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

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What is our problem?

I've often spoken of "the real problem" underlying this or that problematic symptom in the American Catholic Church. Most often, I've suggested, the problem is "lack of faith," as evinced in the army of Catholics lined up at the doctrinal cafeteria and the numerous bishops who choose, when the choice presents itself, to not rock the boat rather than challenge people to follow Christ. Lack of faith is indeed a problem; but it is not one unique to the people in question, and remains a problem in every age and community. The more particular problem is the one that accounts for why the others seem to persist despite all the rhetoric: the Catholic Church, at least in this and other developed countries, is just too bloody institutional. That accounts for a great deal, if not most, of what bothers me.

What got me thinking about this are two facts of which I have lately been reminded: the indulgence of Archbishop Wuerl of DC in Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's "celebration" Mass at Trinity College, where of course the pro-abortion pol received the Eucharist, despite USCCB and Vatican guidelines; and the explosive growth of Pentecostal churches throughout the Christian world. The former, discussed in an informative and lively thread at Amy Welborn's Open Book, exemplifies not rocking the boat against powerful cafeteria Catholics; the latter now presents us with what is arguably the numerically largest form of Christianity next to Catholicism itself. The former signifies institutional thinking; the latter signifies that such thinking is missing something.

Mind you, I do not believe the Church can do without an institutional side. She is Christ's visible Body on earth, and thus will seek to incarnate him in every aspect of human life. People being what they are, there must be a measure of "organization"—buildings, offices, procedures, finances, programs, and the like—if the Church is to do her work. But after a certain point, the instinct for institutional self-preservation outweighs the desire for evangelical credibility.

Beneath all the legalistic mumbo-jumbo about bishops' rights to differing "pastoral styles," this is why learned, doctrinally orthodox bishops such as Wuerl allow Catholics in public life who facilitate abortion, gay marriage, and embryonic-stem-cell research to remain in ostensibly "full communion" with the Church. Beneath the facile and fallacious clichés about "conscience," this is why most bishops would discipline a priest under them who started denying the Eucharist to parishioners aware of, but staunchly unwilling to abide by, the Church's teaching on contraception. Some of those bishops are ones who for too long failed to discipline child molesters and remained in denial about that problem; the reasons for each policy are closely related. Beneath the apparently flexibility and sophistication of "the internal forum," this is why many so many priests incorporate, as a matter of course, divorced people who have remarried without annulment into parish life on the same level as other Catholics who have adhered, at great cost to themselves, to Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. For the most part, the hierarchy are terrified that schisms, be they de facto or de jure, would reduce the Church to institutional rubble. And let's be clear: such rubble is exactly what would we'd get if they got serious about challenging people to follow Christ in the pelvic area.

Rome is no doubt aware of all that and complicit in it. Every pope since Vatican II has made the pastoral decision to purchase institutional peace and unity at the cost of systemic hypocrisy. The thinking seems to be that more good will be accomplished in the long run by gentle persuasion within the present institutional setup than by mass excommunications that would devastate it. Although I lack the information to be sure that such a policy is mistaken, and sometimes defend it as a legitimate way to exercise authority, I cannot but be troubled by it. No matter what the Church says, no matter how sound her teaching may be in principle, a strong case can be made that the divergence between teaching and practice speaks louder to people, both outside and within the Church, than the teaching itself. To defend that divergence's persistence as the necessary if undesirable result of pastoral prudence sounds uncomfortably like rationalization of worldliness. There has to be a point when what the Orthodox call "economy" loses more souls than it wins.

Since I am not a member of the clergy—and, at this point, almost certainly never will be—I am not in a position to help change the policy that's been in effect for the last forty years. But its undeniable price grieves many of us who love the Church and would never leave her even amidst the rubble, if it ever came to that. Perhaps the best we can do is offer our grief to the Lord, in a spirit of atonement for our own and others' sins, to do with as he wills.
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