Reality Church

26 Jul

Business Lessons Learned from Reality Television —

Surely one of the “lowlights” of today’s culture is “reality TV.” These programs have no plot, no substance, and no enduring value. And ironically, one hallmark of “reality TV” is that it’s eerily unreal. Staged spontaneity is neither good drama nor real living.

Tragically, the radical subjectivism of our secular society that’s reflected in reality TV has crept into the popular understanding of the Church. In fact, it’s everywhere, from so-called “do-it-yourself” liturgies to “experience-based” catechesis. It’s present in the alarming trend to treat definitive Church teachings as merely a la carte items on the Catholic menu. We see it, too, in the democratizing elements in the Church, reflected in recent decades by dissident organizations such as Call to Action and Voice of the Faithful.

These and similar developments suggest that in sending His Son to redeem us, God had no clear plan or structure in mind for applying the merits of Christ’s sacrifice and gathering all men and women to Himself. And so, many people do not avail themselves of the miracle of Pentecost, by which the Holy Spirit unites us to God and to one another in His Church. Instead, many opt to become “Babel Christians” (cf. Gen. 11:4), choosing to build an ecclesial edifice, such as it is, according to their own whims and preferences.

Against this backdrop, we have Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations), the central document of the Second Vatican Council, which examines the mystery of the Church. Vatican II employed many terms and images to describe the Church, but perhaps the most fundamental and profound concept the Church uses to describe herself is “communion.” By this is meant the Church’s role and mission to unite us with the Trinity and with one another.

What the Church means by an “ecclesiology of communion,” or even by the Church as the “Family of God,” is a huge topic. Here I want to emphasize that this image of the Church provides an essential corrective to the radical subjectivism and relativism that drain the life out of the Church’s evangelistic efforts.

The Church, after all, is at once an objective and subjective reality. By “objective reality,” I simply mean that we can talk about the Church in the third person, as an “it”–or better yet, since the Church is the Bride of Christ and our mother, “she.” The Church already has meaning, shape, and structure that God has given to her. She is what she is. When the Church invites us to “communion” with her, we participate in her life. We enter the reality of the Church, not the other way around.

At the same time, the Church is not indifferent to our participation. Rather, she desires to bring all men and women into the fold. As part of the “communion” of saints, we no longer stand outside the Church as mere spectators, but instead we can in some sense refer to the Church as “we”–not because we have authority or a “vote,” but because we have grace.

This dynamic is reflected well in Sacred Scripture. The Bible is the inspired Word of God that objectively records God’s plan for mankind. Yet it also is ordered to our entering into the pages, as we take our own place in salvation history.

This truth is also reflected in the fact that we use the word “faith” in two distinct yet related ways.

When we refer to “the” faith we’re talking about the height, depth, and width of the deposit of faith–all that God has revealed to us through Christ for our salvation. The deposit of faith is revealed truth, so it is not negotiable. Rather, in docility and obedience to the Holy Spirit, we must conform ourselves to the objective data of divine revelation.

At the same time, we rightly refer to “my” faith, which refers to our own personal acceptance of what God has revealed to us through His Church. Even more fundamentally, it refers to our own personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the one Savior of the world.

These two meanings of faith necessarily go together. Jesus has stern words in Scripture for those who would profess a personal belief in Him yet reject His teachings and commands. At the same time, accepting the Church without a living relationship with our Lord is of no avail. It’s like having a body without a heart.

In the Greek, the Church is considered a “mysterion.” In Latin, this is rendered both as “mysterium” (“mystery”) and as “sacramentum” (“sacrament”). The Church is in the nature of mystery, as it entails spiritual realities beyond our perception and comprehension. But the Church is also in the nature of sacrament, and as such is called to be a visible sign of Christ to the world. Because of this, our own communion with or connection to the Church is not just personal and spiritual, but also communal and visible.

The concept of “communion” implies a principle of unity. The contemporary question of “how much can I dissent and still be considered a Catholic?” implies a principle of disunity or plurality. It really is a wrong-headed and spiritually dangerous question. It’s like asking “how unfaithful can I be to my wife and still be considered a married man?”

“Visible communion” with the Church means, among other things, professing the Catholic faith and submitting to legitimate Church authority. After all, in matters of faith and morals the Church teaches with the authority of Christ, who told His apostles, “He who hears you hears me” (Lk. 10:16). The rejection of such teaching is a sin against the virtue of faith.

