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The oath of fidelity and its effect on the Church of our times

What about you, do you want to go away too?

The oath of fidelity and its effect on the Church of our times....

Eamonn McCarthy, a priest in Dublin Diocese for 35 years - though without an appointment because of this oath - and a co-founder in 1993 of BASIC looks at the effects of the oath of fidelity, demanded by the Institutional Church of those who hold office or teach in the Church. Republished here, with permission, from the BASIC Newsletter Spring 2003, pp. 13-16.

It comes as the last arrow - Title V - in quiver three - The Teaching Office of the Church - in the Code of Canon Law . . . Canon 833. It reads, ominously . . .

‘The following are personally bound to make a profession of faith, according to the formula approved by the Apostolic See:

1. in the presence of the president or his delegate: all who, with a deliberative or a consultative vote, take part in an Ecumenical Council, a particular council, the synod of Bishops, or a diocesan synod; in the presence of the council or synod: the president himself;

2. in accordance with the statutes of the sacred College: those promoted to the dignity of Cardinal;

3. in the presence of a delegate of the Apostolic See: all who are promoted to the episcopate, and all those who are equivalent to a diocesan Bishop;

4. in the presence of the college of consultors: the diocesan Administrator;

5. in the presence of the diocesan Bishop or his delegate: Vicars general, episcopal Vicars and judicial Vicars;

6. in the presence of the local Ordinary or his delegate: parish priests; the rector, professors of theology and philosophy in seminaries, at the beginning of their term of office; and those who are to be promoted to the order of diaconate;

7. in the presence of the Chancellor or, in the absence of the Chancellor, the local Ordinary, or the delegates of either: the rector of an ecclesiastical or catholic university, at the beginning of the term of office; in the presence of the rector if he is a priest, or of the local Ordinary or the delegates of either: those who in any universities teach subjects which deal with faith or morals, at the beginning of their term of office;

8. in accordance with the constitutions: Superiors in religious institutes and clerical societies of apostolic life’.

The current formula approved by the Apostolic See comes in two elements, the first of which, under the heading PROFESSION OF FAITH, is....

‘I, N., with firm faith believe and profess each and everything that is contained in the Symbol of faith, namely:

I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. I believe in the Holy spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the Word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgement or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.

I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.

Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act’.

The 'Oath of Fidelity on Assuming an Office to be exercised in the Name of the Church' is a formula to be used by members of the Christian faithful mentioned in sections 5-8 of Cannon 833 above.....

‘I, N., in assuming the office of.......... promise that in my words and in my actions I shall always preserve communion with the Catholic Church.

With great care and fidelity I shall carry out the duties incumbent on me toward the church, both universal and particular, in which, according to the provisions of the law, I have been called to exercise my service.

In fulfilling the charge entrusted to me in the name of the Church, I shall hold fast to the deposit of faith in its entirety; I shall faithfully hand it on and explain it, and I shall avoid any teachings contrary to it.

I shall follow and foster the common discipline of the entire Church and I shall maintain the observance of all ecclesiastical laws, especially those contained in the Code of Canon Law.

With Christian obedience I shall follow what the Bishops, as authentic doctors and teachers of the faith, declare, or what they, as those who govern the Church, establish. I shall also faithfully assist the diocesan Bishops, so that the apostolic activity, exercised in the name and by mandate of the Church, may be carried out in communion with the Church.

So help me God, and God's Holy Gospels on which I place my hand’.

Coming from the longest running Government in any jurisdiction on the face of the earth, one could expect such an approach; a tight ship; eternal vigilance; absolute control. A formula applied over a long period of time that has seen off schisms and reformations and withstood many an internal attempt at take-over; a formula that has seen the Church sail, however serenely, on into the twenty-first century.

It is also true that in these times many states and corporations, national and multi-national have, over shorter terms, gone for even more demanding measures of loyalty/fidelity, measures that, even in this ‘enlightened’ century have exacted enormous tolls and cruelties on individuals and families and neighbourhoods.

So why quibble with what is an arrangement that is demonstrably some distance from the extreme?

My first reason would be that ‘Come, follow me...’ or ‘Come and see...’ is an invitation to a far brighter, healthier scene than that which is available to us in the Church of today. Two thousand or so years after the invitation was issued, we carry the airs and the possibilities of what Jesus envisaged, but a monumental management fear seems to dominate the scene, strangling His vision almost at its birth.

