Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Some Notes on the Meaning of Church in Light of Benedict's Rehabilitation of SSPX (2)

A week ago, I posted some notes (here) on Vatican Council II. I wanted to look back at that council in light of the choice of the current pope, Benedict XVI, to rehabilitate a group who reject that ecumenical council, the Society of St. Pius X. As that posting promised, I also want to append to that initial discussion some reflections about the practical implications for the church today of the different ecclesiological paths represented by Vatican II and those in reaction to the council.

My previous posting argues that ecclesiology (how we are to understand and talk about the church) is fundamental to Vatican II. When John XXIII convened this council of the entire church (that’s what the term “ecumenical” means; these councils are thought to represent the Spirit’s direction for the entire church), he sought to return to ancient ecclesiologies that had been discarded in the church of the Counter Reformation and the modern period. In his view, the time for defensive reaction against modernity was past. The church needed to retrieve its ancient ecclesiologies in order to engage the world redemptively and dialogically, and not merely by way of constant condemnation.

My posting notes that the church of the Counter Reformation and modernity was primarily a church in reaction: first to the Protestant Reformation, and then to the rise of modernity, with its sovereign nation states, scientific worldview, emphasis on human rights (including the rights of women), and historical-critical methods for interpreting the Bible. The church of this period envisaged believers as prey to destructive, godless currents of thought from which they had to be protected.

The church of the Counter Reformation and the modern period closed ranks, drew into a fortress, pulled the drawbridge up over the moat, and hurled down threats and anathemas against the entire modern project. Its leaders preached to the laity that absolute, unquestioning obedience was the primary virtue. Without total obedience, the church could not effectively combat the threat of modernity.

The church of this period stressed what it called the deposit of faith, the doctrinal inheritance the church transmits from generation to generation, based on scripture and tradition. The deposit of faith was thought of in objectified terms as a body of “truths” that had to be safeguarded and transmitted to the faithful, and which it was the duty of the faithful to receive with unquestioning obedience and intellectual assent, if they hoped to be Catholic and to achieve salvation.

A single philosophical tradition, neo-Thomism, an adaptation (and bastardization) of a richer Thomist tradition from the medieval period, became the authorized language for presentation of these “truths”—almost as if that philosophical language and its formulas were part of the deposit of faith itself, and not to be questioned. Faith, in this tradition, came to be understood primarily as something the mind does—intellectual assent—rather than as something that the whole person does, mind, soul, heart, and body, through giving oneself to God. The notion of faith that prevailed in the church of reaction to modernity stressed the willingness to accept “truths” handed down by the church in approved philosophical formulas, rather than the personal relationship of the believer to God which is central in biblical understandings of faith.

This approach to church life—constant enmity towards the world, with a heavy emphasis on “truths” captured in neo-Thomist philosophical formulas, and the obligation of the faithful to assent to and defend those truths—went hand in hand with the understanding of the church as a perfect society, something I noted in my previous posting. The church of the perfect society was above all orderly and unified: from top to bottom, through rules handed down from its absolute monarch through his henchmen in each local church, the bishops, and their representatives at the parish level, pastors. The perfect society model of the church rests on the presupposition that if one removes any aspect of that top-down approach to church life—pope safeguarding the deposit of faith, handing its truths down to bishops, who oversee the transmission of those truths by priests to the faithful—the entire system would fall apart.

With its movement back to the much more traditional ecclesiologies of the Christian scriptures and the patristic era, that is precisely what happened, in the minds of those who had everything invested in the perfect-society model, with its top-down leadership style. Their strong push against Vatican II is rooted in a belief that everything has fallen apart in the Catholic church, insofar as it began to question the perfect-society ecclesiology and to make changes in its institutional life reflecting its critique of that model.

This is to say that those attacking Vatican II have refused, at a fundamental level, to give up the attack on modernity—even in this period in which influential cultural commentators insist we have moved beyond modernity to postmodernity. In their worldview, the world remains a dark and sinful place to be combated and overcome. Contrary to Vatican II, which for the first time in Catholic history began to speak of the Protestant churches as churches, valid Christian communions led by the Spirit, from whom Catholics can learn, those resisting Vatican II continue to insist that the Catholic church has exclusive ownership of the truth and Protestant churches are threats to the unity and purity of Catholicism.

The fundamental impulse of those rejecting Vatican II is to continue to close ranks, weed out dissenters, and fight—from within the fortress, where truth reigns and everything is in perfect order, insofar as each member of the church assents to all truths in the deposit of faith. This is a fight pitched directly against the key ecclesiologies that Vatican II retrieved from ancient tradition: the images of the church as the pilgrim people of God and the body of Christ.

