A Lenten Assessment of the State of the Church by Ed Burns  

The Lenten season may be a good time to think about contemporary Catholicism as it is currently being experienced and practiced in our lives and in our ecclesiastical structures. Are we, as a community of Catholic believers, being faithful to our vocation to be the presence of the Risen Christ in the world? Or do we appear to be more of an arid and insular fortress fending off a secular culture by circling the wagons of doctrinal orthodoxy in an attempt to keep the faith pure and undefiled?

In a review of the book Theology for Pilgrims by Nicholas Lash, Terrence W. Tilley, chair of the theology department at Fordham University, writes this:

The [Second Vatican] council prepared a way for the church to become an effective school for “weaning us from our idolatry” of both secular and ecclesial goods and for “purifying our desire for God” . . . The church cannot return to the triumphalism, juridicism and clericalism decried by Bishop Emil De Smedt at the council. (Were these particularly Catholic forms of idolatry?) Nor can we reverse the turns to humility in the face of Mystery, to consciousness of the historical developments in the church, and to the primacy of the vocation of the congregation of the baptized.

In this single paragraph, Tilley concisely summarizes the sources of the malaise and polarization American and Western European Catholics find themselves in today. He also clearly articulates the challenges the institutional church needs to confront and the changes it needs vigorously to implement lest we lose the meaning and the memory of the Second Vatican Council and, in the process, squander the grace of renewal it promised for the 21st century. Should we miss this opportunity, it would be a tragedy of immeasurable proportions for Catholicism. And while it is surely true that all the people of God are responsible for the kind of church that we have, the primary responsibility for leading the church into the 21st century falls upon the present power structure residing in the hands of the hierarchy, specifically the pope, the Curia and the bishops, in that order.

I emphasize “in that order” because in actual practice, the pope and the Curia have co-opted the teaching authority of the local bishops and clergy and have constructed what Karl Rahner has called “an ecclesiological monoculture.” This has resulted in a stranglehold on the people of God in which ordinary pastoral care is micromanaged from Rome. In turn, this has hamstrung the “clergy in the trenches,” and has diminished their ability to meet and speak to the felt needs and expectations of the Christian community at large. In Theology for Pilgrims, Lash writes: “There is not the slightest possibility that the Roman Curia will reform itself . . . What we need is the election of a pope who would transfer the governance of the Church from the pope and Curia to pope and Bishops.” This is exactly what I believe our present pope is attempting to achieve, and for which he is receiving great resistance from a small but powerful group of extremely conservative Catholic bishops and laity.

I believe there are several powerful and primal forces infecting the hierarchical institution at this point in our history. Among these are anxiety, fear, ignorance, emotional rigidity, pride, privilege, an obsessive need for certainty, and a lust for power. These factors are holding in captivity the spirit of reform and renewal (and conversion!) that was overwhelmingly called for and formally endorsed by large majorities of the world’s Catholic bishops attending the Second Vatican Council.

We need to remember that the Second Vatican Council was not some kind of episcopal synod that periodically gathers in Rome to address particular concerns regarding the governance of local churches. These occasional synods have themselves become another instrument of curial control of both clergy and laity alike. In contrast, the Second Vatican Council was a worldwide (ecumenical) assembly of the Catholic bishops throughout the globe summoned to Rome by the Supreme Pontiff for the purpose of addressing the needs of the whole church.

On this occasion, the Council Fathers approved by overwhelming majorities a series of formal documents dealing with foundational truths of Catholic faith and practice, including Lumen Gentium, describing the nature of the church; Dei Verbum, describing the nature of Sacred Scripture; and Gaudium et Spes, describing the role of the church in the modern world. The final votes on these documents represented a virtual consensus on the part of the global episcopate at the time of the council. They did not represent a church divided such as we have at the present time.

