Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ecclesiological Options and the Church of Postmodernity

In these days of commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Humanae vitae, I’ve been asking myself what-if questions about where the church finds itself now. To be specific: what if Ratzinger had appropriated the Nazi period and its aftermath quite differently than he has done? What if he had approached that period of dark kairos in a way similar to that of his countrymen Rahner and Metz?

The trajectory of Catholicism at the end of the 20th century was decisively set by two men—John Paul II and Ratzinger—who reacted to the horrors of the 20th century in a quite specific way, one that has determined the course of the church into the 21st century. That there were other options for the church—other ways to appropriate what happened in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—is apparent in the theology of both Rahner and Metz. Had the church chosen to follow the path sketched by the theology of Rahner and Metz, it would be in a very different place now—one, I believe, that would far better situate it to be an effective sacramental sign of salvation in the world than the option chosen by John Paul II and that pope’s chief theological advisor, the current pope, Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.

The contrast between Ratzinger and Metz is especially illuminating. When I read Ratzinger on the Nazi period, I’m constantly struck by the dichotomous (and, ultimately, false) way in which he presents the relationship between the Catholic church and the Nazis. To hear Ratzinger tell the story, the church was the sole locus of sanity in a world that went mad with ethnic hatred and blood lust, with total lack of respect for human life, in the Holocaust period.

That sharp dichotomy between church and world that characterizes the ecclesiology of both John Paul II and Ratzinger is apparent already in Ratzinger’s attempt to come to terms with what his countrymen did in the 1930s and 1940s, and with how the church responded. The church held fast to authentic human values and respect for life; the Nazis crossed the line and quickly went to hell, with eugenic experimentation and extermination of the mentally and physically challenged, of “inferior” races, and so on. In the church, light; in the world, darkness. In the church, Christ; in the world, the devil.

To think this way is to disregard the testimony of history. Sadly, the church was simply not the beacon of light in the mid-20th century that Ratzinger would have us remember it as. Its witness against the atrocities of the Nazis was muted, tragically mixed, and compromised. The response of the church was often, at best, one of indifferent silence, at worst, one of complicity.

Certainly, there were courageous Catholics, including many priests and religious, who actively resisted the Nazis. Some of them paid the price of martyrdom for their courageous witness. We should remember them. And we do—primarily because they stand out so sharply from the mass of their co-religionists at the time, in their willingness to speak out.

On the whole, the church stood by in silence as millions of human beings were slaughtered. At its worst (as with the Austrian bishops), it actively welcomed the Nazis as saviors of the church from the scourges of godless communism. The historic legacy of antisemitism in the church, a legacy whose roots go back to the very beginning of Christianity, bore bitter fruit in the 20th century in the church’s timid, unconvincing response to the Nazis.

Ratzinger does not admit this. In refusing to admit it, he falsifies history, and builds on the basis of that falsification an ecclesiology inadequate to meet the challenges of the postmodern period. His fellow countryman, his fellow Bavarian, Metz, has quite different memories of the Nazi period, and out of those memories, fashions a very different ecclesiology—one that, had the institutional church chosen it in the latter part of the 20th century, would place us in a very different place today.

Growing up in a small Bavarian village during World War II (just as Ratzinger did), Metz recalls the silence of his Catholic village about the presence of a death-camp just outside the village. Metz writes about how the people in his village continued praying, singing, going to liturgy, knowing full well that other human beings were being murdered outside the village all the while. And saying nothing. Just as the church itself, in its institutional mode, said nothing.

For Metz, silence was not an adequate response to what happened in the Holocaust. In contrast to Ratzinger, Metz could not defend the silence of the church or try to cast re-read that silence as some kind of noble, prophetic witness against all odds when a savage state was persecuting the church. Metz reads the silence for what it was: complicity. In refusing to stand up against—in refusing even to admit—what they knew was going on right in their midst, Catholics failed to live the gospel at a time of tremendous need for prophetic Christian witness.

