Thinking Through the Creed, Part 6

[I believe in] the holy catholic and apostolic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,

"The church is 200 years behind the times. Why doesn't it stir? Are we afraid? Is it fear rather than courage? In any event, the faith is the foundation of the church. Faith, trust, courage. I'm old and sick, and I depend on the help of others. Good people around me make me feel their love. This love is stronger than the sentiment of distrust that I feel every now and then with regard to the church in Europe. Only love defeats exhaustion. God is love. 
Now I have a question for you: What can you do for the church?"--Cardinal Carlo Martini, S.J. (1927-2012).

I am a bad Catholic.  To put a fine point on it--at Easter Vigil two days ago, seven people at my parish who were coming into the Catholic faith publicly stated that they "believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church teaches, believes and proclaims to be revealed by God."  Insofar as "the holy Catholic Church" is understood to mean "the Roman Catholic Church," I cannot, and could not, affirm this statement.  I do not believe the current position of the Catholic Church with regard to LGBT people to be revealed by God.  I believe that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II's statement that women cannot be priests, has much more to do with misogyny than divine revelation.  Nor am I sure that the current practice of "closed communion" is consistent with the proper understanding of the Eucharist as articulated by Jesus in the Gospels.  I do not believe that the use of contraception is contrary to natural law rightly understood, and thus I do indeed "deny that the Church is [always] competent in her magisterium to interpret the natural moral law." (Humanae Vitae, p. 4).  Indeed, I believe the current position to be basically immoral.  These are four of a host of areas where I have serious doubts as to the current position articulated by the Catholic Church.

Like I said, I am a bad Catholic.  Which raises the legitimate question--why do I continue to stay with the Catholic Church?  Wouldn't it be better and easier to move to a different denomination, like the Episcopal Church?  I have indeed considered this in the past, and perhaps I will do so at some point in the future.  There are visions of the Catholic Church that could be articulated and enforced by some hypothetical future Pope that I would not be able to live with in good conscience.  I don't know what the future will hold.  For now, though, this is where I am.  As a result, I have had to grapple with the idea of the church, what it means, and what it is for.

The Creed speaks of the "holy catholic and apostolic church." The strict Catholic construction of this phrase would have "catholic" mean "those entities in official union with the Bishop of Rome, as the Bishop of Rome has universal (hence, "catholic") jurisdiction" and "apostolic" mean "able to trace a direct lineage back to the Apostles."  As such, all other Christian churches have broken off from this original, straight-line stem that is Catholicism as a result of this or that heresy, leaving behind only the singular, pure Catholic Church.  Or, you get a bit of the Vatican II "fudge," where all of the previous is true but those other Christian entities "subsist" in the Catholic Church in some undefined manner.

I have a much broader understanding of the "holy catholic and apostolic church."  I think all three elements of the phrase--"holy," "catholic," and "apostolic"--are essentially aspirational concepts, not titles for one particular entity.  The church is "holy" insofar as it carries out and transmits the blessing of God; the church is "catholic" insofar as it seeks to bring this blessing to everyone without exception; the church is "apostolic" insofar as it seeks to be in continuity with the legacy of prior Christian witness and life.  No church at any point in time has ever fully met these standards, but insofar as some gathering of Christians is trying to live this out, then they are within the scope of this creedal definition.

Certainly, some Christian bodies do a better job of living up to this standard than others, and it is not only acceptable but necessary to be discerning.  I could never be a member of an Evangelical church--while I appreciate certain elements of the Evangelical tradition, I think there are significant gaps or blindspots in their approach, such as the way they read Scripture, the atomized and individualized approach to ecclesiology, their rejection of the historical understanding of the faith prior to the Reformation, among others.  What I am unwilling to do, however, is to say that my church is the "real" church and those Evangelicals are part of a "fake" church.

For me, coming to this realization has lowered the temperature of the question of whether to remain in the Catholic Church.  For now, this is the right choice for me; at some future point, perhaps it will not be.  But I don't have to stress out about whether the Catholic understanding of theological question X does or does not buttress the claim that the Catholic Church is the one true faith and the Protestants are heretics, or whether my disagreement over position Y of the Catholic Church means I must reject it as fully apostate.  We are all, one way or another, part of the Church of God, and these things will work themselves out as they are going to work themselves out.

Before moving on to the other parts of the Creed, I want to say one thing about the idea of the Church being "apostolic."  Catholicism has a bad habit of defining "apostolic" in two different, unhelpful ways.  The first is to say that the church is apostolic insofar as it has preserved in an entirely unchanged way the doctrine of the Apostles.  Not only is this historically unsupportable, it leads to a closed and fossilized understanding of the faith (a topic which I have discussed at length before).

The second problem is to turn apostolic succession into a kind of imparted bloodline that gives the possessor autonomous, magical powers.  One obvious manifestation of this idea is the claim that the Eucharist as enacted in Protestant churches is not the "real" Eucharist because they Protestants do not have "real" priests, as a result of not having "real" bishops.  I find this line of thought to be absurd.  Are these people gathering in Jesus's name, as He told them to, to remember His suffering, death, and resurrection?  Then it's the "real" Eucharist, regardless of the lack of "proper" credentials held by the various folks involved.  The Eucharist is about what Jesus is doing, not what the priest or other minister is doing, and Jesus can do what He does whenever He wants.  I cannot accept the idea that God's action can be constrained and controlled by these sorts of human constructions.  (By the way, if one reads between the lines, neither does Pope Francis).

