Thursday, July 29, 2010

Signs of the Times

I admit I did not understand what Pope John XXIII meant.

In announcing his intention to call an ecumenical council, he said that the Church must "read the signs of the times." I initially rejected such an idea on the grounds that the Church could not learn anything from the world.

Only later did I remember that Jesus had reprimanded his contemporaries for failing to judge the signs of the times, a failure which kept them from recognizing who he was (cf. Matthew 16:3).

Pope John, however, did read the signs. He saw the aftermath of two world wars, the fragmentation which came from technology and science, and the struggle between materialism and spiritual values. He believed the Church could bring hope, peace and unity.

But before it could fulfill its God-given mission, the Church had to humbly read the signs of the times and re-assess how it could best respond with Christ's message and ministry. The Second Vatican Council was to be that re-assessment.

"The Church," as John often reminded the bishops, "is not a museum." It is a servant, responsive to the needs of those it serves. The Second Vatican Council gave us a wake-up call.

The Church is alive, and therefore subject to change. The Spirit breathes where it will, and we are by divine commission sent into the world. Consequently we have a divine mandate "to interpret the present time" (cf. Luke 12:56).

In the quest to read and respond the Church must not dilute the Gospel or compromise its mission. Jesus Christ is the same today, yesterday and forever. The Church has been given testimony from Christ and may not part from it.

At the same time the Church may not divorce itself from the cry of the poor, nor condemn the evils of the world from some ivory tower. Though its dogma does not change, the lanuage used to express it may have to. Practices appropriate to one age may have to be altered to meet the needs of another.

Jesus' admonition applies to us. To be authentic and loyal, we must determine the signs of our times. I offer some suggestions and questions.

1) Church membership is splintered. Some members boast that they are "traditionalists" wanting to return to Tridentine liturgy, put the brakes on "the spirit of Vatican II," and promote papal monarchy. Others are proud to be known as "progressives" wanting to develop multiplicity of liturgical styles, push forward with the Vatican II agenda, and promote collegiality in Church government. And statistics indicate still another group whom we might call "inactive Catholics." How long can a divided house stand?

2) The clergy are choosing sides too. "Vatican II priests" generally support the social teaching and spirit of the Council and want to promote lay involvement and eschew clericalism. "John Paul II priests" are skeptical about "the spirit of Vatican II" and focus on liturgy, clerical status, and a return to the Catholicism of the past four hundred years. What would Jesus do?

3) An explosion of electronic communication is an obvious characteristic of our day. Should evangelization, catechesis and preaching adapt to cyberspace, You-Tube, and Kindle? How?

4) Church scandals such as pedophilia and homosexuality among priests, cover-ups by the hierarchy, and mishandling of Church funds have affected the Church's image and undermined Church credibility among members and non-members alike. How do we restore confidence?

5) The shortage of priests continues to impact dioceses and parishes. Is ordaining married men a solution? Is it Eucharist versus celibacy?

6) There seems to be a growing schism --not so much a public or formal revolt against the pope and bishops but rather "a schism of indifference" in which Church members find Church leaders to be irrelevant, insensitive, ill-suited to serve. Who has drifted?

The handwriting is on the wall. We must not turn a blind eye. If we are too proud to listen and learn from the world, we jeoparadize the very mission we have received. And yet, having read the signs, we need the Spirit to guide our response. Let us pray for a new Pentecost in our time so that we correctly read the signs and then speak the languages of a multifacted world.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Renewal Begins With "R"

I didn't plan it. There was no rhyme or reason for it. It was just coincidence.

But I found it amusing when I noticed in my stack of books on the coffee table that each author's name began with the letter "R."

First was Karl Rahner, the late German Jesuit whose dogmatic theology had a profound influence on the deliberations at Vatican II. Prior to the Council he had been under suspicion by Vatican authorities and forbidden to publish anything until first it was censored by Rome.

