Friday, March 15, 2013

A Civil Society?

I have been thinking a great deal lately about what makes society - either our American society, the worldwide society of humans, or my own Society of Jesus - civil. That is, what promotes our living well together?

Recently I read an essay by Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray entitled "Civil Unity and Religious Integrity." Granted that this essay was penned almost sixty years ago, it bears sharing:
In America we have been rescued from the disaster of ideological parties. They are a disaster because where such parties exist, power becomes a special kind of prize. The struggle for power is a partisan struggle for the means whereby the opposing ideology may be destroyed. It has been remarked that only in a disintegrating society does politics become a controversy over ends; it should be simply a controversy over means to ends already agreed on with sufficient unanimity
 For those who thought me uncharitable to Mr. Weigel in my last post, perhaps my frustration with his work arises from what I see to be precisely his seduction to this partisan grasping at power. In Weigel's world, the Church is divided into various camps - liberal/conservative, orthodox/heterodox - with each grasping at the power of the papacy, the power of various offices, the power of...it really doesn't matter. The grasp is for power. "When I'm in charge, I'm going to fix the the corruptions and abuses, reform the system....". We've heard it all before: every election cycle, every transition of CEO, and now with the change of pope.

Sometimes I look around the chapel at the 70+ Jesuits in my community and think, "Lord, you do exist, for only you could assemble such a crew. I know this isn't the group I'd pick!" This is a good realization for, no matter our differences or disagreements about how we preach the Gospel, how we promote the Kingdom, how we live out the mission entrusted to the Church, we do so with the common bond of being friends in the Lord, Companions of Jesus. Both in the name of our religious institute and in the depths of our hearts, we are held together by a single point: Jesus Christ.

Do we have such a lodestar in our own nation? It seems that we do not. If we can't sort out a budget, or have meaningful debate about immigration, healthcare, and guns, perhaps it's because we've disintegrated so far that we've forgotten how to talk to one another. Where our words, our reason, fail we resort to power grabs.

We need to re-learn how to talk to one another. Whether as a church or nation, we must keep three questions in mind:
  1. Who are we?
  2. Where are we going?
  3. How do we get there? 
What is our identity? What are we about? Are we a river or are we a swamp? Are we flowing along, albeit with rocks and obstacles in our way, obstacles slowly eroded over time, or are we just stagnant water? Do we have a purpose we can agree upon, a goal or destination, or have we given up hope for getting anywhere?

Shame on us if we expect one person to tell us where we're going. Near as I can tell, that's called a dictatorship and they never seem to end well. Pope Francis, bishop of Rome, eschewed a pedestal and stood on the same level to greet the cardinals who had elected him. We vote each cycle for the leadership who will move our country forward. We're in this, all of us, together and if we can't learn to talk to one another, to trust one another, there's no chance we'll go anywhere. The open horizon of the future that invites us to move forward with joy and innovation will become blotted out by clouds of despair and growing world-weariness.

In his first homily as the Holy Father, Pope Francis exhorts his listeners to movement: walking, building, professing. To do so as disciples on mission, however, is no easy task. Pope Francis notes that the way of discipleship proceeds, always, shadowed by the cross:
This Gospel continues with a special situation. The same Peter who confessed Jesus Christ, says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. I will follow you, but let us not speak of the Cross. This has nothing to do with it.” He says, “I’ll follow you on other ways, that do not include the Cross.” When we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, and when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly, we are bishops, priests, cardinals, Popes, but not disciples of the Lord.  
 Peter's reluctance to face the Cross was overcome only through conversation with and a radical conversion toward the risen Lord. As we continue our journey through Lent, a journey increasingly darkened by the shadow of the approaching cross, may we continue to pray, to converse, with the Lord and turn our hearts toward the One who leads us. Rather than grasping at a power which tells us what we own, let us be grasped by the power who makes us to be what we are and gives us an identity beyond all others: sisters and brothers in Christ, children of God, pilgrims moving toward the Kingdom.


3 comments:

Ambrose Little said...

