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Bingo! Beanies & benediction: what holds the Catholic Church together?

As one raised in the Deep South, I have had a long familiarity with fundamentalist Christians. I sometimes envied those folks because of the utter simplicity by which they can start a church. Any person with a Bible, a "call," and enough money to rent a hall and pay the lighting bills is in business. If there is no money, a believer can begin on a street corner. By contrast, think of the sheer complexity of Catholicism just in terms of its personnel. Fundamentalists have preachers. We Catholics have monks, nuns, religious brothers, oblates, monsignors, patriarchs, nuncios, abbesses, anchorites, priests (who may be pastors or curates or exempt religious), deacons, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, popes, lay brothers--to say nothing of penitents, catechists, catechumens, eucharistic ministers, and exorcists (as well as apostates, schismatics, heretics, and two varieties of excommunicates).

Let me not even get into the paraphernalia that some of these folks wear. To be a preacher it is nice, but not obligatory, to have a suit, but we Catholics have vestments, habits, a whole range of headgear--from wimples to miters--and soon. Preachers need a Bible; we have Bibles plus missalettes (a ghastly term), the Code of Canon Law, lectionaries, theology books, prayer books, and devotional manuals.

Any married grocery clerk can be a preacher; we Catholics insist that unmarried men (with some exceptions) get a long training in a seminary, find a bishop or superior to accept them, wear peculiar clothes, not have another job, and live in a rectory or priory or monastery or friary.

Here is my point: Catholicism seems so bewilderingly complex, complicated, overburdened, cluttered, picturesque, and, well, odd when viewed as a phenomenon out there in the world.

And here is my question: can we cut through all this stuff, which seems to be like a huge, historical garage sale, and ask (or is the question too simpleminded?): is anything beneath or behind this complexity that gives it all coherence? Is there something--or better, someone--who helps us make sense of everything from a full-blown baroque, papal liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica to a small congregation in a rural chapel?

The answer, as you might guess, is that there is some basic coherence to the whole phenomenon we call the Catholic Church, and we can find it by simply observing a Sunday liturgy any where in the world.

Some things never change

Forget for a moment all of the appurtenances, or apparati, and the architecture and observe: a group of people assemble together (the word church, from the Greek ekklesia, means "assembly") to listen to the scriptures and celebrate a highly stylized meal consisting of bread and wine, and, then, they depart to go about their business. In that simple rite they remember, recreate, recall, and represent the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who is called the Christ. What the typical Catholic does on Sunday is something he or she has been doing from the beginning. Here is one of the earliest descriptions we have of early Christian worship written by Justin Martyr just a few years before his death by martyrdom in the year 165:

And on the day called Sunday there is a meeting

in one place of those who live in the city or

country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the

writings of the prophets are read as long as time

permits. When

the reader has

finished, the

president, in a

discourse, urges

and invites us to

the imitation of

these things.

Then we all stand

up and offer


is brought, wine

and water, and

the president

similarly sends

up prayers to the best of his ability, and the

congregation assents saying 'Amen.' The distri-

bution and reception of the consecrated [elements]

by each one takes place, and they are sent to the

absent by the deacon. Those who prosper, and so

wish, contribute what they can. What is collected

is deposited with the president, and he takes care

of orphans and widows, those in want on account

of sickness or any other cause, and those who are

in bonds and the strangers who sojourn among us

and, briefly, he is the protector of all those in need.

We all hold this common gathering on Sunday..

.. (First Apology, cap. 67)

What gives continuity to the Catholic tradition is that a people has gathered to celebrate the redemptive mysteries of Christ. While, as the Second Vatican Council noted, the liturgy is not the sum total of the Christian life, it is its apex--where we get the deepest sense of what we stand for. Nonetheless, even in Justin's description there are ways in which the assembly of believers reached beyond that gathering (for example, in the care of the needy) in order to flesh out what they professed on that first day.

Of course, it may be asked who belongs to that community, or, to put it another way, what bonds the community together? The historical answer to that question is very complex, but the main lines of the boundaries can be described by answering the question: what constitutes the Catholic Church? The answer--and this may come as a surprise to many people--is that every specific location of the church, from Chicago to Calcutta to the most rural part of Latin America, is fully Catholic if three conditions are present:

* The faith of the church in the revelation of Christ is proclaimed and to that proclamation, the community, individually and socially, gives assent. We do that in numerous ways: through the profession of faith; welcoming the proclamation of the Word of God; the great "Amen" we pronounce at the Eucharist; and the acceptance of the consequences of our baptismal faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

* The full sacramental action of the church is available to all, administered through the agency of the ministers of the church. In short, the signs--the sacraments--of Christ's grace are available to people.

