is one of the factors generating this
IMAGE OF THE CHURCH
By FR. NIGEL LARN, M.A.
Ecclesiastical Assistant to the Catholic Education Council
CHRISTIAN Unity is in the air and on the air. Television, radio and the Press may sensationalise it. Both Catholics and Non-Catholics may sometimes be over-optimistic in their expectations. As if ideological differences might disappear overnight, leaving behind them, like the Cheshire Cat, only a nebn. loos smile, in which we can all surely join without sin or compromise.
But Christian Unity is no less serious a pursuit because it is so difficult. Such a pursuit involves Catholics in a recognition that their own faults have in the past contributed to schism. This reaction is healthy. Still healthier is an awareness that there are stumbling blocks today in the Church which barricade the road to unity. Among these stand out our own spiritual and moral deficiencies.
St. Paul compares membership of the Church to belonging to a household. A closely united family will have distinct impressions about the world outside. In its turn the world outside will look inwards at the family from a perspective that is very different.
The family will not know how it appears to the outsider. It is rather like being on television. Our audience is an unseen one. Its reactions are unheard. We can live like this as Catholics. We can live in a walled garden and bask in its beauty. The passer-by sees only a forbidding wall. Are we really alive to the impressions made by the Church on Non-Catholics?
Denial of life
THE Catholic Enquiry Centre is at the receiving end of a very mixed mail hag. The agnostic and the theist, the practising and the non-practising Christian, the Non-Conformist and the Anglican, the Low and the High, all despatch questions often prolific, both in expression and quantity. Enquiries are a cross-section not merely religiously. but also socially and culturally, as well as regards age and sex. These questions in their bulk form a misted mirror, in which the true image of the Church is variously distorted. Not every outsider sees the same distortion.
To some, Catholicism (and perhaps Christianity in general) appears as a denial of life—an inhuman system of negatives and prohibitions. The Church's teaching on divorce and birth prevention tends to be regarded as an impossibly high ideal or as an undesirable restriction on love and freedom—laws imposed by ecclesiastics rather than laws of God.
The allowances that the Church is able to make for difficult human situations by its teaching on nullity and on the proper use of the Safe Period are often dismissed as a thinly casuistical attempt to get the best of both worlds.
The fact that the Church is proclaiming the law of God, Who has a right not merely to our obedience but to our intellectual assent to the wisdom of His Commands. remains unrecognised. So do the positive ideals implicit in our teaching on marriage.
it is ironic to see men bemused by fear of over-population in the remoter future when they live in a world that is much more immediately threatened by nuclear destruction.
MANY Non-Catholics have never had the opportunity to meet a priest. Of those who have some will have met him only in connection with football pools or bingo. The image of the Church here may often be highly favourable in a rather hearty, good fellow, nonreligious sort of way.
But some Non-Catholics seem unable to get over the feeling that gambling is down-right evil. Often, their arguments, when nailed down, refer to abuses rather than the thing itself. The value of the material creation, stamped more evidently in the image of God by virtue of the Incarnation, has not been communicated to their Puritanical hangover.
It is a tndsm that when doctrines are seen by an outsider they are frequently divorced from their context. But of none is this more true than Papal Infallibility.
The relationship of the Head of the Church to the rest of us may be thought of as that of a dictator to his subjects. Papal theological definitions may be regarded as the most frequent way in which we arrive. at doctrinal truth. Papal authority is sometimes imagined to extend to political issues and to be valid well beyond the frontiers of religion.
The first Vatican Council was about to discuis the position of bishops in the Church when it was adjourned. If the forthcoming Council resumes this subject, as is confidently predicted, our separated brethren may well have their attention focussed on the doctrine of Papal Infallibility in its context instead of outside it.
oNE could expand much more widely the list of distortions of the true image of the Church. Are Catholics, for instance, thought of as essentially submissive types, unhealthily priest-ridden? Or are they people who adhere to a universal religion merely because doctrinal uniformity has been imposed on them in home and school from infancy? Or do they consist of those who, because of their temperament, benefit from a more authoritarian ecclesiastical set-up?
