Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Burden of Freedom in the Church

On first hearing, I thought the parable of the grand inquisitor in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov to be preposterous.

The story, as told by one of the brothers, is that Jesus makes an unexpected return to 16th century Spain only to be arrested by a powerful cardinal on the board of the Inquisition.

The cardinal charges Jesus with undermining the work of the Church. Jesus, he explains, had the opportunity to relieve humankind of the burden of freedom, but he chose instead to promote it. Free choice, the cardinal believes, is the heaviest burden human beings must bear. It is antithetical to establishing the Kingdom of God.

The cardinal spells out for Jesus the Church's thinking: "Instead of taking men's freedom from them, Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering."

He explains that human beings are impotent rebels and they can be held only by three powers, namely miracle, mystery and authority. "Thou has rejected all three and has set the example for doing so." In the mind of the cardinal Jesus had the opportunity to do it right by simply yielding to the tempter's requests in the wilderness in that encounter described in Matthew 4:1-11. Jesus had refused to work a miracle and refused to accept the authority the devil would have given him.

Jesus' failure has now been addressed by the Church, the cardinal boasts. "We have corrected Thy work and have founded it upon miracle, mystery and authority. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and that the terrible gift that had brought them such suffering was, at last, lifted from their hearts."

The cardinal's justification for the  Church's thinking rests on its appraisal that human beings are pitiful children, and the Church's way will lead them to "become timid, and will look to us and huddle close to us in fear, as chicks to the hen."

On first hearing, the parable sounds preposterous. We ask ourselves, "Who could think that way?"

However, something of that same mentality may be reflected in Pope Pius X's condemnation of France's law of separation of Church and State when he writes in 1906, "...the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors" (Vehementer Nos, 8).

In that same vein, many will recall that "simple faithful" was a name frequently applied to the laity before Vatican II resurrected the designation "people of God."

Still today few lay men and women are familiar with these two theological concepts:

1) sensus fidei described by the Catechism as "the supernatural appreciation of the faith on the part of the whole people, when, 'from the bishops to the last of the faithful,' they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals" (92).

2) sentire cum ecclesia militante formulated by St. Ignatius (who said in the original Spanish: el sentido verdadero en la Iglesia militante) which, as Yves Congar explains, means to "have a sense of the church bravely acting in the world." This concept, then, "does not easily fit into the formula of sheer material obedience (superficial fidelity)..." but rather "restores to the faithful of the church their part in the life of the body" (Congar, True and False Reform in the Church, p. 237).

Theology and Scripture recognize the role of the laity and the gifts given to them by the Spirit. The Second Vatican Council highlighted the working of the Spirit in the lives of all the faithful. The insights of Vatican II are still to be disseminated, accepted and applied.

Lumen Gentium, the document on the Church, recognized that all the faithful share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ and play a part in the Church's mission (#31).

Gaudium et Spes, the document on the Church in the modern world, reminded the laity, "For guidance and spiritual strength let them turn to the clergy; but let them realize that their pastors will not always be so expert as to have ready answers to every problem, even every grave problem, that arises; this is not the role of the clergy" (#43).

Sacrosanctum Concilium, the document on the liturgy, directed pastors to "insure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it" (#11). Catholics are no longer told they must attend Mass; they are to celebrate it!

Dostoyevsky's parable was motivated by his sense that the paternalism of the hierarchy was inconsistent with the message of Jesus. It was a call to recognize the gifts (the smarts) of God's people. It was so stark in its presentation that it seemed preposterous, but its application to the Church in various stages of its history leads to recognition and assent.

The hierarchy are essential components of the Church, but so are the laity. Paul's analogy of the one body with many parts (1 Corinthians 12:12) confirms the early Church's recognition of the nature of the communio or fellowship that is ours in Christ. The Spirit is poured out upon all. And all have the burden of being free to respond to that inspiration. The work of Vatican II and of the Spirit goes on.

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