Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Established Church: The Volkskirche Debate

With the "O Antiphons" under a full head of steam as we go hurtling toward the great feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior, it always seems as though the Second Apostle to Germany, St. Peter Canisius, gets short shrift on his feast day. One of the joys of 2016 for me was celebrating the feast of the Archangels at the altar where Canisius is buried in Fribourg. The recollection of that blessing made me pensive this morning and drew me to a quote from the second reading for his office of today:

“So, after daring to approach your most loving heart and to plunge my thirst in it, I received a promise from you of a garment made of three parts: these were to cover my soul in its nakedness, and to belong especially to my religious profession. They were peace, love and perseverance. Protected by this garment of salvation, I was confident that I would lack nothing but all would succeed and give you glory.”

When we reflect upon St. Peter's role as apostle to Germany, we encounter first and foremost a consecrated soul, a man on fire with Christ's love, whose heart was at one with that of his Lord. It was thus that he could achieve so much in restoring Catholic faith. The qualities of the priest Canisius are something worth begging the Lord to bestow upon His Church in the persons of new apostles for the faith and they are worth priests begging for themselves that "three part garment": peace, love and perseverance. Even a diocesan priest would be good to be clothed with such a glorious garment.

Too often we fail to recognize that the Counter Reform was the long awaited beginning to the much needed reform of the Catholic Church in the 16th Century. In the persons of St. Peter and other religious, it was a thoroughly charismatic and evangelical movement carried forth by the example of spirit-filled men and women, who founded or renewed institutes of perfection for that very purpose in the Church. The so-called reform nunciatures, like the one in Luzern, were also intended for the reform of the Catholic Church, but seemingly had much less traction than the holy men and women who drew others to Christ by their personal witness. Everyone has their theories on Church reform. The Church being a visible body with a social dimension, the rational component to reform and governance is undeniable. Without discounting the pragmatic, I think I'd like to reserve center stage for the greats like St. Peter Canisius.

These days I am reading: Orestes Augustus Brownson's "The American Republic: constitution, tendencies and destiny". He wrote just after the Civil War in the United States and despite or perhaps because of that tragedy is very high on the American experiment in democracy and governance, especially with regard to the constitution. I am wondering not so much if (a century and a half later) he would feel obliged to revise his observations seeing how things are going today in the great Republic, but whether (on a very different topic near to my heart) and how he'd pronounce himself, namely on the issue of Church governance and reform. I am tempted this because Brownson was so unashamedly Catholic. For civil government Brownson is convinced that statesmanship as he defines it trumps virtue for the sake of governing and even empire building. Is it just a lack of great statesmen which renders our civil society so dysfunctional? What can we say about that "perfect society", as the Church once was called? Is it any less dysfunctional than the state today? What is needed for governing the Church? Different than civil leaders, should church leaders be holy? Here's his statesmanship quote which got me thinking about that question:

"Edward the Confessor was a saint, and yet be prepared the way for the Norman conquest of England; and France owes infinitely less to St. Louis than to Louis XI., Richelieu, and Napoleon, who, though no saints, were statesmen. What is specially needed in statesmen is public spirit, intelligence, foresight, broad views, manly feelings, wisdom, energy, resolution; and when statesmen with these qualities are placed at the head of affairs, the state, if not already lost, can, however far gone it may be, be recovered, restored, reinvigorated, advanced, and private vice and corruption disappear in the splendor of public virtue. Providence is always present in the affairs of nations, but not to work miracles to counteract the natural effects of the ignorance, ineptness, short-sightedness, narrow views, public stupidity, and imbecility of rulers, because they are irreproachable and saintly in their private characters and relations, as was Henry VI. of England, or, in some respects, Louis XVI. of France. Providence is God intervening through the laws he by his creative act gives to creatures, not their suspension or abrogation. It was the corruption of the statesmen, in substituting the barbaric element for the proper Roman, to which no one contributed more than Constantine, the first Christian emperor, that was the real cause of the downfall of Rome, and the centuries of barbarism that followed, relieved only by the superhuman zeal and charity of the church to save souls and restore civilization."  (Brownson, p. 73, Kindle Edition). 

