Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When the Means Overshadow the End

The Church is and always will be in need of reform. Its divine origin and the ongoing guidance of the Spirit do not rule out the frailty and fallibility of the human element. From the Council of Jerusalem (when Paul insisted that Gentile converts need not be circumcised in order to be saved) through the twenty-one ecumenical councils and countless synods, the Church throughout its history has wrestled with the need to reassess and reform.

The late French theologian and cardinal of the Church Yves Congar wrote years before the Second Vatican Council that every institution (the Church included) faces the danger of turning means into ends.

"The organization and the means," Congar wrote in True and False Reform in the Church, "can become the chief obstacle to the realization of the authentic end. This is why, as De Man says, it is desirable to maintain the same psychological flexibility in the application of the means as in the pursuit of the end" (Liturgical Press, p. 136).

Congar pointed to the Church in the 16th century as an instance of its allowing the means to overshadow the end. Martin Luther re-awakened the Church to the need for re-assessment and reform. 

As historian John O'Malley, SJ, explains in Trent: What Happened at the Council, one part of Luther's challenge was a cry for reform of various ecclesiastical offices and religious practices. "His grievances," O'Malley writes, "were for the most part directed against the popes and the papal Curia, commonly considered the root of the evils" (p. 13).

Although Pope Paul III focused on the other part of Luther's challenge, especially, his insistence on faith alone not works as the means to salvation, the schism might have been avoided had Church leaders addressed the many non-dogma issues that Luther decried.

Congar recalled the analysis made by Luther's contemporary Desiderius Erasmus who "put his finger on the real problem of Catholicism in his time almost everywhere: the pastoral had been overshadowed or effaced by the feudal, the Gospel spirit by the excrescences of flamboyant piety,  faith by religion, and religion by practices" (Congar, ibid., p. 139).

Perhaps one minor instance of mistaking means for ends in our day is the growing concern about clerical dress. Vatican  II's Presbyterorum Ordinis (the decree on priests) described priests as "instructors of the people in the faith."  And then offered the reminder that "very little good will be achieved by ceremonies, however beautiful, or societies, however flourishing, if they are not directed towards training people to reach Christian maturity" (#6).

An article in a  recent issue of National Catholic Reporter  questioned whether the return to sashes, biretta (three-cornered hats), large crosses, amices, maniples and special gloves and shoes is consistent with the direction set by Jesus himself who criticized the religious leaders of his day for wearing long fringes and broad phylacteries (cf Mt 23:5).

If the reform of the liturgy was to effect "a noble simplicity" (Sacosanctum Concilium, 34), a corollary to that principle would apply to liturgical dress as well. Can the cappa magna (a glorified cope worn in procession though not in liturgy) or elaborate trains, or lacy surplices or fur-lined hats, be consistent with "noble simplicity?" Are any of them what Jesus had in mind?

In the NCR article the author, Dominican priest and professor Thomas O'Meara, quoted Henry David Thoreau: "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes."

Are these garments helpful means to the end of reflecting and spreading the Gospel?

And church clothing is only one area of concern in re-prioritizing the means and ends of today's Church.

In his analysis of church reform, Congar cautioned, "We should not imagine that the ancient forms of the church are out-of-date simply because they come from the past...I want to clarify the distinction and the connection between what is permanently valuable and what by its nature can become obsolete" (True and False Reform, pp 152-53).

There are many aspects and elements of Church life that can and perhaps need to be changed so that its end may be more effectively promoted.

And what is true of the Church's life is also true of my own. Sometimes I must let go of things in order to grow into the person I am to be. I am and always will be in need of reform.

Analysis of the Church is far easier than analysis of one's self. 

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