Criticizing the Church

Every Catholic, every human person, was affected by the scandal made here in by priests and bishops. The ugliness and evil we saw committed by people who were supposed to be holy, supposed to be an example for the world, are intolerable. Those who thirsted for justice criticized, rightly, the Church. There is, then, an appropriate criticism of the Church. There is also the question of doctrine and disciplines. How can the Church proclaim a dogma such as the Assumption of Mary when the evidence seems to be lacking? How can the Church require men to be celibate simply because they have the vocation of priesthood? How come the Church does not support and affirm homosexuals properly? Why did the Church propose the new mass? The questions are endless and they need to be endless.

When wonder ceases faith ceases. Of course there is the usual answer of distinguishing what is de fide and what is not, what doctrine is and what is discipline. Yet even in the issue of dogma, I do think there is a certain criticism permitted. A person can accept the Assumption although she may find the reasons of the Magisterium insufficient to support it. She may find the CDF’s criticism of Jon Sobrino’s Christology acceptable but disagree with its acceptance of the Thomistic notion that the zygote Jesus to possess beatific vision. The question is, how can we criticize the Church? The ideas here are not systematic and even disorganized and confusing. Hopefully people will get the gist of what I am saying.

The Church is both human and divine. By that very definition we can say, because she is human, there will be mistakes. People sin and people even make reasoning mistakes. As Hans Urs von Balthasar has shown, the Church was considered by the Fathers to be a whore as well as a virgin (cf. Explorations of Theology vol. 2). This also shows that to produce examples of mistakes does not justify a person from rejecting the Church. By the very fact that she is composed of human beings, she will make mistakes and giving particular examples of them should not give a person a reason to reject her very nature. The reasoning would be similar to a tautology: the Church is the Church. However, we can say that we can criticize the Church. Mistakes should be corrected.

How do we judge the Church? A criterion is needed to judge something. A person needs an authority in which she can properly judge something. What is the first authority of the human person? Msgr. Luigi Giussani said it is the heart. By the heart, he does not mean a sentimental feeling. I do not even think he uses it the same he Dietrich von Hildebrand did, that is, the center of affectivity. What he meant was the fundamental needs and desires we have such as beauty, truth, justice, love, etc. To judge something, then, is to see whether the object in front of us corresponds to the needs of the heart. Many times we judge something because of our philosophical and scientific criteria. This is indeed good. Reducing ourselves to the scientific or logical sphere is inhumane because we are much more, we are worth more: “What am I, Lord, that you are mindful of me?” (Ps. 8:5). We cannot judge art, for example, from scientific axioms. So we need a broadening of reason as Pope Benedict reminds us. What we need is to understand ourselves in the totality of our factors.

When we judge something we see whether it corresponds to our needs. A scientist became what she is because she was attracted to the practice. Something in science attracted her, corresponded to her heart. A boy falls in love with a girl. Why? Because there was something in her that corresponded to him, that spoke to him the way none of the other girls he has met has. When John the Baptist told his apostles to follow Christ, Christ did not say, “Follow me.” Rather, the first thing he said was, “What are you looking for?” God is not indifferent towards us but always engaged with us. As Giussani said, “There can be no Christ without the heart and no heart without Christ.”

So the heart is our first authority. Most of the time, the problem is knowing what we want in the first place. A boy does not know if he really wants to go out with a girl. A recent graduate does not know if she really wants to pursue more philosophy. What awakens our hearts is an event, an exceptional fact. Something outside of us unleashes a desire we have, a desire we might have repressed. Why did the apostles follow Christ? Because nobody else spoke like him. He was exceptional; he corresponded to their hearts. Nobody looked at them with that infinite look before. It was his gaze, God’s human gaze, that captured their hearts. The way he looked at them gave them compassion for themselves, gave them an understanding and freedom they never had. The second thing they did was verify whether the experience they had was true. Because this man attracted them, they needed to see whether they were just sentimental or whether there was something authentic in this man, something real that corresponded to them. So Christ invited them: “Follow me.”

Another point: commitment to our experiences. When we experience an exceptional fact, we need to remember, re-live them: anamnesis. This is called commitment to tradition. Commitment to tradition is first of all not adhering to a set of rules the Church proposes but to your own experiences. Again, by experiences, I mean something that corresponded to our fundamental needs. They are objective and not sentimental. I experience a beautiful moment. This produces wonder: Wow, why? A permanent sense of wonder is needed for mission, for the Christian life. Wonder, then, is really the beginning of criticism. It must be clarified, however, that it is a wonder that comes from an event, an exceptional experience. Without exceptionality there can be no wonder and therefore no criticism. Criticism is possible only when we have experienced an exceptional fact, by remembering our experience. In other words, criticism is only possible within a tradition.

