Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Belief or Faith?

We ought to  ask ourselves whether the focus of our religion is belief or faith. The two differ.

Belief could be described as acceptance of doctrines. At the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, the council fathers published a creed. They were responding to a controversy in the Church about whether Jesus was equal to the Father. A priest named Arius argued that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, that Jesus received his being from the Father at the beginning of time.

Others insisted that Jesus was not subordinate, that Jesus was truly God like the Father.

As the intensity of the conflict increased, the Emperor Constantine called the bishops of the Church together to settle the matter: What do Christians believe about Jesus' relationship to the Father?

The major result of this council was the creed which formally defined that Jesus is "from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father."

Although this proclamation settled the matter about what the council bishops believed to be the truth, the controversy continued for many decades. A second council was called in 380 AD to respond once more to the Arian heresy.

It is clear that spelling out one's beliefs has an enormous effect upon one's faith. If faith is a lived response to God, then it makes a difference to a believer whether Jesus is God or not. How much more awesome (and filled with mystery) is God's love for the world if indeed it was God who "became man and dwelt among us" and not simply some emissary.

Belief, then, is important, but acceptance of a creed is only the first step; the second is faith.

It is conceivable that a person could believe what the Bible and the Church teach and still not be a Christian in the full sense of that designation.

Believing a set of doctrines does not a Christian make. To be a Christian one must be a disciple of Jesus, must pick up his cross, must walk in his footsteps, strive to live out the Gospel, and have a personal relationship (deep and intimate) with Jesus.

It is much easier to be a believing Catholic than to be a practicing one.

Catholics who are intense about doctrine are also called to be intense about compassion, kindness, forgiveness, service, and many other Christ-like virtues.

When Church members become "liturgical police" or "heretic hunters," they may distort both their religion and the faith. Attitude is a vital element of true discipleship. Jesus' concern was people over law. He did not denigrate the law, but neither did he condemn the law-breakers.

Belief, then, is a matter of creed, of doctrines and magisterium. Faith, then, is a matter of living one's beliefs, of loving one's neighbor, of intimacy with Jesus.

It is noteworthy that in the middle of Mass the congregation pauses to profess its faith in the words of the creed.

It is especially noteworthy that, as scholar Karen Armstrong explains, "The word 'belief' itself originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear...In the 17th century, it narrowed its focus...to mean an intellectual assent to a set of propositions, a credo."

She continues, "I believe did not mean, 'I accept certain creedal articles of faith.' It meant 'I commit myself. I engage myself.'"

With that insight in mind, note that the creed becomes an excellent transition piece between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Think of that next Sunday.

The so-called "profession of faith" is no longer a mere recitation of beliefs; it is rather a committing to faith, an accepting of the Father as Creator, a welcoming of Jesus as Lord, a being open to the Holy Spirit, a rededicating of oneself to full partnership in the community of Christ.

Belief and faith are not opposed to each other; they need each other. Belief without faith is dead.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Praying What We Believe

There is a principle in theology which holds that the way we pray is the way we believe -- or lex orandi, lex credendi to be more precise.

Theologians Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler noted in their dictionary of theology that there was a similar statement recorded in the Council of Ephesus (431) when it was cataloguing authoritative statements from popes. It has lex supplicandi, lex credendi, which might be rendered "the law of supplication, the law of believing" (Denzinger, 139).

Rahner and Vorgrimler explained that the statement from the Council of Ephesus developed into the theological principle that "the liturgy is the norm of faith, a witness to the infallible belief of the praying church."

If you have stayed with me through these three paragraphs, please follow me into the Roman Missal (Third Edition) and to the second eucharistic prayer.

The new translation of that prayer includes the petition, "Have mercy on us, O Lord, that...we may merit to be coheirs to eternal life..."

It is the term "merit" that makes me question what it is we believe.

If we keep praying that we may merit eternal life, then does that not influence what we believe about grace, about eternal life as pure gift?

It is Catholic theology that no one merits heaven; it is a gift.

We follow God's commands, we suffer along with Christ, not so that we will merit eternal life but because it has already been offered to us. Doing things and being good in order to earn heaven is putting the cart before the horse.

Some children are taught that they should be good in order to receive presents at Christmas. Adults are urged to be good because Christ has already offered them.

The notion that we have to do things in order to merit God's love and eternal life is reflected in the older son in Jesus' parable of the prodigal. He thought he should have been rewarded for his loyalty and service, and was upset that his younger, profligate brother was being welcomed home with a party.

St. Therese the Little Flower, and later the French author George Bernanos, happily proclaimed, "Grace is everywhere."

Perhaps the second eucharistic prayer would be better translated "that we may inherit eternal life."

If we understood the prayer in this way, we are simply affirming that the law of believing is the law of praying, or lex credendi, lex orandi.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Re-ordering the Sacraments

The custom at Sacred Heart Church when I was first named pastor there in 1990 was to offer Confirmation to young people when they were in high school, in their teens.

Some parents thought waiting until high school was a great inconvenience because their children were expected to attend special classes to prepare for receiving the sacrament, and the times of the preparation classes often conflicted with other schedules, such as sports practice.

In response to the complaints, I asked the staff to individually research the matter, especially what was considered the best age for receiving Confirmation.

I was really looking for background that would support our custom of waiting until the youth were a bit older. Some liturgists and theologians were calling Confirmation "the sacrament of maturity."

When the parish staff gathered to share their findings and recommendations, we were all surprised to discover that each of us had come to the same conclusion --waiting until teenage years was not the best practice!

The clearest piece of evidence that waiting until teenage years was not a good idea was Canon Law (#891) which said that "the sacrament of confirmation is to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion."

Age seven is generally considered the age of discretion, the age when a child is capable of making informed choices.

