Michael J. LACEY and Francis OAKLEY, eds. The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. pp. 381.
Reviewed by Joseph FLIPPER, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI 53201

Michael J. Lacey's and Francis Oakley's collection of essays treat the widening gap between the authority claimed by the Roman Catholic hierarchy and its effective authority, i.e., the receptivity of lay people to the guidance of the hierarchy. As many of the essays suggest, the gap between the two is dramatically exemplified in the widespread rejection of the Church's teaching on artificial contraception by practicing Catholics. This volume is neither a critique or an apologetic for ecclesiastical authority. Rather, as Lacey states, its purpose is to contribute to an intra-Catholic debate about the exercise of authority. Its pages contain a multi-disciplinary epidemiology of the exercise of authority in modern Catholicism. While it treats issues affecting global Catholicism, its contributors speak mostly from European and North American perspectives.

The first section of the volume examines the “Contested Pasts” of ecclesiastical authority in modernity. Francis Oakley argues that the Council of Constance (1414-18), which adjudicated multiple claimants to the papacy, implied a conciliar authority over the Pope. The authority of the bishops exercised at Constance challenges the modern construal of papal authority as absolute. Michael Lacey traces the shift from the anti-modernist view of freedom in the teaching of Pope Leo XIII to the understanding of human liberty in the Second Vatican Council. Joseph A. Komonchak, explicating Pope Benedict XVI's 2005 “Address to the Roman Curia” (supplied in the appendix), argues that Benedict is attempting to shift the current debate over the hermeneutic for the interpretation of Vatican II. Instead of seeing in the Council either continuity or discontinuity with the previous tradition, Benedict offers a “hermeneutic of reform” in which elements of continuity and discontinuity have a place.

The second section treats theological, canonical, and philosophical aspects of church authority. Francis A. Sullivan shows that the process of ecclesial tradition not only develops elements of the Christian faith but also leads to a pruning of inauthentic expressions of the faith. In “Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Law,” John P. Beal argues that the Code of Canon Law remains embedded in a paternalistic baroque 'social imaginary.' As a result, the laity, whose understanding of law is modern and liberal, senses an arbitrariness when dealing with canon law. Gerard Manion articulates a creative role for dissent within a participatory and dialogical magisterial process through which the church can learn from its errors. Lisa Sowle Cahill's essay surveys the development of moral theology following Vatican II. Cahill observes that, for the “Millennial Generation,” the meaning of fidelity to church authority has shifted from the church in Rome to primarily the local ecclesial community. M. Cathleen Kaveny's essay argues that a critical retrieval of the casuistic tradition of moral theology—that is, the use of “cases” as the material for moral reasoning—could preserve a common framework for Catholic moral reflection. Lastly, Charles Taylor argues that, even if we firmly accept magisterial authority, there are limits to the manner in which this authority can be exercised with regard to contingent and historically-changing matters. Discerning and respecting those limits is necessary for the responsible exercise of authority in the modern world.

The third section, “Practical Limits” addresses new pastoral contexts emerging from sociological shifts in American church. In “American Catholics and Church Authority,” William V. D'Antonio, et. al. interpret a series of polls conducted by the Gallup Organization concerning the opinions of Catholic laity on church authority. These surveys register changes in Catholic opinion toward viewing the individual as the source for authority concerning a range of moral issues. Leslie Woodcock Tentler argues in “Souls and Bodies” that contraception was the issue around which the laity formed a new understanding of sin and ecclesial authority. In “Assessing the Education of Priests and Lay Ministers,” Katarina Schuth indicates that recent transformations in clerical demographics catapults recently ordained priests into positions of leadership for which many are less prepared than the previous generation. Schuth suggests ways for priests and laity to better exercise pastoral authority in a new ecclesial situation.

A confluence of factors have contributed to a contemporary crisis of authority in the church. Lay responses to the clergy sexual abuse scandals and to parish closures have been the most public expression of an emerging crisis. Yet, quieter developments, like the growth of lay ministry and lay parish administration, also prove significant for new understandings of authority at the local and parochial level. This volume contributes to a diagnosis of the cultural shifts underlying this crisis and will hopefully spur further dialogue. It is highly recommended for theologians and clergy, and is suitable for the graduate classroom.


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