Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Intra Ecclesiam Gradibus

With his usual clarity and persuasiveness, Dr. Michael Liccione has posted an excellent essay at Sacramentum Vitae on the difference between saying that "there is no salvation outside the Church" and saying that "Communion with the Church comes in degrees". The heart of the lesson can be found here:
it is one thing to say that there's no salvation outside the Church; it's another to say what being inside the Church can consist in. The former claim remains the teaching of the Church, now expressed by [Lumen Gentium]'s formulation that she is "necessary for salvation." But the latter claim is that being in the Church, or at least being related to her in a salvific way, is often a matter of degree. That is a real development of insight into the fixed content of the deposit of faith.
Mike's analysis is not a mere Scholastic exercise, however, for he posted it within the broader context of the problem of Catholics "in the public sphere" who, in one way or another, manage to fall far short of the Catholic ideal in terms of integrating their faith into their daily lives, or at least into the public portion of their daily lives.

As I mentioned in a post yesterday, we live in a day and age--and, more importantly, a civil society--in which "every opinion is sacred", and this is taken by many to include religious opinions. Americans are, by and large, Protestant in their leanings, even many Catholic Americans, who make up the plurality of Christians in this country. I suspect that this is due to the Enlightenment principles underlying many of our so-called "civic virtues". In particular, individual autonomy was taken to be the foundation of human liberty by many of the Protestant-leaning Enlightenment thinkers who wrote the founding documents of our polis. As a result, there is a temptation among many Americans to think that, even in the sphere of religious belief, it is sufficient that I am sincere in my religious beliefs in order for me to think that I, and I alone, speak with any authority about what is "true for me" in the domain of religion. Not many years ago there was a rather well-known Catholic politician in California who was told that he might be barred by his Bishop from receiving Communion if he persisted in his erroneous views about abortion. His response was that the Bishop needed to understand that it's not up to him to determine what is true for other people in their religion. The response was absolutely classic: total ignorance of what the Catholic religion is combined with a resolutely American approach to the epistemic status of religious beliefs. I still laugh when I think about it.

Laughter, however, is not how everyone greets such pompous banality. Some want to punish such politicians at the Communion rail (if only there were still such things in most churches). As Mike rightly points out, however, that is not always warranted:
Catholic politicians who support laws giving wide scope to the practice of abortion are doing grave wrong. But it does not necessarily follow that they are guilty of that sin, so that they profane the Eucharist if and when they receive it. That follows only when (a) they are aware of how the teaching of the Church applies in this case, or (b) if they are unaware, they are culpable for being unaware. And the same holds for Catholics in general about any sort of serious sin, especially that of heresy. This is where the problem of pro-abort Catholic pols really arises from.
The problem is rather widespread, as Mike also notes. After all, it's not just the politicians who flout Church teaching. We've reached a point in time when it is not unwarranted to have grave doubts about whether the person standing next to you in the pew on a Sunday morning even believes in what the Mass is. On the one hand, some folks are not well-enough educated to understand what it is; on the other hand, other folks are too well-educated to believe in what it is. The failure on both counts, I think, lies with catechists, but that is a topic for another day. The practical side of the question is more vexing:
In most cases, bishops and priests presume that people are not culpable for their infidelity to Church teaching. They presume either that people are approaching the Eucharist in good conscience or that it is not the role of pastors to judge the consciences of communicants when they march up to receive. And in the case of many ordinary Catholics, that presumption is correct. The depth of ignorance and deception among ordinary Catholics, which reached new lows in the decade or so after Vatican II, remains so great in many instances that such Catholics cannot be presumed culpable when, out of habit and sentiment, they receive the Eucharist. And so, even when such a Catholic is objectively culpable for not being in full communion with the Church, the appearance of full communion on their part is generally kept up.
I live in a university community, so when I find myself wondering what the person standing next to me believes, I often feel as though the odds are in favor of the bet that the person ought to know better than to believe something heterodox. Granted, it's not always a sure thing, but I think it is certainly a safe bet. Not too long ago I was discussing these issues with some colleagues from the university who also happen to attend my church. One of them is a full professor of psychology and a life-long Catholic. As we talked, it started to dawn on me that he did not, in fact, believe many of the things the Church teaches, and I don't just mean those iffy "I-want-to-have-safe-sex-whenever-and-with-whomever-I-please" kinds of teachings, but the teachings about God, the Christ, and Everything. So I finally popped the sixty-four thousand dollar ontological question: What about the Creed? Don't you recite the Creed at Mass and, if so, how do you feel about saying that you believe these things when you don't? His answer struck me as so inane that I remember it virtually verbatim: "Oh, I think you do certain things socially like that and it doesn't really mean that you take them literally." In short, the recitation of the Creed at Mass is, like everything else one says at Mass, apparently, just a kind of stage play. This was not some hick from out in the county--those people often take their religion a lot more seriously. This was a well-educated person who ought to have known better. What are we to do with such people?
One cannot just pick out, and pick on, the ordinary Catholics who are implicated in this mess. Most of them are not morally responsible for it, nor is it their role to clean it up. But one can and ought to pick out and pick on erring Catholics who have the education to know and understand what the Church teaches as well as the power to affect a great many lives by their actions. I mean, of course, the Nancy Pelosis and the Joe Bidens. Archbishop Chaput has had some especially trenchant things to say about such people. If they have excuses, they shouldn't be left with them. Too much is at stake.
Mike is surely right in all this. I'm not at all sure what the best way is to begin to restore some semblance of order to Catholic catechesis, but it does seem to me that consistency is better than cafeterianism. At the very least it will help to impose a measure of humility on certain persons who privilege themselves and their own religious sentiments above the Ancient Faith.

No comments: