Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Church is a Process

The great Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe writes in The New Creation that the
...process by which the world grows to maturity in Christ is the Church. The Church, as we shall see, is not a thing, it is a process in time. (18)
His insight has been percolating in my heart and mind these last few days of vacation and, this morning, I'd like to offer a few comments upon it.

I frequently lament the lack of charity on the part of Catholic bloggers. Dr. Jeff Mirus, just this week, mused over at CatholicCulture.org that he is tempted to end each of his writings with "this very particular truism: The Jesuits must be reformed." In his writings, Dr. Mirus bandies about the label of Modernism - a slippery, unwieldy word that he doesn't take the time to pin down the precise way in which he uses it - and decries the failings of the Society of Jesus. Reading his piece, one would get the sense that there is but a small remnant of faithful Jesuits out there and that the rest (of us? Or am I part of the remnant??) are a bunch of heterodox barbarians who delight in scandalizing the faithful.

Sometimes I am left to wonder, then, if persons like Dr. Mirus, Joseph Fromm, R.R. Reno, and Diogenes fall into the category Father McCabe describes when he writes

A man whose heart is full of hatred but who does not deny the Creed can be genuinely baptized and receive the Faith, though in such a case the Faith he receives is what we have called "dead faith", a faith which is not enlivened by charity. (44)
I'm not saying that these are bad men: indeed, I think they very often do very good work. But as I impress upon my sophomores, you cannot extract a generality out of a particular: the fact that some Jesuits do things that raise eyebrows does not mean that the entire body of the Society of Jesus is in need of reform. I would simply say that the entire body of the Society of Jesus needs to be reformed simply because it is a part of the Church, the Body of Christ, and we are called to part of the "new creation" wrought by Faith. We need to be reformed not because we have gone astray, or are wicked, or are heterodox; rather, we need to be in a constant state of reform because we are part of the living Body of Christ, the Church.

Recall Saint Paul's beautiful imagery in 1 Corinthians 12 where he describes the Church as one body,  with many parts, enlivened by the Spirit of Christ. The Church is not a corpse (contrary to the belief of the new atheists!): it is a living Body, forever in relationship to the world in which it finds itself. That the Church must relate to and be in dialogue with the Modern World (Is this Modernism?) is made clear by Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The Church is not an a-historical body. Instead, it is the ongoing process of establishing - in fits and starts, sometimes with great leaps and other times with crippling setbacks - the Kingdom of God on earth.

To my mind, there seems to be a conflict of metaphor at work in many disputes about the Church today. There are some who want to see the Roman Church as the "Bark of Peter" - an impregnable floating fortress that navigates, unchanged, the currents of history. One is either onboard the ship or is left behind.  Dr. Mirus appears to ascribe to this view, when he writes

Eventually the problem will take care of itself, as it always does in Orders which drift from their purpose, and as the radical aging of the Jesuits attests. But in the meantime, many souls are at the very least being retarded in their union with God and—since we really do believe that such things matter—we can only presume that more souls than otherwise necessary are suffering the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. After all, cultural fashion doesn’t help much after you’re finished with this world. And that is why I’m tempted to end all of my writings with this very particular truism: The Jesuits must be reformed. (italics mine)
On this view, it would seem that Jesuits are either pushing people off of the boat or simply directing them toward the Titanic! Those poor souls God seems to have forsaken...

Perhaps a more charitable view is possible. The metaphor of the Body is one that takes account of the interchange with the external world, anticipates a certain form of congress with creation. Just as we breath in oxygen and release carbon dioxide, take in water and food and release waste, so too does the Body of Christ interact with the world. The Church grows, it dialogues, and it reaches out into ever-new contexts to bring the Good News. The metaphor of the Body of Christ as an living organism at least accounts for the dynamism that we can see in the Church.

The challenge of the latter metaphor is that a body must always adapt itself, in some ways, to each new environment. Just as animals have evolved over time, so has the Church. It has grown and it has evolved because it is alive, it is always in the process of growing in holiness and moving outward in its efforts to establish the Kingdom.

Having to adapt to ever-new environments is not easy and certainly not without pain. Just as a teacher might need to try numerous techniques and tactics in order to communicate a lesson, so too have the Jesuits found the frontiers of the Church and been forced to respond creatively in spreading the Good News. Without question, some of these have been utter failures and there have been times that the Jesuits have been overly optimistic about our ability to adapt and culture's willing to be challenged. Nevertheless, I don't see this as poisonous or toxic; I see it, in fact, as part of being a living body. It is part of being in process.

So in a very real way, I agree with Dr. Mirus that the Jesuits need to be reformed. We are a part of the living Body of Christ and need always to be in a state of reflection and renewal. The same must be said, though, of the Church at large. If Jesus Christ is the unity of the Church, the Risen Christ who has conquered death and has given us the courage and mission to preach this Good News, then the Church is very much a living organism. If we're not exercising our organs and challenging them further, we risk the all-too-American fate of arteriolsclerosis, the hardening of the heart.

If the Jesuits risk overstraining the Body of Christ, then let us pray for a renewed sense of listening so that we may follow the heart of Christ to where we are being called. Lest, however, the hardness of heart - the arteriolsclerosis - that seems to be betrayed by such a lack of charity on so the part of so many, let us pray with the Psalmist:

A clean heart create for me, God;
Renew in me a steadfast Spirit.
(Psalm 51)


+ Alan said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Ryan. Good stuff. Love the McCabe stuff. I "found" him not long ago and have been enriched by his writing. I've always said that the Church is not God's goal for us. It's not an end in itself. It's only a sort of stop-gap solution - a tool for our transformation into His Image. And in a broken Cosmos, it is, of course, broken and imperfect. It, we, must grow and evolve, and that doesn't mean embracing brokenness - rather, learning to embrace the Life of Christ.

Anyway, enough of that. Peace to you and Merry Christmas.

David Backes said...

This was a great post. As a deacon and as a professor at a secular university, it saddens me to see not simply the intolerance toward entire groups, but also the lack of curiosity and desire to learn from people who might see the world in a different way.

Deacon David Backes