Classic text foreshadows the pontificate of Pope Francis


My graduate classes this week are beginning to explore a classic and relevant ecclesiological text: Father Ladislas Orsy’s influential 1987 book “The Church: Learning and Teaching.” One would be hard-pressed to read it thoughtfully and not to find in it foreshadows of the current pontificate, with its emphasis on collegiality and synodality (recently explicitly affirmed by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington as core elements of Francis’s vision over these last four years as the shepherd of the universal church).

Father Orsy is a Hungarian canon lawyer and theologian who holds degrees from Rome, Leuven and Oxford. He has worked all over the globe as an author and professor, but is most associated with his time on the faculties of The Catholic University of America and Georgetown University, where, at 95 years of age, he continues to teach, mentor and publish.

Father Orsy is renowned for his holistic interpretation of canon law, informed by his expansive study of church history, hermeneutics and theology.

When Father Orsy discusses the church, whether expressed in its doctrines, rites or canons, or experienced in its liturgical worship, he always makes sure to emphasize that the Word of God is both addressed to and received by the whole community, not particular individuals or sectarian parties within it. This co-traveling community makes its way toward the Truth with “slow, joyful and painful progress.” He has therefore consistently advised that we “distrust any lonely theologian.” It is all of the faithful, including but not limited to those with specific mandates to govern, defend and authenticate official teaching (e.g. the episcopate), who must contribute to the “steady and vigorous exchange” if the church is to be at its healthiest and most ministerially effective.

Such an optimistic view of the entire “believing church” also dovetails with Pope Francis’s tireless defense of popular piety and a theology of the people.

Because of such a vision, Father Orsy holds the human person and his or her conscience, rooted in one’s ineradicable dignity, in incomparably high regard. “There,” he says, “in the conscience, the drama of our redemption is enacted again and again in every single person…. And this is always a sacred play, a sacred event, and therefore, all human beings must respect this sacred occurrence and watch it closely and keep their distance in awe — both of them.”

This leads him to reflect on the Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae as an indispensable and mature guide to the church’s ultimate and complex defense of human freedom and religious liberty, one heavily indebted to American theologian John Courtney Murray. In light of all of this, Father Orsy can read the final canon of 1983’s revised Code of Canon Law with an expansive horizon: “the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the church, is to be kept before one’s eyes” (§1752).

Father Orsy asserts that the church then can be understood as a communio, into which the baptized are received and continue throughout their lives to experience the ongoing interplay between the individual person’s distinct charisms and growth in the one Spirit, “the giver of life” (vivificantem). There is ultimately within the very essence of the teaching and learning church a visible and organizational expression of this diversity-in-unity, which is always to be respected, encouraged and heeded.


Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., a Collingswood native, teaches at Loyola University.