, as Trinitarian, are dialogic and dynamic rather than fixed and static.  This led the theologian Bernard Lonergan to describe the dramatic shift produced by the council as the transition from a classicist worldview to one of historical mindedness.  The classicist view sees human nature as pre-defined and essentially static, and culture as fixed and normative.  In the historicist view, on the other hand, experience is meaningful, life and society are developmental and knowledge is empirical.  Modern organizations emphasize individual initiative, subsidiarity and creativity.  Translated to the church these characteristics are related to Vatican II’s teaching about the dignity of the human person, the rights of conscience, and the role of the laity. 

These interrelated doctrines form a unified and multifaceted whole, so comprehensive in scope that it has to be called a “paradigm shift.”  The older complexus is shattered beyond repair—utterly incapable any longer of producing cohesive meaning.  Vatican II saw the church as immersed in and part of the world, thereby diverging sharply from the “over against” the world position of the classicist position.  The church’s presence in the world is as the sacrament of salvation.  Its objective is not to turn the world into a vast ecclesiastical organization. 

Paradigm shifts in science or theology inevitably leave some behind.  These may not “get it” or they may have so much to lose in power or respect that they resist the new vision.  Today, for example, we note that on the lips of many hierarchs “world” is a slightly dirty word much the same as the word “secular” is.  The current Vatican campaign against “secularism” suggests pre-Vatican II attitudes toward anything not juridically connected to the church.  Nothing may be called “Catholic” which does not fall under canon law, like the current attempt to control Catholic colleges and universities by bringing them under Vatican legal control, much the way the Catholic University of America is.  This heavy hand of ecclesiatical control reveals the same style as the Inquisition, the Index of Forbidden Books, and the papal condemnation of democracy, modern thought, and religious liberty.  It is, quite simply, the rejection of the Second Vatican Council and its clear development of the doctrine of collegiality and communio.  The paradigm shift is resisted.

When ARCC speaks of renewal as based on the gospel it does not mean it wants to revert to antiquity.  It means that modern Catholics embrace the modern world, modern technology, modern science, and democratic principles of governance.  All of these are part of modern life.  Our task as Catholics is to inform them with gospel values to the extent we can, and to accept that which is good in them.  Of course, in so doing, we, the church, will also be transformed. 

The imperial papacy is one of the world’s most glaring anachronisms.  No starker antithesis to aggiornamento can be imagined.  It refuses recognition of the rights of the baptized in that it denies effective avenue for the redress of rights violations.  Our quest for rights in the church is only asking that the wishes of Jesus regarding authority be observed:  “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

No, it’s not a “new” church we’re straining toward.  We seek a “renewed” church—a church which looks to the gospel for its principles of organization and governance.  Vatican II’s new paradigm means that the top-down model of authority is no longer Catholic.  You, and a lot of other people, have to revise your thinking


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 18 July 1999
Last updated 18 July 1999
Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer
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