Within the last few weeks - I write at the beginning of March ’03 - the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation has commenced throughout the diocese. Of all the elements of the sacraments of Christian initiation, Confirmation focuses on the gift to each individual of the Spirit of God. Eleven, twelve and thirteen year old children are built up to enormous expectations concerning this gift; many an episcopal homily on the day has outlined the gifts of the Spirit - wisdom, understanding, right judgement, courage, knowledge, reverence and wonder and awe in God's presence - often enough icing the cake through focussing on an all-embracing sense of integrity.

And that is, for the vast majority, as far as it goes. Even in the years to eleven or twelve the controlling ‘do as I tell you’ short-cut to an easier life for management, whether parental or church, is deeply practiced and the space for the inner voice of the Spirit out of which that all-important element of conscience can grow is trammelled. Without it, the move towards a healthy adult spirituality, so markedly absent in our culture today - witness the current plethora of tribunals attempting to establish a line of truth through the mesh of shady deals that constitutes the life of our nation, all of it the product of ‘Christian’ education - has little chance of survival. And when, after Confirmation, there is no willingness either in the local, national or international Church to set up a process or forum or synod to listen to the voice of the Spirit coming from the lives and experiences of young and adult Spirit-gifted members of the Church, is it any wonder that the massive peel-away from regular Church practice is such a major phenomenon of our times?

In Church terms, this ‘do as I tell you’ process would seem to be a product of circumstances where, through the centuries of the Church's existence and with little or no access to anything other than elementary education for the average citizen, there emerged some elite educated groups, one of which - clergy - was geared towards local church management. The effect of the growth of this clerical system - and through it the increasing drift towards the understanding that ‘Church’ meant those in leadership in the Church - was to rob adults of their due status as full Spirit-gifted members of the Church. As long as the discrepancy in educational opportunity remained and the resultant line of command was maintained, it was an unchallenged operating system. But with the surge in educational opportunity offered through the twentieth century, scales fell from many eyes and the sense of being manipulated to their disadvantage was realised in many a heart and mind.

Then, thirty or so years ago, when Humanae Vitae was imposed, ‘do as I tell you fashion’ on the faithful of the Church there was a three way response from the people. A small number of adults reacted in the accepting mode, going along with the teaching and remaining within the realm of regular Church practice. Another small number of adults kept their own counsel in terms of their response to the demands of the document and, based on their understanding of conscience, maintained their presence within the process of Church practice. But by far the majority, faced with the dilemma that, on the one hand, there was a ‘definitive teaching’ and that, on the other, there was no forum in which their difficulties with such an imposed teaching could be addressed, simply walked away.

And the walking away was really not simple, either. People were deeply hurt by the fact that there was neither a willingness to listen to their story, their conscience, their legitimate experiences as committed adult Catholics nor was there a forum in which such a process could happen. Twenty years later, having laboured, door to door over months, inviting those who had walked away from the Church to come and say why, to tell it as it was, to air their hurt and grievance, to meet in venues away from Church property, to come with no strings attached, I found that the only folk to respond were those already committed. A deep distrust, an unwillingness to, be ‘caught’ a second time, a sense of danger to the existence of a hard-won adult spirituality that allowed them to be content within their own skins left them wary of such a venture - and they turned it down.

As we face this century now, not only is there a walk-away by the broad mass of the adult members of the Church - the regular attendance in many a parish in Dublin at Saturday-evening-Sunday Mass would range from 5 -15% - but there has been, since the 1970's onwards a very significant drop in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The effect of that is that Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, the Dublin diocesan seminary is closed; a few seminarians continue to study for Dublin through the Maynooth national seminary; the age profile of serving priests in the diocese rises annually; and the ratio of priests to parishes continues to drop. If there is to be future leadership for the Church in what has now become the ‘short term’, it has to come from within people working out of some sense of a healthy adult spirituality. And therein lies a major pastoral problem.

Trust levels among those disaffected remain at zero. For those still committed to regular church practice, there are no fora, no synods, no effective avenues through which their insights and experience of life can be shared with even local church leadership. At its very best, the rare enough ‘parish council’ is advisory and in the majority of cases adults still in touch continue to be treated like children, where decision making remains at the level of the ‘pater familias’. The ‘adult status’ of adults within the community has been revoked for at least the last one hundred and fifty years and the pastoral effort required to restore that status - to help people to really believe that their experience is of value and that they are accepted as equal partners in this adventure of life and church - is of enormous proportions.

