by Rosemary Houghton
THIS article is very much a personal reaction: it expresses no-one's feelings but my own, but it may find echoes in other people's minds. therefore I felt it worthwhile to put down these ideas.
Reading the Catholic Press is a depressing experience. This is not because some of the reporting is silly or dishonest. Of course it is, journalism is like that. And it isn't the discouraging nature of the events that is to blame, either.
What is so depressing about reading Catholic newspapers and reviews is their failure to ask, openly. the obvious vital questions that arise from the things they report—let alone suggest an answer. There are plenty of jazzy queries. of course, but it's all short-term, see-our-next-issue stuff.
So there are the items on Dutch bishops ignoring the Vatican or the Vatican behaving as if the date had somehow dropped a hundred years or so. or priests in Oregon (for instance) wanting to marry, or some theologian denouncing yet another book on sex while yet another theologian hints at his colleague's Freudian frustrations; or a headline from a Canadian paper tells us "Pope says 'no' to birth-control, Catholics say 'so what' "; and someone foresees, not surprisingly, an imminent crisis in the English Church.
It's not boring, goodness knows. On the contrary, the ecclesiastical see-saw goes up and down at such a pace that one begins to wonder if a nice tranquillizing rosary, sermon and benediction would help to settle one's stomach. And every hair-raising report, with all its implications, is left in the air, like a rocket that explodes and then goes out. The reports and comments disturb people, and so they should, but they dare not commit themselves to hope, or even to despair. They merely report, and any conclusions are short-term ones because anything more would be too risky, like foretelling too confidently the behaviour of the market. But Christianity is risky, though we have been lulled into forgetting it.
An evasion of truth
Possibly such short term comment is all that newspapers can or should be concerned with. But it one grants that (and I'm not sure that a Christian in journalism can slide out so easily) then the rest of us will have to fill the -gaps for ourselves. How? By explaining away the disturbing items? Playing down the seriousness of the trouble? Issuing soothing and sonorous reassurances? Providing 'answers' of some kind, to keep people quiet?
All these remedies are being advocated and tried in different quarters. None of them seem to work because they appear, rightly or wrongly, to be a basic evasion of truth. Another alternative, increasingly popular, is to blow up the controversies even bigger, stir up discontent even more, in the hopes that one huge crisis will bring crumbling structures down and clear the way for the new.
I would like, at the risk of making everybody angry, to make visible what seem to me to be the invisible questions hanging over every exciting news item and editorial comment about reform, revolution, rebellion, repression or regression in the Church. (I include conservative and "alarmist" comments as well as the "laityof-the-Church unite!" type.) The obvious questions reduce themselves to these: What exactly does authority in the Church mean?
The answer is: nobody knows for certain, though many think they do.
How much of the past structures, language and doctrinal formulae of the Church are essential to the Gospel message which was entrusted to it?
The answer is: nobody knows for certain, though many think they do.
Will there be a Church, recognisable in present terms, in fifty years' time?
The answer is : nobody knows for certain, though many think they do.
These things go together
All the other questions grow out of these, Birth-control, bishops, liturgy, schools, parishes, celibacy, ordination of women, obedience, clerical dress, the Curia, re-union, Vatican funds: it would be no good putting this ill-assorted list in the "pick out the odd one" bit of an intelligence test. There things go together solely because they are subjects. Catholics get worked up about and disagree about. And there are equally distinguished and intelligent and enthusiastic people on both (or several) sides, and also equally bigoted and timid and stupid ones. If this is so (and many will find it impossible to agree because on some questions they must be right, or bust) then equally my suggested answer to all three is the only possible one.
Therefore one more question arises out of these: If nobody knows for certain, if any of us (even the Pope) may be wrong about these fundamental questions, where is our assurance that Christ is with his Church? Many have concluded that since the answer to my three questions (which are theirs, too) is uncertain, therefore Christ's guidance is manifestly absent, and so this is not Christ's Church, and they must look elsewhere. Charles Davis drew this conclusion. He, among others. has demanded to know why all those who can only answer such questions as these inconclusively do not follow his line of reasoning, out of the Church. The only reason he, and those who think like him, can find to excuse those of us who do not leave the Church is our rather pathetic group 1 o y a 1 t y. Ironically, many Catholics agree with him in assuming that those who give an uncertain answer should leave the Church, because such people no longer have the right to be regarded as "real" Catholics.
I would like to suggest another answer, which would possibly help to fill the thoughtgap in so much Catholic reporting and discussing of controversy and bitterness and failure, as well as hope and experiment and enthusiasm, in the Church.
The question I asked, summing up all the doubts and fears that beset Catholics at present is this: Where is our assurance that Christ is with the Church?
