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Friday, March 14, 2014

Deepening Post-Vatican II Division & Learning to Live with One Another

There was a great deal of noise surrounding the anniversary of Pope Francis' election this week, but one article stood out to me.  Paul Baumann, editor at Commonweal, wrote a really excellent analysis that focused less on Pope Francis himself and more on the problem of papal infatuation.  The article is called "The Public Pope: Why the Intense Fascination Paid to Pope Francis - or any pope - Isn't Good for the Catholic Church".

Baumann makes the important argument that obsession with the pope draws us as Catholics away from the internal conversations we need to be having about that which divides us.  While the pope is the icon of unity, he is not a magician who can simply "alter the course of secular history or bridge the church’s deepening ideological divisions simply by asserting what in truth are the papacy’s rather anemic powers."  The vibrancy and unity of the church is not something that can be imposed from the top down.

Bishops at the Second Vatican Council
Baumann notes that the Second Vatican Council, despite all that it accomplished positively, also left a legacy of confusion and conflict.  The divisions have become more, not less, entrenched over time, and infatuation with Pope Francis does nothing to ease our internal conflicts.  "The church desperately needs to reclaim its cultural and spiritual equilibrium," Baumann writes, "it must find a density and richness of worship and mission and a renewed public presence, which far transcend mere loyalty to the pope."

Baumann argues that, instead of looking to the pope to solve our problems, we in the church need seriously to engage one another in such a way that we actually learn to live with one another despite our differences on such hot-button issues as "artificial birth control; homosexuality and same-sex marriage; divorce; the exclusively male, celibate priesthood; the possibility of electing bishops; the role of the laity, especially women, in church decision-making; the relationship between popes and bishops; religious pluralism; and clergy sexual abuse and the unaccountability of the hierarchy."

And we learn to engage with and live with one another, Baumann suggests, by practicing our faith with one another.  Instead of viewing our ideological opponents as 'other,' we need to understand them as fellow Christians whose ideas we may not understand but from whom we may actually learn.  Baumann's final paragraph beautifully expresses this point: 
Lex orandi, lex credendi is one of the church’s most venerable teachings. Roughly translated, it means that the church’s worship determines its theology, or as the catechism puts it: “The law of prayer is the law of faith: The Church believes as she prays.” Whatever their ideological disagreements, Catholics will find unity, and a less anachronistic relationship with the papacy, in practicing their faith together—or they will not find unity at all. That may mean that the same-sex couple in the pew next to you will provide a more faithful example of Christian witness than you might now imagine possible. Or perhaps the ardent piety of a Latin Mass enthusiast will lead you to reconsider parts of the church’s tradition you have long dismissed as irrelevant and sterile. In any event, the church’s unity and renewed vitality will be—must be—a gift that the faithful bring to the pope, and not the other way around.
Used with permission of The Merton Legacy Trust.
Baumann's article reminds me of something Thomas Merton wrote (yes, forgive me for referencing Merton yet again on the pages of this blog) in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.  Here, he correctly predicted that division was going to be the fallout of Vatican II:
"Along with the great work of the Council, there has been a concrete and very disturbing fact - that of the hardening division between progressives and conservatives...[O]ne of the great problems after this Council is certainly going to be the division between progressives and conservatives, and this may prove to be rather ugly in some cases, though it may be also a fruitful source of sacrifice for those who are determined to seek the will of God and not their own" (315).
Merton then proceeds to castigate both conservatives and progressives for their intransigence and their unwillingness to have their engagement with the other marked by charity.  He admittedly comes down hardest on the extreme conservatives, as is perhaps unsurprising, but his criticism of progressives is scathing and worthy of attention.  His words are worth quoting at length:
"The extreme conservatives seem to me to be people who feel themselves so menaced that they will go to any length in order to defend their own fanatical concept of the Church.  This concept seems to me to be not only static and inert, but in complete continuity with what is most questionable and indeed scandalous in the history of the Church: Inquisition, persecution, intolerance, Papal power, clerical influence, alliance with worldly power, love of wealth and pomp, etc.  This is a picture of the Church which has become a scandal and these people are intent on preserving the scandal at the cost of greater scandal.
...They are so convinced that they are the Church that they are almost ready to declare the majority of bishops to be virtual apostates, rather than obey the Council and the Pope.  At the same time, of course, their hysteria suggests that they are having a little trouble handling the guilty which this inevitably arouses in them.
On the other hand, the refusal of the extreme progressives to pay any attention to any traditional teaching which would give them a common basis for rational discussion with conservatives is surely scandalous also - especially when it is allied with an arrogant triumphalism of its own, and when it simply ridicules all opposition.  This is not only foolish, but seems to show a serious lack of that love to which they frequently appeal is justification of their procedures.  Though they are continually shouting about "openness" one finds them hermetically closed to their fellow Catholics and to the Church's own past, and there is some validity to the conservative accusation that these extreme progressives often are more open to Marxism, to positivism, or to existentialism than they are to what is generally recognizable as Catholic truth.
It has been remarked with truth that conservatives and progressives in the Church are so concerned with total victory over each other that they are more and more closed to each other.  If this is the case, one seriously wonders about the value and significance of the much touted "openness" to non-Catholics.  An ecumenism that does not begin with charity within one's own Church remains questionable" (316-317).
Photo of bishops at Vatican II is from Wikimedia Commons.

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