And underlying all of that stodge is the regulation insistence that everything remain as it ‘always was’ enforced at ‘middle-management level’ by the obligatory taking of that oath of office. It is a sort of lynch-pin that holds the axle in place; a critical buttress that keeps the structure standing that, however well it may have served the Gospel in the past, is, in these times, seriously in need of renovation.

Where is this model of Church coming from? It certainly seems far removed from the spirit of the Gospel. The title of this article is Jesus' question to those closest to him at the end of chapter 6 of John's version, after John had recounted that many disciples found His words intolerable and ‘walked no more with him’. But it marks a sense of freedom of association with Jesus and is so far removed from the intense legalism that is our diet in these times.

Our Church seems to have taken on the governing style of the Roman Empire - or, perhaps worse, of dictatorship - through the course of its history, in spite of the throb of the Gospel. When one hears Jesus say, in Matthew, 23. vv 8 - 10, ‘You, however, must not allow yourselves to be called Rabbi, since you have only one Master, and you are all brothers’ - and sisters - ‘You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, and he is in heaven’. ‘Nor must you allow yourselves to be called teachers, for you have only one Teacher, the Christ’, it seems to indicate an attempt to address the cult of the Roman ‘pater-familias’, the dominant, patriarchal, autocratic approach to life of His time. He offers as model the fact that we are all brothers and sisters, and as adults, equal contributors to the fullness of life in the spirit of the Gospel. Incidentally, the whole thrust of the first verses of that chapter becomes quite a lens through which to view the Church practice of our time.

In Chapter 16 w 12,13 of John's Gospel, the full implications of all contained in the gift of the Spirit are spelled out....‘I still have many things to say to you but they would be too much for you now. But when the Spirit of truth comes [whom I shall send you from the Father -15.26] he will lead you to the complete truth, since he will not be speaking as from himself but will say only what he has learnt; and he will tell you of the things to come’. It would appear to paint something of the fullness of life and participation to which we are invited by Jesus with his ‘Come, follow me....’ It speaks of the presence of the Spirit in each of us as we live our lives and of the effective Church that might be possible were the voice of that Spirit coming through the lives of faithful people to be heard as an inclusive process within the assembly of the Church.

The astute world of business that can, like the Church, frequently enough operate to standards at some variance to those invited by the Gospel has quite a bit to offer by way of reflection. Best business practice in these times operates a significant listening process where customers and employees are regularly approached for the wisdom and experience they have to offer. Fergal Quinn’s ‘Crowning the Customer’ has been a market leader approach for some time now. Even beyond that, the move to have employees become shareholders in the company, through which the relationship between employee and company is significantly altered is worth a glance. Further, and this has been a feature of the business world for the greater part of my lifetime, many companies will buy out the last six or seven years of a managing director’s time to nip the quite understandable temptation to conservatism that can dominate - more often ‘his’ - latter years, as anxious to avoid mistakes or controversy he will avoid the difficult developmental decisions that would naturally come his way through those years to retirement.

In addition to being such a lynch-pin in maintaining the status quo in terms of system, the oath brings devastation to the lives and integrity of many priests and teachers within the Church. It is a necessary step, according to Canon 833, above, to take the oath on becoming parish priest, or on becoming a teacher in a seminary. For a small proportion of people in those categories, there is no difficulty whatever in taking the oath; it squares with their sense of conscience and understanding of Church.

But for many it poses a problem because every latest development in terms of ‘doctrine’ such as Humanae Vitae or the Reservation of Ordination to Men Alone, becomes included in its ambit. And the cost of integrity suddenly comes into focus.

At its most basic, in the case of priests, the move from curate to parish priest is a natural step along the way. It is part of a procedure, long expected both by the priest by his peers, by his family and by the parishioners. It represents what, to take a parallel from the commercial world, would amount to ‘promotion’, an acknowledgement by senior management of his being ‘adequate material’ for the post of middle management. It also represents the wherewithal of financial backing for a life yet to be lived, for however long. It also comes at a time when most people in other walks of life are either being ‘bought out’ or otherwise thinking of retiring - up to recently, exceptional circumstances apart, the average age at which a parish was offered in Dublin was 55 or over. Easy enough to deal with as an issue, in the broad stream of things; very difficult to deal with as an individual, living within one’s own skin, faced with the stark choices on offer. And the efforts to deal with it vary wildly.