Church law then was telling us that age seven not seventeen was the norm.

Canon 891, however, goes on to say that conferences of bishops may decide on another age. The US bishops had agreed to disagree about the age, and said confirmation was to be conferred between ages 11 and 16.

Our staff research also concluded that in the earliest days of the Church the traditional order for receiving the sacraments of initiation was Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist.

We had to admit that there were conflicting ways of understanding the theology of Confirmation: completion of Baptism versus sacrament of mature faith and adult commitment. We concluded, however, that historically Confirmation originally followed Baptism, and in fact was normally conferred at the same ceremony as Baptism.

Having assessed the theology, history, customs and law concerning Confirmation, we decided to move its conferral at Sacred Heart from freshmen year to second grade.

The bishop, however, had a different idea. He pointed to the ages set by the US Bishops Conference and allowed us to move the conferral to the middle years of grade school.

My argument that Confirmation is not a sacrament of maturity but rather a completion of  Baptism was not persuasive.

Last week, on March 8, 2012, Bishop Samuel Aquila of the Diocese of Fargo announced that in his diocese the ancient order of receiving the sacraments of initiation was being restored, that is, Confirmation before First Eucharist.

In his visit to Pope Benedict XVI, Aquila learned that the Holy Father was pleased that Aquila was restoring the sacraments of initiation to their proper order of Baptism, Confirmation, and First Eucharist. He had papal approval!

According to the story on www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/bishop-aquila the bishop said he made the change because "it really puts the emphasis on the Eucharist as being what completes the sacraments of initiation" and on confirmation as "sealing and completing Baptism."

Aquila also noted that the change distanced the Sacrament of Confirmation from "some false theologies that see it as being a sacrament of maturity or as a sacrament for 'me choosing God.'"

As I read Aquila's explanation I felt our parish staff's conclusion back in the early 1990s was more than justified.

Those of us who participated in that staff study will now be waiting to see how long it will take other bishops to catch up! Forgive our chutzpah!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

If John XXIII Had Lived

I wonder what the Church would be like today if Pope John XXIII had lived for all four years of the Second Vatican Council.

The Council met over a four year period, 1962-65. Pope John died in 1963 and was succeeded by Pope Paul VI.

It is pure speculation, of course, but I wonder how Pope John would have dealt with the recommendation of the Papal Commission on birth control.

Pope John had established the commission in 1963 at the suggestion of Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens. The Vatican II Council fathers were reminded on at least three occasions that this delicate issue was not to be debated on the council floor because the matter was being studied by this special papal commission.

Suenens, however,  caused a major stir when he suggested that it was time to review the old teaching on birth control and perhaps accept that the doctrine was due for "development." He further urged Pope Paul VI to reveal the names of the members of the papal commission. It is said that Paul was a little more than irked by Suenens' speech.

When the majority of the members of the papal commission on birth control recommended a change in the church's position, Pope Paul reserved the matter to himself, and in 1968 published his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, electing to make no change.

It is pure speculation, of course, but I wonder how Pope John would have dealt with the question of episcopal collegiality, that is, how the bishops as a college relate to the pope.

General editor of the five-volume History of Vatican II Giuseppe Alberigo summarized the issue this way: whether the bishops constituted a single body, a "college," a fraternal union of persons dedicated to a common task, just as the apostles had been "the Twelve."

Alberigo wrote that nearly 130 of the bishops spoke to this matter, many of them stressing "the close association between the 'college' of the apostles and that of their successors, the bishops." Opponents of this "collegiality" feared that such an idea would undermine the authority of the pope.

Further there were bishops who proposed that the Church should be run by a committee of bishops in union with pope, replacing the authority of the Curia, the Vatican Bureaus.

It is said that Pope Paul had misgivings about these proposals, so on his own initiative he announced that he was going to establish "the Synod of Bishops," but it would be an advisory body with no authority beyond what the pope would give it.

Church historian Father John O'Malley assessed the papal document (Apostolica Sollicitudo) as "a preemptive strike." Paul did not even use the word collegiality. He stressed papal primacy.

Synods of bishops continue to meet periodically with the pope in Rome today, but the Vatican sets the agenda. The proposals for a collegial rule of the Church have been ignored.

It is pure speculation, of course, but I wonder how Pope John would have dealt with the question of optional celibacy for priestly ordination in the Roman branch of the Catholic Church.

The issue of clerical celibacy came up in 1962 at a preparatory commission meeting  about what to do about priests who had left the ministry. The question was whether such men should be relieved of the obligation of celibacy. The commission thought the matter too complicated for open discussion and suggested the matter be left to the pope. Pope John XXIII took the matter off the table.

Although priestly celibacy was not an issue in 1962, by 1965 a small minority of bishops  thought the rule should be revised, at least for some regions of the Church. When a number of Brazilian bishops wanted to bring the matter to debate on the council floor, Pope Paul VI intervened and took celibacy off the agenda.

In his book What Happened At Vatican II, Father O'Malley summarized the situation: He (Pope Paul) believed such a discussion highly inappropriate...The bishops, even most of those who talked about possible change in the discipline, agreed that to open the matter on the floor of St. Peter's would probably generate more heat than light, send the media into a frenzy, and result in inadequate treatment because the time left to the council was so short (p.271).

Although it would be pure speculation to wonder about what would have happened in the areas of collegiality, contraception, and celibacy if Pope John XXIII had out-lived the council, there is no doubt that some Catholics think "things" would be different now.

The issue of episcopal collegiality versus Curial rule festers yet today. Contraception remains an area of dispute for many Catholics. Clerical celibacy is still a stumbling block, especially in the light of the Church's practice of welcoming married Episcopalian priests into the Roman fold.

The Second Vatican Council may be 50 years old, but its direction continues, its hopes abide, and its controversies linger.