No authority can be exercised without dialogue

On Ash Wednesday a group of radical Catholics challenged Cardinal Basil Hume to return the Catholic Church to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

I was being formed in my faith as a Roman Catholic in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. Momentous change was being embodied all around me. It was a big enough shock when my nun teachers appeared in modified habits, that exposed their legs and hair, and changed their names from Bernard and Columba to Patricia and Lucy. But what they were teaching us was potential dynamite: that we were the Church, that we had as many responsibilities and rights as the Pope, bishops and clergy and that it was all of us together who made up the body of Christ on earth.

The change from an institutional ecclesiology to an understanding of the Church as a community called to serve the world was incarnated most powerfully in the changes to the celebration of the Mass. It became a dialogue between priest and people, a communal celebration and sacrament in which we received and became the body and blood of Christ.

Dialogue was a key theme of the Second Vatican Council and made central to the theological process as the means through which truth emerges. The laity were instructed by the Council in its document Lumen Gentium to speak and act out of their expertise for the good of the whole Church. Thirty years on, genuine dialogue has borne fruit in some areas (such as ecumenical relations) but not in others.

Now a world-wide "We Are Church" movement has formed which seeks to recall the ecclesiastical hierarchy to the vision of the Council and initiate dialogue on issues such as the nature of priesthood and sexuality. This includes in Britain a coalition of Catholic groups, the Jubilee People, who are circulating a "Declaration" of desired reforms.

In response Cardinal Hume quite rightly warned against a constant appeal to personal conscience in matters of morality. For a Catholic (or indeed a Christian) moral decisions are always best made in the context of, and informed by, the community of faith. Indeed, many Catholics may have left the Church precisely because they were encouraged by their pastors to exercise their personal conscience in matters of birth control whilst the hierarchy continued to teach its sinfulness.

But if overdependence upon private judgement is incompatible with the Catholic ethos so too is the Cardinal's statement that "there comes a point where obedience is demanded and docility to the mind of the Magisterium is the proper attitude to adopt". This week the "We Are Church" movement wrote an open letter to Cardinal Hume in response.

The Vatican Council grounded its theology of authority in the concept of servanthood. The full implications of this were not drawn out by the Council but were taken up by feminist and liberation theologians: leaders do not own power but hold it on behalf of a community to whom they are accountable for its use. The language of servanthood and force is mutually incompatible. In the life of Trinity we have a model of a community, sharing and exchanging power, of dynamic dialogue within God's self which should be reflected in His people.

The root meaning of the word authority is "to cause to grow or enlarge, to increase". Dialogue is a necessary prerequisite to the exercise of authority. For how is the Church to know what diminishes and what enlarges the dignity of gay people and women unless it engages in dialogue with those within and without its walls? How can the Church conclude women priests to be a theological impossibility without first carefully listening to the experiences of those sister churches which have admitted women to the priesthood, particularly as the Second Vatican Council acknowledged that the spirit of revelation and the quality of catholicity were not confined to the Roman Church?

Authentic dialogue changes all parties and the reform groups should be prepared to end up in a place very different from where they started - as should the hierarchy. Dialogue through letter has a venerable history in the Christian Church: it is how St Paul worked and refined the theology which was to become the foundation of so much Christian belief and practice. His theology is the product of dialogue with his communities.

How appropriate it therefore is that the latest exchange in the dialogue between the Cardinal and the Jubilee People should take place on Ash Wednesday, when the whole Church dons ashes as a visible sign by the body of Christ that it has failed to be what it is called to be, the pilgrim people of God, living out in its own being the radical mutuality, equality, and power sharing of the Holy Trinity.

Faith & Reason is edited by Paul Vallely

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