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Church must embrace world


An influential Roman Catholic bishop recently told a symposium audience that “we cannot allow the world to set the agenda for the church.”

This prelate spoke as if such tough-love theological shorthand expresses the true sentiments of Vatican Council II. It is shorthand, but it is not theology, for his intention was to call back to life an ungodly trinity of notions entombed longer than Lazarus.

This invocation parlays the World, the Flesh and the Devil into a triad intrinsically dangerous to Catholics. In this view, the world is an occasion of sin from which we must turn away in order to save our souls.

The church, this bishop intimated, sets its own agenda against that of the world whose secular cities stand arrayed like Sodom and Gomorrah against us.

Before we start marching to the background martial music of this Church Militant vision, we may ask a question going to the heart of Vatican II and, indeed, to the very core of Catholic life and theology:

What could possibly set the agenda for the Catholic church except the world, whose blight of imperfection rivals the light of its glory? The church exists for sinners, for the lost sheep, for all that is human and unfinished about us, to serve our world rather than itself. The Catholic church is not true to itself unless it embraces the world and its people as Damien did Molokai and its lepers. You cannot save the world if you are afraid of its contagion; you cannot be holy if you are fearful of sin.

Nothing is more fundamental in the teachings of Jesus and in the best impulse of Christianity than the world as the subject of its love rather than the object of its wrath. The bishop fashions the world into an object, as impersonal and abstract as a Calder mobile, that can be cataloged but never warmed by the coldness of his curator’s touch.

This bishop speaks for some other bishops who feel that they are “saved” and we are not.

They do not rise to praise Vatican Council II but to bury it. They have willingly destroyed the effectiveness of their own National Conference of Catholic Bishops by accepting Rome’s demand that they must agree unanimously on any project before submitting it to the Vatican for approval. Irony is too mild a word to describe their apparent conviction that the best way to be leaders is to be followers.

Their imagery is military as they rally themselves against the world they see as sinful by taking “stands,” fighting “battles,” “training for sacrifice,” and drawing lines in the sand, laying down their law that it would be mutinous for Catholics even to think of stepping across.

“Even to think” -- has a sadder or less Catholic qualification been imposed since medieval times on the possibilities of legitimate theological investigation?

And widows, having known the sorrows of loss, stand in church clutching more than mites for the collection basket. They have questions about what they know in their hearts about life that differs from what they have been told by such self-complacent bishops.

Are they allowed to give their mite but not to ask their questions?

Bishops are not generals but pastors who are on easy terms with a sinful world (the only way it comes), because the church’s call is not that of a bugle sounding an attack but of the gentle whisper of understanding that reveals the possibilities of grace to all men and women.

Of course, the world -- sick, lost and needy -- sets the agenda for the church. The church makes no sense disdaining God’s creation while congratulating itself on its own purity and goodness. The gospel settles that.

The prayer “Have mercy on me, for I am a creature of sin” excels by far that of the man proud of his closely managed virtue.

Pope John XXIII was speaking to these contemporary bishops in his opening talk at Vatican II in which he so simply put aside fear of engagement with the world: “To them, the modern world is nothing but betrayal and ruination. They claim that this age is far worse than previous ages and they go on as though they had learned nothing at all from history. ... We feel bound to disagree with these prophets of misfortune who are forever forecasting calamity as though the end of the world were imminent. And yet today providence is guiding us toward a new order of human relationships that, thanks to human effort ... will bring us to the realization of still higher and undreamed of expectations; in this way even human opposition can lead to the good of the church.”

Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author of My Brother Joseph.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999