The Personalist Project

One of my favorite Bible passages since college, when I first became a prophet of doom, is from Haggai, chapter 2, verses 6-9:

This is what the Lord Almighty says: "In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory," says the Lord Almighty. "The silver is mine and the gold is mine," declares the Lord Almighty. "The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house," says the Lord Almighty. "And in this place I will grant peace," declares the Lord Almighty. 

Unlike prophets proper, I don't receive direct "words from God." Rather, I see principles, structures, and dynamics, together with their ineluctable implications. I see what's false and bad vs. what's true and good in the here and now. And I see what's coming from those.

Two basic motives drive my irresistible urge to "cry aloud and spare not": a desire to warn people I care about against error and wrong "while there is still time" and a high confidence in the goodness waiting in the wings to take its place.

I've been saying for at least two years that the status quo in the Church is collapsing. Parish life as we've always known it won't continue, because it can't. We don't have enough priests; there isn't enough money; it doesn't make sense in our day; it doesn't meet our real needs; it doesn't reflect modern developments, values, and sensibilities. It's a largely sterile cultural relic. (I'm talking about the structure here, not the Liturgy!) Increasing numbers of the lay faithful won't stand for it. They will gradually stop paying and even stop attending. The especially devout will keep going to get the sacraments, but they'll be disaffected and disengaged, or else burnt out and joyless. Our ecclesial experience will be less and less like the early Church we read about in Acts

But we don't have to be depressed or alarmed. We are a resurrection people! There is every reason to hope and believe that the glory of the new structure will surpass the glory of the former.

So what is this new structure I'm envisioning? How do we bring it about? Where do we begin? 

I'll tell you: The laity of every Catholic parish should form an association of the faithful. 

It sounds anticlimactic, I know. Stick with me. Let me explain, then sit with the idea for a while. Let it sink in. Later we can fill in the practical elements in a collaborative way.

First let me say what the biggest obstacles to right reform are. Two things: inertia and fear of wrong reform. The inertia we can't do much about right now. People generally won't change until there's no avoiding it. Part of it is just lack of imagination. They're comfortable enough, and they can't picture the what and how of change. That's okay. Time and events will take care of that obstacle.

The bigger problem is fear. Good Catholics have legitimate reasons for being afraid that the kind of change I'm talking about will be more destructive than beneficial. Those who remember the iconoclastic aftermath of Vatican II will be anticipating disaster. They're worried about doctrinal dissent. They're picturing laymen pretending to say mass. Or, like commenter Rhett below, they'll be concerned about the kind of factionalism and endless splintering that afflicts Protestantism. Lack of concentrated authority always leads to chaos, doesn't it?

I have some points to help allay that fear.

1. Keep in mind the marriage analogy. The authority/submission model of marriage (later refuted by JP II) I was taught in college was justified on the same practical principle: "Mutual submission" sounds nice in theory, the teachers of authority/submission would say, but in the end it doesn't work. "Somebody has to be in charge." 

But that turned out not to be true. I won't go into it here; I'll just say that the experience of couples the world over proves the opposite. Marriages flourish when they operate under the model laid out in the Theology of the Body. Mutual submission leads to a conjugal culture of peace, respect, happiness, abundance—the opposite of the disorder and discord predicted by its critics. 

We can expect the same at the parish level. If we reimagine and restructure parish life according to the marriage model laid out in the Theology of the Body, the result will be  a more harmonious, rewarding and fruitful communion of reciprocal love among the people of God. Of course tensions will arise. Even the best-conceived unions don't eradicate the human condition. But we can minimize the bad and maximize the good. We can develop methods for resolving tensions that will generally yield more justice and peace than we have now, just like spouses in a healthy, loving marriage do.

2) There are identifiable differences between right and wrong reform.

We can look at the French Revolution and say, "Revolutions lead to disaster! Avoid them at all costs!" Or we can compare it to the American Revolution. We can analyze the differences between the two and try to understand why one led to evil and the other to good. We can likewise compare the ecclesial reforms of, say, Luther and St. Francis and discern why one brought about renewal and the other dissolution. 

When it comes to reform in our day and age, the 50+ years since Vatican II have included a huge amount of trial and error. We've learned a lot about what works and doesn't work; which movements and communities succeed and why others go off the rails. That experience can serve as a reservoir of wisdom as we proceed. 

I won't try to be exhaustive here, but will give a few examples to make what I mean more concrete. 

