Many years ago, when I was a student at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts, I had an instructor whose name was Rev. Sean Sheehan. Sheehan was something of a maverick among his colleagues, all of whom were professors of various ecclesiastical studies in the school of theology. He was also, as it turned out, a very learned and insightful man, a man way ahead of his time. In one of his classes I was attending, he made a fascinating, almost offhand comment to us that I can still remember today. He said, “Did it ever occur to you that we may be members of the infant church?”
I have often thought of this remark and the significance it implies, particularly for the challenges and changes our mainline Christian churches are experiencing in the 21st century. Active participation in the membership of these churches has been dropping precipitously throughout Western Europe and North America over the past 40 years. There has been much speculation among theologians and sociologists, as well as much handwringing on the part of church leaders, as to why this is happening. The loss of so many members of our Christian communities clearly indicates a growing disillusionment, dissatisfaction, and simple indifference toward ecclesiastical institutions.
Without a doubt, a large part of the dynamic at work is the increasing secularization of contemporary culture. Rampart consumerism is leveling and homogenizing all segments of our society, taking with it a loss of meaning formerly anchored in a sense of the transcendent in daily life. In such a sterile environment, there seems to be nowhere people can go in order to find something significant and substantial that will fill their human longings for security, satisfaction, and completeness. Those essential qualities for a good life do not seem to be available in a world as transient and complicated as our own, where one day looks like every other day and a sense of the sacred rarely breaks through.
An additional problem for our churches and for our society in general is a rapidly disappearing sense of community and the common good. A stronger sense of community could help to counteract the feelings of mistrust and disconnectedness that have come to afflict the lives of believers and unbelievers alike. The novelist Richard Ford has attributed this sense of isolation and emptiness to what he calls “the American virus of excessive individualism.” This shift to the autonomous subject has had a major impact on communities of faith that have been a longstanding source of instilling, strengthening, and sustaining a sense of connectedness with one another along with a sense of social responsibility implied in the word community. Under the influence of a secularized and privatized culture, religious piety and practice become internalized affairs unrelated to the needs and demands of the public and political order. “Spiritual but not religious” has become the mantra of the day, what theologian Charles Taylor calls “a total subjectivization of religion.”
A third factor in the diminishing role of our churches in American society has been brought about by the failures of the churches to provide a prophetic and socially compelling message in their teaching and behavior that resonates with the lived experience of their members. Stephen L. Carter, a professor at the Yale School of Law, once wrote: “If faith lives by resisting, it dies by conforming. The survival of a religion rests upon its ability to avoid being overwhelmed by the culture it inhabits.” This should be a major concern for our churches. Are we, as a Christian community, living and acting as a genuine alternative to a mass consciousness that seems to value, and even to idolize, our materialistic mindset, our military might, our individualism, our demands for certainty and security, our self-serving pursuits of power, prestige, and privilege?
Christian faith introduces us into a new way of living; it gives us a whole new set of values, even a new identity. By our baptism, we have each become a member of the Body of Christ. Our vocation has now taken on the form of witness to the culture that surrounds us. Sometimes we can celebrate with that culture (“Rejoice with those who rejoice”), and sometimes we must resist that culture (“Weep with those who weep”). Centuries ago, St. Augustine wrote about this new vocation, this new responsibility we have taken upon ourselves. He says: “Be a member of Christ’s Body, then, so that your ‘Amen’ may be true.” May our own “Amen” to the risen Lord Jesus ring true by presenting to the culture that surrounds us a convincing witness that something real, good, and holy corresponds to the language of our faith and the behavior of our lives. And if this requires us to challenge or resist the conditions of the world we live in, then so be it.
All of these reflections being me back to my original question: Are we members of an infant church that is emerging, or are we members of an ancient church that is on the verge of dying? Perhaps by taking a broader perspective on the church’s own history would help us formulate an answer.
Following the death of Rev. Richard McBrien, the long-time director of the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame (as well as an early supporter and friend of Today’s American Catholic), one of his former students, Edward H. Hahnenberg, wrote a personal tribute. Here, in part, is what he said:
Years ago, author Robert Fulghum taught us “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Sometimes I feel like “All I Really Need to Know About the Church I Learned on the First Day of Class with Professor McBrien.”
Two insights from that first day have stayed with me. Together they capture the heart of McBrien’s ecclesiological vision—his lasting contribution to the theological study of the church. The first of these insights has to do with history. The second with mystery. . . .
