Very interesting post here by Tim Stanley. Having a go at the currently famous left-wing American nuns in trouble with the Vatican, Stanley sums up the theological big picture:
"The Catholic Church is one of the few institutions left in the West that simply cannot change. Its theology is like a delicate spider’s web: remove one strand and the entire structure would collapse. It can’t be done.
If, for example, the Church permitted female priests, two possible conclusions would be drawn. First, that God can change his mind. That’s patently absurd, as it undermines faith in the Almighty – God can’t make mistakes.
Alternatively, if an exclusively male priesthood was never really part of God’s plan, then perhaps the Church got God wrong? If so, what else has it messed up? Might it be wrong about the resurrection or the virgin birth? How can we trust any doctrinal statement that the Church makes in the future? And without any doctrinal yardstick to measure things by, might female priesthood be an error, too? Is it time for a mature debate about ordaining parrots?While his whole post is an interesting view on the current furore, what he says above is worth a moment or two considering from a Protestant perspective, particularly the Protestant perspective of the Anglican church in these islands as we run up to our General Synod in a week or so's time.
For the Catholic Church, the integrity of its catechism is all. Without it, it really is a bunch of paradoxes that can easily be undone by science or cultural change. That the nuns stop at critiquing its views on sexual identity is oddly arbitrary. Surely reason and empiricism make transubstantiation a nonsense, too?"
It could be that Tim is setting up false alternatives: what has changed is the situation in which life under God is being lived out, and thus neither God nor the change needs to change their respective minds, rather to make it up in respect of application of basic theological principles to the new situation.
Nevertheless, in various ways history is not a new situation under God, just the same old canvas on which the follies of fallen humanity are being painted. A Protestant response to Stanley's argument here is that the Church can be wrong (e.g. Article 21). But that raises the question how we know the church is wrong and, alternatively, for a novelty, how we might know the church is right.
The beauty of the Catholic catechism is exactly what Stanley says, it is a complete structure. It's weakness is at the point of perceived strength: its infallibility. Being a complete structure it cannot admit fault lest it collapses. This leads to certain absurdities, the most glaring of which, in my view, is the modern Catholic church's approach to the remarriage of those divorced via civil law. Such remarriage, it is deemed, according to the 'complete structure' of Catholic doctrine, cannot take place. What to do? Well, what if the marriage never actually took place in the first instance? So, a whole apparatus of canon law and canonical lawyers is devoted to providing the possibility of annulment for those who are otherwise divorced according to the laws of their land. The absurdity is that annulment can apply to a couple who have been legally married, consummated the marriage, been married for many years, produced several children together. On any theological reckoning, other than the 'complete structure' of Catholic doctrine, a marriage has been contracted, lived out, and, sadly, not worked out.
Not that there are not problems with Protestant theology. Far from it. But, in line with my previous post about the open church, the great virtue of Protestant theology is open, wide, vigorous public debate which, over time, removes absurdities from the structure of Protestant theology.
By the way, in specific response to Stanley's line above, he is not considering the possibility on women's leadership in the church, that God never laid down for all time a law re either 'male priesthood' or 'male headship' of the church, but always, in the teaching of the apostles, kept open the possibility of shifts over time in the gender nature and orderly structure of the church.