Notwithstanding those issues, I feel like Catholicism has preserved something fundamental to the Christian life that I don't find in the Protestant world (to be fair, the Orthodox also have held on to this idea as well), and that is the communion of the saints.  At its most basic form, the communion of the saints is the idea that the Church consists not just of the people that are currently members, but also includes everyone who has come before us in faith, as well as (at least in an inchoate way) everyone who is going to come after us once we are gone.

The best visual representation of the communion of the saints that I have found are the tapestries that artist John Nava did for the cathedral is Los Angeles.  You can see pictures of them here and here, but you need to see them as they are displayed in the cathedral to get the full effect.  Intermixed among figures of the saints are unnamed regular people of every origin and ethnic background, representing the immense diversity of the Catholic Church (as well as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles).  These tapestries are on the walls on the sides of the nave, and the angle of the walls makes it so that you can see the faces of the figures from where you sit.  All of the figures are pointed toward the altar, giving the effect that these saints are alongside you at Mass.  By intermixing regular folks with the saints, the tapestries communicate the idea that these figures from the past are with us, not above us in some sort of unobtainable level of holiness.

We miss something important, I think, when the saints are portrayed as Christian superheroes.  Every single one of them was human and flawed, just like the rest of us.  The officially named saints are people who have been picked out because they have something in their lives that is worth modeling.  No doubt we also have people in our own lives who fill that role, people who will never be known--like those anonymous figures in the tapestries--who just as much saints as St. Francis or St. Paul.  When we insist that saints are perfect in every conceivable way, we set ourselves up either for disappointment or the need to whitewash the saint's history to fit our own expectations for what saints are like.

[As an aside, along those lines, there is a meme developing among progressive Catholics that Pope John Paul II is not a "real" saint because he failed to act decisively with regard to clerical sex abuse, particularly in the notorious case of the Legionaries of  Christ and Marcial Marcel.  That's the wrong way to look at saints.  Sainthood doesn't mean a person is or was perfect, nor that they got everything right.  The question is "did this person provide us some model that we can take to heart on our Christian journey?"  And, in the case of Pope John Paul II, the answer is surely "yes," even if you believe that he failed to do what was right with regard to clerical sex abuse (and, for what it is worth, I do).]

But why even bother with the communion of the saints?  Who cares?  The communion of the saints de-centers us from being the pure focus of church life.  This thing that is church is prior to our arrival, and will continue on after we are gone; we are just custodians of it for a time.  There is a temptation to make religion all about me and my needs and my concerns, and the communion of saints provides a healthy check against that tendency.

G.K. Chesterton once called tradition "the democracy of the dead."  We have to be careful with that idea, because it can easily lead to paralysis and fossilization, but when this democracy acts as a way to broaden our perspective beyond exclusively of our own time and place, it serves a very useful check on our own self-absorption.  Our ancestors in the communion of the saints may indeed have been wrong about many things, and we should not be afraid to criticize them where we think appropriate.  But they always deserve a fair hearing.

One last element of the church's life, and that is the forgiveness of sins.  I believe very strongly, along with James Alison, that the church does not dispense forgiveness, in the sense forgiveness is a thing that it possesses that it can either give out or not give out.  The church is however (or, at least, should be) the place where the forgiveness of God is experienced in our lives.  Forgiveness is not merely personal, but occurs in a necessarily communal context.

If people are not experiencing this forgiveness in the context of the church in a systemic way, then the church is doing something wrong.  This, I think, is at the heart of what Pope Francis is trying to lead the Catholic Church to understand with his focus on mercy.  Much of the practice around forgiveness in the Catholic Church has an "the operation was a success but the patient died" quality.  So long as the Church is saying the "right" things and putting in place the right procedures, then any difficulties that people have in taking that forgiveness on board is their own problem, not the Church's--there is never a design defect, there is only user error.  No, Pope Francis is saying--we succeed as a Church when people actually experience the forgiveness of God.  To take on-board some consultant-speak, the Church should be an outcome-driven operation, not the process-driven operation it has often been understood to be.  If the outcomes are not happening, then the process needs to be looked at.  That, I think, is what Pope Francis is trying to get everyone focused on.  Whether or not people are finding healing and forgiveness is more important than the degree to which the Catholic Church holds fast to every jot and tittle of its "complicated theology."

Never in the history of Christianity has any church body gotten "Church" completely right.  It is terribly easy to be scandalized by the church and the motley crew that makes up it membership and leadership.  But there is a deep well of grace there, even if it at times becomes hard to access through the clutter and obstacles.  The challenge is reliably finding our way to the well, where we can gather with the other folks who are looking to draw water.  That. really, is what church life is about.


Greg Burke said…
Well, for myself, let me say I don't think you are a bad Catholic. Far from it. That you struggle with the whole thing is hopeful to the likes of me. I am grateful for the seriousness of your questions and, no less, your answers. Thank you!

Easter Blessings.
Michael Boyle said…
Appreciate it, Greg. Glad you are enjoying the series.
"holy,catholic and apostolic" - aspirational. I like that. I am a cradle Catholic, but if I was initiated into the church now at the Easter vigil I would have no problem with declaring that I believed in all the church teaches. Because: I am on board with the essential teachings of the faith. The man-made cultural ones that often present themselves as coming directly from Jesus, not so much. Please. Jesus, a man of his time, had little or nothing to say about our 21st. century conundrums. If we read the gospels and follow, not only what Jesus says, but what he modeled - love, compassion and humility- we get it. The background noise and obsessions with adhering to bits of dogma from here and there down through the centuries, much from Greek philosophers in no way has anything to do with the real humans who live in the here and now. They are the concerns of the men who wield the power in the church and want to keep it. And when you come down to it, we can only live in our own time, not in some ancient past. I say lighten up, be joyful. Listen to the Spirit. Follow the humble carpenter. Son of God, son of Man. He got it.

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