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Thursday, September 11, 2003

Finally, a chance to quote Chesterton!

In response to a request by the London Times for essays on the topic "What's Wrong With the World?", Gilbert Keith sent back a famous reply:

"Dear Sirs:

I am.

Sincerely yours,

G.K. Chesterton."

Now that I have, by virtue of quoting GKC, officially entered the rarified air of St. Blog's, I'll get to my point: an interesting pair of posts by John di Fiesole at Disputations and Dom Bettinelli at his own site.

John essentially argues that thundering on about the hapless bench of bishops and dissenters is pointless where it's not actually counterproductive, and that the essential goal of the Catholic in this time is minding one's own store:

I don't think I'm destined to play much of a role in Church polity in the U.S. I am too easily, and too thoroughly, disgusted by the ubiquitous and unthinking arrogance with which pronouncements like this are made:

"There really is no satisfactory solution to this other than the conversion of bishops (to Catholicism, of course)."

This would probably strike many as an unremarkable, and undeniable, statement. I can't but take it as symptomatic of two very serious problems facing the Church.

The first is a kind of watery hyperCatholicism by which individuals on their own authority and as a matter of routine busy themselves excommunicating others. It's most explicit among self-styled traditionalists, and I've already brought up the matter of self-styled conservatives using the term "so-called Catholic," but there is no shortage of self-styled progressives who claim the Church is in one way or another refusing the clear demands of the Holy Spirit.

The other problem is the habit of locating the source of all problems in THEM! It's the Vatican's fault, it's the bishops' fault, it's the dissenters' fault! They have to change!
* * *
When the problem is always them, though, the problem is never me. And the problem that is me is the one problem we have each been commanded to resolve. My job is not to impose a plan of action that will guarantee the survival of the Church in the United States. My job is to guarantee the survival of the Church in the United States by seeing that it survives in me. That, ultimately, is the one thing I have control over -- and, it seems to me, it's also ultimately the only way of reforming and purifying the Church. I can't reform and purify you, I can't reform and purify them, and I certainly can't make you reform and purify them.
* * *
If instead of worrying about them, I follow the command of Scripture and the counsel of saints and worry about me, something wholly unexpected will happen. I can't say what precisely will happen -- it is, after all, wholly unexpected -- because it's not by my will or intent that it will happen. It will be by God's will. And even if by worrying about them I could get them to do what I want them to do, that is still an obviously poor choice compared to them doing what God wants them to do by me worrying about me.


Dom responds by asserting this approach is incomplete, where it's not also part of the problem:

I'll grant John another point: Seeking to blame only them for the problems in the Church is a cop out, because we are all sinners. But there is a point at which you can say that much of the problem is them. I'm certainly not running around calling for women's ordination, approval of homosexuality, change in the doctrines surrounding contraception, the stripping of the sacred from the liturgy, supporting pro-abortion politicians, and on and on.

God knows I have my faults, but that doesn't strip from me the right to point out problems caused by others that have obvious solutions. To strip me of that right because I am not perfect is no different than those who say the US bishops cannot speak out on gay marriage because of the Scandal.
* * *
Sorry John, but that doesn't cut it. We are not a bunch of individuals only responsible for ourselves and no others. We are a Church, the body of Christ, responsible for one another. We are, each one of us, responsible for preaching the Gospel, not just the Gospel of sweetness and light, but also the Gospel of hard teachings and of calling our brothers and sisters to holiness and truth.

Yes, we should first focus on our own holiness, but that doesn't mean we can never call on our brothers and sisters to reform [themselves] as well.

After all, if everyone followed this advice, no one would have spoken up about perverted predators being shuffled from parish to parish, continuing their assaults on young people, and nothing would have changed. We would all be sitting self-satisfied in our pews concentrating on our own faults and our search for holiness, while no check was put on these outrages because "we have no right to point at others." Sorry, but I can't buy that.


While I'll concede John has made some telling points about the toxicity of the complaints, I think Dom has the better of the argument, and I'll amplify the latter's points.

The first problem with John's assertion is that he's applying either/or reasoning. Either one focuses on betterment through God's grace OR one is a shrill Pharisee. I don't know that any of the "complainers" have trumpeted their glory in the Temple. I'm not saying they don't exist, but I haven't seen any. Frankly, it is possible to focus on one's own penitence, and to call others to do the same. That is more truly "biblical" to boot: Paul's letters would look much different if they just examined Paul's faults. In these times, Catholics had better be prepared to do both.

The second problem with John's argument is that, as Dom points out, it ignores the fact that the Church is the Body of Christ, a collective whole--not "moonlets" in separate orbits. The actions of a few (or many) have an impact on the rest of the body. To be blunt, if a part of the Body is gangrenous, I can hardly say "Too bad, but I have to focus on my failings." To use another analogy, the faith of a brother in the Church is hardly a self-contained object isolated from the goings-on around him. He is a fish in water, and if the water starts getting polluted by the action of his schoolmates, he can hardly say "well, better work on the ol' gills" and leave it at that. To use an ecclesial example drawn from real life, should a university in a Bishop's diocese permit the rebellious Order of the Sisters of Sophia to hold a meeting on how to better confuse the Faithful on settled issues, the Bishop has to be informed, and if he fails to act, castigated. Because the Sisters are dumping jet fuel into the river and it needs to be stopped before the fish start "swimming" on the surface.

Left to its own devices, a strictly "internal" approach is little more than Catholic quietism, with all that means for the Church and the world.

Somehow I doubt GKC, that happy warrior and namer of names, would approve.

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