Stumbling in Holiness

April 23, 2019 at 8:55 am | Posted in Catholicism, Christian theology,, ecclesiology | 3 Comments

Another of the lovely things about my (72nd!) birthday last Thursday is that my review of Brian Flanagan’s Stumbling in Holiness, appeared in the National Catholic Reporter (April 19th issue). It was quite a day for me. And here’s the review:

STUMBLING IN HOLINESS: SIN AND SANCTITY IN THE CHURCH.

By Brian P. Flanagan

Published by The Liturgical Press Academic

179 pages. $24.95

When I got up this morning, the first three links to each of the two internet religion summaries I review regularly were to articles about scandals in the Catholic Church. I don’t need to tell you what kind of scandals. At a time when such coverage of the church is not unusual, a Catholic ecclesiology of sin in the church is nothing if not timely.

But it’s timely not just because the church is sinful. It’s timely, as Brian Flanagan explains, because holiness is at the heart of the church’s identity, “one of the earliest creedal statements made about the church,” and one that we repeat regularly: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church…” And this is the paradox that Flanagan takes on in Stumbling in Holiness, that the church, sinful as it is, is at the same time the manifestation of God’s transcendent holiness.

Flanagan is a theologian, on the faculty of Marymount University in Virginia, and is quick to acknowledge that we cannot understand the mysterious paradox of the church’s deep flaws and profound holiness without analyzing it systematically. But one of the great strengths of Stumbling in Holinessis that this analysis is framed within the most fundamental experience of Catholic Christians, the celebration of the Eucharist.

For Flanagan, the Eucharist is a kind of ecclesial dance, in which the assembly moves toward God, then retreats again in repentance, then moves forward again, then asks forgiveness once more, from the Kyrie Eleison to the Gospel to the consecration to the Lord’s Prayer to the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin, to communion, and then out into the world for the “liturgy after the liturgy,” the mission of the church. And every step of this pilgrimage is a collective, not just an individual, ritual of approaching and retreating and moving forward again. This embodies not only the present reality of the holy/sinful church, but of the dialectic between the past, the present, and the eschatological future, the coming reign of God. Flanagan then weaves these liturgical and eschatological themes throughout the rest of the book.

Within this framework, Flanagan lays out the theology of the holy yet sinful church, detailing the ways in which such holiness is rooted in the mysterious otherness and compassionate closeness of God, deeply intensified by the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and lived out in the lives of the communion of saints and local Christian communities. Yet we learn that evil is also a mystery, a void, something lacking, with individual sin rooted in its senselessness and with continuing bad effects. The paradox is that without the reality of sin, neither would there be the reality of salvation.

In his analysis of this paradox, Flanagan by no means minimizes the holiness of the church. Yet the most demanding part of his analysis is his chapter on the sinfulness of the church.

The sins of the church, we learn, can be divided into two categories: those of individuals, members and leaders, and the sinfulness of the church itself. Included in this second category are sinful acts by leaders in the church’s name, for example, bishops’ conferences supporting military dictatorships, and the sinful social structures of the church itself that have ongoing harmful effects on the church and the world.

Flanagan’s third category of ecclesial sin includes historical mistakes, shortcomings and misunderstandings which don’t qualify as moral acts, but are characterized by group agency, a distinct mode of shared human action. The recognition of such shared intentionality, Flanagan believes, would enable a much-needed move beyond the church’s frequent portrayal as an idealized entity distinct from its members throughout history. A classic example of the bifurcation of the sinfulness of the members of the church and the sinfulness of the church itself, for Flanagan, are the words of Pope John Paul II at his Day of Pardon event in Rome in 2000. We need to recognize that the church is, in fact, a human community, through one mysteriously united with God.

