Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Church we are in


Writing in 1935, in the interval between the First Vatican Council and the Second, Dom Anscar Vonier wrote in the Foreword to his book The Spirit and the Bride:
I have noticed with a feeling of pain how several recent books by Catholic writers of fame make a distinction that is a surrender to Protestant feeling between an ideal Church and the real Church. Being themselves very orthodox Catholics the writers in question abound, of course, in their encomiums of the beauty of the Church conceived ideally. But after that they seem to gloat on the Church's human infirmities, piling it on and letting the Protestant have it his own way with his century-old fault-finding. Different, indeed, was the mentality of the Vatican Council [ie the First] which considered the Church in her actuality to be a testimonium irrefragibile, a "witness that cannot be gainsaid", of her divine mission: The Church, through herself, on account of her admirable extension (propagationem), her exceeding sanctity (eximiam sanctitatem), her inexhaustible stability, is a great and everlasting motive of credibility and a witness to her divine mission that cannot be gainsaid (Vatican I, sess, III, cap. 3,7).
The Council means, of course, the actual living Church, not an ideal, or a mere system of the means of sanctification. To say the least, it is very bad taste on the part of a Catholic to represent Catholicism as a divine religion and to speak of Catholics as having been the world's worst sinners.... The eximia sanctitatis, "exceptional holiness", which the last of the General Councils perceived in the Church is the true portrait of what exists.
In a subsequent chapter entitled "The Great Metaphors", Dom Vonier insists that the titles used of the Church in the Scriptural writings of St Paul and of Revelation refer, not to an "ideal" Church of some kind, but to the actual living experience of the Church in the immediately apostolic period.

There is a limited parallel to the quoted passage from Vatican I in the constitution Lumen Gentium of Vatican II (nn.39-40, my italics added to draw out the parallel): the Church, everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness, according to the saying of the Apostle: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification". However, this holiness of the Church is unceasingly manifested, and must be manifested, in the fruits of grace which the Spirit produces in the faithful; it is expressed in many ways in individuals, who in their walk of life, tend toward the perfection of charity, thus causing the edification of others...
Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society.....  In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes the passage from Vatican I, though with slight difference in translation compared to Abbot Vonier (n.812), referring to the historical manifestations of the unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity of the Church as speaking clearly to human reason of the truthfulness of her mission. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in a passage of The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church (p.196 ff in the Ignatius Press translation), suggests the figure of Mary as the point, theologically speaking, where the temptation to divide the Church into "ideal" and "earthly" realities is overcome.

Abbot Vonier was speaking to a very different ecclesial context than the one that pertains today; and clearly he was not denying the human frailties that must have been as much present in the Church of his time as they are in the Church of our own time. (If the Church of our own time has offered sorrow and repentance for failings of the past, then so to has the Protestant ceased from using those failings as an argument to denigrate the Catholic Church.)

But it is of value, I think, to take Abbot Vonier's fundamental insight - that there is no distinction to be made between a Church "ideal" in its faithfulness to Christ and a Church "real" in the vagaries of its earthly life - and use it to reflect on the Church during the papacy of Pope Francis.

Reform-minded Catholics

As an example of the movement that self-identifies as a "reform movement" in Catholicism we have ACTA. On 25th October 2014, they held a national conference at Liverpool Hope University. One of the talks was entitled "Remarriage and the Eucharist - after the Synod". You have to dig down to page 10 of the text on the ACTA website (it is the talk by Fr Buckley) to find the suggestion that indicates just how far away from an authentically Catholic position it is (my italics added):
....we have been willing to accept that we understand more about the psychology of human relations and therefore the possibility that the bond of marriage may not have been validly formed for many more reasons than hitherto thought possible, but we don’t seem willing or able to question a theological notion that has tied us up in knots and leaves us with little or no room for manoeuvre. If we are willing to accept the judgement of a tribunal on whether or not an indissoluble bond was formed, why can we not also accept that the very fact that two people subsequently become totally estranged and unable to live out their marriage commitment is itself a sign that the bond was never properly formed? I fail to see how such a judgement would mean that we had abandoned our belief in the sanctity and permanence of marriage. It would simply acknowledge that there is much that we will never know for certain on this earth, in spite of our best efforts.
Unfortunately, and somewhat inaccurately, Fr Buckley has earlier in his talk given the impression that Pope Francis appears to support his position, even though I am not aware of any suggestions that Pope Francis would accept the idea that marital breakdown is sufficient evidence for invalidity of the original marriage:
..... I sense that more and more people’s instincts now lead them to conclude as I did that the official position simply doesn’t add up and it is a relief to find that it would seem that the Pope himself thinks likewise.
It is Professor Mary Grey's comments on the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood - see pages 5-6 of the text of her talk at the ACTA website - that reveal how far she is from a truly Catholic position:
.... some Roman Catholic women of great courage have sought to authenticate their own call to ordained ministry. One group is the well publicised ordination on a boat on the Danube in 2002. These pioneering women are referred to as “The Danube Seven”. This event was swiftly followed by excommunication from Rome, even though technically speaking, the ordinations might be reckoned as valid. Dramatic consequences ensued: nine further women sought ordination in the Roman Catholic Church on July 25 2005, in the international waters at the mouth of the St Lawrence Seaway (known as the St Lawrence Nine). Two other women Catholic theologians, Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger of Austria, and Gisela Forster of Germany, now bishops, came to the St Lawrence River to ordain these women. Other ordinations have followed, and now, as WOW (Women's Ordination Worldwide) attests, there are increasing numbers of women being ordained and practising ministry especially in the United States...
Fr Tony Flannery's blog reveals something of the extent of this latter development in posts during his tour of America: here  and here. Elizabeth Scalia posted recently on Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger here.