Christianity is incarnational. To follow Christ is not to follow a book but to follow a witness. This is the law of the Christian: the Word was made flesh. Nothing is more exceptional. This law requires that we follow a witness, a concrete person, who reminds us our destiny, our hearts. To know Christ is to know him by testimony. Faith is spoken of as the substance of things unseen. Giussani gave the analogy of a testimony. Billy told Sally X. Sally did not see X but because she trusts in Billy, she can have knowledge of X. Granted there is a debate on how exactly Sally is justified, whether we should be reductionists or non-reductionists, or even a hybrid of the two (J. Lackey), yet I do not think anyone would deny that there can be knowledge by testimony. Faith, then, is not a leap because there is no evidence, but an acceptance of an experience that points to an unseen.

Even the Scriptures themselves are testimony. James Dunn: “There is in fact no gap to be bridged between a Jesus historically conceived and the subsequent tradition which has effected consciousness; all we have is disciples effected by Jesus and the disciples thus ‘effected’ expressing their ‘effection’ by formulating the tradition which effects” (Jesus Remembered, Eardmans 2003, 128-129). One cannot, then, follow Christ without following the Church. The Church was there from the beginning to witness Christ and to follow Christ without the Church is incoherent. A Christian can kneel in front of the Eucharist in silence for three hours and not learn humility. What she needs to do is to engage her whole being to Christ. To engage in Christ is to engage in the community, in the witnesses. One cannot follow Christ, one cannot witness Christ, by being a spectator. Balthasar said,

The Apostles are witnesses of the Resurrection and of the whole life of Jesus that underlies it: the form of their objectivity coincides with the form of their witness. They are not uninvolved (or even “interested”) reporters, but with their lives they vouch for the testimony they must give. Scripture, for its part, testifies to their giving of testimony. The two coincide entirely when Paul writes a letter and, in it, testifies with his whole life to the truth of revelation, putting God’s action at the center but including himself (who was taken over by this action, once for all, in Damascus); he pulls out all the stops of his existence in order to convince those to whom he is writing that they too are drawn into this action just as much as he is…When Paul and the other writers do in the Letters, the evangelists do in their own way: they do not recount stories in which they are not involved; in fact, they know that their only chance of being objective is by being profoundly involved in the event they are describing. They exercise objectivity by giving their witness before the Church and the world, handing on the drama of Jesus’ life, the life of the incarnate Word of God, to the catechesis of the primitive Church, a catechesis designed to incorporate the lives of the young Christians into the mystery of Christ’s life. ((TD II 57-58)

One cannot understand Scripture, therefore, by simply reading it from grammatical way or in a historical way. Scripture must be incarnated in the believer. To understand Scripture requires witnessing and following a witness. For a person to understand herself is to understand herself as a person-with, a person-for. She is made in communion and only in communion can she understand herself. Here we get to the idea of a witness. A witness is someone who understands me more than I know myself. It is in this way it is exceptional. The witness reminds me of who I am, what my needs are, who my destiny is. Therefore, when I encounter this person, I need to follow her and to stay with her. To follow that witness is to understand the reasons of her existence. This is what it means to follow Christ. The witness and heart coincide.

How then do we criticize the Church? There can be no criticism of the Church without a commitment to tradition, without commitment to the memory of Christ. In other words, we can criticize the Church only within the Church, that is, in linking ourselves to the memory of Christ, to the witnesses we follow. Our judgments are credible only insofar as the credibility of our witnesses and the engagement we have with our witnesses. Too many times, we are not engaged with our witnesses. We do not, cannot, criticize the Church on our own behalf. We do it on the basis of another. We cannot criticize the Church on our own because we do not have that ability. How do we know a member of the Church, a teaching of the Church, is not following Christ unless we know Christ? And how do we know Christ except through a witness?

Suppose the Church has put forth the discipline of celibacy for priests. The way we would criticize the Church, that is, the way we will understand that discipline, is to understand the reasons of her. To do that, we need a criterion: our hearts. Most of the time, we do not know our needs, our wants. We understand our desires because of an exceptional witness. We need to understand our desires, our hearts, before we can understand and criticize the discipline of celibacy. To criticize, to engage, the Church, then, requires that we must first understand our hearts. In this way, criticism of the Church is also criticism of ourselves.

