Christians without backbones
Animals Without Backbones is the title of a book used for generations in college biology courses. A website on its new edition says that it was “considered a classic among biology textbooks since it was first published to great acclaim in 1938. It was the first biology textbook ever reviewed by Time and was also featured with illustrations in Life.” I don’t remember whether we used it in my college courses, but the name was familiar to me and returned to my consciousness when I read a paragraph in a book of conversations with Fr. Yves Congar that appeared in a work published late in his life under the title Entretiens d’automne. The context was a question about Vatican II and the Church’s encounter with modernity. Congar was of the view that the ecclesial crisis, which he dates, by the way as beginning around 1950) could be described as “the departure from Tridentinism [or ‘Trentism’],” a term that he borrowed from Giuseppe Alberigo, that he distinguished from the Council of Trent itself, and by which he meant a system constructed after the Trent. Congar describes it: “It is a system that included absolutely everything: theology, ethics, Christian behavior, religious practice, the liturgy, the organization, Roman centralization, the constant intervention of the Roman congregations in the life of the Church, etc.” Departure from it he describes as “the progressive dismantling of a framework that inserted people into a complete system under the authority of priests. This process began long before the Council….” Then comes this paragraph:
We have not yet sufficiently communicated, or developed, the positive biblical grounds on which a new chapter in the history of the Church has really begun, in continuity, however, with the living tradition of the Scriptures, the Fathers, and the classic centuries. The fate of the Church, it seems to me, is more and more tied to a spiritual and even a supernatural life, that is, to a Christian life. I think that today the only ones who can stick it out [tenir le coup] are Christians who have an inner life. In Tridentinism, there was a kind of conditioning (in a non-pejorative sense); there was a sort of enveloping, of a framework that one entered or stayed within, whereas today…, it is impossible, I think, to maintain a Christian life without some kind of inner life. And here I like to cite a rather curious remark of Fr. Emile Mersch, that Belgian Jesuit who did so much for the theology of the Mystical Body: “It’s because they lack a skeleton that certain animals surround themselves with a carapace.: Today I think the great carapace of Tridentinism has in great part dissolved, flaked off in some way, so that the need for a kind of inner frame is very urgent.
The metaphors give rise to thought. With the carapace one thinks of the defensive mode in which the Catholic Church confronted the successive waves that would produce the distinctively modern world. The result was what Congar called “the system,” always carefully distinguishing it from the Church itself, in which everything was already, to use a term that Congar often used pejoratively, ready-made. It was that carapace, that shell, that was revealed to have dissolved, flaked off, thus precipitating the crisis within the Church.
Reading his comment that only Christians with an inner, spiritual, Christian life will survive the crisis, some will be reminded of Karl Rahner’s comment that “the Christian of the future will by a mystic or will not be at all.” Here the other metaphor, borrowed from Mersch, comes into play, that of a skeleton. Today there is a tendency to get all squishy when talking about the inner life or “spirituality” (in its new meaning). Congar uses Mersch’s metaphor to refer to the inner Christian life as providing the skeleton, the backbone, that enables one to survive in a secularized world and makes it unnecessary to develop a hard outer shell. Christians without backbones are not going to make it.