Prophecy in the Church

I have no competence to speak to the recent document from the CDF to the LCWR.  Rather, I would like to use it as a springboard to discuss briefly the place of prophecy within the Church.  In one place, the document comments about prophetic activity:

Some speakers claim that dissent from the doctrine of the Church is justified as an exercise of the prophetic office. But this is based upon a mistaken understanding of the dynamic of prophecy in the Church: it justifies dissent by positing the possibility of divergence between the Church’s magisterium and a “legitimate” theological intuition of some of the faithful. “Prophecy,” as a methodological principle, is here directed at the Magisterium and the Church’s pastors, whereas true prophecy is a grace which accompanies the exercise of the responsibilities of the Christian life and ministries within the Church, regulated and verified by the Church’s faith and teaching office.

So what is the role of prophecy in the Church?  Is it only to be directed ad extra and never ad intra?  Catherine of Siena may have something to say to this point.  In either case, prophecy without the utmost respect for magisterium of the Church must be carefully avoided.  

Yet that is not to say that there is no place for prophetic speech towards the Church’s teaching authority.  Prior to the release of this document, I was struck by two paragraphs from Lumen Gentium.  The first is a line from paragraph 4:

Guiding the Church in the way of all truth and unifying her in communion and in the works of ministry, he bestows upon her varied hierarchic and charismatic gifts and in this way directs her.

The construction of this sentence places “charismatic” and “hierarchic” gifts next to each other and implies that they both equally direct the Church.  If this is the case, then prophecy has a place in directing the Church, and so also a place in directing the hierarchy.  Needless to say, this is part of the prophetic office of all of the faithful beautifully described at Vatican II and particularly elaborated in paragraph 37 of Lumen Gentium.

Notice the sandwich structure of paragraph 37.  The first paragraph speaks to the courage the laity must have in confronting their pastors.  The second paragraph discusses lay obedience to their pastors, and then the third paragraph returns to the theme of courage and the importance that pastors receive advice from lay members of the Church.  I was struck by the use of this word “courage:”

If the occasion should arise this should be done through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose and always with truth, courage and prudence with reverence and charity towards those who, by reason of their office, represent the person of Christ.

The word “courage” is used again in the third paragraph.  Interestingly, there were those at the Council who wanted to remove this word from the document.  Yet it was retained.  The prophetic office requires great courage — as well as “reverence” and “charity,” from those who employ it.

One of the great challenges of the Church in our time is to learn how to balance the charismatic and hierarchic gifts in the Church and in particular how to come to understand the prophetic office of the laity within the institution.

2 Responses to Prophecy in the Church

  1. Peter Wolczuk says:

    So, if I have this right, a prophecy should not contradict what is known about our faith but, may expand our understanding of the infinite nature of the Holy Mysteries.
    Like, if something that has often been seem by many but, is observed through a different viewpoint that adds to our understanding of scripture; it may have value as prophecy. I say “may” because, with only my imperfect human understanding, it feels impossible for me to be certain.
    For instance, (in reference to John 3:19-21) a few weeks ago, I was walking in a northerly direction along a suburban street just after 8:00 AM and noticed a patch of light off to my right, which was the east. Thinking that it must be sunlight shining through a gap in some trees, and looking further I saw that the trees had totally blocked the sun’s light.
    This left me wondering because I knew that, in the morning, the sun should be to my right which was the east. Glancing to the left I saw a bright glare on a window of a second story office building that was higher than the tree line, and realized that the light was being reflected so that it arrived on the ground as if from the right.
    Not giving it much deep thought, now that the seeming puzzle was resolved I carried on strolling for almost a block until I thought of the passage from John, and how I’d equated it with meaning that evil stick to the darkness. By thought experiment I came to the conclusion that, at this hour of the morning, my shadow should have been to my left and a little bit north, since I live north of the tropics and the sun is always somewhat south of directly overhead.
    Realizing that, no matter how certain things may seem in my mind, they should be visually checked on. Walking back to where my the patch of light was my shadow appeared toward the east and a little south – as if the sun had risen in the west and a little to the north of me. In short, directly opposite of where it would be if the light hadn’t been reflected into giving a misguiding clue. Further realization came that; if I was in a totally unfamiliar place with only my shadow as a reference for direction; I might end up thinking that north and south were reversed and that east and west were reversed and been totally misled by that which was in the light but, nevertheless, hid from the light … unless I was very careful.
    The room behind the reflecting office window was not dark, since light managed to shine in and reflect back and outward off the inner surfaces, but the intense sunlight kept me from seeing in so that the room was “as if” it was in the dark and away from the light, at least to my perspective.
    I didn’t see any implication of evil in the office but rather, a sort of metaphor of how something can be hidden from observation by reflecting the light in such a way that I could be misled. Like something that hides from the light doesn’t always need to go to the darkness and that I can be tricked even though I stay far from the dark.
    The next morning I had a feeling that a considerable conflict would come at me from something angry in the dark as a result and, did experience a number of small conflicts over the next couple of days; as if one big conflict was reduced into a number of smaller ones that could be dealt with through my perseverance.
    I still don’t get it all but I try to relate this in an understandable way.

  2. JohnC says:

    I also think that prophecy admonishes persons (including high church authorities) to be faithful to the teaching of Scripture and the Church. Nathan confronted David so that he would repent of adultery and murder. Catherine of Siena confronted popes and bishops to warn them to do what they were supposed to do: preach, visit the poor, live an austere life, stop lives of fornication and material luxury. But today we occasionally have “prophetic” speech which doesn’t want to admonish Church members or the broader society to conform their acts to the truths of faith or the moral order, but to alter those faiths or those perennial moral principles—so often in the direction of a very bourgeois self-indulgence. Careful discernment is required

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