Serving as a theologian-resource for the German bishops, Rahner was asked to review various documents and provide input for their deliberations, especially on the Church, on Scripture and Tradition, and on the Church in the Modern World. He was named peritus (an expert) at the Council.

Next on my stack was a book by Rahner's friend and associate Joseph Ratzinger, a theologian likewise consulted by the bishops at the Second Vatican Council. He and Rahner were critical of the initial document on the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, and the German bishops asked them to compose an alternative text.

Church historian John O'Malley suggests that Ratzinger was "perhaps the most important of the younger theologians (he was 35) at the council." As advisor and peritus to Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, Ratzinger insisted that the Council's documents should reflect "the vital language of Scripture and the Church Fathers." Today he is Pope Benedict XVI.

The third "R" was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who became Pope John XXIII, the initiator of the Second Vatican Council. I was reading Journal Of A Soul, the posthumously published diary which he kept from age 14 up to six months before his death.

I especially enjoy his final entry in which he reflects on his decision to call an ecumenical council. He wrote, "I was the first to be surprised at my proposal, which was entirely my own idea...we are now on the slopes of the sacred mountain. May the Lord give us strength to bring everything to a successful conclusion."

Timothy Radcliff was my fourth "R." He's the London-born Dominican friar whose preaching and writing have provided insight and encouragement for developing our spiritual lives.

His What Is The Point Of Being a Christian? explores the treasures of our Faith, and applies them to how we struggle to live in the spirit and love of Jesus. He laments the loss of debate in the Church, and suggests that "we must learn humility, to be docile before the wisdom and language of others' experience."

"R" number five is Ronald Rolheiser, a priest of the order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He has written several books on spirituality, and both teaches and practices spiritual direction.

In The Holy Longing Rolheiser outlines the nonnegotiables of the Christian's spiritual life (worship, social action, and the centrality of Jesus' incarnation), and insists that a true spirituality cannot be divorced from one's every day life.

My final "R" is the Franciscan priest and speaker/writer of things spiritual --Richard Rohr. His ministry combines contemplation and action. He founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico to help people in social service ministries to maintain a healthy balance between prayer and activism.

Rohr's many books explore our Christian commitment and describe a plan for growth. I like Things Hidden - Scripture As Spirituality best of all. He has a way of looking at things from an unusual perspective, leading his readers to re-evaluate and re-commit.

I'm sure it's just coincidence that the books on my coffee table were all written by authors whose last names begin with "R." But I wonder if, in the light of that litany of authors, it's coincidence that renewal begins with an "R" too.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

To Be Honest

I've come to believe that the most difficult virtue to acquire is honesty, and the hardest thing to speak is the truth.

Dishonesty in politics, religion, advertising, business, and social issues is so prevalent that we have become jaundiced and take deception for granted. Diogenes' lamp burns and still he searches for an honest man.

My dictionary defines honesty as "truthfulness, sincerity, freedom from deceit." A more in-depth look at honesty insists that honesty and dishonesty flow from one's intention.

A man could be telling the truth but if his intention is to deceive, he is dishonest. A woman could speak a falsehood but if she truly believes what she is saying and intends to tell the truth, she is nonetheless being honest.

Would it not follow then that honesty is devotion to the truth?

During his trial, Jesus told Pontius Pilate that he had come to testify to the truth. In a response jaundiced by years of military and political intrigue, Pilate asked with sarcasm, "What is truth?"

Had he been at the Last Supper, Pilate would have heard Jesus' unsettling claim, "I am the way and the truth and the life." In his defense Jesus explained, "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

A mystic of the Middle Ages, Meister Eckhart, proposed that "only the hand that erases can write the true thing." I think he meant that to be honest one must assess and re-assess what he says in order to convey the truth.

Poet/novelist Stephen Crane addressed the difficulty and fear that accompany one's search for the truth:

The wayfarer
Perceiving the pathway to truth
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
"Ha," he said,
"I see that none has passed here
"In a long time."
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
"Well," he mumbled at last,
"Doubtless there are other roads."