Ironically, I think in England we are sometimes looked on as a sect and others claim closer continuity with the Church of the Middle Ages or with Primitive Christianity.
Are Catholics a race who squeal for liberty of conscience when they are in the minority, but who rigidly inhibit it when they are in the majority? One often feels what is needed to meet this objection is ventilalion of the facts of so-caned "persecutions" in Catholic countries.
The apologist who is biased to the extent of twisting his facts will do the Church little service, but equally little is done for it by the journalist who has a sneaking suspicion thai he will unearth too many unpleasant skeletons if he digs too deep.
Finally, is charity towards ones neighbour exclusively a Protestant virtue? Do Catholics not lose sight of it with their paramount insistence on fish on Fridays, Sunday Mass, miraculous medals, and respect for the clergy?
AMUDDLED picture, you will say. of a Catholic's conception of his obligations. Yes, indeed. But it underlines our duty to communicate the Faith in clearer outlines. This is the task Which the present-day Ecumenical Movement has embraced. It is a dialogue between theologians, in which the distinctions between the essential and the peripheral will emerge more starkly.
The remarks which I have so far ventured are sporadic. They are a very incomplete picture of the reactions of some NonCatholics and even as such, the picture is not necessarily typical. For everyone who criticises the Church on a particular point, there arc others who eulogise it whole-heartedly for precisely the same point.
Limited samples deserve a limited distrust. But they point to a problem. And this problem is ours. lt is the everlasting difficulty of Communication.
The purpose of language Is to reveal our thoughts rather than conceal them. At least it ought to be. We can, however, live in a private world of discourse which the uninitiated possess no key to decode.
We may do this without the conscious effrontery of the March Hare who declared that words mean what he decided they should mean. But, even so, will our dialogue with the Vicar over buttered toast provoke as many misunderstandings as the Mad Hatter's Tea Party?
Do we live in a linguistic ghetto? It is no disparagement of theology to admit that, like any other reputable science. it contains technical terms. But theological words are so often used in a quite different sense by that
much maligned character, the man in the street.
Take for example the term "supernatural". To a Catholic this has a precise significance: that order of reality that exceeds the power of nature and is a special creation by God. But to others the term "supernatural" may simply conjure up ghosts and spooks and things that go bump in the night.
HERE then is a problem in communication that needs the cleansing wind of discussion. How far do our Catechetics, while establishing the true meaning of technical terms in the mind of the believer, fail to give him an understanding of them which would ease his task in adult life of translating them to the non-believer?
Other similar questions spring at once to the attention. How far is the ideological gap between Catholics and other Christians affected by the lacuna. inevitable though it may be, between seminaries and universities in this country? Is there a mental growing apart of the clerical intellectual from the Non-Catholic graduate, and even from the Catholic one too? If so, is this mental bifurcation more than ideological differences would warrant?
To take an example from one particular subject. At Oxford the philosophy course leaps from Aristotle to Descartes ignoring entirely the scholastic period. In seminaries Descartes and his successors merely cringe in the footnotes of the philosophical underworld. Is either of these selections beyond improvement?
Changes in dogma there cannot be. But are there changes in canonical discipline and liturgical practice which would render the Church more accessible to many, while refusing the fads of the few? Is it justifiable to make such changes for ecumenical reasons only, if internal needs do not also require them? Can we make such changes without being misled by the limited sample of popular correspondence columns?
ALL preaching has a limited success. Here at last is a statement with which many of the laity Will agree. The average homiletic presentation of the Church's Truth in any given age can always be deficient in its proportions. For instance, sermons on Hell are alleged to be much less frequent than they used to be. If this is so, are we more or less balanced than previous generations?
What emphasis in preaching would help to clarify the confused image of the Church in the minds of our contemporaries? Is there an inexorable difficulty in translating accurate theology into intelligible language 7 Or do the faithful understand it all really?
This is an agenda for discussion by the Catholic Herald, not for the forthcoming Ecumenical Council. The Council's primary purpose is not to find means to union. It is to renew the life of the Church. A General Council in the Twentieth Century is bound to receive more publicity than previous Councils could. So, at least indirectly, a truer image of the Church will be presented to the world at large.