What Might Bernard Lonergan Say to Bruce Morrill?

Article excerpt

Bruce Morrill has engaged a dialectical analysis of some views on the Rite of Penance. My response raises some foundational points that draw on Bernard Lonergan's theological anthropology.

Repentance and reconciliation are fundamental to Christian living. Sacramental reconciliation would seem to be, therefore, a potentially very meaningful ritual mediation of graced encounter with Christ. In its most recent survey of sacramental practices in the United States, however, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that 75 percent of Catholics participate in the Rite of Penance less than once a year or never, and that only 39 percent find the sacrament "very meaningful." (1) That so many find sacramental reconciliation less than meaningful might reflect a crisis of common meaning regarding Catholic teachings about sin and salvation underlying the larger crisis of authority in the church. It may also be related to a more fundamental theological crisis. Either way, the situation indicates the kind of breakdown of meaning Morrill has called to our attention. I find three contributions from Lonergan's theological anthropology helpful for understanding the conflict Morrill identifies: (1) Lonergan's account of conversion directs our attention to the concrete experience of transformation at the center of the Rite of Penance; (2) Lonergan identifies the foundations of authority in authenticity and contrasts that view with the exercise of institutional power; and (3) Lonergan's understanding of community as a result of common meaning clarifies the foundations of ecclesial identity. In each case Lonergan's theological anthropology brings the conversation about sacramental reconciliation back to concrete experience, thereby responding to Monica Hellwig's similar concerns in her Sign of Reconciliation and Conversion. (2)

Lonergan's Notion of Conversion

Lonergan's discussion of conversion as intellectual, moral, and religious indicates the basic transformations that are the fruit of self-transcendence. Human beings are naturally self-transcending. The desire to know, which normally operates spontaneously, is the foundation of self-transcendence. While self-transcendence can expand the horizon of the subject, there are also experiences that not only expand horizons but also place the subject in a new horizon. For Lonergan these changes of horizon are conversions. (3)

Intellectual conversion turns away from "the myth that knowing is like looking, that objectivity is seeing what is there to be seen and not seeing what is not there, and that the real is what is out there now to be looked at." (4) Intellectual conversion turns toward a world mediated by meaning and known in a judgment that comes at the end of a process of cognitional self-transcendence. A person living within the horizon of intellectual conversion has entered fully into the world mediated by meaning, (5) the concrete human world, and moved out of materialist and idealist versions of reality. While intellectual conversion may seem irrelevant to the sacrament of reconciliation, theologians from Augustine to Ignacio Ellacuria have highlighted the importance for Christian discipleship of being honest with reality. (6) It is often the case that sin is some form of participation in one or another distortion of the concrete situation by rationalization of one's behavior in it. Failure to deal with the reality of the situation and a rationalization of one's actions go together, often with disastrous consequences. The tendency to recognize only what is immediate to my senses, what is there to be seen as real, reflects a lack of intellectual conversion. For example, if the suffering of others is hidden from view, then, one might conclude, it does not exist, and one can go about one's business as usual. Normally a list of sins to confess is not likely to include such failures of intellectual conversion, but concrete failures of intellectual conversion, sometimes on a massive scale, create a context of social sin. …