Fifty-five years later, those members of the church who were around at the time of this historic event—both clergy and laity—who were energized in their faith by the teachings of the council might be wondering what happened. One answer might be found in a response of Bernard Lonergan, S.J., when he was asked some years ago, “When did the church begin to fall behind the times?” Lonergan’s reply was in the late 17th century, “When modern science began, when the Enlightenment began, then the theologians began to reassure one another about their certainties.” Lash expresses the same idea: “Confronted by a western culture increasingly hostile, both institutionally and intellectually, Catholic Christianity tried to pull up the drawbridge, seeking disengagement from the world of which it was a part.”

I have italicized these last words because they highlight the heart of the struggle that is currently taking place in both theological circles and in the pews of our churches. That struggle has to do with two ways of viewing the world, of thinking about the world, of regarding the place of the church in the modern world. One way of viewing the world is through the lens of what is called nonhistorical orthodoxy. According to this way of understanding ourselves, our world, and our God, orthodox Christian teaching derives from a set of abstract ideas that are completely free from historical and cultural conditioning. From this point of view, the official teachings of the church never change. There is only repetition of these same doctrines or error.

A more contemporary model for gaining understanding of ourselves, our world, and our God is called historical consciousness. This approach to knowledge and understanding places emphasis on the particular, the historical, the individual, and the contingent. From this point of view, we seek to gain not absolute certainty in our life, but rather a growing awareness of God and the transcendent in the ordinary experiences of our daily living.

Tilley’s review refers to particularly Catholic forms of idolatry: triumphalism, juridicism, and clericalism. Each one of these idolatries (and I believe that is the correct word) is a product of a nonhistorical orthodoxy which implies that the church is a teaching church and does not need to learn from or listen to anyone beyond itself (triumphalism); that the church is a static and juridical organization, not a living sacrament of the Risen Christ, that organizes and judge’s people’s lives by a strict code of objective, clear, and certain laws (juridicism—“You keep the rule and the rule will keep you” is an old seminary axiom); and that the clergy are a breed set apart, of a different order of humanity, a “holy order” not like the rest of humankind (clericalism—“Thank God I am not like the rest of men,” as the Pharisee says in Luke 18:11). Whenever the forms and rituals and symbols of religion become more important than and begin to take the place of the living God, we are entering into the realm of idolatry, which substitutes things for our grace-given relationship with the un-nameable and benevolent mystery of our lives that we call God.

In addition to historical consciousness, Tilley refers to two other critical dynamics of contemporary life and culture that cannot be reversed. The first is a “turn to humility in the face of Mystery.” I share Lash’s opinion that we are “being weaned from our idolatries of both secular and ecclesial goods” by a growing recognition that we are not in charge of the circumstances of our lives. We are learning, sometimes by shocking trauma and sometimes by deep and sustained prayer, that there is more to our lives than meets the eye; that our lives are not confined to wandering endlessly through the aisles of Wal-Mart; that our lives are caught up in a Holy Mystery that we cannot fathom but that we can love. In this growing awareness of our contingency, we are learning to be more chastened, more modest, more humble as a church and as a people. This cannot happen to soon.

The other dynamic within the church to which Tilley refers is a growing awareness of “the primacy of the vocation of the congregation of the baptized.” This has enormous implications for the whole church. It represents not a change in the meaning of baptism, but an expansion of our conventional understanding of this sacrament. We are beginning to realize that the whole of Christian life and practice is rooted in our sacramental identification with the Risen Christ. This, in turn, represents “a shift in identity of Christian agency” that Lash calls “incalculable” in its importance. He goes on to say, “It is the structured community that is the Church—God’s gathered people—which celebrates the Eucharist, not merely the person presiding at the celebration.” When we celebrate the Eucharist we do so together, all of us equally, through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ.

It is within a converted church, in which forgiveness is found, in which the holiness of life is celebrated, and in which friendship occurs among its members, that we will begin to realize the hope and the promise of the Second Vatican Council. Lent is a good time for us to think and pray about these things.

Ed Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families.   

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