Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Irony of the Particular

Once a semester there was a “dies academicus,” when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the entire university, making possible a genuine experience of “universitas”: The reality that despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason — this reality became a lived experience.

Pope Benedict XVI
13 September 2006
It is common enough these days to hear the expression "The American Church", or "The American Catholic Church", or "The Church in America", or something along those lines. I've used the expression myself, usually in a pejorative sense, to refer to what I perceive as those quirks of American individualism and laissez faire liberalism that have oozed into the culture of our religion the way sludge sometimes oozes into my basement. There is an irony in all of this, because the word "catholic" comes from a Greek expression, to kath' holou, which means "universal". The expression is found very commonly in philosophical writings to refer to the philosophical notion of a universal, something that can be predicated of more than one thing (for example, in some ways of reckoning things, "blue" represents a universal, because lots of particular things can be called "blue" without entailing that those particular things are identical with the concept of blueness). It came into theological use very early, referring to the Church that is "universal" in the sense of including all particular believers, regardless of where or when they live and move and have their being.

In philosophy (and in theology), the universal is opposed to the particular. If you are a Platonist, you hold that universals cause particulars to be the kinds of things that they are (for example, the universal "blue", or "blueness itself", as Plato would have said, causes all particular blue things to be blue). Particulars depend upon universals on this view, but universals do not depend upon particulars in any way. For this reason, any but a pejorative use of the phrase "the American Church" seems to me to be rather pointless. The emphasis, in my opinion, should always be on the universal, the traditional, the timeless, not on the particular, the experimental, and the ephemeral. This is not to say that there is no place for the particular in theology: there always has been. Since ancient times, the prerogatives of local practices were always taken into account by the Church universal. Indeed, Saint Theophylact notes with approval the fact that Saints Cyril and Methodius worked hard to preserve local particularities while passing on the universal truths of the faith as they spread the faith through the Balkans. The idea that all Churches of the Latin rite should come under a single set of rubrics dates only to the 16th century. When looking back over the last 40 years of liturgical and theological experimentation in "the American Church", however, one begins to get a sense for the incalculable value of the universal and timeless.

There is a certain irony here, it seems to me. American individualists seem to glory in the American Church experience, and they like to think that it is peculiar to their brand of Catholicism. Those old world ways are so, well, old-worldly. And yet to draw such distinctions is not very small-c catholic, it's more particularist in orientation, even when we factor in the enormous diversity of a worldwide, that is to say, small-c catholic, religious experience. The American Church, which tends to see itself as so progressive, so ahead of the curve, so leading-edge, turns out to be, in some ways, the most provincial. In fact, it glories in its provinciality.

Nor does this seem likely to me to change, at least not any time soon. Certainly not in the next two or three years, as our bishops will be falling all over themselves trying to find ways to help out political candidates who oppose them on just about every front except the economic one. It's at times like these that one finds most appealing the idea of a universal church that is not afraid to tell people the truth.

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