Much of Metz’s ecclesiological work following the Nazi period is a meditation on how and why the church is able to turn a deaf ear to the cries of the oppressed for liberation—when the church can very well make a difference. Metz critiques the church that turns in on itself, pretending it can pray and conserve its faith as it ignores the suffering of the world around it.

Metz’s reading of the critical theorists led him to recognize that there are, at all periods of history, many currents at work in the world to imagine and bring about a more humane future for the world. Out of this insight, Metz developed a theology in which the church must always be in active collaborative dialogue with secular currents that are moving along with the church towards the horizon of hope—as the church itself moves, through its proclamation of the gospel and its attempt to be an adequate sacramental representation of the reign of God in history.

Rahner, too, followed a very different ecclesiological path after the Nazi period than did Ratzinger. Rahner’s attempt to re-read Thomist theology in light of the personalist philosophies of the early 20th century—his theology of transcendental Thomism—reflects on the venerable Catholic maxim that grace builds on nature.

In Rahner’s theology, the entire “natural” world is imbued with grace. Nature and grace are not at war with one another; church and world are not enemies. Salvation is not extrinsic to the world; it is the very core, the deepest history, of the world as the world fulfills its destiny.

The dichotomy between church and world that so decisively shapes the theology of John Paul II and Ratzinger—a dichotomy in which the church alone represents salvation—is not present in Rahner’s thought. In a world in which grace is active everywhere and at all times to draw the world to salvation, the church is, of course, a sacramental sign of salvation: but it is a sign of a salvation that is not the exclusive prerogative of the church or of Christians. It is the sign of a salvation that God is effecting everywhere, for all creation, not only for those calling themselves Christian.

Though Rahner speaks at times of the church of the remnant, he has explicitly repudiated the notion of the smaller, purer church that informs the ecclesiology of Ratzinger. Rahner notes that his church of the remnant is a church engaged in active collaborative dialogue with the world, not a cult of true believers turning its back on the world. Rahner’s ecclesiology also grants something that is hardly ever granted in the ecclesiology of Ratzinger and John Paul II—namely, that the church is sinful, even as it is holy and a sacramental sign of grace.

What a different church we would be living in now, had either Rahner or Metz, or both, had the honor, privilege, and power of Ratzinger under the papacy of John Paul II. Ratzinger and John Paul II closed many doors that both Rahner and Metz would have left open: dialogic doors of welcome to Christians of other communions; to the world religions; to secular movements working for a more humane world; to women and laypersons; to theologians. The ecclesiology of both Rahner and Metz opens to all those groups, since God is never the captive of the church and its clerical elite in the theology of Rahner and Metz.

I cannot help suspecting that it is not merely the staunch intent to stand against the godless relativism of secular modernity that forms the very core of the ecclesiology of both John Paul II and Ratzinger. Both maintained that the true face of 20th-century secular relativism was apparent in Nazi ideology and the ideology of state socialism in the Soviet Union. Both saw the church as the only adequate fortress against that godless ideology and its ravages.

But both ended up with an ecclesiology that also implicitly defends the continuation of a system of clerical power and privilege that is equated with the essence of Christianity—of their clerical power and privilege. In the crisis of sexual abuse of children, we are just beginning to see the price the church has been paying for its idolatrous continuation of this changeable, historically developed polity of church governance.

And as we do so, some of the most important voices in the church to help us meet the challenge of this crisis have been silenced. At a moment in history when we need many voices speaking confidently of the experience of grace within many different social contexts, we have a unitary voice—the voice of the church’s clerical elite—seeking to represent itself as the sole possible voice of the church in the postmodern period. At a moment in which thoughtful dialogue with an increasingly complex secular culture is imperative—in which an educated laity could well lead such dialogue on many fronts—we have a church intent on curbing critical thought, a church intent on imposing simplistic litmus tests of orthodoxy, a church intent on hounding out its best and brightest in the name of preserving orthodoxy,

when what is actually being preserved is clerical power and privilege, at a cost we too few of us have even begun to recognize, in this period in which the church's influence in the public square could be so much more cogent, had the project of Vatican II not been deliberately stopped by the previous pope and his theological advisor and successor, Cardinal Ratzinger . . . .

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