A) Good reform involves a going back to the beginning, a rediscovery of the original sources. Bad reform abandons those.

B) Good ecclesial reform holds fast to the Deposit of Faith; it reveres the divinely-give authority of the Chair of Peter and Vicar of Christ; it's about organic development. Bad reform abandons those; it's about rupture.

C) Good reform incorporates both the key principles of Catholic Social Teaching: subsidiarity and solidarity. Bad reform usually favors one at the expense of the other. It brings about unity by enforcing conformity, say. Or it gets so enamored of "welcoming" all comers that it loses its identity.

D) Good reform reflects and embodies a sound anthropology. It treats persons as free and responsible embodied subjects, individuals-made-for-communion, as fallen and imperfect, as redeemable, etc. It rejects utopianism and manichaeism and pelagianism and racism and communism and authoritarianism, and so on. Bad reform falls into one or another of such basic, notable anthropological errors.

E) Good reform is conscientiously informed by history; bad reform nihilistically rejects history.

F) Good reform is established in a body of good documents, laws, policies, rites, traditions, etc. that are freely endorsed, enacted and upheld by its members. Bad reform is typically lawless, or else its laws too arbitrary and changeable to serve. Often they are rooted in a cult of personality. That person's will serves as the authority for the group.

G) Good reform is transparent; it appeals to reason; it respects freedom. Bad reform typically involves secrecy. Its funds and leadership, for instance, are unaccountable. Its adherents are kept in line through guilt and shame.

H) Good reform is animated by a good spirit—a spirit of love, joy, hope, trust, confidence, peace, justice, etc. Bad reform is animated by a bad spirit—a spirit of resentment, envy, bitterness, fear, defection, etc. 

I could go on, but won't for now. I'm just sketching to give a general idea of what's possible.

3) The reform I'm talking about is already provided for in the doctrines, history, and teachings of the Church. It's on solid ground anthropologically, scripturally, theologically, historically, and catechetically. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Canon Law, and successive popes encourage the people of God to form lay associations. Examples:

CCC 900 Since, like all the faithful, lay Christians are entrusted by God with the apostolate by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation, they have the right and duty, individually or grouped in associations, to work so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all men throughout the earth. 

From the Code of Canon Law:

Can. 215 The Christian faithful are at liberty freely to found and direct associations for purposes of charity or piety or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world and to hold meetings for the common pursuit of these purposes.

Here is John Paul II in an encyclical on the laity:

[I]n modern times such lay groups have received a special stimulus, resulting in the birth and spread of a multiplicity of group forms: associations, groups, communities, movements. We can speak of a new era of group endeavors of the lay faithful. In fact, “alongside the traditional forming of associations, and at times coming from their very roots, movements and new sodalities have sprouted, with a specific feature and purpose, so great is the richness and the versatility of resources that the Holy Spirit nourishes in the ecclesial community, and so great is the capacity of initiative and the generosity of our lay people.”

Here is Pope Benedict XVI speaking to fellow bishops on the related topic of clericalism:

The lack of consciousness of belonging to God’s faithful people as servants, and not masters, can lead us to one of the temptations that is most damaging to the missionary outreach that we are called to promote: clericalism, which ends up as a caricature of the vocation we have received. A failure to realize that the mission belongs to the entire Church, and not to the individual priest or bishop, limits the horizon, and even worse, stifles all the initiatives that the Spirit may be awakening in our midst. Let us be clear about this. The laypersons are not our peons, or our employees. They don’t have to parrot back whatever we say. “Clericalism, far from giving impetus to various contributions and proposals, gradually extinguishes the prophetic flame to which the entire Church is called to bear witness. Clericalism forgets that the visibility and the sacramentality of the Church belong to all the faithful people of God (cf. Lumen Gentium, 9-14), not only to the few chosen and enlightened.”[2] 

And here is one of Pope Francis' biographers writing of a seminal conference that articulated some the central themes of his future papacy:

The San Miguel Declaration saw the people as active agents of their own history; startlingly, it asserted that ‘the activity of the Church should not only be oriented toward the people, but also derive primarily from the people.’

Reader, I have collected pages and pages of such quotations In a way, I've been studying this issue my whole adult life. I've learned some things. I know whereof I speak, and I am full of confidence. But I've said enough for now. This post is getting too long. I'll end by going back to where I started, Haggai, chapter 2:

Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 5 

  • share
  • tweet
  • print

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?