Missed Opportunities

If American Catholics took to heart one idea from Vatican II, it was that they themselves were the church. In 1965, that was an exciting realization. It inspired many Catholics to study their faith, to become more involved in parish life, to join social movements for peace or for the defense of human rights, and to seek jobs in church ministries and agencies. Throughout the church Catholics felt a renewed interest in spirituality, prayer and meditation, the classics of Christian mysticism, and the ministry of spiritual direction. Ministries, the quality of liturgies, and the theology preached and taught improved significantly, and the number of people involved grew. It was a time of new life in the church.

In retrospect, it may seem strange that Catholics had forgotten that they are the church. Yet the important people in the church often did not look or talk like we did. They behaved as though they alone were agents of the church’s mission. When we gathered for worship, it seemed like something we had come to watch, not something we had come to do. It was as though the other people who spoke and acted at Mass were “the church.” In fact, they were speaking in the first-person plural, but in a language few of us could understand.

Then came Vatican II. Whatever the continuities with the preconciliar church—and there were many—Catholics experienced a seismic shift after the council. “The church” now meant all of us, and that’s what the liturgical changes communicated. Most Catholics expected the church to change. They anticipated more participation and dialogue, more consultation and collegiality, and more mutuality and accountability.

After the council, Catholics were forced to improvise: there were no manuals, no old hands for the tasks they faced. Some were hasty and careless in making changes; others were resentful and authoritarian in resisting change. Mistakes were made on every side.

Yet in the years since Vatican II, a shadow has fallen over the church. Some promises made at the council were never kept. Some important advances have begun to be reversed. Bishops were appointed with little support from the local people. A large majority of Catholics disagreed with church leaders about several important issues, and were simply ignored. As a result, many no longer feel at home in the church. What goes on in the church no longer seems to be about their own lives. So far as they can tell, many leaders of their church seem not to care about their feelings of estrangement. Especially among young-adult Catholics, the church seems to be not just wrong, but morally wrong—especially on the issue of homosexuality. For many, that has been heartbreaking.

But if the truth is that we are the church, then it isn’t really possible to drift away from it. Catholics would only be drifting away from one another, and in our culture at this time the church doesn’t need that. Rather than resign ourselves to such an outcome, Catholics must re-examine what we imagine Catholicism to be.

Richard P. McBrien’s The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism could be a real help in that task. It is a major work by one of the church’s most distinguished theologians. “This book presents in a single volume a systematic and relatively comprehensive theology of the church,” McBrien writes. The Church is a lucid, balanced, and readable book—a work of integration that is always reasonable, well informed, honest, and deeply hopeful. Written to be accessible to a wide educated audience, it will also be used in college courses, theological schools, and graduate programs.

The Church begins with an account of the ecclesiological ideas that emerge in the New Testament. McBrien explains why the popular Catholicism of the past so often misimagined the early Jesus movement and the institutional forms of the early church, projecting back onto them developments that were taken for granted in later times. He explains how we might reimagine these originating events with more careful attention to the texts of the New Testament.

McBrien provides an overview of ecclesiological history from New Testament times, including the events that shaped and reshaped the church’s self-understanding. He covers the heresies, the persecutions, the rise of monasticism, and the establishment of Christianity as the empire’s religion. He discusses Augustine, the Gregorian Reform, Thomas Aquinas, the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and provides detailed accounts of Vatican I, developments after Vatican I, and the ecclesiologies of the first half of the twentieth century.

The center of gravity in the book is McBrien’s extended, carefully considered interpretation of the papacy of John XXIII, the stages of Vatican II, the teachings of the council’s major documents, and the contemporary arguments about the council’s meaning. In this clearly reasoned section, McBrien makes a significant contribution to the current conflict of interpretations of Vatican II, helping readers understand anew the enthusiasm and creative energies that followed the council.

In the longest part of The Church, McBrien discusses postconciliar Catholic ecclesiology on the church’s life ad intra, addressing the various meanings of “communion,” the theory and practice of church “authority,” and the significance of ecclesial “reception.” He also takes up ministry, Marian devotion, the ecclesiological contributions of Catholic women, the church in Latin America and Africa, minority communities in the U.S. church, and Catholicism’s emerging awareness of itself as a “world church.” It is here, especially on the theory and practice of authority, that McBrien touches on the most difficult unresolved conflicts in the church. His appreciation of the role genuine authority plays in the life of any community ensures the evenhandedness of his treatment. And he makes clear the importance of historical understanding, critical reflection, and truth-telling in efforts to move beyond these conflicts.