Irish history tells of many approaches to the taking of oaths demanded of some significant figures in our nations past leadership - and mental reservation is often used as a model. Others will take solace in the different approach to law that, say, some continentals will take when compared to that of the jurisdictions in these islands - the law is passed at three o’clock and those who passed it drive a coach and four through it at half past three! Some will approach it through taking the oath and ‘working for change from the inside’. Some folk are constrained entirely by the circumstances that would have them say ‘if I don’t take this oath, I will have to go back to teaching French or Mathematics’. Others will, with some help, and perhaps even in the spirit of Tissa Balasuriya establish a formula that skips by the burden of the approved text allowing them to feel free enough to go ahead with it.

But the whole process becomes so damaging to the fabric of the Church. In the first place, whatever it is that comes from deep within by way of conscience, that makes the oath difficult to take in the first place, is quieted. And that understanding, difficult though it is to enunciate, is of vital importance to the growth of the Church. Without it being voiced and heard, possible options for future direction are being blotted out. The ‘best self’ of the individual is being dumbed down. The Church is being robbed of its essential Spirit-gifted information.

Secondly, personnel become tainted with fear and timidity and anger and even depression. To escape this in some measure, many priests will pour themselves into the demands of the micro Church within the parish, and given the expectations built up from times when there were large enough teams of clergy in each parish, find themselves exhausted from trying to maintain a service to match the demands. Clearly, from the circumstances encountered, a root and branch renovation in terms of pastorale is required, but it is rarely faced up to and best efforts are swallowed up in maintenance rather than renewal. Additionally, because there has been no willingness to renew, priests are being asked to work on well beyond the age of retirement, and many well beyond the extended statutory age of 75.

Thirdly, loyalty that is bought causes great havoc. True loyalty involves the ability to tell the truth even in the most difficult of circumstances - Paul’s approach to Peter about the direction he was taking, in relation to circumcision in the growing Christian endeavour would offer something of a model. Bought loyalty carries with it a meanness of spirit, the use of a bluster defence of one’s stance rather than an open discussion and often a petulance that belies an uneasy conscience. And truth is sacrificed on the grand scale.

The flip side of this third point is that leaders whose entourage carries people of fawning loyalty or yes-men are surely in mortal danger. How could anyone in a leadership position abide the lack of truth and honesty that is involved in such an approach? How could judgement based on advice from such sources that has the potential to affect the lives of perhaps millions be entered into so lightly? Leadership itself is such a difficult calling; the very least it deserves is to be served by truth and honesty.

The wisdom of life that says that those who refuse to learn from history are often doomed to repeat its mistakes is something of an ever present maxim. One hundred or so years ago the dominant item on the Church agenda was Modernism and the Institution’s defence against it was to invite ‘churchmen’ to commit themselves to the Church by way of the anti-Modernist oath. Peter de Rosa recounts..... vigorous censorship was imposed on all books and magazines prior to publication. Priests needed permission to write to or for newspapers. A council of vigilance was set up in every diocese......Teachers in seminaries and universities were screened and, if found wanting in ‘loyalty’, replaced...... Pius X drew up an anti-Modernist oath which all ministers and teachers were obliged to take. Not even the Inquisition in its heyday was more efficient in rooting out every sign of dissent.....’

Plus ca change.....! And once more conscience and truth and integrity are at serious risk in the attempt to be ‘on-side’.

What is at the core of ‘being Church’ for those people currently in positions of leadership at Congregational and other senior management level in our Church? It would appear to be something in the region of absolute infallibility; of claiming and of being given the total guarantee of the presence of the Spirit of God that their approach and their policies are absolutely error-free; that there is only one way to be ‘Church’ - their way - and either take it or leave it!

Joan Chittister tells a story of her first visit to Rome in the 1970's where, she says ‘a wise old monk’ told me in the midst of my frustration with the enormity, distance and pomp of the system: “Everyone who comes to Rome for the first time should come for at least four weeks. In the first two weeks, we all lose our faith. In the last two weeks we put it back where it should have been in the first place - in Jesus.” ......

The Gospels and the person of Jesus seem to offer us a much less arrogant, much less ‘power-based’ approach. It is by way of invitation - not of compulsion. It is by way of powerlessness rather than of power. It is by way of integrity rather than of self-seeking. It is by way of listening to the heartbeat of the Gospel rather than of building castles that crumble. And it is surely by way of listening with compassion and love to the voice of the Spirit as it surfaces in the Church through the lives and endeavours of its members that allows discernment as to future direction to be taken.


John Wijngaards


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