I think he recognized two things: truth is rare, and it is intimidating to pursue it.

If then I am correct that honesty is devotion to the truth, it follows that Christians can best acquire the virtue by devotion to Christ: "The truth will make you free...I am the truth...Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart!"

And yet our pursuit of truth, even in and with Christ, is a slow trek. Seldom is it discovered at first glance, and impatience often curtails the chase. It is easier to accept another's word as truth than it is to engage in a personal, dogged quest for it.

I suspect this failure to research the truth and make it a personal discovery accounts for the apathy and infidelity of many Christians. Catechism answers may be sufficient for children, but adults need more. Unexamined truth is seldom convincing in the face of pressure.

Fundamentalists will cry "Foul!" They will insist that one must accept a truth as true simply because an authority has said it. Fundamentalists seek security. Faith-filled people, however, wrestle with the truth --they probe it, test it, and confirm it. Faith by its very nature is risky, and it is in the investigation of truth that it becomes truly believable and binding.

Jacob wrestled with God; that is why he is called Israel. Jesus wrestled with his Father; that is why he could say, "As you will, not as I will it." Countless saints have gone into the wilderness and struggled with confusion and doubt; that is why they are saints.

The Church no longer decrees that error has no rights. It is the freedom to be wrong that leads to the assurance of truth. How many discoveries and inventions came only after long periods of trial and error.

The hero in Morris West's The Heretic put it well: "I claim no private lien on the truth, only a liberty to seek it, prove it in debate, and to be wrong a thousand times to reach a single rightness."

It is the virtue of honesty that promotes the pursuit of truth and protects the pursuer from heresy. It questions without fear because it always seeks the truth. Authority has its place in proposing truth, but no authority can absolve a rational being from being honest. Honesty imposes the obligation of probing the truth and making it one's own.

I've come to believe that honesty is the most difficult virtue to acquire, and the hardest thing to speak is the truth.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Tomorrow's Church

There is a formula, popularly known as the Hegelian dialectic, for investigating how an idea or movement develops. Although German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831) did not in fact initiate the specifics of this "thesis + antithesis = synthesis" formula (he gave his contemporary Immanuel Kant the credit), the "Hegelian formula" can be useful for assessing why things turn out the way they do.

Put most simply, how things turn out (the synthesis) is the result of the tension between an idea (the thesis) and its opposite (the antithesis).

You can see such tension in the deliberations and documents of the Second Vatican Council. As the Council developed, there emerged an obvious tension between two groups of bishops, a minority and a majority, sometimes described as traditionalists versus progressives.

The final documents often reflect the ongoing contest. For example, the majority wanted to emphasize the God-given rights and role of the laity in the Church's mission by affirming that the laity receive their commission through their baptism and confirmation (cf. Lumen Gentium 33).

The minority wanted to emphasize the divinely-appointed rights and role of the hierarchy by insisting that "the laity should, as all Christians, promptly accept in Christian obedience decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church" (cf. LG, 37).

These two ideas or emphases are not strictly contradictory, but the final Dogmatic Constitution on the Church reflects the rivalry between the two forces. The give-and-take of the two Council parties is obvious. The document (the synthesis) is marked by compromise.

The collegial role of the bishops versus the monarchical role of the pope is another hotly contested issue, and in fact remains subject to debate and begging clarification. It will probably take Vatican III or its equivalent to sort out the differences and distinctions.

Perhaps another example of the contrasts can be found in the underlying dynamic of two themes: aggiornamento and ressourcement. Pope John XXIII described the Council as an occasion for updating and renewal (he used the Italian term aggiornamento). Several influential theologians at the Council urged a return to the sources, especially to the Scriptures and to the teachings of the early Church Fathers (they used the French expression ressourcement).

The juxtaposition of two seemingly opposing themes resulted in a synthesis which updated and renewed the Church by consulting the ancient past to rediscover the direction, simplicity and enthusiasm of our Church's origin.

