The Vatican Speaks with Many Voices Print
Written by Sherry   
Monday, 08 September 2008 08:02
A important and thoughtful article by John Thavis for Catholic News Service from last week and one particularly relevant to those of us who seek to think with the Church but aren't professional Vaticanistas or moral theologians. The article begins:

"A provocative article on whether brain death is true death has illustrated once again that the Vatican speaks with many voices, not all of them equal.

The article appeared in early September at the top of the front page of L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper. That's a prime location in the complex geography of Vatican media.

The author, Lucetta Scaraffia, argued that the generally accepted practice of using brain death as the criterion for declaring a person dead was open to new challenges and debate, both in the church and in the scientific community.

Such a debate could have deep repercussions in health care ethics, particularly on the question of organs harvested from brain-dead patients whose bodies continue to function.

Within a couple of hours, the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, put some distance between the Vatican and the article's line of reasoning, saying that the content reflected merely the author's views and not the church's teaching.

In fact, previous statements by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and leading church officials have made it clear that the church recognizes brain death as "the true criterion for death."

So how is a regular Catholic-in-the-pews, glancing at some headline before racing off to work or to tend to some family chore, supposed to sort this out? Especially when you add the competing voices of the Catholic blogosphere, adding another level of "interpretation" - which many readers treat as authoritative - to the equation.

Thavis' article continues:

"The Vatican holds to a fairly detailed hierarchy of information that ranges from papal proclamations on the high end to offhand comments from curial officials on the low end. When translated into news stories, however, such distinctions generally fall by the wayside.

One perennial area of confusion has been the church's position on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. Although there has never been an explicit Vatican pronouncement on this specific issue -- it is, in fact, under study -- various cardinals and lesser-ranking prelates have weighed in, generating headlines as disparate as "Vatican condemns condoms" and "Vatican rethinks condom ban."

On another hot topic, some media recently reported that Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, head of the Vatican's Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature, said that Catholic politicians who support legal abortion should not be given Communion.

Archbishop Burke made his views on this issue well-known when he headed the Archdiocese of St. Louis, but voicing them as head of the Vatican's highest tribunal seemed to elevate them to a "Vatican says" level. The problem was, he gave the interview last spring, before he was named to his Vatican post; an Italian magazine got around to publishing the interview in August."

How many times have I read a blogger who treats a reference from the Catechism as an equal or greater authority than a document from an ecumenical council? Or doesn't distinguish between the writings of Cardinal Ratzinger - as a private theologian before he become Pope - and an authoritative encyclical issued by the same man as Pope Benedict?

Many Catholics are prone to the same mistake that journalists make: collapsing all pronouncements that can be somehow traced to some part of the Vatican into a single level of authority, How often i have longed for a really thorough, clear, and trustworthy summary of the subtleties in interpreting such things that Vaticanistas take for granted!

The absence of such an aid just makes forming our conscience and making prudential judgements even harder than it is already is. The depth, richness, and subtlety of Catholic moral teaching has its down side. It was formulated by professional theologians primarily for clergy and presumes a "ecclesial insider's" formation and a scholastic's joy in fine distinctions.

But the reality is that Catholic social teaching must be applied in the real world by very busy lay people who have real power to shape their society but seldom have the formation or the leisure to think through the necessary distinctions as they apply to a given situation carefully and evaluate the relative weight of various statements.

Sigh. We were having this same discussion 4 years ago. I must make an effort to find the good stuff that is already out there. If any of y'all know where good resources are to be found, shout out.