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Responses to 101 Questions on the Church.

Richard P. McBrien. New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1996. Pp. 154. $9.95, paper.

Swidler and McBrien are leading liberal Catholic theologians. In these books each offers his vision for the Roman Catholic Church of the future. Their proposals are part of the debate over the structure of the Catholic Church that began during Vatican II when Lumen gentium juxtaposed the hierarchical and "people of God" models of the church without clearly relating them or establishing a priority between them. Swidler and McBrien argue for the "people of God" model on biblical, historical, and theological grounds.

Swidler offers the more direct case, proposing for the Catholic Church a constitutional structure. He even provides sample constitutions for the universal church, the diocese, and the local parish. These constitutions would involve power-sharing among clergy and laity at all levels, with the balance of power shifted significantly toward the laity. Priests, bishops, and popes would be elected and serve for fixed terms. As Swidler notes, there is historical precedent for this at all levels of Catholicism.

Swidler sets his proposal within the context of post-Enlightenment Western intellectual culture. Swidler approves of this culture; others might value it differently. Its key characteristics for him are the dynamic processes of change and an awareness of human historicity. The latter reminds us that the church is not ours, but God's. Swidler then applies Vatican II's call for limiting the power of civil government to the Catholic Church itself, arguing the church must also be limited in what it may do and require of others. This linking of church and civil government may be the weakest point of Swidler's argument. He assumes its truth rather than arguing it, but the nature, origin, and authority of the church and of civil government differ in crucial ways. His entire argument for a Catholic constitution depends upon this.

The Catholic Church that Swidler envisions looks very much like modern American democracy. He shows that the practices of some Catholic leaders in the early United States drew heavily on American constitutional practices, even to the point of implementing constitutional structures, although they were neither widespread nor condoned by the American bishops as a whole. Swidler has done an excellent job of uncovering Catholic documents and practices consistent with or supportive of his position, some quite surprisingly so.

According to Swidler, a large and growing number of Catholics supports the idea of a Catholic constitution just as they support other theological and moral positions at odds with the views of the current pope. Although he offers evidence to support his claims, I remain skeptical, just as I am skeptical when ultra-conservative Catholics claim to represent the Catholic mainstream. Most Catholics seem to fall between these two positions. Swidler's concern for freedom of conscience, reflecting the Enlightenment's concern for human autonomy, raises some concerns when placed in a church setting. How much autonomy is compatible with community? Can the church exist if it allows the same degree of autonomy as civil government does? A recent letter to the New York Times suggested that exercising one's freedom of conscience might require leaving the Catholic Church at some point for another religious body.

Although McBrien has approached ecclesiology from a different direction, he arrives at about the same point as Swidler by the end of his book. McBrien has collected what he considers the most important and most asked questions from his many speaking appearances around the country. He has organized them into six categories: religious pluralism, Christian origins, church history, Vatican II, the contemporary Catholic Church, and the church of the future. The early chapters are an excellent introduction to Christian history that complements Swidler's argument, while the later chapters reflect McBrien's liberal Catholic views. The section on the contemporary church is the longest (over one-third of the book), while the section on the future church is the most controversial. The questions about the church today cover such crucial topics as the nature of ministry, sacraments, authority in the church, moral theology, and division within the Catholic Church. McBrien's weakest answers are those dealing with issues (such as women in the church) where his view appears to be at odds with strongly stated Vatican positions.

Swidler's book bears reading by anyone interested in the direction of the Catholic Church and the conflicts that currently divide Catholicism. McBrien's book is a worthy complement, the two together providing a clear and well-argued liberal Catholic interpretation of Catholic history and a program for the future Catholic Church.

Douglas McCready, Alvernia College, Reading, PA
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:McCready, Douglas
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
Previous Article:Revive Us Again.
Next Article:Toward a Catholic Constitution.

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