Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Jamie Manson on What Creates Church: Relationships, Not Loyalty to the Institution

Two days ago, as I reflected on my experience of worshiping with an African-American Baptist church this past Sunday, and hearing the eloquent minister Rev. Jeremiah Wright preach, I wrote,

The words of dogmas are sacramental, in that they point beyond themselves and channel the salvific experience of the divine that is their basis and raison d’ ĂȘtre.  To make them the center of our religious tradition, our identifying mark as Catholics, is to put cart before horse, to make the sacramental sign primary rather than the communication of the divine to which it points. . . .

[A]s I wrote here back in July, in response to Michael Sean Winters on these points,as he seeks to defend Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, when George writes that the “Catholic way of life is based on assent to revealed truth and obedience to appointed pastors, both of which create the unity Christ wishes us to enjoy,” the unity of the people of God is created through the shared religious experience of the people of God first and foremost.  The dogmatic declarations safeguarded by the pastors of the church do not create that unity: they serve it and the religious experience to which it points.
When I penned those words, I had not yet read Jamie L. Manson's outstanding recent essay at National Catholic Reporter about how relationships and not loyalty to the institution create church.  I've noted Jamie Manson's work before, indicating that I find her voice as an interpreter of the Catholic tradition compelling, and noting that as a young Catholic thinker who happens to be a woman and who happens to speak her mind  clearly and convincingly, she seems to attract undue attention (and ire) from fellow-Catholics for whom outspoken women thinkers are anathema.

As usual, her latest essay is right on target.  She notes that it is not fidelity to a central teaching authority or to dogmatic definitions that defines Catholics in the last analysis.  It is, instead, our communion--with the eucharistic Christ and with one another in the body of Christ--that is fundamental.  As she notes,

As human beings, we are intrinsically relational and communal. Since it is only in relationship to others that we grow in our humanity, it makes sense that we undergo our greatest spiritual growth in community as well. In Tom Roberts’ most recent article from his “Emerging Church” series, Richard Rohr quotes Karl Rahner as saying, “the mind’s deepest need is not for answers, but for communion.” Though church-going Catholics may be not be finding helpful answers to their deepest ethical and theological questions from the institutional church, they seem to still find meaning from their parish community.

Then--and this is a point that, in my view, absolutely has to be considered by anyone who remains in and defends the Catholic tradition today--she extends her analysis to the large number of her brothers and sisters for whom the church itself is now a counter-sign to such communion.  To people like me, that is, and my partner Steve, who find we cannot sit through liturgical celebrations at which the clergy who break the bread of life and offer it to the rest of us have taken away our daily bread as Catholic theologians who worked in Catholic institutions owned by clergy.  Who fired us without reason, causing us endless financial problems as we provided care for my aging and ill mother, and ending our access to health care.

While they proclaimed that the eucharist--the bread of life--is what it's all about, for themselves as clerics and for our Catholic tradition.  And while our brothers and sisters in Catholic institutions and in the church at large, whose solidarity with us could have made a tremendous difference as we walked through these experiences, never opened their mouths to protest the injustice done to us.  Or to offer us a helping hand.

What about folks like Steve and me and countless others for whom the church has become a counter-sign to its most fundamental proclamations today?  To go on talking about the eucharist and communion as if we simply do not exist and aren't there undercuts the meaning of those central symbols of our faith even more radically than does the behavior that has shoved us from the table.  It compounds the erosion of meaning of those central symbols.

In Manson's view, if it is to retain meaning, the theology of the eucharistic table must also open to a theology of the "table of the world" that remembers, and reaches out to, and seeks to include, all the brothers and sisters absent from the eucharistic table due to the penchant for some church leaders and some members of the church to turn our central symbols into counter-signs of what the church proclaims.

I appreciate Manson's perspective here very much.  And I highly recommend this NCR essay to readers of Bilgrimage.

No comments: