Herbert McCabe on the "institutional Church"

As Commonweal's editor, Paul Baumann, prepares to move into a glamorous new office (one with a door anda window), he has slowly been excavating his old office. This morninghe unearthed an ancientphotocopy of an editorial comment from an ancient issue of New Blackfriars. The piece is dated February 1967 and signed "H.Mc.OP" -- that's Fr. Herbert McCabe, the great Irish Dominican who was then in charge of the journal. The comment was written in response to the news that the English theologian Charles Davis had decided to leave the Catholic Church, an event McCabe describes as "the most important thing that has happened in the Catholic Church in England for half a century." That may have been an overstatement, but McCabe's sense of the event's significance spurred him to write a fewtrenchant paragraphson the "dialecticaltension" ofa historicalchurch. Here are two of them:

[W]e must look more closely at this phrase, 'insitutional Church.'Consider a few institutions: Spode House, the Newman Theology Groups, the Union of Catholic Students, the Young Christian Workers, University Chaplaincies, the Catholic press including even New Blackfriars. None of these are exclusively for Catholics but no sociologist would hesitate to describe them as Roman Catholic institutions. It is within institutions such as these that a great many Catholics nourish their Christian lives. It is not merely because the dynamic of their lives is not derived from sermons or 'religious education' that it therefore comes from outside the institutions of the Church. To think so would be to betray a clericalist view of what counts as a Catholic institution. If there is a group which is characteristically on the fringe of the institutions of the Church in this sense, and which largely ignores them, it is the Bishops. Nonetheless without the overall and relatively impersonal structure of the hierarchy these Roman Catholic institutions could not exist. Nobody in England expects to be guided and encouraged in his Christian life by pastoral letters -- it is a matter for gratified astonishment when these have any theological content at all; this is not what we have come to expect of our Bishops. Perhaps in some more adequate Church we could ask for more, but at the present time in England they provide merely an administrative context within which the really vital and immediately relevant institutions can exist. That the established hierarchy is also a hindrance to these gorups is only too obvious and only to be expected. A dialectical tension between the framework of the Church and its points of growth seems to be a condition of Christian existence.It is one thing, however, to talk of a dialectical tension implied in the very idea of an historical Church, and quite another to excuse the corruptions and follies that are peculiar to our own time and place. What does not need to be endured indefinitely is the special irrelevance of so much of the behaviour of Church officials. Alongside the actual agony of growth in the Church there seem to be these men playing a private game amongst themselves in which the moves are directives and prohibitions and the players score points for formally going through the motions of docility or of repeating the orders correctly. It seems to me that we should treat this game as we do the phantasies of adolescence of any of the other ways in which men escape from reality; we should combine a firm determination to get rid of it eventually with a certain tolerance of it while it is being played. While Church authorities are occupied with these domination games they are neglecting their true role. It would be quite unrealistic to expect them to be sources of enthusiasm and original thought but it is their basic task to be the link between such sources, the framework within which they are kept in balance. To maintain this balance they must, of course, speak with authority, the real authority that comes with understanding and concern and listening to others; the authority that sees itself not in terms of power but as a service to the community, the channel of communication by which each part of the community is kept in touch with the whole, a whole that extends through time as well as space.

But why do we even needthese official channels of communication? McCabe had a good, short answer, one that explained his unwillingness to follow Davis out the door, in spite of the fact that he agreed with many of Davis's criticisms of the English hierarchy.

It is because we believe that the hierarchical institutions of the Roman Catholic Church, with all their decadence, their corruption, and their silliness, do in fact link us to areas of Christian truth beyond our own particular experience and ultimately to truths beyond any experience, that we remain, and see our Christian lives in terms of remaining, members of this Church.

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.

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