* The local community professes the same faith and accepts the same sacraments as do all other churches in union with it throughout the world. The center of that unity finds its final expression in union with the bishop of Rome, who is the successor of Peter. Let's put that in very specific terms: when we belong to a Catholic community that professes its common faith and celebrates that faith through the sacraments and when we are in union with other such churches throughout the world, we are Catholics.

The second-century church did not have canon law, monsignors, devotions to the Sacred Heart, and so on, nor did it have as clear or complex a version of theology as we do today. But from the time of Justin to the present day, we all hold in common that we profess a faith in Christ; we celebrate that faith in the sacramental life of the church; and we try to be in union with all others who share that same faith and sacramental life. What we do in our local parish is what we have been doing for 2,000 years.

All of the complications I cataloged at the start of this essay are part of the baggage of history. Some of the things or ideas we have acquired have such value that they are still with us, while others have been sent to the attic of memory.

How did things get complicated?

We first need to erase a common cliche-ridden conception about Catholicism. To hear some people tell it, the Catholic Church is a vast army of people marching in lockstep to papal orders. Or, to use another analogy, the church is a spiritual McDonalds where everywhere in the world one finds the same menu, made to the same specifications, with the same service. The plain fact of the matter is that, historically, Catholicism is a neverending experiment in joining diversity to unity.

Within the boundaries outlined, there is a vast diversity in the church, which has developed over time due to different cultural situations and diverse challenges. Catholicism is not a vast museum but a dynamic presence that, while holding on to an essential unity of faith, sacrament, and church order, allows for a wide variety of ways of living out the gospel.

* Item: within the Catholic communion there are various Eastern churches, which have quite different disciplines and sensibilities. In my hometown, our family frequents a parish where the priest is married, the deacon is chosen from the community (he is a chef by profession), and the liturgy is totally sung a cappella by the congregation according to the Byzantine rite attributed to Saint John Chrysostom. It is a Catholic church in union with the pope.

* Item: in response to quite different impulses coming from the gospel, the church provides for people, monastic men and women, who lead lives of silence and withdrawal, while this same church fosters, as it has for centuries, missionaries--religious, lay, and priestly--to evangelize here and abroad.

* Item: people who like their faith to be expressed ecstatically can join a charismatic group; others who are devoted to apparitions can haul off to shrine sites here or abroad to look for the appearance of the Blessed Mother; and others can express doubts about both movements and still be Catholic.

* Item: within the broad Catholic tradition, there is a veritable cornucopia of devotional practices, prayers, sacred places, and pious exercises from which to choose. They all coexist within the Catholic tradition, but none are obligatory. If someone wants to go off to a converted dude ranch for a desert retreat, one is free to do that, just as one can go around the corner for the featured novena of some local church. Both options, and hundred others, are available, but none are essential. Some Catholics crawl on their knees across the plaza of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. That may not be to Anglo taste, but the church says that if people want to do it, they may do so just as otherwise sensible people like fiddling around with Enneagrams as part of their spiritual searches.

* Item: there is not a Catholic theology but many Catholic theologies--all of which coexist in an uneasy harmony--although theologians still love to fight. Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bonaventure both died in 1274. Both are doctors of the church, but their theologies are quite different in style, basic presuppositions, and general orientation. And we honor them both as saints. In our own day, to cite a conspicuous example, the late Karl Rahner and Hans Urs Von Balthasar (whose only common connection was that they were under a theological cloud at the time of the council and are now regarded as premier theologians) are wildly divergent in their theological styles but are both Catholics.

All of the above examples could be multiplied, but the point is that this bewildering variety of tendencies within the Catholic Church has come about because of specific moments in history and due to quite different cultural pressures. They remain in the church as long as people find that they help them to be strongly faithful to Christ. Even as this is being read, someone, somewhere, is devising a new spirituality or devotion, or rediscovering an old one, to aid himself or herself and others to be faithful to the gospel.

Don't get tied up in moral knots

An acquaintance of mine seeking to reclaim a fuller catholic life, is leaving his native Episcopal Church to join the Orthodox Church of America. When I asked him if he had thought of becoming a Roman Catholic, he said that the pull of Rome was very strong but one thing held him back. I quote him, more or less word for word: "Rome spends too much time worrying about bedroom behavior." My presumption is that my friend, happily married and the father of three, was referring to Catholic strictures about birth control. I suppose many other well-disposed people might express similar sentiments about the church's position on abortion or homosexuality. In fact, we know that within the Catholic Church itself, the church's stand on artificial contraception has been a terrible burden on the consciences of people who fail to see the connection between the gospel and arcane arguments about natural law.

I most emphatically do not want to mount an apologia for the subject of Catholic sexual morality. Experience has taught me that it is not a subject that is easily broached as a first gambit for understanding the church. When traveling, people will often ask what I do for a living. When I reply that I am a theologian (that in itself is a conversation stopper), people will frequently erupt with a bill of complaints, and ask, for example: "How can the church be against birth control with all the starving children in the world?" To try to explain the position of the church gets a very short hearing, and the reason is easy to explain why.

