- Catholic Common Ground Initiative - https://catholiccommonground.org -

Response to the 2003 Murnion Lecture

delivered by Most Rev. Daniel E. Pilarczyk
Archbishop of Cincinnati

Also online: Full text of Joseph Komonchak’s 2003 Murnion Lecture [1]


First of all, three comments about some specific points in Fr. Komonchak’s presentation that I found very interesting. First, he notes that underlying the struggles over the liturgy in the council was the issue of control. How much authority for liturgical reform should be reserved to Rome and how much entrusted to the local or regional bishops’ conferences? Some forty years later this issue is still being dealt with. It is, in my opinion, what lies behind Liturgiam Authenticam and the new statutes from Rome for the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).

Second, I was grateful for the insight that fidelity to the doctrinal heritage and effective communication are two inseparable tasks but that there is no single audience in the world today with which the church is called to communicate. Consequently there arises the question of whether it is possible to be pastoral on a worldwide scale. I find this a very interesting question. It might be recast as follows: how much pastoral directive can come from a central authority before it stops being pastoral and becomes exclusively canonical.

Thirdly, I have to admit that, although I have done a bit of reading about the council and its teaching, and have taught courses on the Vatican II documents, I don’t believe I ever heard of Giuseppe Dossetti, the radical who came from Bologna with Cardinal Lercaro. My embarrassment was mitigated when I discovered that Dossetti is not mentioned once in the indices of the five volume commentary on the council documents edited by Herbert Vorgrimler. This proves two things. One is that some of the most interesting people involved with the council didn’t make much of a splash in its history. The other is that, not surprisingly, Fr. Komonchak is well versed even in what some of us consider the most arcane elements of the council’s history.

As I read over Fr. Komonchak’s presentation it occurred to me that a recurrent theme is binary opposition. We hear about the prophets of doom and those who wanted a more positive presentation of the truth, about an essentialist orientation opposed to an existential tendency, St. Augustine versus St. Thomas, progressives versus conservatives. Fr. Komonchak is careful to point out that these characterizations are bipolar “which does not permit one to notice, to describe, or to explain differences, often important, within the camps of the cowboys and the Indians.” But, even though there may be wide differences of opinion, tonality, and background in each camp, and although there are many ways to be a cowboy and many ways to be an Indian, the cowboys are not Indians and the Indians are not cowboys. There are basic differences between them.

There are a couple more pairs of opposition that Fr. Komonchak did not mention, but which he could have. Antioch and Alexandria, Plato and Aristotle.

All this leads me to offer some thoughts about my own way of looking at theology, church history, and pastoral ministry. It’s all essentially (or at least existentially) binary because reality is essentially binary, and this inherent dimension of opposition in almost everything we deal with provides both tension and energy. Light and darkness, birth and death, pain and pleasure: these are the realities that occur in every human life. In Christian revelation we have sin and grace, Christ both human and divine, God of one nature yet triune, time and eternity, unchanging truth and the development of doctrine. Everywhere we look there are pairs of realities that call for our attention.

In terms of pastoral ministry and pastoral leadership, I have found that more often than not the basic operative realities are optimism and pessimism. Of course optimism and pessimism each have their place in basic Christian life and doctrine: law versus liberty, fear versus confidence, the threat of hell versus the promise of heaven. But I think that optimism and pessimism also have roles to play in the way in which the gospel is proclaimed and in which the local church is directed.

What does the priest preach about most of the time: damnation or salvation? What motivation is offered for behaviors such as church support: obligation or opportunity?

The same sorts of questions can be addressed to the administrative styles of bishops, and these styles can be characterized as optimistic or pessimistic. The basic question is one of management. Does the bishop micro-manage or macro-manage? Is he inclined to send out detailed directives or is he inclined to let people alone? I am inclined to think that micro-management is based on pessimism, on a conviction that people need lots of direction or they will mess things up. Macro-management, on the other hand, seems to me to be a result of optimism, a conviction that priests and people will generally do all right if they are left to follow their own experiences of grace.

I think that the sex abuse scandal can have both an optimistic and a pessimistic response. Obviously the behaviors of some of the church’s agents have been inexcusable and there is no way to justify them. But what about the future? Will this mess lead only to disillusionment or will it contribute to a heightened awareness of a hitherto unheeded social problem? One’s answer to that depends on whether one is a pessimist or an optimist.

Three more general remarks before I come to conclusion. First general remark: while persons of Christian faith must be long term optimists, it is not the case that, in the interim, it is always appropriate to be optimistic or always appropriate to be pessimistic. It is not the case that one is always correct and the other is always wrong. While individual human beings may be more inclined to one than to the other, there are circumstances when one or the other is simply inappropriate. It is almost inhuman to say that the inmates of the Soviet gulags should have had a brighter outlook on life, or that the pope’s historic visit to the Italian Parliament was an inexcusable inconvenience to Roman traffic.

Second general remark: there is a whole range or spectrum in either approach to Christian life and ministry and doctrine. It is not the case that you are either a pessimist or an optimist, and that, whatever you are, you are the same as everybody else on your side of the middle. There are all kinds of optimists and all kinds of pessimists from the gloomiest of Gusses to the brightest of Pollyannas. It’s dangerous to generalize about either tendency. One is inclined to remind oneself that there are neither optimists nor pessimists, simpliciter dicti, but only human persons who tend to be more optimistic or more pessimistic.

Third general remark: unadulterated optimism is dangerous. So is unadulterated pessimism. Reality does not come in unmixed essences. It’s always a mixture of good and bad, of possible and impossible, of desperate and hopeful. One of my favorite little theological theories is that the most important word in theology is the adversative conjunction, but. God is merciful, but God is just. Jesus is true man, but also true God. The liturgy is the work of the Christian people, but also of the Holy Spirit. If we neglect our adversative conjunction, we run the risk of gross oversimplification. Even though individual persons may be generally optimistic or generally pessimistic, every thoughtful posture, every leadership style has to be a combination of liberal and conservative, Antiochian and Alexandrian, Thomistic and Augustinian, optimistic and pessimistic. I believe that that’s just the way things are.

Two concluding observations. First: it might be amusing sometime to try to line up all the pairs that we have been talking about this evening under the general headings of optimism and pessimism. Does Augustine go under pessimism? Why? To what extent? Is being a liberal inherently optimistic? Are existential theologians pessimists? Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the liturgical reform of Vatican II—its intent and its outcome?

Finally, a word from our sponsor. The Catholic Common Ground Initiative is both optimistic and pessimistic. It acknowledges that there are divisions in the church that do not appear to be healthy, but it also holds that there is blessing in trying to bring together people of differing perspectives. It holds that the middle ground may be wider and more varied than people realize and that bringing people together for human and humane conversation contributes to the well-being of the church. Cowboys may still be cowboys and Indians may still be Indians, but arguably the world and the church will be better off if they are talking to one another rather than shooting at one another.

Also online: Full text of Joseph Komonchak’s 2003 Murnion Lecture [2]