Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A Smaller, Purer Vision of the Church – and Why It Won’t Work

I must admit that that I sometimes find it a challenge to stay positive and hopeful when it comes to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. After all, it’s a hierarchy of (albeit diminishing) influence in the church and the world that encourages and rewards unquestioning obedience, intellectual dishonesty, and spiritual immaturity - especially in relation to sexuality.

But then I read something like the following article by Ted Schmidt (pictured at right), editor of the Canadian online Catholic paper, The New Catholic Times: Sensus Fidelium, and author of the book, Journeys to the Heart of Catholicism, and I feel renewed and hopeful once again.

Perhaps you will too.


The Little Flock
By Ted Schmidt
The New Catholic Times: Sensus Fidelium
August 4, 2008

Jesus went searching for the sheep that was lost.
We all have a place in the big tent of Catholicism.
A tiny perfectly orthodox society we are not.
Catholics struggling to be Christian need room to talk
to each other, argue with each other and most importantly
to engage the world with each other. In the end we will need
John XXlll’s “medicine of mercy” more than
brother Ratzinger’s constant hectoring.

Now that Pope Benedict has left Australia it might be helpful to briefly tease out his oft-quoted ruminations of the “Church of the little flock.”

In interviews which go back decades, Pope Benedict reiterates that the future of the Church will be smaller, maybe “a mustard seed where it will exist in small seemingly insignificant groups.” These groups, of course, will be utterly loyal to anything which comes out of Rome. A necessary culling will be the order of the day, say like the 300,000 Catholics driven out by the archbishop of Cologne, Joachim Meissner. “Chaff and wheat must be separated,” the then Cardinal Ratzinger said to journalist Peter Seewald in 1985. While few expect Benedict XVI to mount a massive proscription of ‘dissident’ Catholics, the probability is that the docile bishops promoted in the past 25 years will, by their increasingly irrelevant navel gazings and authoritarian centralization, drive progressives out.

The “little flock” concept seems a polar opposite to James Joyce’s definition of Catholicism as “Here comes everybody” and Jesus’ very own injunction to ignore the 99 and go seeking the lost one.

In a brilliant small book written after Vatican II, The Shape of the Church to Come (Herder, 1971), Karl Rahner had this to say about “the little flock”:

When we speak of ourselves today as the beginning of a “little flock,” we first remove a misunderstanding. “Little flock” does not mean a ghetto or a sect, since these are defined by a mentality: a mentality which the church can afford in the future even less than today. A sectarian or ghetto mentality is propagated among us – not under this label, but under the pretext that we are becoming Christ’s little flock which has to profess the folly of faith and of the cross. Any deviation must be fought with the utmost severity in the name of true faith and authentic Christianity.

If we talk of the “little flock” in order to defend our cosy traditionalism and stale pseudo-orthodoxy, in fear of the mentality of modern society; if we tacitly consent to the departure of restless, questioning people from the church so that we can return to our repose and orderly life, and everything becomes as it was before, we are propagating, not the attitude proper to Christ’s little flock, but a petty sectarian mentality. This is dangerous because it shows up, not under its true name but in an appeal to orthodoxy, church-loyalty and strict, Rome-dictated morality.

It seems to me that the great Rahner was prescient in his analysis of the reactionary fear which was beginning to set in after the revolutionary Council.

Jesus was in a big tent

The “cosy traditionalism and stale orthodoxy” which are in vogue today are thin gruel for a pilgrim Church marching through history. This narrow view of the Church is alienating too many of the Catholic faithful who long for something like John XXIII’s magnanimous and invitational “medicine of mercy.” We need a pope, not of the little flock but the big tent. Benedict, “ganz Schwarz,” as he was dubbed in his native Germany (“way too dark”), with his abstract, ethereal theology hardly ever filtered through life, has simply shown up at the wrong time.

There are other popes Benedict might emulate at this time. In 1964 Pope Paul Vl wrote a brilliant encyclical on dialogue. His main points are still worth taking very seriously:

The dialogue of salvation did not physically force anyone to accept it; it was a tremendous appeal of love which, although placing a vast responsibility on those toward whom it was directed, nevertheless left them free to respond to it or to reject it.

But it seems to us that the relationship of the Church to the world, without precluding other legitimate forms of expression, can be represented better in a dialogue,

79. This type of relationship indicates a proposal of courteous esteem, of understanding and of goodness on the part of the one who inaugurates the dialogue; it excludes the a priori condemnation, the offensive and time-worn polemic and emptiness of useless conversation. If this approach does not aim at effecting the immediate conversion of the interlocutor, inasmuch as it respects both his dignity and his freedom, nevertheless it does aim at helping him, and tries to dispose him for a fuller sharing of sentiments and convictions.