Ultimately, for Flanagan, the paradox of the relationship between holiness and sin in the church reflects the utter mystery of the relationship between God and all of creation. Though we might wonder why God permits the ongoing struggle between sin and grace, it is precisely this paradoxical unity that manifests the reality of salvation, God’s overwhelming mercy and compassion. It is crucial, then, that the church admit and lament its sins so that the holiness of God may be manifest in the communion of saints throughout history.  “God’s holiness is stronger than sin.”

There is much to admire about Stumbling in Holiness, including its attention to historical theological understandings of ecclesial holiness and sin and its highlighting of the church’s eschatological reality—the “not yet” as well as the “already” of the church’s holiness toward which we stumble together.

But there are two problems. The first is that throughout the one-hundred-seventy-nine pages of Stumbling in Holiness Flanagan cites fifty-four male sources 148 times and eleven female sources seventeen times. I kept checking to see if the book had been published in 1968 and not 2018. Admittedly, most ecclesiologies are written by men. Perhaps it’s just a male field!  But when I was the communications director for an African-American seminary in the 1980s, I learned that if there were too many representations of white people in the upcoming newsletter, I needed to find others. Flanagan should have done similarly.

My other concern involves the examples of ecclesial sin omitted from Stumbling in Holiness. Flanagan cites classic instances of such sin—the Inquisition, collusion in the Holocaust, racism and, of course, clergy sex abuse.  But with the nuclear Doomsday Clock two minutes to midnight and twelve years remaining before the climate catastrophe becomes irreversible, surely the contemporary church’s near silence on both questions—Laudato Si’ notwithstanding—is an ecclesial sin demanding more attention than Flanagan gives it.

But then, as Flanagan himself admits, theologians, as well as popes, bishops, priests, laypeople, —even book reviewers—sin. May our profound repentance soon show forth the present and future glory of God in all its fullness.

 

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Updating Catholic Worship

March 18, 2019 at 3:25 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Christian theology, | 2 Comments
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HONEST RITUALS, HONEST SACRAMENTS: LETTING GO OF DOCTRINES AND CELEBRATING WHAT’S REAL.

By Joseph Martos

Published by Resource Publications/Wipf and Stock Publishers. 156 pages. $20.00.

A woman is denied marriage in the church because she can’t secure the annulment of her previous marriage to a mentally ill husband who has disappeared. A Catholic grandmother believes her Buddhist granddaughter is going to hell because the seal of her earlier baptism is eternal.  The seriously ill and dying in a local hospital are denied the anointing of the sick because the Catholic chaplain is a woman and no priests are available.

As theologian of the sacraments, Joseph Martos, explains, these are common experiences in today’s Catholic church. But why do such sacramental barriers exist half a century after the church “entered the modern world” at Vatican II? In Honest Rituals, Honest Sacraments, Martos takes us back through the history of the church, from the first Christian communities through the Middle Ages to today to lay bare the roots of such problems and propose a contemporary solution.

For Martos, the rituals celebrated by the early Christians were grounded in the actual experiences of the members of the community—conversion, caring, and commitment to the ethical values of Jesus.  The writers of the Epistles and Gospels used metaphors to represent these experiences: baptism, the forgiveness of sins, the presence of Christ in the weekly meal. After the Christianization of the Roman Empire, however, differences between Christian groups threatened imperial unity, so Constantine ordered the bishops to call the Council of Nicea. The Nicene Creed, fashioned there to implement that unity, included almost no references to the ethical teachings of Jesus that underpinned early Christian rituals. Metaphors of lived experience became metaphysical realities in which to believe.  And in the Middle Ages, “schoolmen” in the monasteries drew upon this metaphysical theology to explain the sacraments. The sacraments, according to them, worked automatically.