As one of the folks whom you're alluding to in thinking you were being uncharitable, I hope you will not mind my chiming in here as well. I'm not clear at all how much you are addressing me/us concerning what I/we asked, so bearing that in mind...

1) Totally agree the how is totally variable. As a lay Dominican, we too have a wide variety of hows in terms of how our vocation is lived out over our 800 years.

I think the concern, at least the one I was mentioning, is the what. It's one thing to faithfully, authentically represent the Truth in many multifaceted ways. It's another to try to alter or reinterpret that Truth in a way that is inconsistent with the Catholic Faith. Note, to be clear, I am not suggesting you personally are doing this; it was more in the context of the broader discussion of orthodoxy.

On that point, you seem to reduce orthodoxy, and aspiring to it, as a form of power. In as much as there is power in the Truth, then that could be true; however, I think it would be wrong to reduce all striving for orthodoxy as some kind of power grab. On the contrary, I would say that there is nothing more worthy than a life spent in service to the Truth. But then, I am Dominican. ;)

2) "Shame on us if we expect one person to tell us where we're going. Near as I can tell, that's called a dictatorship and they never seem to end well."

In civil society, I agree wholeheartedly. However, in the Church, things are different. Christ is our Head. The Pope is the vicar of Christ; he is our head on this earth, on our journey. It is precisely his duty to lead the Church, to both tell and show us where we're going.

This does not deny our individual contributions, of course, but ours is no democracy, nor an individualistic anarchy. We follow the Head; we follow Christ.

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding you because there is a mixing of civil and ecclesiastical in what you have written, and it's not clear which parts you mean to apply to which.

Thanks for continuing the discourse. I agree--no reason we can't be civil about it. :)

jamez said...

I read all this everywhere and I think how the Church has been thrown all a-turmoil these past 50 years or so struggling to find a branch to steady on. There's no doubt in my heart that the Holy Spirit is just beginning to teach us baby birds how to fly...

Ryan G. Duns, SJ said...

Just as a man can, over the course of his life, write many love poems to his wife, not a single one of which will ever capture perfectly or adequately what she means to him, so also is it impossible for any teaching express the fullness of Truth. In every stage of a husband’s life, just as in every stage of the Church, we have to respond to the question of ‘Who” the Lord of history is and how we’ve come to know the Lord in new ways.

I mean, not for nothing, the orthodox answer to Jesus’ identity is written in Greek using philosophical categories no longer in vogue today, at least not among the vast majority of Catholics. If I said homouousion at the table, my mother would have thought that I was talking about gay people. Yet, that is orthodox. We adapt our language, some doing a much better, others a much poorer, job.

The power grab is seen when it is assumed that there is, in a given era, ONLY one way to talk about matters of faith. That’s simply not possible: time passes, new situations arise, and the Gospel must be proclaimed in each era. Rather than focusing on improving our proclamation – agreeing on an end – much effort seems to be expended/wasted on dictate a timeless grammar of speaking of God which, quite frankly, will always fail.

As to the second point, I’m not denying the Pope as the Vicar of Christ. I should have stressed that being a part of the Church is not blind obedience. We belong in the Church as persons, wayfarers, of hope: our hearts moved by a faith given to us by God, we set out together on a journey toward our ultimate beatitude. Yet, we’re not forced into this journey against our will: we must make for our own the journey of discipleship. The Church, as an entire body, is itself the instrument of God’s plan inaugurating the Kingdom; the Pope, in this way, is the sacrament of the Church who makes present in his person the future goal we have not yet received fully.

Members in the Church, not solely of the world and yet the Kingdom, are what they call a ‘tertium quid’ or third way. We live in the tension of receiving and believing the Gospel. Thus there is an inescapable blurring of the civil/ecclesial because we’re on the road, one foot in the world, one foot stepping toward the Kingdom. It’s only because our eyes are open, and our hearts on fire, that we can journey along together and invite others to be our companions. Ours is not a truth to be hoarded, like smog the dragon, but is meant to be shared with others, the living water and eternal bread that strengthens us en route to our heavenly destination.