Finally, criticism is not dissent. Incomprehensibility is not a reason to dissent from a teaching or the Church. When Christ told the apostles that they must eat his flesh, the apostles did not understand it. Yet, because over and over again they have found this man corresponding to them, they did not leave. They stayed with him, engaged their lives to him. “To whom shall we go? If we do not believe in you, we cannot believe our own eyes.” In order to understand, engage, Christ, they needed him. To engage in the Church, we need the Church.


3 Responses

  1. Apolonio

    This is a deep and interesting post, and I want to think about it some more before I comment in more detail about it, but I thought I could at least raise a question about something you say early on just to see what your response is. You write, vis-a-vis the recent sexual scandals in the Church:

    The ugliness and evil we saw committed by people who were supposed to be holy, supposed to be an example for the world, are intolerable. Those who thirsted for justice criticized, rightly, the Church. There is, then, an appropriate criticism of the Church.

    My question is, Why is there an appropriate criticism of the Church in these cases, rather than an appropriate criticism of certain individual persons within the Church? I assume that what you have in mind is something along these lines: to the extent that priests, and indeed even Bishops, conspired to hide the truth, and to the extent that priests and Bishops represent the Church in a certain sense, to that extent, then, to criticize these individuals just is to criticize the Church.

    But it seems to me that a fundamental intuition about the concepts of praise and blame is that we only parcel them out in cases where there was genuine intentionality. That is, we praise an individual because s/he freely chooses to do the right thing, we blame her when she freely chooses to do the wrong thing. If this intuition is correct, praise and blame can only be conferred on individuals with mens rea; we confer them on institutions only in an analogous sense and only when the institutional structures reflect the right/wrong principle of action. So if we are to blame the Church for this mess in any sense, it seems to me that we would need to show, first of all, that the teachings of the Church are consistent with what these men did, and I don’t think that we can show that. Indeed, one of the principle reasons why we blame the men themselves is precisely because we think that what they did was contrary to Church teaching, that they acted, in a sense, not as representatives of the Church, but rather as hedonistic or self-interested agents.

    In short, although it is true enough that these men represent the Church when we consider their roles in the Church under certain descriptions, it seems to me that when they act in certain ways the either cease to be representatives of the Church at all, or they remain so only homonymously. If this is right, then criticism of the Church, as such, is misplaced in this case.

  2. Scott,

    Thanks for the response. This gets into the nature of the Church. Suppose individuals only represent the Church. What, then, is the Church? When you add another individual, does that make the Church? Well, no, it just means two individuals that represent the Church. Add a bishop and so on. It’s hard to see when it becomes the Church if we just speak of individuals as representing the Church…kinda like the sorites paradox. Granted, when an individual sin, it is only the individual that sins. Yet, the sin is part of us (cf. Adam and Eve). So, when a church member sins, we have to say that the sin is in some way part of us (in what way is a different matter). Even Christ did become sin. Benedict did say that nobody sins alone and nobody is saved alone.

    Maybe if we relate criticism to “crisis,” my point would be better understood. A crisis is a problem. Criticism is sifting through or examining a certain problem. Seen in this way, we can see that the Church is both a whore and a virgn. In examining herself, mortifying herself, she becomes what she was intended to be: pure. In fact, we do speak of crisis in the Church. So, I would propose that we criticize the Church, sift through the Church, *with* the Church.

  3. A distinction is needed here.

    The Church as “pilgrim people” of God (cf. Lumen Gentium) is certainly subject to criticism, from without as well as within the Church. That is because, as a people, she is an assembly (Greek: ekklesia) of sinful individuals. The Church as Mystical Body of Christ, however, is not justly subject to criticism; for as such she is identical with Christ (“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”), and therefore perfect. The mystery of the Church lies, at its core, in how the two forms of identity are interrelated. As people of God, the Church is a whore; as spouse of Christ, one body with him, she is pure as a virgin. The goal of the Church Militant’s pilgrimage is internal and spiritual: to move from whore to virgin, to integrate “the people of God” ever more fully into the Mystical Body.

    I agree, however, that Catholics should criticize the Church only from “within” Tradition. The Church as pilgrim people is to be judged only by those standards which she embodies as the Mystical Body.


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