The Christian gospel is not about sexual morality. In fact, the Christian gospel is not primarily about morality at all. Morality, including sexual mores, is a consequence of faith, not a part of it. Saint Augustine once put it perfectly and succinctly: "Love God and do what you will."

We can understand that sentiment by thinking out the implications in a concrete fashion. If we affirm a belief in Jesus, who gave his life for all that we might have life more abundantly, then we might begin to see in our affirmation that Jesus calls us to celebrate life, not death. Out of our love for all humanity, which is redeemed by Christ, we might well then be impelled not to hate, not to oppress, not to kill, not to do violence. That conviction might then lead us to deepen our understanding of what life is, when it may begin, and how it unfolds. Such a desire to deepen our faith might well then spill over into areas ranging from capital punishment and war to nonviolence toward the aged and unborn.

Many church "rules" or those principles that are thought to be rules--for example, the prohibition of abortion--are simply crystallizations of ethical reflections on what it means to be a follower of Jesus. These so-called rules are never perfect in the sense that they do not have the last word about morality. The church--and its members--are always reaching toward a better understanding of what morality demands. Earlier in Catholic history, events such as torture and slavery were tolerated even at the papal level, while today we see that such things are not only intolerable but also condemnable.

History is replete with such examples: the shameful anti-Semitism that has bedeviled sectors of the church; the poisonous mixture of nationalism and Catholicism; and the misogynistic strains in Catholic spirituality. All of these things remind us of a powerful truth: Catholic morality is always in the process of becoming; it is not fixed and static. We reach up to follow the implications of Jesus. Until the still-not-realized endtime, our sense of morality is tentative and open-ended.

Catholicism is not a perfectionistic sect allowing only the saints and the perfect to dwell. It is a people on an individual and social pilgrimage pointed toward a perfection not yet achieved. Here is a good way to think of this truth: the Catholic Church is never any better or worse than the local congregation, which is its actual realization. In every parish there are decent people, a few saints, many ordinary folks, and a minority of real rotters. That is the church since church in the abstract is just that--an abstraction.

Why stick it out?

Why stay? That is a question that many decent and faithful people have asked and continue to ask. One can read thoughtful affirmative answers to the question by such eminent theological writers as Hans Kung and the late Rahner, as well as the negative ones of Charles Davis--as some of a certain age will recall. In the end, however, the question as to whether one should stay in the church evokes other questions. Do we find the ways and means to follow Jesus Christ within the church? After all, our faith is not focused on the church but on Christ who is within the church.

What would the church be like if we left? Would a nagging voice of reform be lost (a willing hand to do those things that within the church we can do well, such as succoring the poor)? Would we lose someone who was a searcher and who in that search might turn up a bit of light on a corner of the old treasure house that is the Catholic tradition? What is our obligation to the generations of family members, dedicated religious, unheralded laypersons and clerics, who struggle to make the church a reality in our hometowns?

Finally, since we are the church, who has the right to drive us out? Why should we give in to those who take away our birthright? Sometimes by being faithful we say a loud "no" to the Pecksniffery of the right-wingers or the tendentious preachiness of the trendier-than-thous or the tyrannical pastors or whoever it is who makes us wonder if it is all worth it after all.

Now, if the truth be told, it takes a little creative maneuvering for some folks to stay in the church. One might have to search out a good priest whose mercy is greater than that of the marriage tribunal to solve a marriage problem. It might require a shift in strategy for spiritual well-being.

People often tell me that they hate going to Mass on Sunday because they loathe the banal homilies or the amateurish twanging of guitars or the sheer bigness of things. Fine, I say, go to the liturgy on a weekday for a bit (I know this is a bit irregular, but, hey, it's an imperfect world) and volunteer to be a lector.

In general, do something for the good of the church rather than always trying to get something from the church. I once heard a story about Rahner, who, when asked by a tortured young intellectual--who was "losing the faith"--what books he should read, answered that it wasn't necessary to read books. "Go, serve the poor," was the great theologian's advice. Wise advice, indeed. If you work with people who put their faith in practice, you will find the best preaching about faith. "Show hospitality to strangers," the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes, "for thereby some have entertained angels unaware" (Heb. 13:2).

This article began with a catalog to demonstrate how complex the historical reality of Catholicism is. My initial point was to cut through the complexity to tease out the essence of the faith. I now go back to that complexity to make another point: the very complexity of the tradition indicates that within this tradition there should be something for everyone. When we find that something, we might also encounter the Someone who stands at the heart of this long, messy, and complex reality called the Catholic Church.
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Author:Cunningham, Lawrence S.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:May 1, 1994
Previous Article:What's so good about Catholicism?
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