85. And before speaking, it is necessary to listen, not only to a man's voice, but to his heart. A man must first be understood; and, where he merits it, agreed with. In the very act of trying to make ourselves pastors, fathers and teachers of men, we must make ourselves their brothers. The spirit of dialogue is friendship and, even more, is service. All this we must remember and strive to put into practice according to the example and commandment that Christ left to Us.

It is difficult to see much of this dialogue in Joseph Ratzinger.

Leo XIII (1878-1903) could be a second teacher to the present pope. He acknowledged that his pontificate was successful because: “I was never afraid to appoint as bishop somebody who disagreed with me.”

There was something extremely disquieting about Cardinal Ratzinger’s clinical evisceration of so many creative theologians who disagreed with him. Do we really think these men do not love the Church as he does? Does not the fact that so many had their reputations trashed, their health endangered bother this Mozart-loving enforcer? Do we really believe that the God of Mystery can be so limited to the univocal voice of brother Ratzinger? Many of us share the respected theologian from Chicago, Fr David Tracy’s view that “Cardinal Ratzinger seems to be conducting a campaign to impose a particular theology upon the universal Church and upon all theologians. It won’t work.”

No it won’t work, because in the words of another great churchman of years ago, J.B. Phillips, “Your God is too small.” The God of Life, the God of History and that God’s Holy Spirit who “blows where it wills” (John 3:8) is no captive of the Catholic Church. That Spirit is working through universal justice movements and the humanization of the world. These are the “signs of the times” which the Church needs to attend to, one less Catholic and more catholic, another pilgrim for justice and agent for God’s reign.

We do not need a little flock “purified of anthropological, sociological or horizontal accents” but a Church like its Jewish founder, who emptied himself for God and God’s project. This is the only Church which makes any sense and one Joseph Ratzinger believed in when he said in 1962: “The meaning of prophecy is the protest against the self-righteousness of the institutions. God throughout history has not been on the side of the institutions but on that of the suffering and the persecuted.”

Ted Schmidt

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What it Means to be Catholic
A Church That Can and Cannot Change
Who Gets to be Called Catholic – and Why?
Comprehending the “Fullness of Truth”
Beyond Papalism
An Australian Bishop’s “Radical” Call for Reform
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
The Holarchical Church: Not a Pyramid but a Web of Relationships
“Uncle Vince” is at it Again
The Two-Sided Catholic Crisis
Chris McGillion Responds to the “Exacerbating” Actions of Cardinal Pell
It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Thoughts on Relativism
To Whom the Future of the Catholic Church Belongs
Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory
A Catholic’s Prayer for His Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
The Shrinking Catholic Tent
The “Underground Church”


kevin57 said...

I am very glad that the author referenced Karl Rahner's comments on the "little flock" analogy because he termed this expression long before Pope Benedict started using it. And as KR rightly notes, he does not pen the expression to describe a Donatistic dream, rather, that like in the days of the Roman Empire, the number of deeply committed followers of Christ would be small vis-a-vis a materialistic, hedonistic, and imperialistic culture, but would stand in stark contrast by its witness much more than by its defined doctrines.

Anonymous said...

The author's thoughts are all well and good but rather incomplete. AFter all, a lost sheep is...lost, right? It's by definition separated from the flock? There's a bit of self-delusion when we say we are a church of sinners but hasten to define how we are not sinning but those pharisees over there are.

Reminds of the shortest and most memorable homily of my life - which a priest delivered when I was around 10 or so. After proclaiming the gospel of the parable of the pharisee and the publican, the priest closed the book of the gospels and was silent for a while. Then he said one sentence, to this effect: "I wonder how many of us are thanking God we are not like that Pharisee."

This is a core realization we must embrace, especially when we plead the justice of a cause against the narrowness of the prelates. It's so easy to become worse than them in doing so and not realize it. So so so easy.

So I am left with my usual curious and unresolved thoughts: when we manifest our lack of persuasion by and to the magisterium, how sincerely do we manifest our own lack of infallibility? when our communities are united by a sense of oppression by the hierarchy, what are our orthodoxies that we police directly or indirectly, actively or passively - what thoughts and actions/inactions do we tolerate grudgingly or seek to convert into better praxis and belief (that is, our praxis and belief, of course)?

Because if we don't engage those questions at a local level first, we are poorly placed to expect - let alone demand - answers from a larger circle.

In other words, it's actually tough work to apply our progressivisms to ourselves first before hoping they might be tried by others. And it's easy for like-thinking progressives to delude ourselves that we're really doing that hard work when we're tightly banded together...we too have our purer, littler churches.