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.

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