In a recent blog post (Cult Politics), I discussed the spiritual dangers of the American political scene, and explained why this website isn’t “right” or “left.” This post is a follow-up addressing “ecclesiastical politics.”
When Jesus was on earth, he was opposed by two groups: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These groups were very different from one another. The Pharisees were moral and legal rigorists, concerned with maintaining the purity of the Jewish traditions. The Sadducees were compromisers interested in worldly power, and they rejected many aspects of the Jewish traditions. Despite all their disagreements, however, they were ultimately united in their opposition to Christ.
These two groups could be taken as exemplifying two basic temptations that can distort Christ’s message. Today, these tendencies are embodied in two groups that threaten the unity of the Church: the reactionaries and the progressives. The progressives water down the message of the Gospel to enable cooperation with the world. In contrast, the reactionaries emphasize externals instead of the spirit of the Gospel.
Despite their surface contrasts, both fail to properly understand the Christian message, the Incarnation of the Word. Our message is not a bunch of words, but rather is a person, The Word of God. Being founded on the Eternal Word, our message can’t change with the changing times. Reactionaries justify their rigidity and inflexibility by pointing to this changelessness of the Gospel message. They fail, however, to take into account the issue of “translation.” Much as a concept or subject can be represented by many different words and phrases in different languages and contexts, so too the Word of God needs to be “translated” into different expressions to effectively evangelize and Christianize different cultures, times, and social contexts. Further, the eternal, unchanging Word has been entrusted to the fallible and changeable human beings who make up the Mystical Body, and so there are two further issues that reactionaries ignore: development and corruption. Limited human minds can’t fully take in the one Word of God, and so the message develops over time as we come to understand it more fully; that is the point of the Church’s tradition. Due to original sin, the humans who make up the Mystical Body can also introduce distortions into the message, which then needs to be reformed and renewed by going back to the sources. Since reactionaries fail to grasp this, they mistake a certain way of thought and a certain set of customs for The Word Itself. In doing so they become idolators rather than Christians.
Progressives, on the other hand, realize that the presentation of the message has to change and develop over time, but they draw the false conclusion that the message itself changes along with the external form. Instead of seeing the message as an eternal standard against which to measure our attempts, they set about changing the standard, often in the name of mercy. Mercy, however, is the virtue that should inform our attitude toward weak human beings struggling to archive perfection. It has nothing to do with changing the standard we are struggling towards. By attempting to change the message, they too set up an idol: they adore their own understanding of who God is, instead of submitting themselves in humility to the Gospel message.
Both factions are ultimately seeking power over the message and therefore over others. For the progressive, the ability to reshape the message at will gives this power; the progressive becomes not a messenger of God, but an oracle. The progressive leader gets to determine in what ways the message should be reshaped for the current times. The reactionary claims to be absolutely bound to his traditions and unable to deviate from them. This too, however, is a way to gain power, since it insulates the reactionary leader from having to deal with legitimate renewal, reform, development, and diversity. Much as Christ challenged the power of the Pharisees over the common people, the reactionary feels threatened by any suggestion of change or growth. The reactionary figure typically rejects any criticism and refuses to dialog with those who are different. Further, the reactionary can end up acting in “colonial” ways, imposing his preferred liturgical, theological, and artistic styles on other social or ethnic groups, without reflecting that diversity in non-essentials can actually show forth the glory of God.
In a more “political” sense, progressives and reactionaries are also linked with one another. They feed off of one another, each using the excesses of the other to justify their own dissent. Each points out the errors of the other, ignoring the reality that there are many ways to be in error. Anything that leads us away from Christ is to be rejected, no matter what ideological label it bears.
Both groups also end up wasting a lot of energy fixating on inessentials, though for opposite reasons. The best example of this is the ongoing “liturgy wars” which have been dividing our parishes and wasting resources on endless church remodels, as the influence of each side ebbs and flows. The Sacrifice of the Mass and the other Sacraments are, of course, the summit of Catholic spirituality. But the Gospel says nothing about liturgical details, and a focus on these things ironically distracts from the very realities the liturgy is supposed to represent. (For instance, an ongoing debate over the “right” way to receive Holy Communion makes the Sacrament of Unity itself a cause of division.)
Another example is the way the two camps debate about the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. Unlike liturgical details, sexual morality is mentioned by the Gospel and is a serious matter. Still, without a loving, personal relationship with Christ, Christians will find it very difficult to follow the moral law in any area, let alone sexual morality. And seen in isolation from the love of Christ, the rules may seem repellent or simply incomprehensible to outsiders. If both sides spent more time spreading the message of Christ’s transforming, personal love for every human person, they might find that the moral issues wouldn’t be as contentious or troublesome. The progressives would find that they didn’t need to relax the moral code to keep the membership up, and the reactionaries would be able to ground their moral strictures on a much more attractive foundation. As it is, while the progressives claim that reactionaries are too fixated on sexual morality, the fact of the matter is that they are both too fixated on it, though in different ways.
This points to the solution to the division and confusion created by these factions: stay close to Christ. To do so, we’ll have to give up our desire for control. It isn’t just reactionary or progressive leaders who cling to power; we all want a tame, predictable, controllable God who fits our expectations. That was the temptation of the Israelites at Mount Sinai; they built the golden calf because they wanted a god they could comprehend and “box in.” We all reach a certain level in the spiritual life and then want to stick there.
If we stay close to Christ, however, we’ll always be moved out of our comfort zones. Thinking with the mind of Christ will put us at odds with the world around us, just as he was at odds with the Sadducees. It will also shake the internal certainties, habits, and routines of our own groups, just as he disturbed the traditions of the Pharisees. He is a God of surprises.
How can we be sure, though, that we are thinking with the mind of Christ? As Catholics, we believe that Scripture and Tradition are sure guides . . . but only as interpreted by the living Magisterium of the Church. To accept this we have to have the humility to reconcile ourselves to authority. Submitting to authority does not mean turning off our minds, but it does mean that we can’t set ourselves up as interpreters of the Magisterium. We can’t confine ourselves to the past teaching of the Church while rejecting the present teaching; this will close us off to the possibility of being surprised or challenged. Neither can we reject the present teaching in the name of some imagined future development that is not sanctioned by the living Church. Only the present moment is truly real for us, and our Lord is not a God of the dead past or the vague future, but a God of the living present.
In our next blog post, we will discuss thinking with the mind of the Church and how loyalty to the Holy Father can help to keep us close to Christ.