Here Comes Everybody

There have been a lot of articles and other posts over the course of the last week relating to the decision of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to appoint a bishop to exercise oversight over reforms of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The CDF accuses the LCWR of “radical feminism” and “corporate dissent.”

Not surprisingly, given the breadth of views within the Catholic Church, there are some who defend the action of the CDF and others who have expressed vehement criticism of the action.

One reaction caused me to pause longer than others. One of my Facebook friends wrote, “These men are not the Church.”

As phrased, that is simply wrong. That is to say, the CDF alone is not the Church, none of us individually is. But a lot of people and groups fall under this large tent that is the Catholic Church. The parish I left at the end of this past year because it no longer spiritually nourished me, as well as the parish I joined. The people who share my vision of what Catholic social teaching says and the people who have a different understanding of what it means. The CDF and the rest of the institutional hierarchy and every individual Catholic – whether they go regularly to Mass or not. The people who say things that make me want to join hands and walk with them and the people who say things that make me want to cringe. We are ALL the Church.

It upsets me when “conservative” (for lack of a better description) want to tell me I’m not the Church, suggesting I go elsewhere if I disagree with them. It upsets me equally when those at the opposite end of the spectrum suggest that those with whom they disagree are not the Church.

There is something to James Joyce’ description of the Catholic Church as “Here Comes Everybody,” an acknowledgement of the variety of people that make up the Church. An essential aspect of Catholicism is precisely that. I think we would all be better off if people were less quick to suggest that anybody is not part of everybody.


Difference in Unity

One of the things I grabbed as I was on the way out of the door to St. Benedict’s last week was a pile of magazine clippings and other articles I had kept. I thought it would be a good thing to sort through when I needed a break from my writing. Sometimes when I go through such piles my reaction is on the order of “Now why did I think that was worth keeping?” Other times I remember what it was that struck me.

One of the things in that pile was an old column from an issue of America on the subject of how to raise children to be Catholic and catholic. The reason I had kept the piece, however, had nothing to do with childraising. Rather, what struck me was what I thought (and think) is a wonderfully simple yet meaningful way to understand what is a difficult concept for Christians – the Trinity. (It is easy to say “three persons in one God,” but understanding what that means is a different matter.) It seems a perfect thing to share on this Sunday, on which we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.

Explaining what it means to view the world through a Trinitarian lens the author of the column wrote:

The divine dance of paradoxical difference-in-unity enables us to recognize creation as a reflection of its loving Creator: infinitely diverse and yet intimately connected, each part belonging to all and responsible to all.

Infinitely diverse and yet intimately connected. Despite the differences, each part belongs to all and is responsible for all.

The key is recognizing that the description is not just of God, but of us – we who are made in the image and likeness of (a Trinitarian) God. That means a lot of things, including, the need to “transcend[] the black-and-white thinking and loveless, angry, insider/outsider tribalism that so characterizes American public ‘discourse,’ whether secular or religious.”

We are diverse, but we are also part of one single whole and responsible for all.

An Incarnational and Sacramental Faith

There have been any number of books written by Catholic writers on the theme of “Why I Am [or Stay] Catholic.” The books are one reflection of the frequency with which non-Catholics put that question to Catholics and with which Catholics ask the question of themselves or of other Catholics. They are also one reflection of the struggle many Catholics have trying to answer for themselves why they stay Catholic despite their own struggles with certain aspects of Catholicism and the departure from the faith of many of their friend and family.

As anyone who knows me or who regularly reads this blog knows, I’ve had my share of struggles with the question of what it means to call oneself Catholic. Difficulty accepting certain teachings of the Church, anger at bishops’ handling of clergy child abuse (and other issues), and so on, all contribute to the question rising at various times. It came up for me again the other day, as I sat having coffee with a friend who observed, “You know, I’m not sure I’m Catholic anymore.”

Part of my own wrestling with that question has prompted me to ask a number of friends of mine – priests and lay people – some variant of the question of what it is that they see as what defines one as Catholic or what they think the core of Catholicism is.

As I’ve reflected on the issue, it seems to me the best answer has to do with incarnation. To call Catholicism an “incarnational faith,” means more than that God became human, as central and as important as the Incarnation of Jesus is to Catholicism. As Tom Groome put it in a recent book review published in America magazine, central to Catholicism is that “it encourages people to enflesh their faith, to realize it in their lives, far beyond the purely confessional…Catholic Christian faith must get done ‘on earth as it is in heaven.'” Our faith has to make a difference in how we live our lives, not motivated by heaven or hell, but as a response to the love of God who so loved us that God became human.

Groome goes on in his book review to talk about what he calls the “other side of the incarnational coin,” that is, sacramentality. Indeed, sacramentality is frequently the answer I get from people when I ask what they view as the central element of Catholicism.

By sacramentality, I (and they) mean more than the seven capital “S” Sacraments recognized by Catholicism. Rather, I mean the recognition that there is no aspect of creation that is not permeated with God’s presence. Our recognition of the special presence of Jesus on bread and wine consecrated on the altar does not negate the reality that God is present everywhere. If we believe that, it has to affect everything – how we see and who we are in the world.

In his book review, Groome suggests that these “twin principles” of incarnation and sacramentality “are what make Catholicism most worthwhile, why anyone can well stay, regardless of disappointments and complaints and the scandals that beset the church.”

Living in Community

Yesterday afternoon I moderated a dialogue at UST law school sponsored by two student groups – the St. Thomas More Society, our Catholic law student association, and Outlaw, which educates members regarding gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. The subject of the dialogue was same-sex marriage and related issues.

Recognizing that there are sharply divergent views on this issue but that we live as part of the same community, the students hoped that their dialogue would allow them to “find a level of understanding and, if possible, commonality that will allow us to engage each other in more respectful and loving ways without losing sight of substance and real differences in our views.”

We had four panelists (two students from each of the sponsoring groups). They started the dialogue by each making an initial statement of who they were, why the issue was important to them and what their perspective was. They then each posed one question to the members of the other group, after which we invited participation by the audience.

I was very proud of both the four students who were the panelists and of all those in the audience who participated in the discussion. Diverse views were expressed – and some quite strongly. But the conversation was conducted in a respectful manner, without any of the name-calling or other insulting behavior that often accompanies such discussion. What I experienced was people trying to both convey their own views and to understand the views of those with whom they disagreed. And what I saw was an emphasis on how to be in relationship with each other…how to love. It was particularly rewarding to listen to the four panelists talk about how they grew in relationship with each other during their long discussions in preparation for the event.

One of the students on the panel drew a distinction I thought was an important one for diverse people trying to live in community – a distinction between changing views and broadening perspectives. The former, he observed, is not necessary for the latter to take place. And that is really what yesterday’s dialogue was about – not an effort by anyone to change the mind of the other (an effort that often results in hostility and defensiveness), but a mutual effort to help (very small) part in it.

A Great Catholic Resource: OSV’s Catholic Almanac

Our Sunday Visitor’s 2011 Catholic Almanac, which was sent to me as part of the Catholic Company reviewer program, is a treasure trove of valuable information for Catholics and those otherwise interested in Catholicism.

Like other reference books, this is not a volume intended to be read cover-to-cover the way one might read a novel or book of spirituality or theology. Rather, it deserves a place on a book shelf in easy reach of teachers, students, researchers and writers and others.

As expected from a book that calls itself an almanac, the first part of the book focuses on news and events from the past year – the travels of Pope Benedict during the year, new Vatican documents and announcements, and discussion and update of current events issues (such as abortion, the sexual abuse crisis and the health care debate).

Part II of the book is a discussion of the teachings of the Church. While of the documents excerpted and discussed in this section can be found online, the summaries and outlines of the major documents containing the doctrine of the Church to be handy (and understandable) for those seeking some basic knowledge and for those trying to remember where to find certain things. The same is true for other parts of this section of the book – while one can find the information elsewhere e.g., holy days of obligation, information about sacraments – the book provides disparate information in a single source that is well indexed and organized.

The other parts of the book are primarily of interest to those doing research on particular questions. They include, for example, sections on Dates and Events in Catholic History, the parts of the Roman Curia, significant US court decisions on church-state relations and information about religious orders and Catholic institutions.

This is not a book you are going to curl up with in front of a fire on a cold winter night. It is, however, one that is useful to have in one’s library and, I suspect, one that will be well thumbed through by the end of 2011.

