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Saturday, March 14, 2009

What Does It Mean to 'Be Church'?


- Sacred pilgrims by Trygve Skogrand

There have been many instances lately in which the church has been criticized, but I've also noticed a lot of counter-criticism of that criticism ..... just read the Pope's recent letter (Pope on the defensive...and it's not pretty - David Gibson) ... another example - one comment I read at dotCommonweal for a post about law suits against the church for sexual abuse accused those suing of being the enemies of the church. I think this is untrue. I don't know if I'm a representative example of others who criticize the church, but though I do hate some of the hierarchy's interpretations of and stances on certain subjects, I love Ignatian spirituality and so much else. Maybe part of the problem is the question of what and who the church actually is. Here's a bit of an article at American Catholic by Franciscan priest Greg Friedman on that subject .......

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What Does It Mean to 'Be Church'?

"Hey, Father, what is the Church’s position on divorce? On homosexuality? On birth control? On priests in politics?" I hear this "what-is-the-Church’s-position" question time after time while giving weekend retreats to the engaged. And whenever I hear it, I start to feel uncomfortable—no matter what the topic. My discomfort has to do with the whole question of what the Church is or what being Church really means for Catholics.

You see, as a priest I am used to giving answers to questions about points of Catholic teaching. It is my job, after all: The priest is ordained to assist the bishop in the role of teacher. But there’s an attitude underlying the way we ask questions about "the Church’s position on..." that bothers me. It seems to say, "Father, we’re all here waiting to hear what 'the Church' (namely, the priest) has to tell us ordinary folks about...."

Their plea, I fear, betrays a misleading way of looking at Church: namely, one that presumes a gap between the "official" Church, represented by pope, bishops and priests—and all the rest of the folks. That’s what makes me uncomfortable! As long as we keep this chasm between "us" and "them," then we’re distorting what it means to be Church. In these pages I hope we can come to a greater sense that we are all the Church ....

(big snip)

The [Vatican II] Council took a dramatic step in changing the way we see ourselves as Church. The Council decided we should not conceive of the Church primarily in a way that sets us apart from pope, bishops and clergy. The term People of God is the key to that change.

We get a clue to this from the Council’s decree on the Church, Lumen Gentium. When the Council fathers met for their discussions, they had a first draft of that document before them. It set forth in traditional theology a definition of Church that spoke of the hierarchical structure of the Church—pope, bishops, priests—before going on to treat of the People of God.

There was an important debate at the Council which resulted in a reversal of these two sections. It was decided that the chapter on the People of God should come first. The bishops were determining that the traditional view of the Church as a hierarchy was secondary to a wider view which encompasses all of us in the Church, not only pope, bishops and priests. We all make up the one People of God.

This does make a difference in how we understand Church today. It means a new image of Church—one that sees all of the members of the Church together. Together we have one common call from Jesus: to be holy, to be his Body here on earth. Even though the Body has a variety of members, each with a special function, we are still one Body, as St. Paul puts it ....

(another big snip)

And yet, even with the changes of Vatican II, it is still a human Church, marked by human imperfection. We are not a flawless Church (either hierarchy or laity) but a bunch of sinners trying to make it together. We are one in our common humanity-in-need-of-redemption .... We see throughout history that there are certain structures and ways of being Church that have worked, and some that have not. Most of these were responses to needs someone saw within the Church—they were "people solutions" to problems. To use a drastic example, the Inquisition, a system of insuring that people held to authentic Church teaching, may have had a good goal, but we have come to recognize that the end does not justify the means and that sometimes the Church’s means, or methods, were cruel and vicious. No one, we hope, would propose such a solution today! There, human sinfulness caused a good objective to turn sour. Greed and oppression, abuse of power and corruption are no strangers within the Church.

And this is true throughout the Church. We shouldn’t think of a "split-level" Church in the matter of sin—as if the laity are expected to succumb to the world, the flesh and the devil, but the hierarchy are of a superhuman order. Some of the popes of the Renaissance times were often worldly monarchs with glittering courts and immoral habits. Thankfully, that sort of corruption is no longer much of a problem within the Church, but the human weakness of the Church—on all levels—should not surprise us ........

