Thoughts on Haight’s “Systematic Ecclesiology”

Haight, Roger. “Systematic Ecclesiology.” Science & Esprit 45:253-81. 1993.

In this paper, Haight explains the collapse of the pre-Vatican II systematic ecclesiology by demonstrating its incompatibility with the principles of historicity and global consciousness embraced by the council. These principles re-orient systematic ecclesiology from content towards method, and reveal that any ecclesiology is constrained by the confessional location of its proposer as well as the socio-cultural conditions out of which it emerges; thus, dialogues across such boundaries are productive of the soundest ecclesiologies.

Haight defines the object, context, data, and criteria of ecclesiology: its object is the “simultaneously historical and theological” (255) universal church as understood through “the part-whole dialectic”(257) and interpreted through a “pluralism of ecclesiologies” (259); its context comprises “historical consciousness”, other churches, other religions, and the world, particularly the contemporary situations of secularism, individualism, the experience of women, and structurally-perpetuated human suffering. Its data are scripture, church history, church doctrine, and experience (embracing reason and all human fields of knowledge). Its criteria are “fidelity to the past, intelligibility and coherence today, and empowerment of the future.” (272) Several problematic situations are analyzed as arising from present contradictions in church doctrine or praxis, and presented as evidence that a systematic ecclesiology is needed to resolve those contradictions.

Haight’s analysis provides a reason for the post-conciliar decades of ecclesiological work which I previously described as “essentially pre-systematic.” The embrace of historical and global consciousness (which occurred for Catholics at Vatican II, and for Protestants within the great ecumenical movements of the 20th century) generated a paradigm shift: the old approach to systematic ecclesiology was fundamentally invalidated. The imaginative work of ecclesiological models, and the dialogues across confessional and cultural boundaries, constituted the initial theological explorations within this new paradigm.

These principles suggest that any theological construct, doctrine, or practice is essentially provisional and contingent, grounded and bounded as it is by its place, time, culture, and confession. Unease with this possibility would explain the move towards biblical images and metaphors; the una sancta, the church in its eschatological fullness, is then naturally emphasized as the only possible ground from which that provisional nature might be transcended. But the resulting ecclesiologies are inadequate to the church’s historical situation.

Haight is one of a number of ecclesiologists who suggest that method, rather than content, may provide the foundation of a systematic ecclesiology in the new paradigm. He proposes that ecclesiological method, like theological method generally, should be historical, theological, critically conscious, and interpretive.

His point that praxis may undermine or even subvert doctrine is central to his analysis of several high-profile issues in the Catholic church as resulting from inconsistencies, either between doctrine and practice, or between doctrine and doctrine. In Catholic terms, all these are in some way “unfinished business” of Vatican II: whether because the conciliar documents are uneven (inconsistent with each other), or insufficiently comprehensive; or because they have been incompletely and/or unevenly implemented; or because they have implications that simply were not foreseen by the Council and have taken time for the church to work out, and it is these implications that are inconsistent with each other.

I am interested in the experience of Catholics like Nicole Pandolfo, who is emphatic that it is precisely her Catholic formation that provides the hierarchy of gospel values that she uses to resolve such contradictions. For while the church’s teaching office and theological academy can and should take time to patiently and diligently (and, one devoutly hopes, prayerfully) discern the right resolution to these inconsistencies, Catholics in the meantime must go on living their lives, carefully and diligently (and, in general, prayerfully) making moral decisions and acting on them.

Haight’s analysis demonstrates that the common pejorative “cafeteria Catholic” (wielded in both directions) is not only unfair, but inadequate, to describe what’s really going on. It is not a matter of cherrypicking items out of a coherent body of teachings based on personal preference. The fact is that the body of teachings is not presently coherent: faced with this situation, many Catholics are, with great integrity, constructing a self-consistent theological system, resolving contradictions by applying (what they understand to be) the core values of the gospel.

Ecclesiologists who have accustomed themselves to, or have come of age in, the new paradigm appear to be more comfortable with its provisional character. This facilitates a move towards the historical, concrete experience of church as grist for the ecclesiological mill.

Haight’s definition of the church that is the proper object of ecclesiology might be more honestly identified as a set of ecclesiological axioms. The assertions of the universal church as an entity that is both meaningful and in some sense privileged with respect to any particular church, and the relationship between the universal church and a local church, are relatively uncontroversial assumptions received from tradition. The four sources of ecclesiological data are an interesting variant of the Wesleyan quadrilateral (scripture, tradition, reason, and experience): scripture is common to both; experience is expanded to include reason; and tradition is broken out into church doctrine and church history. If we’re going to break that into two categories, I would have used three, and called out church praxis in order to highlight liturgy, devotions, and spirituality as relevant sources of data.

The criteria he proposes are taken over from an apparently common set of theological criteria, simply applied to the church. They are, therefore, thoroughly academic in character; as opposed to pastoral or practical criteria such as ecumenical fruitfulness, stance towards the world, and Christian formation. One might argue that these more practical criteria are merely specific implications of “empowering the future”; but given the difficulties flowing from the inconsistent implications of the Council that are framed elsewhere in this paper, I would argue that unpacking those implications into explicit criteria would be well worth the effort.

These difficulties, to which the final section of the paper is devoted, nicely illustrate how to apply the reflections of academic ecclesiology beyond the bounds of the academy, and conversely how to bring the concrete historical situation of the church into the reflective purview of the academy in order to “push ecclesiology forward.” (274) He examines the ecclesial divisions within the church; the unitive purpose and divisive effect of the papacy; the anomalous status of women in the church; the widely disparate understandings of ordained and ordered ministry across all Christian churches; and the ever-increasing unavailability of the eucharist arising from the restriction of the Roman Catholic priesthood to (at least nominally) celibate (and now, heterosexual) men.

I would argue that this last contradiction is even worse than Haight describes, because of the fact that a number of Roman Catholic parishes are now served by married priests who converted from the Anglican church, most of them in flight from Anglican decisions concerning the ordination of women and/or non-celibate gay men, and were accepted as Roman Catholic priests despite their married state. I am less concerned with the “seemingly chaotic variety”(277) of Christian understandings of ordained ministry than Haight is. The historical evidence both within and without the canon of scripture clearly shows that the early church was pluriform in its structures of ministry and governance. Although Haight asserts that “ministries constitute a church,” (277), this is true (to the extent that it is true at all) only of the essential functions of ministry (eg, oversight, preaching, presiding, service ad intra and ad extra), not of the particular ecclesial structures and offices that embody and order these functions.

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5 Responses to Thoughts on Haight’s “Systematic Ecclesiology”

  1. Pingback: The End of Absolute Sexual Morality? No. | Gaudete Theology

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  3. “Haight’s analysis demonstrates that the common pejorative “cafeteria Catholic” (wielded in both directions) is not only unfair, but inadequate, to describe what’s really going on. It is not a matter of cherrypicking items out of a coherent body of teachings based on personal preference. The fact is that the body of teachings is not presently coherent: faced with this situation, many Catholics are, with great integrity, constructing a self-consistent theological system, resolving contradictions by applying (what they understand to be) the core values of the gospel.”

    I like this idea. It does seem to explain a lot of what is going on.

  4. Pingback: Papal Interview: “Disjointed Multitude of Doctrines” | Gaudete Theology

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