The old answers rely on the Apostolic succession, on traditional "proofs" of infallibility, on snippets of scripture. For some they still carry conviction; if so, good. They simply won't wash, however, for a growing number of people. And with their going, many fear that all assurance must go too. But we can go behind those
answers. to others that are far
older. We can go back to the foundation of the Church. Our assurance that Christ is with His Church lies in Christ, and
To be a Christian means to have faith in Christ. That doesn't mean we believe Christ will do this, that or the other, but that we have committed
ourselves to Him, regardless of
We don't make conditions, we don't commit ourselves if— if the Church shows satisfactory signs of progress, if we can rely on having our problems settled for us, if we can get the concessions we personally feel to be necessary, or if we can be sure that customs we value will not disappear. The act of Faith is. of its nature, unconditional. If Catholics can achieve this kind of faith in Christ, then Christ is with His Church, because they are in Him and He in them. It seems so simple one feels there must be a catch somewhere. But I can't find one.
Our faith is in Christ, and it is this that makes the Church Church can only exist by favour of individual decisions of faith, but that faith in Christ is a sharing of life—His life—and this is the life of the Church, This isn't grouployalty—though such an emotion is a natural expression of the "sharedness" of our calling. It is an unshakeable assurance of the future of Christ's mission, because Christ is vic torious. Is, not was. The conquest of death is not a past miracle but a present fact. It is up to us to make it visible.
This isn't the kind of thing one can normally expect to find in controversial articles, but this must be the background to all Christian controversy, and if it isn't the controversy is merely destructive.
But how are we to make Christ's victory visible? Doesn't this mean trying to be sure of the answers to questions I said we can't answer with certainty? I don't think so. I think it means what we've all been told so often we've lost interest: the results of our work are not our concern, but God's. Our business is to make a complete commitment to Christ, and that means saying "yes" to every opportunity to serve Him.
It also means, sometimes. saying "no" to opinions or directions that seem, to a prayerful conscience, to be contrary to that commitment. It is sad that Christians should have to oppose each other, but, historically, the Church through
faithful to Christ (sometimes only just) because there have always been people who knew that Christ alone is the Church's foundation, and that His Spirit is given to each Christian.
A stumbling block
The Christian's allegiance to Christ, even in the face of the enmity of other Christians, is the guarantee of the Church's mission, of her authenticity as Christ's servant, of the reality
of His promises to her.
There have been periods in the history of the Church when the central symbol of Christ's authority, the Papacy, was no more than a huge scandal, a stumbling-block to faith rather than a sign of it. There have been times when the people whose profession is intended to be a sign of the resurrection— the members of religious orders —brought little but disgrace to the Christian name. There have been times when "popular" Catholicism was a muddle of superstition and legalism in which gleams of Christianity could with difficulty be discerned.
The Church survived these things, and will do so again, and worse ones, because her authority is Christ, and is long as there are people who are prepared to surrender their lives to Christ in His Church (which is always and inevitably a sinful church) without condition, in total darkness if necessary, then we are assured of Christ's presence in and guidance of His Church. All that we do in his service grows out of that.
To commit ourselves to Christ, in the Church, is all we have to do. The outcome of our work, done in the light and hope we gain from the Christian commitment, is not in our hands. This is an uncomfortable thought, but Christianity is not a comfortable faith. It is, however, a very joyful one, because Christ is risen.
It is joyful, certain and practical, even for those who hope for great and concrete and immediate reforms.
It isn't, after all, such a very chancy programme, judged by available historical parallels. The suffragettes, for instance, set fire to letter boxes, marched and picketed, and although their cause was (as we now know) clearly just they got little but persecution and contempt.
During the 1914-18 war they dropped all that and simply worked at the jobs they had claimed they could do. As there weren't enough men to do them, they were "allowed" to. Afterwards, they got the vote, quietly, and without very much fuss. It was the recognition—with the usual face-saving devices—of what had actually happened. Women could do these things and carry these responsibilities because they had done so.
People who want reforms of even the most radical kind have every right to shout for them. and should do so. And others will oppose them. None of us is surely right, but we need to say what we think, we must propose and promote what seems best. But I would guess that, human nature being much the same in or out of the Church, the big changes will "come" because someone will finally notice they have come.
Sooner or later the people in authority will recognize that things have changed. Married men are exercising an effective ministry, which is priestly in kind though they are not yet ordained. Lay-people of all kinds ere preaching the Gospel in the way only lay-people can. Women are doing things in the Church which contradict the pre-suppositions about their ecclesiastical status. New diocesan and local community structures are working, and working well.
The Church, all over the world, is carrying out Christ's commission in the way in which it has to be carried out now, without waiting for clear directions from above; it is not disintegrating, though it is losing members.
It is losing members, and will continue to do so, because it is natural to look for reassurance, to want some guarantee that we've put our money in a bank that is solvent, that our own hopes have a reasonable chance of being realised.
But the Church at the moment is becoming less and less the kind of thing that can provide such assurance. We are back to the beginning, with the incredible message the Apostles proclaimed, without offering any proof except their word as witness to the risen Christ. Their assurance is our assurance, and we need no other: Christ is risen, Jesus is the Lord.