"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Institutional vs. Intentional

Keith Strohm of Intentional Disciples (click the title) has responded to my post "What is our problem?". I am grateful for that because, unlike most of the reactions I've gotten, it actually focuses on the main point of my post. Thus Keith says:

Although he doesn't come right out and say it, perhaps the 'something missing' is intentionality--in formation and discipleship. We've talked a little bit about the reasons why Pentecostal Christianity seems to be the fastest growing section of the Church today, but one of things it does seem to have is an emphasis on encounter and relationship with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Like Michael, I too don't believe that the Church can survive without its institutional side. Christ embraces the whole of our humanity--"stuff" matters. The reality is that where two or three are gathered in Jesus' name both Christ and politics are in their midst. The question is which will we follow?

I wholeheartedly agree that what's often missing is the "intentionality," and that the basis of the needed intentionality is "an emphasis on encounter and relationship with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit." That's exactly why, for instance, I've joined Communion and Liberation. There, I find both intentionality and its basis, as one can indeed find them in certain other "ecclesial movements." That is unlike most parishes, which are predicated on providing (a) the sacraments and (b) for want of a better term, pastoral services.

Now both (a) and (b), especially (a), are absolutely necessary. But when there is no community based on experiential encounter with Christ in prayer and in each other, the sacraments and services are experienced primarily as institutional dispensations, and the enterprise starts running more on human than divine energy. The ordinary lay Catholic notices that other institutions provide similar services, most of them more reliably than her local church; she treats the sacraments as goodies you "receive" from the institution, which is located in a building complex at which you pull up and get what you're there for before you pull out, never really forming a community of intentional disciples with your fellow parishioners. The Church thus becomes, experientially speaking, a consumer organization, less exciting if occasionally more necessary than the shopping malls. That is often why people are "bored" by church. Given their experience, who wouldn't be?

Intentionality is not opposed to the Church as institution. The Church has a necessary institutional side that, when healthy, serves as an instrument of intentional discipleship. But intentionality is the opposite of the experience of the Church primarily as institution. That experience is very common and accounts, in large measure, for the fact that many Catholics do not have the necessary encounter with Christ until they leave the Church for this or that Protestant denomination, usually evangelical or pentecostal. And that is why I believe that, in most locales, the Church in this country is missing something she needs that the Pentecostals have. What's missing, in Vatican II's words, "belongs properly" to the Church and can even be found in certain quarters thereof, but is often excluded or driven out by institutionality. Like the original Reformation, the current pentecostal movement is a sign that the true Church needs more of something that human pusillanimity and inertia have too often crowded out.

As the combox on Keith's post indicates, many faithful and informed Catholics don't hear that message because they assume that it's incompatible with affirming the truth of distinctively Catholic doctrine, especially concerning ecclesiology and the sacraments. That assumption is incorrect, and demonstrably so. The demonstrations can be provided by both the working philosophy and the experience of the people who run the Intentional Disciples blog.

More often, however, failure to hear the message results not from such an assumption but from sheer inertia. The combox on the post of mine to which Keith responded is a very good illustration of that.

Most of the discussion has concerned not my main thesis, which is easy to understand, but one of the subsidiary facts I cited to provide evidence for that thesis: the refusal of many bishops to withhold the Eucharist from Catholic politicians who formally cooperate with abortion by supporting a permissive legal regime. The concern of certain people seems to be that I'm being too hard on the bishops by not showing due regard for their canonical prerogatives to be flexible in interpreting and applying the relevant guidelines. Now I readily grant they enjoy such prerogatives, and that in some cases I lack the information necessary for knowing whether they are exercising those prerogatives prudently or not. The problem with the concern being raised, however, is that it is legalistic, and thus institutional in the way I've been criticizing.

Laws and guidelines are not, themselves, legalistic. Legalism is an attitude; laws and guidelines are not attitudes and do not have them. What's legalistic about the attitude in question is that it shows less concern for the prophetic message that needs to be sent in the present situation than for the bishops' right to decide on a less challenging course of action. Even granted there can be cases when a bishop is justified in exercising that right, the net effect of how our bishops generally handle this matter is to give institutional self-preservation more importance than what actually needs to be communicated to Catholic politicians and Catholics generally. Given human nature, the sad fact is that unless there's a concrete ecclesial cost for formally cooperating in grave evil, some Catholics will continue to cooperate it and thus give other Catholics the impression that doing so is compatible with being in full communion with the Church. Institutionality then prevails over intentionality; and a legally permissible course of action that, in some cases, can be justified under the rules thus becomes part of the problem, not part of the solution. This is a very common problem in the Catholic Church, and the concern for legalities on the matter in question is very good evidence thereof. Until legalism becomes far less of a problem in the Church, many Catholics will be able to experience Christ only in non-Catholic churches less concerned with institutional self-preservation and more concerned with transformation through encounter with Christ.
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