Traditional Catholics

But equally absurd in its distance from being an authentic Catholic position is the following, commenting on Archbishop Nichols pastoral letter after the October 2014 Synod on the Family (my italics added):
.... it makes for incredibly concerning reading in the wake of the Synod. Cardinal Vincent Nichols uses some striking language that prompt more questions over the 'mind' of Pope Francis and the safety, in his hands, of the Deposit of Faith.
 Or this, from the same source:
To Muslims, Jews, Evangelicals and other religions, Pope Francis has only good things and words of encouragement to say (though actual pagans could be offended by recent remarks).
Yet, I am beginning to wonder whether he believes in and prays to the same God as Cardinal Burke and many others. Where is the "fraternity" and "brotherhood" for those who uphold the Magisterium and defend Church teaching from pagans and the 'enemies of the Cross of Christ'? They don't seem to be terribly welcome in Rome.
Sitting in the background to these more explicit comments is an array of more discretely expressed antipathy towards the papacy of Pope Francis, which appears very rational and mature, until recognised as an incessant carping that undermines the office of the Successor of St Peter. Some blogs have a greater discretion than others - compare Fr Ray to Eponymous Flower, for example - but nevertheless maintain the same line of thought. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote many years ago of an "anti-Roman attitude" or "anti-Petrine attitude" on the part of some Catholics. It is difficult to read the Traditionalist blogs today without being reminded of such an attitude.
Elizabeth Scalia has written tellingly of how both the Traditionalist and Reform-minded in the Church are creating idols of Cardinal Burke on the one hand, and of Pope Francis on the other.
It takes conceit to imagine that the Holy Spirit is not to be trusted, does not know what it is about, and needs the instruction and exhortation of liberal writers to sustain a direction — or of traditionalist bloggers to “turn the course” — of an event like the recent synod.
Yes, one might want to support the position of Cardinals Burke, Pell et al with regard to the controversies of the recent Synod (or, if one is so minded, the proposals of Cardinal Kasper), and to do so with the energy that questions of faith will prompt. But when the former are given adulation at the expense of the Office of Peter and the latter excoriated as encouraging the Church to accept mortal sin; or Pope Francis is adored for incorrect assumptions of radical change to come; then we are in the realm of idols in Elizabeth Scalia's sense of the term.

A conclusion: the Church we are in

To return to the reflection based on Abbot Vonier's notion that the Church should not be seen as divided into an "ideal" and a "real", but exists as a single entity whose beauty and holiness shine out to the world. If we look around us during the papacy of Pope Francis, we see the Church that we are in, and some of it - perhaps more on the reform-minded side than on the Traditionalist side - appears pretty far off the wall. But if we take Abbot Vonier's insight seriously, there is an abiding beauty and splendour that is there in all of it. And we need to trust that it is there and that it does still shine out.

The touchstone of that shining out is, as it has ever been, the office of the Successor of Peter. Nothing is to be gained by excoriating - or mis-representing -  its holder.

1 comment:

cathryn said...

Thank you for the excellent article. I was reading Abbot Vonier and The Spirit and the Bride and immediately thought of my Catholic friends today who deny that the Holy Spirit was involved in Vatican II, and is living and working in the Church today. In 1937 it seems the Bride of Christ was having similar problems.