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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Prophetic Obedience

April 25, 2017 at 10:29 am | Posted in Catholicism, constructive theology, ecclesiology, Vatican | Leave a comment
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This reviews appears in the April 21 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

PROPHETIC OBEDIENCE: ECCLESIOLOGY FOR A DIALOGICAL CHURCH
By Bradford E. Hinze
Published by Orbis Books, 288 pages, $42

I have to confess, I’m pretty wary of the word obedience. So wary, in fact, that I almost declined to review Bradford Hinze’s new theology of the church.

I’m glad I didn’t. Prophetic Obedience is precisely the kind of constructive theology that enables post-Vatican II Catholics like me to overcome the binaries that have hindered us since the election of Pope John Paul II: freedom vs. obedience, the horizontal vs. the vertical, the magisterium vs. the sensus fidelium.

Hinze traces these binaries back to Second Vatican Council itself. He explores many of the ways in which the Vatican II vision of the church as the people of God, of all the baptized on the road together, impacted a wide range of ecclesial bodies as well as community organizations after the council. And he shows how a conservative faction of the bishops and the Vatican attempted to replace that vision with a “communion ecclesiology” stressing centralized authority and the magisterium.

The struggle between the people of God and communion ecclesiologies goes back to Pope Paul VI’s insertion of an “explanatory note” into the Vatican II Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. The note forbade the college of bishops from ever acting without the approval of the pope. Another devastating blow was the 1983 promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law stipulating that bishops’ synods, episcopal conferences, diocesan synods, and parish councils had nothing more than advisory (“consultative”) authority.

Yet Hinze does not react to the damage done to the ecclesiology of the people of God with an attack on communion theology. He acknowledges, in fact, that communion ecclesiology, with its stress on the unity of the church, is also an important part of Vatican II teaching. Instead, he traces the problem to one form of communion ecclesiology, a form fixated on unity and authority to the exclusion of the voices of God’s people. The ascendancy of this form of communion ecclesiology, Hinze argues, “eclipsed” but did not extinguish “the new dawn of the People of God as it was emerging during the two decades after the council.”

To remedy this eclipse, the author offers a new ecclesiological vision: prophetic obedience. Prophetic obedience is the fundamental marker of a dialogical church, a church that deepens in its commitment to normative expressions of the apostolic faith — Scriptures, creeds, liturgies and official teachings — as it welcomes the wisdom of all the faithful.

In constructing this new ecclesiology, Hinze expands considerably on previous understandings of both prophecy and obedience. Prophecy is no longer only a word or message received that leads to a corresponding proclamation or witness; it is also the result of heeding, receiving and responding to the voice of the Spirit as expressed by all of God’s people and the whole of God’s creation.

Fundamental to this understanding of prophecy is the practice of lamentation. Drawing on the book of Psalms, Hinze explains laments as people calling out to God to listen and respond to their pain and suffering. The two driving forces within lamentations, we learn, are the desire to know why particular suffering is occurring and how long it will continue. Jesus came to understand his mission by listening to the laments of the people. And the laments of God’s people today form a crucible from which compassion and discernment are forged. Without heeding the voice of the Spirit in the laments of all of God’s creation, the church cannot fulfill its prophetic calling.

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Dayanna Renderos Ruiz, 9, receives Communion during a Mass at St. John of God Church in Central Islip, New York, April 11, 2015. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The author also expands the idea of obedience well beyond the notion of blind capitulation to authority that gave me pause when I first read the title of his book. To do so, he revisits the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity, and in particular, the obedience they practice. A standard framework for understanding obedience is Jesus obeying God the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prays, “Not my will but thine be done” (Mark 14:36). Many theologians have configured the entire Trinity around this structure: The Father speaks, the Son responds in pure obedience, and the Spirit is the passive recipient of the interaction.

Hinze, however, expands this understanding of obedience by offering an alternative vision of the Trinity in which all three persons practice obedience, though in distinctive ways. For example, the Spirit, as seen in Genesis, is the active agency of God present in a chaotic world. The Father is obedient to this Spirit when he hears and responds to the groaning of creation. He is likewise obedient to the Son when he hears and responds to Jesus’ suffering by raising him from the dead. Drawing on the “polyphony of scripture,” Hinze illustrates the obedience of all three persons to one another and draws on this model to present a compelling ecclesiology of prophetic listening and response as the calling of all the people of God. The church can move beyond a paternalistic and hierarchical exercise of authority only by living out this vocation.

Multiple aspects of Prophetic Obedience deserve acknowledgement. One is the way the author weaves repeatedly and effectively throughout his book the theme of the prophetic identity of the people of God and their calling to obey the Spirit in the laments of all creation. Another is Hinze’s integration of the post-Vatican II experiences of women, women’s religious congregations, and people in ecumenical and interfaith grassroots organizations into his ecclesiology. He does not just theoretically advocate prophetic obedience to the voices of God’s people, he enacts it.

Finally, Hinze makes use of a considerable range of extra-theological scholarship, for example, the works of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault and Charles Taylor. Using such material nuances his argument but also risks making the book less accessible to those who would benefit most from it: Catholics in parishes. Given the compelling case Hinze makes for the pivotal role of prophetic obedience in the renewal of the church, we can only hope that somebody creates a parish version of his book very soon.

[Marian Ronan is research professor of Catholic Studies at New York Theological Seminary. In May, the Apocryphile Press will issue her new book, Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement (co-authored with Mary O’Brien). All book reviews can be found at NCRonline.org/books.]

This story appeared in the April 21-May 4, 2017 print issue under the headline: Listen, respond to voices .

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