Some Catholics today assert the right to decide for themselves which of our Lord’s teachings they are willing to accept. They stand in judgment of the Church as their own pope, picking and choosing among Church teachings.

However, if we only accept doctrines that “work for us,” then we’re not talking about faith, because faith entails the acceptance of all that Our Lord has revealed through His Church, based on His own authority. Mere agreement is not the same as faith, because then we’re putting Christ’s teachings through an approval process, rejecting anything that seems unacceptable to us.

Once we admit the possibility of dissent from definitive Church teaching, there really is no principled basis to limit this cancer in the Church. How many of Christ’s teachings can I reject and still be His faithful disciple?

All of this matters because our salvation depends on our cooperation with the undeserved gift of sanctifying grace that unites us to God and to one another. “Visible communion” may reveal our vital signs, but grace is our source of life. The challenge for lay Catholics everywhere is to allow this new life to transform us and, through us, the world.

When Christ comes to us, most especially through the gift of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, it’s not to diminish, impede, or conceal His light, but to multiply it. He uses each one of us as His lamps in the world. We are the “light of the world” only insofar as Christ shines through us, as He did through she who was “full of grace.” All generations call Mary blessed (Lk. 1:48) because of the marvelous way she “magnified” the light of Christ through her cooperation with divine grace.

May our Lady, Mother of the Church, draw all her children into more perfect communion with her Son, who truly is Lumen Gentium, the Light of the World.

5 Responses to “Reality Church”

  1. Nat July 26, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    I hate online arguments in the comment sections of religiously-partisan blogs (regardless of ideology). I do disagree with you, but I genuinely intend to express that charitably. If any subsequent readers take only one thing away from my comments, please let it be that.

    Even if we could agree that the words of Scripture are objective (a claim complicated from the very start by issues of translation), there would still be cause for disagreement about what the words mean (even Jesus said things that can seem contradictory). In the Roman Catholic Church, this is where the “tradition” aspect of the Deposit of Faith comes in. The meaning of Scripture, the structure and dogma of the Church, and the way of Christian living have all been vigorously worked on, prayed over, and discerned by countless holy men and women over the millennia. The resulting collective sense of revelation is of inestimable value. Clearly, God is present there. And yet, it is worth noting just how deeply the human element is woven into this fabric. Biblical accounts aside, God communicates through people. And with the exception of Jesus (honorable mention to Mary), no human being in history has been perfect. Even if God speaks clearly and directly into someone’s heart, and if that person were able to understand it perfectly, the message is not guaranteed to remain undiluted when they try to share it with someone else. This is the nature of the human condition.

    I’m getting at two things. First, I think we have to be careful in claiming that certain Church teachings are forbidden to question because “this is the way we have always done it” or because “this is what Jesus did.” Neither of those claims are as simple as they are sometimes made out to be. The fact is, the Church changes. History proves this. And it is nothing to be ashamed of. The earthly Church is imperfect because the people who comprise it are imperfect. This is why the Church is a pilgrim Church, traveling continually deeper into the mind and heart of God even as our ultimate destination remains beyond us. So does the tradition of the Church carry enormous weight? Of course it does. And no long-standing teaching should be reconsidered wantonly. But this does not mean that we should not continually and prayerfully continue to discern God’s will and the meaning of revelation. God may exist outside of time, but we on this earth do not. We live in history, and our collective Christian history is one of a winding (and occasionally misguided) but continual movement toward God.

    Second, I make no claim that democratizing elements in the Church are the work of God’s Holy Spirit. At the same time, it is foolish to proclaim that they are not just because they call into question ideas that are too often taken for granted. You speak disingenuously when you accuse questioning people of serving only themselves, dismissing the possibility that they are seeking to follow Jesus with wholeness of heart, soul, and mind. What qualifies you to make that judgment? We believe in the God who surpasses all understanding. The idea of God’s unknowability enjoys a prominent position within our tradition. Those who faithfully follow the teachings of the Church, often through great difficulties, are a blessing upon us. And yet, so too are those throughout history who have questioned prevailing wisdom (as evidenced by the great number of them who have subsequently been canonized). The Holy Spirit is not synonymous with an “anything goes” attitude. And yet, God’s Spirit does blow where it will. The point is (and I really mean to say this in all humility and with a full sense of my own inadequacies), please be careful not to come across as knowing completely the mind of God just because you subscribe fully to the orthodoxy of the Catechism. They are not synonymous. In other words, the only thing I know with absolute certainty about God is that we don’t know everything about God. In other words, communion is mystery.

