Friday, June 22, 2012

Religious Liberty

The 1970's tends to get a bad rap within church circles. In my less-than-charitable moments, I have been heard to remark that the liturgical innovations that took place in the 1970's were but the venom from a many-headed hydra, a beast whose heads could not too soon be severed and the stumps cauterized. Surely, not everything that took place in the 1970's was awful. Indeed, as I prayed this morning, I recalled some words written by my theological hero, Karl Rahner. 

Rahner, writing in 1972, encouraged those in Church leadership toward becoming a "church of morality without moralizing." How can one encourage fidelity to one's vows, to fair and honest practice within broken corporate structures, to integrity in one's life, to ethical integrity, when women and men have not yet come to know God's love? Rahner writes:
We must show men and women today at least the beginning of the path that leads credibly and concretely into the freedom of God. Where men and women have not begun to have the experience of God and of God's Spirit, who liberates us from the most profound anxieties of life and from guilt, there is no point in proclaiming to them the ethical norms of Christianity. Indeed, they would not be able to understand them; at most they would be for them only the source of still more radical constraints and even deeper anxiety. 
Forty years ago, Rahner understood well what many of our bishops appear not to know. If regular women and men do not have a deep and personal experience of God's love, if they do not find themselves being drawn toward the Eucharist and encouraged in their daily lives by the Word of God, then all of our talk about morality will appear to be little more than some added constraint to people's lives.

President Obama and the Democratic Party are hardly the greatest threats to religious liberty. I fear that the Church has become its own greatest enemy. Authentic religious liberty enables and empowers women and men to live out the Gospel lovingly and courageously. A living encounter with Jesus Christ, revealed in Word and Sacrament, impresses upon the hearts of his followers a seal that drives them out into a broken world to live the Kingdom He has promised. Our moral lives flow from this encounter and attempt to embody the shape of the Kingdom here and now in a broken world.

We don't accept the Church's moral teaching because we want God to be pleased with us. We accept the Church's moral teaching because Christ's love has scarred us, marking us forever, and we want to live out that love in a radical and prophetic way. 

I fear that many women and men who have not been evangelized well think that religious liberty is little more than the question "Can the government make a church-affiliated organization pay for contraception?" If that's the extent of religious liberty, then we're all in a great deal of trouble. As a Church, we have squandered our own freedom by playing according to secular rules. Partisanship and polemics rule terrestrial politics. The politics of the Kingdom - our call to dwell now as we will dwell forever with God - demands that we play by different rules.

Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, John Edwards, and the Catholic Church have this in common: they played by human rules and got caught. They played the game of secular politics, of lying-to-get-ahead, and they have been disgraced for it. The Catholic Church failed to take seriously its religious liberty, its call to live out the values of Jesus Christ, and because it played the games of human devising it now flounders and scrambles to regain its balance. Our leadership put finances over the flock, reputation over real people, and now that we've been exposed, we're suffering. The Church has not had its religious liberty taken from it. Instead, it has squandered its liberty much like the Lost Son squandered the gifts of his father on terrestrial pleasures. We played by the rules crafted by sinful humanity and we lost. We failed to be who, by our baptisms, we are called to be.

We, as a Church, seem to be awakening to the fact that we have strayed from our natural home and that we're eating pig slop when we could have a seat at the Father's banquet. Are our hearts open enough to realize how far we've fallen and how much we have lost? Can we allow God's humbling grace reach us and can we summon the strength to say, "Father! We have sinned against heaven and against you...we are no longer worthy to be called your children." Do we have confidence that the Father's love knows no limits and that this love will welcome us back, will restore to us our true religious liberty, and will encourage us to go out again to set the world on fire with the Gospel?

Karl Rahner, pray for us. 
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