Sunday, July 29, 2018

Institution? Family? Thoughts on the Church

Venerable Fulton J Sheen, in his Your Life is Worth Living series, once said:

What do you think of when you first hear the word Church, an institution, an organization, a kind of an administrative body? It is the way we have too often presented the Church.

It’s a good point. Many people view the Church as as a means of organizing the Christian religion. A person who sees the Church as a positive thing thinks the organization cannot be questioned. A person who sees the Church as a negative thing thinks of the organization as interfering between the relationship between God and the individual or as an arbitrary rule maker.

Those views are understandable if a person sees the Church as a thing, then they will see that thing in either a positive or negative way, and everything that thing produces in the same way. The problem is, the Church is not a thing but a relationship: between God and man; between fellow men in relationship with God. If the Church is a relationship, a family, then the people within it are not overlords and minions but are members of a family.

As the future Pope Benedict XVI wrote in 1960, each one of us has a relationship with God only if we are part of His community:

In fact this word [“Our”] does have great importance, for only one man has the right to say “my Father” to God, and that is Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son. All other men must say “our Father”, for the Father is God for us only so long as we are part of the community of his children. For “me” he becomes a Father only through my being in the “we” of his children. The Christian prayer to the Father “is not the call of a soul that knows nothing outside God and itself”, but is bound to the community of brothers. Together with these brothers we make up the one Christ, in whom and through whom alone we are able to say “Father”, because only through Christ and in Christ are we his “children”.

(The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, page 51)

When we grasp that truth, Our Lord’s admonition to love our brother takes on deeper meaning. If we hate our brother, we are not in communion with him, and therefore not in communion with God. But, if we continue to love our brothers, even if they do not love us, we remain in communion with God and each other.

The difference is like night and day. If we think of the Church as an institution, those who shepherd as rulers, and teachings as edicts, then it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “I will only listen if they act as I think good.” In those circumstances, we are deceived if we think we can serve God while rejecting an external institution. But if we see Church as a properly functioning family, then we can understand the authority of the Church like the authority of the family. Our parents do not cease to be our parents just because they make a decision we dislike. The parents can listen to our input, but the responsibility for seeking the good of the family and the final decision rests with them. So if we desire something harmful, the Church (acting in persona Christi) like the parents, must refuse. If we do not like our parents decision, that does not negate their authority. If we dislike a Church teaching, it does not negate Church authority.

Unfortunately, whenever the Church makes a decision we dislike, we immediately drop into “Church as institution” mode and seek an excuse that justifies disobedience. But when we remember Luke 10:16, rejecting the Church is rejecting Our Lord... it breaks the relationship with God and with a His community. So, though we may think we’re doing good in rebellion, we’re actually doing wrong.

Of course all analogies limp if taken too far. Yes, in literal families we have problems. Yes we can have dysfunctional families that cause harm. But we trust God that He will protect His family, the Church, from leading us astray. Yes, we will have heretics, incompetents, and predators that seek to misuse the Church for their own purposes. But we believe they will not prevail in leading the Church, under the visible headship of the Pope, astray.

This is why we must look at the Church as family and be concerned for our brethren in loving God. To look at it any other way damages the communion.

Monday, July 23, 2018

When Factionalism Drives Evaluation

The latest news cycle brought out reports of scandalous things inside and outside of the Church. And of course, when wrongdoing happens, we must strive to correct it in a way that not only reflects our belief in justice, but the Christian obligation of mercy as well. That’s always hard. When we sympathize with someone, we want the mercy done but not the justice. But when we dislike someone, we want the justice done, but not the mercy. This is, of course, a corrupt attitude to take.

Making it worse, there is a tendency among some to use a scandal to target people one dislikes. Take the recent Cardinal McCarrick scandal. There are credible charges against him which—barring any exonerating evidence unexpectedly appearing—must be addressed. But some Catholics are using the scandal to target other clergy which they dislike. It’s the “guilt by association” fallacy. The question asked is, “is it really possible that [disliked clergy member] could have been ignorant about this?”

It attempts to imply that because a disliked cardinal (for example, Wuerl, Farrell) knew or were friends with McCarrick, they must have known and were complicit in covering up the abuse. The problem is, most people who commit shameful crimes don’t boast about it. They keep it hidden. The victims also keep it hidden out of shame, humiliation, or feelings of guilt (I understand it is common for the innocent victims of rape or other sexual crimes feel guilt over what they suffered). So, yes, it is possible that his friends didn’t know. Association does not prove knowledge and coverup. That has to be proven. Repeating the insinuation without proof is at the very least rash judgment.

But it is interesting that the cardinals targeted in this way were already hated by certain factions. So the fact that members of these factions are also insinuating that complicity exists should be noted. There may be a bias that seeks to misuse a scandal for the purpose of discrediting someone unrelated. On the other hand, we can’t simply argue from the fact that the person is hostile that the accusation is automatically a lie either. What this means is, we can’t draw an accusation against someone simply because of their affiliation with someone who does wrong. 

If we want to do what is right and avoid either false accusations or letting the evildoers get away with their evil, we must evaluate accusations. Is there any basis to them? Would I be willing to tolerate an accusation of evil if it came from someone I opposed? Would I be willing to accept that accusation if directed against someone I supported? How one answers these questions may indicate a factional spirit instead of a desire for justice.

Acting rightly when it comes to accusations can be real struggle sometimes. For example, when the Fr. Maciel story broke, I remember thinking that the accusations sounded so extreme that they had to be a lie being made to attack the Church. I was dead wrong about that. I remember being angry at the news stories about certain bishops taking a stand against Church teaching—only to discover the stories were false and my anger was misplaced. We can be wrong about what another is capable or incapable of and we have to be careful not to let our assumptions get in the way of our seeking out what is true, whether that truth is guilt or exoneration.

Rash judgment and calumny are sins. If we repeat as true what we do not know to be true, it is rash judgment. If we repeat what we know is false as if it were true, we commit calumny. We must not commit either. Instead, we must seek out truth and apply justice with the mercy Our Lord requires of us. If we presume the person we oppose must be guilty or the person we support must be innocent and refuse to seek out the truth, we do wrong in the name of our ideology.