While many average Catholics find themselves in a crisis of faith, having to square their beliefs with the criminal acts of some clergy and the ever widening gap between the teachings of the Church and the values of the world, there is a deeper, longer standing crisis among some of the clergy and lay professionals working for the Church. It is not the cynicism we expect of people whose boss happens to be the Bishop, but uncertainty of whether the Church is really the bearer of a divine mission.
The main symptom is the tendency to judge the Church not by the standards of faith but by political standards, politics understood in the wide sense, ranging from public works hoping to achieve a social good, to partisan blood sports. The idea that the Church has an essentially social mission has been implicitly dominant in many Catholic circles for half a century or more. In this vision, the Church is called to be a forward element in the great project of “making America a better place to live”, by offering education, health care, and forming voting blocs in favor of progressive causes. This vision has some good to it, but it is at odds with the older vision of the Church existing to bring men to heaven.
The other aspect of politics, the blood sport, is seeing the Church, perhaps not without reason, as a power structure like any other. Like all human government therefore it should be treated with suspicion, and intelligent citizens will try to manipulate it either to achieve some good or at least to defend their interests. Hence lobbies are formed, and pressure politics engaged in. Hence too democratic models of Church governance are proposed rather than the supposedly monarchical one we currently labor under.
Once we have lost sight of the supernatural ends of the Church, we are left with an unwieldy collection of undertrained social workers (clergy), uninvolved bourgeois club members (parishioners) and an incomprehensible and inadequate system of leadership (Bishops and Pope). In such a situation, perhaps it is not a bad idea to look back to the intentions of the founder of the Church, as recorded in the New Testament.
I propose three lessons that can be learned from the New Testament records:
First, Jesus founded the Church primarily to proclaim the Good News of eternal life. The different Gospel scenes in which Jesus sends his disciples to their mission are always set in the spiritual context of the next life: to baptize and preach, to make disciples of all nations, to forgive sins. The Acts of the Apostles and Letters of Paul depict many charitable works, but always in the context of the preaching of the Gospel.
Second, Jesus entrusted authority in the Church to the Apostles. That does not mean he intended a self-serving authoritarianism. Jesus seems to have been wary of political models for the Church, “my kingdom is not of this world”. The model he proposed for those in authority was one of service. However, the authority was real. The Apostles, as representatives of Christ, have the capacity to forgive sins, excommunicate, and speak on behalf of the Holy Spirit.
The exercise of authority does not contradict closeness to the people or collaboration. The New Testament does not present the Apostles as detached clerical careerists. The Acts of the Apostles show that the Twelve were perfectly capable of delegating, listening, and collaborating. St. Paul was a model of empowering others, founding a network of coworkers spanning the Eastern Mediterranean that included lay collaborators and married couples like Aquila and Pricilla. Even his letters were a team effort.
Third, Jesus did not entrust the Church to the Apostles on the basis of their merits, but in spite of their failures. In the Gospels the Apostles are the butt of all the jokes, their moral fragility is startling, and Jesus is frequently exasperated with them. Still, he places an enormous responsibility in their hands knowing they are not ready to handle it. The realism of the New Testament is not surprised by human frailty. The idealism of the New Testament is the faith that God is powerful enough to work through faulty human instruments.
The New Testament is itself a work of the Church. We could see this with suspicion, thinking that someone must have falsified the documents, but these are the works we are stuck with. Without the witness of the Church there is no New Testament, no historical continuity with Jesus Christ, nor any memory of him. Given that all men still face death, sin and despair no matter how much healthcare or education is given them, recuperating a supernatural vision of the mission and structure of the Church is essential, and the only basis of meaningful reform.
David Monahan, LC studies for the priesthood at the Pontifica University Regina Apostolorum in Rome.
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