Sunday, November 1, 2009

For All the Saints: Reflections on the Communion of Saints

One of the things I’ve always liked about the doctrine of the communion of the saints is that it assumes that the vast company of saints is made up of people from every walk of life, every culture. The doctrine of the communion of the saints encapsulates the most fundamental affirmation that the church makes about itself: that it is catholic, universal, open to the vast experiences of people from every sector of the globe.

Hidden inside this doctrine to which Christians everywhere profess adherence when they recite the Apostles’ Creed each Sunday is the assumption that the church extends itself through history by engaging every culture and every human experience in a positive, redemptive, love-oriented way—as God does. The church is the church, and is the church catholic, only to the extent that it opens itself to every culture, to people from every walk of life, to human experience in its manifold complexity everywhere in the world.

In practice, of course, the canon of saints—the list of those officially recognized by the church as saints—has been and continues to be largely male and largely clerical. Ordained men have a better chance of being canonized in the Catholic church than do non-ordained men. Men have a better chance of being elevated to the status of sainthood than do women. Men or women called to celibacy are routinely recognized as saints, where married people receive less notice when saints are chosen.

And the saint-making business has been largely European (and, by extension, American, since the Americas are a cultural extension of Europe) in the past. The business is centered in Europe, after all, in Rome. And this assures that the canonization process has been dominated not merely by European culture and cultures born out of the European experience, but also by men who are white rather than by people of color.

Even so, the idea of the communion of the saints rests on the assumption that all of us are potentially saints—that all of us are, in fact, called to be saints. And that notion has exerted a powerful tug, a democratic one, one is tempted to say, in the life of the church over the centuries.

The belief that the Spirit of God can choose to dwell in anyone at all (and, in fact, that the Spirit delights to dwell in the outcast and downtrodden) has emboldened women like Catherine of Siena to speak out and warn the pope when she disagreed with his actions, Teresa of Avila to persist in founding reformed religious houses across Spain when the Inquisition sought at every turn to trap and destroy her, and Joan of Arc to claim that God had chosen to speak through an untutored cross-dressing girl who wasn’t even in religious life.

The doctrine of the communion of the saints led Martin de Porres, the son of a slave, to imagine that he could enter a “white” religious community when such a notion was unheard of, just as it led Henriette DeLille to found her own community of women of color when she was denied access to “white” communities on the ground that women of color cannot keep the vow of chastity. This doctrine caused Julian of Norwich to imagine that Mother God might choose to lavish spiritual gifts even on a laywoman with no theological training, just as it urged Franz Jäggerstätter, an ordinary young Austrian married man who had fathered a child out of wedlock, to persist in following his conscience to the point of martyrdom in Nazi-occupied Austria. Even when his pastor and bishops informed him that he did not understand and was not being faithful to Catholic teaching . . . .

There is, built into the notion of the communion of the saints, a certain revolutionary potential, which troubles and constantly challenges the church, insofar as the church and its leaders want to settle down in history, to cozy up to a particular culture and the powerful of that culture, in any given time and place. We’re living now through a period in which the revolutionary potential of the doctrine of the communion of the saints needs to be rediscovered, I would propose, by the church at large. Because we’re living through a period of history in which the church has been hard at work in recent years making compromises with the status quo that endanger its future and impair its ability to speak salvifically to people everywhere, to people in every walk of life across the globe.

I’ve written previously here about Nicholas Cafardi’s suggestion that a number of powerful U.S. Catholic bishops have, in recent years, given their hearts and souls so decisively to a single political party that they have become captive to that political party. Nicholas Cafardi sees a spectacular lack of wisdom in the choice of some influential U.S. Catholic bishops to make being Republican synonymous with being Catholic.

I thought of Cafardi’s thesis today as I read Frank Rich’s op-ed piece in the New York Times about the Republican party’s devolution into a “wacky, paranoid cult” that increasingly represents the views of a tiny, extreme political faction in the United States. I thought of Cafardi’s thesis in light of the doctrine of the saints as I read Rich, because he notes that the Republican party is faltering badly not merely because it has allied itself with the fringe right, but because it has wagered its future on a sociological drift that is waning rather than waxing in American culture.

Rich observes that the Republican party has made itself the party of white men at a moment of American history in which the nation is increasingly diverse, in ethnic terms, and in which such diversity (and the ever wider extension of power it implies in a democratic society) is only going to grow. He notes that Republican spokespersons like Pat Buchanan are lamenting the loss of “their” America, of an America that belonged primarily to them, as white, working-class men.

In Rich’s view,

They are right. That America was lost years ago, and no national political party can thrive if it lives in denial of that truth. The right still may want to believe, as Palin said during the campaign, that Alaska, with its small black and Hispanic populations, is a “microcosm of America.” . . . But most Americans like their country’s 21st-century profile.

If Frank Rich is correct in this analysis (and I think he is), then those U.S. Catholic bishops who want to hang the future of American Catholicism on the Republican party are doing a tremendous disservice to the church in linking its future to a sociological trend that is declining—the dominance of white men. And in doing so, they’re eviscerating the doctrine of the saints (and the catholicity of the church) of all real significance, because they’re implicitly limiting the scope of the church’s concern and ministry—as well as its power structures—to one gender and one race.

Powerful currents within global Christianity today, most of them emanating from Europe and North America, have made a preferential option for males at a moment in which women are emerging onto the stage of global history as persons and agents of their own destinies, rather than as objects and possessions of men. Just as women are, in a way unprecedented in global history, achieving full personal status in many societies, decisive reactionary movements within the Christian churches are trying to rewrite the scriptures to make them all about gender and gender roles, about women’s subordination to men—as though gender and gender roles are the heart of the Christian message.

The price that churches pay for making this preferential option for the male is tragically high. When the most significant accoutrement one can have for ministry or office in the church (and for leadership positions in the countless institutions churches sponsor) is a penis, people without a penis who have abundant qualifications and gifts to minister and lead will be overlooked, while people with a penis who often have mediocre talents and gifts (and attenuated sympathy for anyone unlike themselves, and constricted vision) thrive. Which is to say, some of those most qualified to carry the church forward in history will be excluded from positions of influence, while many of those least qualified to lead will rise to the top.

Institutions that hinge their future on something so incidental as possession of a penis as the primary qualification for leadership are not likely to thrive—not in the long run. Institutions that make being a leader all about having skin of one color rather than another are not likely to have a bright future, because they have made leadership dependent on a characteristic that has nothing to do with the content of character.

When institutions that calculate the future on the basis of ownership of a penis and a skin of a certain shade are Christian institutions, they not only jeopardize their future: they also radically undercut an important affirmation of the Apostle’s Creed—the recognition that being church is about opening the doors to everyone, since it is precisely in everyone that the Spirit chooses to reside. Not just in those who possess a penis and happen to be white. In everyone, including human beings with wombs, human beings who marry and are sexually active, human beings whose skin is gloriously hued, human beings who live in barrios and housing projects. And in men who love other men and women who love other women.

Though the canon of the saints may not include all those categories of human beings—though it may not give primary places of honor to those categories of human beings—I have an inkling that the real list of saints, the list of those whom God knows as saints even when they are not and never will be canonized, includes people from all of those categories, in abundance. I suspect this because I also have an inkling that when God looks at the world, what God looks for first and foremost is not penises and skin color, but the heart.

What a pity that so many Christian leaders today, and so many of those whom they indoctrinate, look for penises and skin color instead. This betrayal of the doctrine of the communion of the saints does not bode well for the future of the Christian churches.