P.S. For those of you looking for baptism gifts, check our the Catholic Company’s great selection of gifts.

Fraternal vs. Agapic Love

I mentioned the other day that I was reading an essay titled The Open Circle: The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, written by Pope Benedict XVI while he was still Fr. Ratzinger. The essay, as its title suggests, seeks to elucidate the concept of Christian brotherhood.

As the essay discusses, Jesus uses the term “brother” in the Gospels in two different ways. First, he uses it to refer to those “who are united with him in the will of the common acceptance of the will of God.” In Matthew, for example, when Jesus is told his mother and brothers are outside, he responds, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

Second, however, Jesus uses the term brother in a broader sense in the judgment parable in Matthew 25. There Jesus refers to all of the needy of the world as being “my brothers,” expressing a universality not found in passages like the earlier Matthew one. Similarly in Luke the term neighbor refers to anyone in need.

Fr. Ratzinger suggests that one finds in the Gospels and in Paul’s writings the idea of two zones. “The attitude of agape (love) is appropriate toward every man, but philadelphia (brotherly love) only toward one’s fellow Christian. The use of this idea for those other than blood relations seems to be specifically Christian. But it shows very clearly that the Christians together form an inner ring in their ethos, that they are (or should be) held together by a spirit of brotherly love which is even greater than that of the general agape.”

I think it is important to keep both senses of the term brother in mind. While I am uncomfortable with some of the possible implications Fr. Ratzinger draws from the distinction, particularly his citing sources that suggests that Christians “must strive for the greatest possible independence from non-Christians and not choose them for their habitual companions” (which he admittedly says presents difficult questions when such statements are transferred from their original setting into the present), there is something to being part of a community of fellow believers that is strengthening to one’s faith.

On the other hand, we need constant reminder that our call to agapic love is a call to love all, regardless of who they are and what they believe. No one is outside the ken of our universal brotherhood of caring and agapic love. As Fr. Ratzinger puts it, while it is true that the Chruch “must unify itself to form a strong inner brotherhood in order to be truly one brother,” it does so not “finally to shut itself off from the other; rather it seeks to be one brother because only in this way can it fulfill its task toward the other, living for whom is the deepest meaning of its existence, which itself is grounded wholly in the vicarious existence of Jesus Christ.”

The Church and Holiness

In writing my book about my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism back to Catholicism, one of the questions I’ve had to struggle with what it means to call myself a Catholic today and, indeed, why I call myself Catholic, rather than simply Christian. For while it it is true that I worry more about trying to be a good Christian than trying to be a good Catholic, I still self-identify as Catholic. Why?

I talk in the book about the fact that for me, the most important thing implied by belief in “one holy, catholic and Apostolic Church” is belief in the community of persons that is the Church. Being united in one Body of Christ, not just with each other now, but with all those who came before us, means something to me.

I read an editorial in America magazine not long ago that I thought did a good job of expressing something of the meaning of that community.

We love the church because here we keep the company of men and women who have lived the Gospel even as they challenged both secular and religious rulers to reform. Among them are figures like Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Thomas More, Ignatius Loyola…and Oscar Romero. Their witness to the Gospel brought them into conflict with the church authorities of their day. Yet attachment to the visible, hierarchical church was intrinsic to their own path to holiness. In an age that experiences mostly opportunistic, transitory relationships, the church fosters high ideals and lifelong commitments. In a culture deprived of depth and transcendence, it encourages searching self-examination, ever more inclusive sympathies and attentive receptivity to the mystery of God.

Clearly, as the author of the editorial recognizes, the church doesn’t always fully live up to that promise. Yet there is something in what it aspires to, and what it occasionally achieves, that is worth striving toward.

Practicing Catholic

I just finished reading James Carroll’s Practicing Catholic, which was highly recommended to me by my friend Joe. Carroll is an acclaimed author and columnist and was formerly a Catholic priest. As someone who has struggled (and continues to struggle) mightily with the question of what it means to say I am a Catholic and who is currently writing a book about my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism, I tremendously enjoyed reading of Carroll’s personal spirtiual journey….a journey of faith, love, and often, pain and sadness.