And this, to all intents and purposes, is what the Catholic Church teaches about sacraments today.  The various sacraments imprint indelible marks—supernatural gifts—on the soul of the passive recipient; And in the Eucharist, the bread and wine actually become a new substance, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Given that centuries have passed since the schoolmen fashioned this interpretation of the sacraments, it is time for the church, Martos argues, to reimagine and redesign the sacraments so that they once again express the genuine spiritual experiences of the Christian community. To give some examples: we should celebrate the sacrament of ordination not as the according of miraculous powers to an individual but as the communal recognition of those who have the skills needed for ministry—preaching, administration, counseling, governance—skills that are not limited by gender or sexual orientation. Marriage becomes the celebration of the spiritual reality at the heart of a mutually supportive, agapic relationship, not a purity-based commitment to procreation. Reconciliation should mean reaching out into the community to bring alienated groups and individuals together, not an individualist ritual of forgiveness for having broken some rules. The anointing of the sick, Martos believes, is already an “honest ritual” because the forms have expanded from a ritual exclusively for the dying to a variety of ceremonies, in hospitals and nursing homes, at healing Masses in parishes though the exclusion of women celebrants continues to be a problem). And the Eucharist should become the celebration and affirmation of what brings people together in a particular community around the vision and values of Jesus. Local church communities, under the leadership of local bishops, should implement these changes.

The scope and depth of the knowledge Martos draws upon to make his argument for a new, more honest sacramental theology is breathtaking. I found his examination of translations, and even of the use of capital letters, in the gradual divinizing of the Holy Spirit, for example, fascinating and convincing. His exploration of the work of the schoolmen in the Middle Ages is likewise quite absorbing. And his use of contemporary philosophy and ritual studies greatly enhanced my understanding of the sacraments. By the end of the book, it is difficult to dispute the basic argument Martos makes, that the current theology of the sacraments, at least the kind that Catholics encounter in parishes, needs serious updating, even reconstruction.

I find it ironic, however, that what seems to be the foundation of Matos’s critique of contemporary Catholic sacramental thinking is the clear, even absolute distinction between metaphysics and experience.  For isn’t the implementation of such a binary itself a form of metaphysical thinking? Consider, for example, the book’s subtitle: Letting Go of Doctrine and Celebrating What is Real. Doctrine is fake and experienced-based rituals are real, we are led to believe. But what about Catholic communities for whom reality is intimately connected with doctrine? What about Catholic communities in Africa for whom the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is an essential part of their experience, even as it also includes the practice of justice and caring that characterized the early church? Does calling such belief “magical thinking” qualify as caring? Martos does, in fact, acknowledge from time to time that some “dishonest rituals,” based in belief and not experience, are unintentional. But too often, his discourse is dismissive of religious views that are also a part of contemporary realty. In my experience, Christians, including theologians, need to find less disdainful ways of engaging these differences.

 

This review appeared in the National Catholic Reporter, Vol. 55, No. 11, March 8-21, 2019, p. 14.

Crucified by Racism

August 25, 2018 at 10:39 am | Posted in Christian theology,, colonization,, racism,, religion | 3 Comments

 

The following is my review of a new book on the relationship between Christian theology and racism by Fordham theologian Jeannine Hill Fletcher. It appears in the August 24-September 6 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

THE SIN OF WHITE SUPREMACY: CHRISTIANITY, RACISM, & RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY IN AMERICA
By Jeannine Hill Fletcher
194 pages; Orbis Books, 2017. $28.00.

Never for a moment did I buy the notion that with the election of Barack Obama as president, the United States had become a “post-racial” society. But even for a skeptic like me, the statistics from the 2016 presidential election were difficult to absorb: Eighty-one percent of white evangelical Christians and 60 percent of white Catholics voted for Donald Trump. How could Christians vote for such an unabashedly racist candidate?

As we attempt to answer that question, it’s hard to imagine anything timelier than Jeannine Hill Fletcher’s new book. In The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, & Religious Diversity in America, Hill Fletcher draws on her expertise in interreligious theology as well as extensive research into the history of Euro-American Christianity to lay out the devastating connections between Christian theology and the ideologies of racial supremacy that underpin our current political crisis.

Then, thank God, she presents a theological paradigm to help us move toward racial and religious transformation.

(Continue reading on the NCR webpage).

 

 

 

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