Still another possible form of dialectic is operative today in the struggles between so-called conservative and liberal Catholics. There are those who want to restrain the direction and "spirit" of Vatican II and there are those who believe the Church has a long way to go before achieving the values proposed by the Council.

There are priests, sometimes dubbed "John Paul II priests" who emphasize liturgy, clerical dress, and blind obedience to papal teaching. There is also a cohort of priests, sometimes described as "Vatican II priests," who emphasize social justice, the role of the laity, and critical analysis of Vatican leadership.

There are Catholics in the pew who maintain that the Church has gone too far (too many lay people in the sanctuary, a loss of the sense of the sacred, too much dissent from official teaching and discipline), and there are Catholics in the pew who believe the Church has not gone far enough.

If the Hegelian dialectic is accurate (and experience seems to verify it), it is reasonable to say that the Church of the future will be a synthesis of the theses and antitheses of today. It looks as if the Holy Spirit, the promised guide and guardian of the Church, is working in the dialectics and resulting tensions of ecclesiastical politics.

I haven't studied Hegel's philosophy in many years, but I recall his proposing that Christianity (which he called the absolute religion) is a synthesis of two stages of religious consciousness: the religion of nature and the religion of the individual spirit.

He may not agree with my application of his insight to the Church of today, but neither would he fault me for trying to make sense of the tensions and contradictions we experience as members of that Church.

Tomorrow's Church then is likely to be a synthesis of the theses and antitheses of today --with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

That Wall of Separation

The Fourth of July is the closest we Americans come to a national religious celebration.

Of course we maintain that proverbial wall of separation between church and state, but Independence Day does focus on a creed (the Declaration of Independence), on a liturgy (picnics, bells and fireworks) and on a memorial (that moment when our founding fathers pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor).

The heart of our national creed is the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."

The reason for forming a government or rebelling against a tyranny is the preservation and promotion of those God-given rights. In 1776 the colonies, "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions" and relying "on the protection of Divine Providence" declared their right to be free and independent states.

John Adams wrote to his wife that succeeding generations will celebrate a great annual festival with pomp and parade and "solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty...from this time forward forever-more." His prediction of this kind of liturgy and celebration finds an echo in cemeteries, parades and churches across the land.

Somewhere in between the beer and brats, in the midst of red, white and blue bunting, there is a moment on the Fourth of July for remembering the courage and sacrifice of our nation's founding generation and succeeding generations who have imitated them.

From the Lincoln Memorial in DC to the sunken Arizona in Pearl Harbor, Americans pause to remember and many whisper a prayer of thankfulness and praise.

The wall separating government and religion is not so high that Americans must deny either their politics or their religion. When Thomas Jefferson used the expression "wall of separation," he was assuring members of the Danbury Baptist Association that his administration would not impinge on their freedom of religion.

Although some in later generations took his words to mean "freedom from religion," Jefferson was affirming "freedom of." The Constitution guaranteed it.

Our founding generation did not intend to establish a theocracy; the federal government would impose no national religion, no church-mandated laws. Individual states might have to deal with that question, but not the federal government. Yet, having said that, neither did our forefathers intend to ban God or religion from the republic.

There were concerns that 18th century Roman Catholics might be required by the pope to impose their religious beliefs on the new nation. Some papal documents rejected the idea of separation of church and state. But the country's first bishop, John Carroll, in 1784, praised the American system and thought freedom of religion a good way to foster unity of faith.

This concern about papal interference challenged the presidential election of John Kennedy in 1960 because he was Catholic.

Kennedy, in a campaign speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, emphatically confirmed his belief in separation of church and state, and added, "I believe in an America... where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote."

In 1965 the Second Vatican Council declared that human beings have "a right to religious freedom" and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 praised separation of church and state as "a guarantee of freedom and autonomy."

Two ideas clashed in Robert Frost's poem Mending Wall: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" and "Good fences make good neighbors." Our belief in separation of church and state is like that --just as disconcerting and just as necessary.