(and another snip)

In examining where we’ve come as a Church, from the massive building high on a hill where I went as a boy to the friendly parish in the suburbs, I’m still left with a slightly defensive feeling. I still hear those questions directed my way, and yet I’m beginning to see, from my vantage at the altar, a Church growing in its awareness of its unity as the Body of Christ. Lately, when I’ve been tempted to sigh and deliver a quick, "authoritative" or "holier-than-thou" answer, I recall the words of a wise Jesuit teacher and preacher, Father Walter Burghardt. In a book aptly titled Tell the Next Generation, he shares how he sees the Church. Rather than speak from a distant pulpit, or from a purer atmosphere than the rest of us breathe, he makes what he calls "an uncommonly honest confession":

"In the course of a half century, I have seen more Catholic corruption than you have read of. I have tasted it. I have been reasonably corrupt myself. And yet I joy in this Church—this living, pulsing, sinning people of God, love it with a crucifying passion. Why? For all the Catholic hate, I experience here a community of love. For all the institutional idiocy, I find here a tradition of reason. For all the individual repressions, I breathe here an air of freedom. For all the fear of sex, I discover here the redemption of my body. In an age so inhuman, I touch here the tears of compassion. In a world so grim and humorless, I share here rich joy and laughter. In the midst of death I hear here an incomparable stress on life. For all the apparent absence of God, I sense here the real presence of Christ."

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5 Comments:

Blogger Jeff said...

The [Vatican II] Council took a dramatic step in changing the way we see ourselves as Church. The Council decided we should not conceive of the Church primarily in a way that sets us apart from pope, bishops and clergy. The term People of God is the key to that change.

We get a clue to this from the Council’s decree on the Church, Lumen Gentium. When the Council fathers met for their discussions, they had a first draft of that document before them. It set forth in traditional theology a definition of Church that spoke of the hierarchical structure of the Church—pope, bishops, priests—before going on to treat of the People of God.


Hey, now that sound familiar.. Where have I heard that before? ;-)

Thanks for bringing up David Gibson's article. It was superb. One of the best things I'd read in a long time. When I brought it up over at Vox Nova, I was raked over the coals for it. :) I was stunned at how petulant and self-pitying Benedict was i that letter(Crystal, you Vatican II "show off"), but I guess I shouldn't have been. I think Gibson nailed it here:

Benedict has confirmed his longstanding character traits, rather than overcome them.

5:55 AM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

Good post, Crystal. It's interesting for me to follow the whole "What constitutes the Church?" question. From the broadest perspective, I would say that anyone who follows Christ is the Church. Then there seems to be the whole debate within Catholicism about the role of the hierarchy and the laity. A lot of confusion to go around. When Catholics don't like what the "hierarchy" says, there seems to be a divide between the two layers. But I'm not really comfortable with that split. It's akin to the divide we try to set up between the people of the United States and the government. When we like the policies of the government, then we like to feel a part of it. When we don't, we rail against the government for being separate from the people. And it certainly can operate that way. In the end, however, the people are the government and vice versa. Which is why I think we're all ultimately responsible for something like the invasion of Iraq. Even if we didn't support it, we're still party to it. Our money is used for the soldiers and weapons that kill people. Our voices and marching didn't stop it from happening. We allowed the people who represent us to invade Iraq.

The same with the Catholic Church. One may not like the decisions of the hierarchy, but every Catholic is party to those decisions. One of my biggest disappointments with "the Church" is that more of the laity didn't get up in arms over the child-abuse scandal. I know people were upset by it, but I think the laity should've done more. Why didn't the people of Long Island refuse William Murphy becoming their bishop? Why didn't they just walk out? Where were the marches? Why didn't they organize a boycott of the Church? "We refuse to give our money if you make this man our bishop." Why didn't they stand outside St. Patrick's in the City and demand to be heard?

We allow things to happen in our name. And we have to take take responsibility for that. Instead of just saying, "Oh, I don't support them. They're the hierarchy. Or they're the government." They are, in the end, ourselves.

7:45 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Jeff,

It was your post that reminded me of this article I'd read a while ago by Fr. Friedman .... no wonder it sounds familiar :)

Yeah, great letter by Gibson. I'm going to have to start reading his Pontifications blog.

12:40 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi William,

I think you're right about the clerical sex abuse thing. There was a recent post at dotCommonweal about a new bill in New York that would do away with the statute of limitations for suits on sexual abuse. The post was all about how the sexual abuse victims and their lawyers are money grubbing enemies of the church who want to destroy it, and how we have to defend our church against them. Sad.

12:44 PM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

Yes, and who's leading the fight aginast the bill? Bishop William Murphy. The man should be in jail, yet he remains a bishop. And the Catholic Church wonders why it's having problems?!?!?

9:30 PM  

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