Certainly those images were not absent from ecclesiological thought before Vatican II. But they were subordinated to the image of the perfect society, and their implications were not adequately explored, since they could not be explored as long as the perfect-society model prevailed. When those gathered at Vatican II made the fateful decision to move away from the perfect-society ecclesiology, with all that this implied about the church’s relationship to the world and how the church organizes its inner life, a simultaneous decision was made to give primacy of place to the images of the church as the people of God and the body of Christ.

And that’s when the trouble began. It is well-nigh impossible to synthesize the perfect-society model with the people of God model of church. One metaphor stresses order and control; the other stresses communion and participation. One privileges top-down leadership and unquestioning obedience to the leader on top. The other emphasizes the presence of the Spirit in each believer and the need for each believer to seek God in her or his own pilgrim journey.

The implications of these two ecclesiologies for the inner life of the church—for how it views itself, preaches about itself, organizes itself—are starkly different. If the church took seriously what Vatican II says about the church as the pilgrim people of God (and I would argue it has not yet done so, due to powerful resistance to Vatican II in its leadership circles), the entire way the church structures itself would have to be revised at a very fundamental level.

For instance, the top-down approach to transmitting the deposit of faith would have to give way to a more participatory, communal style of discerning the Spirit’s voice in the church. The latter approach need not imply the abolition of pastoral leaders, of those designated within the community to listen carefully to the voice of the Spirit in the entire people of God and then to formulate the significance of what the Spirit is saying for all.

But what would have to change is the autocratic, anti-democratic style of the church’s leaders, a style rooted in the imperial traditions of the Roman Empire and not in the gospels. What would also have to change is the assumption that the ordained members of the church (clerics) should have special power and privilege among the people of God—and that the people of God should be powerless objects in an institution in which only the ordained can exercise power.

I am emphasizing the question of where clerics fit in the scheme of things because, in my view, much of the hidden reaction to Vatican II in the church today—the hidden attempt to continue the perfect-society model inside the shell of the people of God model—arises out of clericalism. Since Vatican II, the Catholic church has been stuck—deliberately arrested in its attempt to come to terms with that council and its ecclesiology—because of the determination of powerful groups at the center to maintain the clericalist system within the church.

These powerful interest groups know full well that if the system that provides power and privilege to clerics and denies it to the rest of the people of God were questioned at a fundamental level, everything in the church would have to change. Their resistance to Vatican II is fueled not merely by a resistance to the Council’s retrieval of the people of God ecclesiology, or to modernity: it is fueled by resistance to any attempt to critique the clerical system that is integral to the perfect-society model.

In the way the crisis of clerical sexual abuse has been handled by the church's leaders—from Rome down to the level of national bishops' conferences and of individual bishops—we see the handwriting on the wall: that crisis is rooted in clericalism and can never adequately be addressed unless we examine honestly the horrific price the whole church pays for keeping this system intact. But both the Vatican and prominent leaders of most national churches adamantly resist this critique and any attempt to delve into the damages clericalism has inflicted on the church. Their response to the crisis—shielding priests, blaming and revictimizing victims of abuse, playing hardball with lawyers and courts, lying and refusing the disclosure of information sought by the public and the legal system—is all about their intent to hold onto the clericalist system. At all costs.

To a great extent, the resistance to Vatican II in many sectors of the church represents a preferential option for clericalism—for a continuation of the clericalist model in church life, for a continuation of the special power and privilege clerics enjoy in the church, and for the continued subordination of the laity to the clerical elite. Those combating Vatican II—both overtly, as in SSPX, and covertly, from the center of the church, where the reforms mandated by the council have been checkmated by the restorationist agendaare willing to wager the future of the church on the continuation of clericalism. At all costs.

They are willing to subordinate the church and its future, in other words, to a mutable, historically developed polity and system of structuring the church, that (in the view of many observers) gives unjust power and privilege to the clerical elite. This is—ultimately—why a tacit decision has been made among the ruling sectors of the church to edge out millions of Catholics in the developed nations of the world, who were energized by Vatican II's retrieval of the people of God ecclesiology. This is why church leaders continue to ally themselves with movements that have strong ties to fascism, including Opus Dei, the Legionnaires of Christ, and SSPX, while battering theologians who explore the implications of Vatican II and pushing millions of their brothers and sisters who find hope in the council out of communion.

This is, in the final analysis, what Benedict’s smaller, purer church is all about. It is not merely a church that preserves essential features of the perfect-society model in the shell of Vatican II. It is a church that absolutely resists any and all critiques of clericalism, and above all, any institutional changes that will concede something to critiques of clericalism. It is a smaller, purer clericalist church, in which historically conditioned understandings of the priesthood and its place in the church have been elevated to the status of unchangeable doctrine. Benedict welcomes SSPX because, in key respects, even with its rejection of Vatican II, the ecclesiology of that schismatic group is closer to Benedict’s than is that of millions of Catholics of the post-Vatican II era.