The book concludes with a reflection on the church’s future prospects:

We have been moving in a relatively brief period of time (but not without resistance) from a highly clericalist, pyramidal, authoritarian, and unecumenical concept of the church to one that emphasizes the radical equality of all the baptized, the common ground that the Catholic Church shares with other Christian churches and ecclesial communities, the world’s non-Christian religions, and the human community as a whole, and the opportunities for dialogue that potentially build upon that common ground.

There is much to appreciate in The Church. It is full of helpful information, and its author’s theological and pastoral judgments are sound and commendable. The book could help the American church regain equilibrium.

McBrien reports on much of what is best about contemporary Catholicism. But the church also has serious problems. The intractable polarization within the church is certainly among them. I intend no disrespect when I describe the book as a highly intelligent, learned, well-organized, coherent, and even self-effacing ecclesiology for a church that doesn’t quite exist. I wish it did, and I think it should. But for now there is a piece of the puzzle missing.

The book treats the current balance of power in the church in so subdued a manner that one could easily forget about the conflicts roiling just beneath the surface. The church always needs reform, but is it possible to gain a deeper understanding of what causes these recurrent episodes of mutual incomprehension, paralysis, and the withering away of dialogue?

McBrien is trying to convey a clear account of ecclesiology while emphasizing areas of broad agreement among today’s Catholic theologians in the mainstream of moderate-to-liberal thought. That is a reasonable choice; they constitute a large majority of Catholic theologians. Their way of thinking is grounded in its own legitimate sources of authority and conviction. And many share that view, including a large majority of Catholics in Europe and North America—but not most bishops. Too often, they, along with a well-organized and well-funded minority of lay Catholics, seem to inhabit an alternative world.

In order to move forward the church will need more theological reflection on the key events of its history-on the events themselves, not merely on the ideas and documents associated with them. Have we, for example, fully faced the moral ambiguities involved in the establishment of Christianity as an imperial religion by the Theodosian Code—the accommodation of the lifestyles of the wealthy and powerful it required, the persecution of non-Christians deemed reasonable, and the sanctioning of coercive force in Jesus’ name? Has the church given enough thought to its long approval of slavery, the rhetoric of misogyny, the use of torture, and the execution of heretics? What about the church’s role in justifying the oppression of women, or its role in mobilizing hostility toward the Jewish people, and fomenting contempt, anxiety, and violence against homosexual people? We have changed our minds, but have we, as a people, felt much grief or contrition? Have we truly undergone a conversion and gained the insight that can only come from seeing the full truth about our actions?

Likewise, the church must come to terms with the stormy history from the French Revolution to the death of Pius XII. How do we understand the official condemnations of democracy, human rights, and religious liberty that lasted for so many years? What attitude toward truth was manifested in the condemnations of so many leading theologians and schools of thought during the papacy of Pius IX? We have to discuss the harshness routinely shown to dedicated priest-theologians, even in sickness and old age, who were suspected of errors. If love and forbearance were out of the question, why were civility and rudimentary courtesy so difficult?

Finally, we need to speak about sexual ethics, so central and intimate a part of life for most Catholics. We must think more about the influence of Stoicism, Manichaeism, and Neoplatonism on Catholic thought and spirituality through the centuries. We have to figure out what is causing the fierce conflict of views about these issues in the church today. Why is sexual ethics, unlike the ethics of economic justice or the ethics of war and peace, never a subject for open dialogue, broad consultation, or expert testimony among God’s people, and why for so many centuries didn’t we seem to realize that sex had to do with the expression and deepening of love?

Of course, the choice of what to say and what not to say in a single volume about so huge a subject is open to a legitimate variety of viewpoints. Perhaps these difficult questions and darker memories need to be approached in other venues. But truth has too often been compromised by pressures to conform and by demands for loyalty. The community of faith cannot be gathered and held together through acts of commanding and obeying. The church can only be gathered and held together by love—in freedom. Its mission must be undertaken now as one of dialogue and persuasion.

While I read The Church, I always felt the author’s love for the church, his intelligent and articulate concern for it, and the breadth and discrimination of his learning. McBrien is a Catholic priest, a theologian, an educator, a mentor, a department chair, an author, a columnist, an editor, and a familiar TV commentator on Catholic matters. He has also been criticized, attacked, and harassed by a faction of his fellow Catholics. He deserves their thanks and respect instead.

Published in the 2009-01-30 issue: 

Robert J. Egan, SJ, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, teaches theology and spirituality at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.

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