Among the questions taken up by Carroll is what he terms the great question put to faith by modernity, the question whether religious doctrine can develop. There is a tendency in the Church, and among many Catholics, to view the “deposit of faith” as fixed. Yet such a notion seems impossible to sustain in the face of so many examples to the contrary. One of the examples Carroll gives is the view of the Immaculate Conception. As Carroll notes, “[e]ven though this belief about Mary is said to be entirely consistent with Tradition, there was nothing driving it inexorably toward such formal proclamation,” and the “definition of the Immaculate Conception as an article of faith was, in fact, the first time a pope had ever presumed to make a declaration of dogma apart from his fellow bishops meeting in general council.”

Carroll also talks about the fact that only gradually did Jesus’ friends think of him as a Messiah and “even more gradually, as the Son o God, meaning that “sacred texts evolved slowly out of oral traditions, and that the sacred texts themselves were only gradually selected from among many others, equally honored but never officially deemed ‘inspired.’”

Whatever other lesson one draws from his examples, it seems to me that they invite us into a deep humility. It is so easy to assume we have all the answers, to develop fixed notions of Church teachings. It is true that some things are immutable – the command (or invitation) to love God and each other, for example. But we run a risk if we treat too many things as unchanging law and, correspondingly, fail to consider that we may uncover new truths along the way. We need to always be open to the possibility of new revelation by our God as the world in which we live changes.

Sending Forth

When I was a young teen, my friends and I attended the Saturday evening Mass. Somehow we had it in our heads that Mass “counted” so long as we were in Church by the time the Gospel began and stayed at least through reciept of the Eucharist. So we hung out outside of the church until we estimated it should be time for the Gospel and left as soon as we returned from the altar rail. This allowed us to go home and dutifully report to our parents that we had been to Mass.

I sigh now at that behavior, even as I observe many people leaving the Church each Sunday immediately after they receive the Eucharist, missing an incredibly important part of the Mass.

The closing rite of the Mass includes a sending forth. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal lists as one of the elements of the closing rite “the dismissal of the people by the deacon or priest so that each may go out to do good works, praising and blessing God.” Having just listened to the Word of God, having received the Body and Blood, we are commissioned to act on what we have just experienced. I think the language recited by the priest or deacon is meant to call to our minds Jesus’ instruction to his disciples before his Ascension to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

Thus, the closing rite is not just a throwaway. It gives us a reminder we need that our prayer and our lives must be integrated. In the words of one commentator, “if prayer shapes belief, then together they find their true authentication in genuine Christian living. To ignore this inner connection between Eucharist and life is to ignore the bond between the life and mission of the church.”

Summer Reading: The Death of a Pope

Looking for a change of pace from the books I usually review for the Catholic Company, I selected a novel this time around, The Death of a Pope, by Piers Paul Read. If you are looking for an well-written and enjoyable summer read with Catholic flavor, this is a good choice. I was sufficiently hooked by it that I started it one day and finished it the next. (Think: warm sunny day….hammock.)

It is hard to write a review of a novel without giving away too much of the plot line, thus interfering with a first-time reader’s enjoyment of it. So as to plot, I’ll simply say this thriller concerns the efforts of a former Jesuit – using more than questionable means – to affect the results of the election for a new pope that will take place following the death of Pope John Paul II. (The book begins during the last stages of the previous Pope’s life.) His efforts involve the manipulation of the affections and idealism of a young female reporter and a willingness to be the cause of the death of the entire council of cardinals.

The novel manages to present the clash between the “conservative” and “liberal” arms of the Catholic Church without turning either into a stereotype or a caricature. Whatever Read’s own leanings may be, neither side is presented as so clearly right as cause one to discount the other. He conveys the sense of how each side believes strongly in the wisdom of its positions and in their adherence to the Gospel. He also raises in a powerful way some of the controversial issues that divide the “conservative” and “liberal” arms of the Church, especially the use of contraceptives to prevent the spread of AIDs, but also issues such as the ordination of women.

Read tells a good story that reveals great insight into the workings of the Church, points out the dangers of thinking the ends justify the means and illustrates that good motives are not always enough. At the same time that it entertains, it also provokes some serious thought about what it means to do the will of God and what the role of the Church ought to be in bringing justice to the world.