As he explained the format of the course, McBrien said, almost as an aside, “When we study history, we realize that there is very, very little about the church that cannot change.”
As someone raised in a more traditional Catholic environment, I couldn’t decide if this was heresy or revelation. Either way, I found it deeply liberating. It was a way of being honest about the past and open to the future.
It would seem that Hahnenberg was discovering a new way of envisioning his church, one that gave him a completely new perspective on his then traditional Catholicism.
In the mid-19th century, John Henry Newman composed a famous sermon which came to be known as “The Second Spring.” Looking back on history, he saw the death of the old English church. He said, sorrowfully, “That old Church in its day became a corpse (a marvellous, an awful change!); and then it did but corrupt the air which once it refreshed . . . So all seemed to be lost.” But all was not lost. Newman went on to say, “Babylon was great, and Tyre, and Egypt, and Nineve, and shall never be great again. The English Church was, and the English Church was not, and the English Church is once again. This is the portent, worthy of a cry. It is the coming in of a Second Spring.”
In 1984, shortly before his death, the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wrote an article on the nature and course of the church’s own history. He described how the church has gone through three great paradigmatic shifts over many centuries. The first watershed came when Paul “won” the debate over how gentiles were to be received into the new assemblies of Christian believers. The second shift occurred when Constantine changed the countercultural church during the period of persecutions into the officially approved and supported culture of the Roman Empire (what I have heard described as “the time the church moved out of the catacombs and into the Roman basilicas”). This second shift produced legislation, art, new modes of thinking and conceptual tools, models for jurisprudence, organizational patterns, and all of the other cultural forces that made the church more or less “European.” Many of these cultural forces remain active in our churches today.
The third shift occurred around the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). Rahner characterized this new and developing paradigm as a “World Church” now being confronted and contested at the highest level of the church’s organizational structures. One of the most vexatious problems currently facing the Vatican is how to accommodate the churches located in different cultures throughout the world while maintaining Catholic unity.
During the 20th century and now into the 21st, our world has witnessed violence, bloodshed, torture, and injustice on a scale such as has never been seen before. It has been assaulted with scenes of death camps, genocide, degradation of women, destruction of whole cities, callous disregard for the lives of the unborn, and ruthless massacres of the innocent. The superstructures of our churches are collapsing. Monasteries, convents, and seminaries no longer appeal to the idealistic young. Clerical domination seems to be fighting a losing battle. Is it possible that beneath all this confusion a greater power is at work and something new is coming into being? Was Pope John Paul II prescient when he said that “the tears of this [20th] century have prepared the ground for a new spring of the human spirit”? Is that springtime of the spirit already beginning to manifest itself in the resurgence and universal hunger for spiritual experience, the longing for contemplation, the search for mysticism, the martyrdom for social justice, the solicitude for the underprivileged, the compassion for the suffering? This universal search for meaning and purpose and direction seems to imply that the human spirit itself is stronger than death and cannot be overcome, in spite of everything.
It can be very discouraging today for us to think about the future of our political and ecclesiastical institutions that have held us together as a nation and a church for centuries. These venerable public structures may seem to be in a freefall into chaos, with no way to stop it. William Butler Yeats must have felt the same way when he wrote the opening lines of his poem “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
Are we powerless to do anything to change this apocalyptic moment? I believe that it is critically important for us to remember that all of our social structures have been created, over time, by ourselves. To put it more simply, our institutions are ourselves, written in big letters and formulated into laws and documents that define who we are and who we want to be. Our laws and institutions did not descend upon us from some alien force outside of ourselves. We created them, and we have the capability to change them. This applies to the Catholic Church as well. Let us remember McBrien’s words: “When we study history, we realize that there is very, very little about the church that cannot change.”
Like it or not, the Catholic Church is in the midst of a historic new era, a third paradigm shift that Rahner characterized as the “World Church.” I have no idea where all of the challenges and changes demanded of the church in this new era will take us. But I am convinced and confident that the Holy Spirit will be intimately involved in building and guiding the church into its unknown future. I believe that the Holy Spirit is younger than the church has ever been or ever will be. And for that reason I can still regard myself as a member of the infant church.
Edward R. Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families. He is the author, most recently, of The Sacredness and Profound Depths of Being Human: Reflections on the Manifold Forms and Unexpected Epiphanies of the Incarnation, available here.