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

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Ecclesial Consumerism

Over at Called to Communion, one of my favorite blogs, Bryan Cross has posted a rather amusing meditation on and critique of "ecclesial consumerism." If you read it, you will probably enjoy yourself as much as I did. But there's a serious theological point here. If there weren't, there'd be no point in making the criticism.

One thing worth stressing about Bryan's post is the implication that Protestantism as such is defenseless against ecclesial consumerism. That's because the essence of Protestantism, seen in its countless manifestations, is to make the individual the judge of ecclesial orthodoxy, rather than to acknowledge a visible communion as "the" Church Christ founded, which would then be understood as the judge of any given individual's or group's orthodoxy. Of course there are many ways for individuals and their friends to go about becoming the judge of ecclesial orthodoxy. One way is solo scriptura: openly taking one's favored interpretation of Scripture as normative while denying that any ecclesial creed or confession is binding. Another is sola scriptura: treating Scripture as the sole infallible rule of faith, but acknowledging some ecclesial creed or confession as an authoritative but fallible interpretation of Scripture. Or one could go beyond Scripture alone, taking the hermeneutically significant "sources" to include non-canonical documents of the early Church, liturgy, saints, mystical experience, and so forth. But in the end, it all comes down to the same thing.  Once one accepts the Protestant principle, no church is recognized as "the" Church, the judge of one's own orthodoxy, so that one ends up choosing a church based solely on one's personal opinions and preferences. Those can be weighty or light, serious or silly; but ultimately, they are not normative for anything recognizable as "the" Church. They have no more authority for Christians at large than one's grocery list has for one's fellow shoppers.

That said, contemporary Catholics exhibit their own styles of ecclesial consumerism. And that's amply pointed out in the combox discussion to Bryan's post, whose participants consist mostly of Catholics. To their observations, I shall add my own. I'm sure somebody could learn from them.

As a cradle Catholic who reverted to the Church in college, I've noticed that many Catholics who care enough about their faith to attend church regularly will pick a parish based mostly on what they're "comfortable" with. Most don't want to be challenged. Sometimes, that inertial resistance has to do with doctrine, but it needn't and often doesn't. For example, I've been a regular churchgoer for decades, but aside from the three years when I worked as a paid DRE, I've never been asked by any parish representative, clerical or lay, what I actually believe. People care a lot more about how well I sing, how much money I give or fail to give, and how close to the entrance I am when I light up one of my cigarillos outside before or after Mass. I also get asked a fair amount where my wife and kids are, which is rather embarrassing given that I've been a divorced, non-custodial parent for years. Once that info comes out, people assume I'm there looking for a cute single woman who's probably going to be half my age. As if I'm stupid enough to cause myself even more trouble.

Then there's the theological angle among certain committed minorities. Many of the "progressives" on the Left and "traditionalists" on the Right judge Rome by a hermeneutic of discontinuity or "rupture" (as the Pope once put it). The progs task Rome for betraying Vatican II by reactionary retrenchment, and the trads task Rome for failing to do just that. Thus we get, on the one hand, "progressive" parishes that emphasize "social justice" and "contemporary" hymnody but cast aside the doctrines pertaining to the pelvis. On the other hand, we see communities of "traditional" Catholics who not only celebrate the "Extraordinary Form" of the Roman Rite but want the Church at large to carry on as though Vatican II and all that nasty 60s stuff never happened. Of course, the right-wing discontinuants and the left-wing discontinuants will have no truck with each other. It's as if there were two different churches, not in communion with each other, yet still residing under the umbrella of the Great Church. Which is why the whole phenomenon is a particularly subtle instance of ecclesial consumerism.

Now the Catholic Church, being as big and as...well, catholic as she is, will always harbor considerable differences of culture, opinion, and praxis. But at least there's a vital center to say what is and is not beyond the pale. That center is not going away, as much as some Catholics want to see its authority reduced. And that is why it's possible for Catholics to transcend ecclesial consumerism. All they have to do is be less American about church. Easier said than done, you might say—and indeed it is. We need to think of ourselves as Catholics first and Americans second. If we did, we'd gain the needed critical distance on consumerism, ecclesial or otherwise.
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