Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Some current concerns

I've been giving a lot of thought to certain tensions in the Church at the moment, and my clearest impression is that people are not really hearing one another speak. It troubles me when this happens. The Church has divided in the past--really divided--along language and cultural lines. So with prayers for guidance to St. Maximus the Confessor, I thought I would mention a couple of things that the different "sides" are saying, perhaps in a more "American" way, in case it helps mutual understanding.

Of course I may well be misinterpreting everything myself, but here goes.

Pope Francis has expressed several concerns that I don't feel have been heard.

  • Some people live in concrete situations in which it is nearly impossible to reconcile with the Church under current law. Consider, for example, the following scenario. A spouse, abandoned, for financial and other reasons, formed a common-law relationship with someone else. Children were born from the new relationship. There are compelling reasons, including economic and parenting reasons concerning the children, for them to stay together in the same household. The abandoned spouse now wishes to reconcile with the Church, but the other person does not, and moreover that person refuses to consider living as brother and sister.
  • These irregular situations disadvantage the poor and uneducated in a way they don't the powerful and well-connected. There is such a thing as advantage and preferment in the Church, and there can be an inability of the poor to seek solutions to the same degree.
  • There is a spiritual principle that Jesus mentions a number of times in the Gospel and in different ways, having to do with pride and self-righteousness. It can happen that a person is unable or unwilling to admit to his or her own sinfulness, and seeks to stand on acceptably high moral ground by comparing him/herself to others. (Though this claim can sometimes be taken too far, by Girardians in particular, I would say), there can be a danger of scapegoating others precisely to avoid looking at one's own sins. This is not my idea, nor the Holy Father's, but the Lord's.
On the other hand, the bewildered Catholics I know have other concerns that I feel are in danger of being brushed aside.
  • I know instances of heroism on the part of Catholics. I'd imagine everyone does. The man with homosexual inclinations who remains chaste and single, the permanently abandoned wife who avoids re-establishing a dating life, the busy and exhausted cleric who nonetheless meets multiple times with each engaged couple to ensure they are prepared for the Sacrament of Matrimony. There are spouses who have forgiven what seems like far too much without counting, and have struggled and persevered through to truly happy marriages. These silent and hidden lives of sacrifice are a kind of treasure in the Church, raising the whole like leaven.
  • There are saints who to English-speaking Catholics are dearly held models of civil disobedience under enormous pressure to conform. St. Thomas More's excellence in every area is known and cherished, even in the secular world.
  • There has been a demographic shift in the generations since Vatican II, an odd reverse-generation-gap. Young people over the past 2 pontificates have been successfully challenged to live heroically. The flourishing religious orders attest to this maxim: demand more of young people, and they will respond. Those who were young adults in the 60s and 70s still seem to be playing a strategy that failed, of asking as little as possible of young people, who are naturally idealistic and generous--and hungry for community.
  • The Holy Father's convictions have often been expressed in ways that belittle others.
  • The sinful character of re-marriages is Gospel truth, and a pontificate who would reverse the Church's constant teaching and practice on the subject would seem to be acting in a way that contradicts both scripture and tradition. In a post-papal-resignation Church, this is a tinderbox. 
There is another, hidden actor in this dialogue. At least, I have not seen many references to it. It is not only desirable on the part of a pontiff but a solemn duty to do all he can to restore the Church to unity. Pope Benedict expressed this beautifully in his Inaugural Homily.
Here I want to add something: both the image of the shepherd and that of the fisherman issue an explicit call to unity. “I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must lead them too, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (Jn 10:16); these are the words of Jesus at the end of his discourse on the Good Shepherd. And the account of the 153 large fish ends with the joyful statement: “although there were so many, the net was not torn” (Jn 21:11). Alas, beloved Lord, with sorrow we must now acknowledge that it has been torn! But no – we must not be sad! Let us rejoice because of your promise, which does not disappoint, and let us do all we can to pursue the path towards the unity you have promised. Let us remember it in our prayer to the Lord, as we plead with him: yes, Lord, remember your promise. Grant that we may be one flock and one shepherd! Do not allow your net to be torn, help us to be servants of unity!

  • The worst rupture in Christianity is always very tantalizingly close to being healed. The Orthodox Churches are true Churches with valid priesthood and Eucharist. Not much is necessary to overcome our differences, one might think. There is little talk of forced conversions anymore, after all. The Filioque, some (not I) would say, is perfectly dispensible. The liturgical differences (which seem to me to be enormous) can be written off as diverse cultural expressions, some might say. But there is a great disparity in marriage law, on just this point of divorce and remarriage.
This Christmas, I will be asking that with prayer and respectful discussion in an open and above-board climate, without undue pressure and certainly without insult, our leaders might discern the way forward in a way that does not cause a further divide in the household of the Lord.