 Brownson has various theories on government and from whence it draws its authority. Beyond the  "sanctity versus bravado" debate as it may apply to church, we can say that ecclesiologies as well would seem to be multiple and I think it legitimate to ask which might be the right one or the one which best defines the Church in its nature and mission. If I could, I would ask Brownson to take a stance on what I experience here in Europe as all too common: an idle attempt especially by church professionals of an older generation (over 50) to prop up what is referred to in German as the "Volkskirche" and which might best be rendered in English by the expression "the Established Church" without necessarily implying an unwavering bond between throne and altar. Once upon a time, plagues or wars emptied churches, but today and not only in Europe the bane of organized Christianity as a churchgoing thing seems to be disaffection or indifference. The parallels to what St. Peter Canisius or St. Francis de Sales experienced are not to be discounted. At any rate, "Volkskirche" is no more and it would seem the older professional crowd seeks to recover or restore it, as if it were the only way or the best way to be Church. Peculiar to the notion of "Volkskirche" is the image of it which is commonly expressed by the admonition to "keep the church tower in the village". By holding and maintaining properties, like church buildings, the advocates of this notion of "Volkskirche" would seem to want to declare their eagerness to keep the option open for a return to popular religion, where those now empty pews would all of a sudden be filled again...

Apart from the desirability on all sides of recovering as many fallen away Catholics and their offspring for the life of faith in the Catholic Church as possible, if you will, the "Volkskirche" mentality is at odds with the oft quoted Ratzingerian speculation about the real possibility that to remain faithful to Christ the Church might just have to let go of its real estate and become very small again. In more upbeat fashion, George Weigel and others describe faithfulness to the founding will of Christ within His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church in terms of Evangelical Catholicism. To my mind, theirs (Ratzinger and Company's) is a dynamic school and that of the "Volkskirche" static, sclerotic and ultimately destructive, as it is willing to sacrifice all to keep the church tower in the village. A Canisius like closeness to the Heart of the Redeemer does not seemed to be factored into the "established church" mentality. Despite its pretense at being progressive and open, the stance of your typical "Volkskirche" (We are Church) campaign is tainted by rupture (as one strips and whitewashes these same towers adapting them to accommodate some form of the Zeitgeist) with the living tradition which binds us to Christ within His Church. Their slogan seems to be "Cut your losses, but save the bell tower!"

More often than not, the advocates of this form of "Volkskirche" ignore the centrality of Sunday Mass and the ministerial priesthood to the Catholic equation. Dogma and morals typically take a back seat to some sense of belonging or entitlement grounded in a vague personal option or physical proximity to that church tower. Years ago, we saw it in the United States when cloakrooms and "fellowship" entered into our Sunday Catholic vocabulary and practice. Aesthetics apart, devotion and awe are seemingly less valuable than communicating some vague sense of belonging. "Volkskirche" advocates would see themselves justified in keeping the place swept and ready for the day someone might demand their services. They are wrong to the extent that their fascination with brick and mortar is carried on at the expense of the living Christ, Whose Bride we identify most clearly as She acts in the worthy celebration of the seven Sacraments. As St. Justin Martyr testified so clearly before his pagan judge, without Sunday (Eucharist) we cannot live. The terms for Sunday's celebration are handed down to us from the tradition by Christ's Will. The village church tower, for all its sentimental significance, is not what makes us Church.

 "When an unclean spirit goes out of a person it roams through arid regions searching for rest but finds none. Then it says, 'I will return to my home from which I came.' But upon returning, it finds it empty, swept clean, and put in order. Then it goes and brings back with itself seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they move in and dwell there; and the last condition of that person is worse than the first. Thus it will be with this evil generation." (Mt. 12: 44-45)

In a sense, I suppose Brownson is being unfair to the memory of civil leaders with a fame for sanctity by discounting the possibility of their possessing at the same time the qualities of genuine statesmen. Perhaps St. Louis failed as a statesman, but few for example would contest the qualities of statesmanship of St. Stephen of Hungary. While Celestine V, as Pope, did not evidence any particular skills at governance, St. Charles Borromeo certainly did. On second thought, maybe Brownson would disqualify himself if asked to speak or write on the qualities of Church governance. It is not an easy topic and I guess I would let him off the hook. Even so, I would like to hammer out a strategy for how best to be Church today. To say that it has to be innovative and dynamic to be alive would seem totally wrongheaded if that meant jettisoning all that which Justin Martyr and countless saints in every age have died for, namely the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the source and summit of Christian existence. St. Peter Canisius being close to the Heart of Christ and transformed by His saving grace is worlds away for striving to maintain rootedness in village or city borough.

Discernment is in many ways a very odd word. I think it leads me well, even if not always that surely. St. Ignatius of Loyola in explaining how discernment works talked of how he on his sick bed discarded his tales of chivalry and adventure for the reading of the life of Christ and His saints. I think I would tell him, if I could, that this whole business of "established church" whitewashed, swept and seemingly rational leaves me tired and distant from our living Lord. I wouldn't want to be too black and white about the whole thing, but my heart is drawn to something which clearly leads to and flows from the worthy celebration of the Holy Eucharist, something turned more to the Lord. Better the pilgrimage than the bell tower close at hand; better the yearning than the familiar proximity of the tidy space without its Eucharistic Lord.

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