  2. Leon Suprenant July 26, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Nat. I am en route to a meeting now, but I look forward to continuing this dialogue with you later this evening or tomorrow.

  3. Mike F. July 26, 2012 at 9:44 pm #

    Excellent article, Leon. Your points are well taken – especially regarding the distinctions between the objective and subjective.

    I noticed the comment from Nat as well. If I might make a comment on that: I don’t think he quite understood what you were getting at – he seems to be arguing something a bit different than what you were arguing at times. I suspect there’s a fair amount of what he wrote with which you wouldn’t necessarily disagree.

    I suppose it could be said that Catholicism is a large playground, within which there is plenty of room for many opinions and views. There are certainly some who would like to appoint themselves as the orthodoxy police and shut down legitimate discussion. This is obviously wrong and unCatholic.

    But the Catholic playground *does* have limits – a fence beyond which one cannot go and remain authentically Catholic. And there are certainly some who race right to that fence and see if they can hurdle it (which is certainly another part of the “nature of the human condition”, as Nat put it). This is also wrong.

    There are many black and white teachings that are not subject to open disagreement. For instance, a faithful Catholic is not free to believe that the Eucharist is merely a symbol for the sake of ecumenism (or what have you). Neither is he free to hold that procured abortion is morally permissible or that homosexual acts are morally good. There are limits to the dialogue/discussion. And the sad fact is that some “Catholics” openly acknowledge that they are, in fact, dissenting. Some make little or no pretense that their beliefs are actually faithful, orthodox interpretations. In such cases, there’s no real room I can see to charitably imagine good will and simple misunderstanding/disagreement.

    But again, well done, Leon. I enjoyed this one.

  4. archkck July 27, 2012 at 3:11 am #

    Thanks, Mike F. I used an analogy similar to the one you gave regarding the playground in “Welcome to the Catholic Church: A Gated Community.” Clearly I am distinguishing here between established doctrinal and moral teachings on the one hand, which Catholics are called to accept “with a divine and catholic faith” and changeable Church disciplines, practices, etc. as well as items that are a matter of theological opinion. I think part of the issue that sometimes arises is that some want to limit the deposit of faith to the creed and perhaps a couple ex cathedra pronouncements, with ordinary magisterial teaching (including the vast realm of morality) largely up for grabs. But that’s another discussion.

    I would want to say three quick things to Nat. First, I want to thank you for the charitable, engaging tone of your comment, even as you disagreed with me. I thought you expressed yourself in a very engaging manner. Second, I understood (and took no offense) regarding the comment about this being a “religiously partisan” blog. I just want to clarify, though, that I take very seriously the fact that this is an archdiocesan blog. I strive to present only Catholic teaching. I try to keep my personal opinions to a minimum, and even then I try to make it clear when it is simply Leon speaking (as opposed to a Pope, the Catechism, etc.). Third, I do apologize if anyone felt I was judging their personal motives for believing (or not believing) what the Church teaches. That said, Christianity is a “revealed” religion, and the Holy Spirit, who does blow where He wills, also protects and guides the Church in her teaching. Yes, the Church is a mystery, and so we can always go deeper in our relationship with Christ and our understanding of the mysteries He came to reveal.

  5. James Likoudis July 28, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    Nate’s line of thought is familiar in Church history and has been the repeated refrain of dissenters from the Church and dissenters within the Church who undermine the objectivity of Divine Revelation and the authority of the Church to define with clarity the mysteries of a supenatural religion that must be believed if we are to be faithful to Christ. God is not completely unknowable,and it is true that we cannot know completely the mind of God or everything about God, but we do know with certainty those truths He has revealed through the Church He commissioned to teach us. Catholic Christianity informs us that Almighty God has opened a whole cycle of knowledge to us which we could not reach otherwise. One of those truths is that the Catholic Church is the vehicle or bearer of God’s revelation, and ideas inconsistent or contradicting that revelation are false and injurious to one’s salvation. The Spirit blows where He wills, but does He do so in commuicating with such people as a Charles Manson or Hitler or Mao or present-day terrorists bent on violence to further false and muderous ideologies? Members of the Church cannot hide behind an agnosticism about God to refrain from making judgments concerning the theological and philosophical errors of our time.The faith that we have which is a gift of God demands discernment of political, cultural, social and religious movements posing as “new breaths of the Spirit”. The hisory of present dissent in the Church presents many examples of “false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matt. 7, 15-19).

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