Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Why They Are Afraid of Pope Francis 16

Flannery O'Connor  1925-1964
The image of the church I like is that of the holy, faithful people of God. This is the definition I often use, and then there is that image from the Second Vatican Council’s ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ (No. 12). Belonging to a people has a strong theological value. In the history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.
This is another quote from the interview that Pope Francis gave La Civilta
(and reprinted in America) that explains the very Vatican II course he is charting for the Church in his pontificate.  While John Paul II and Benedict XVI both used the image “People of God” in reference to the Church it was not their operative ecclesiology and when they used it was a very sanitized “people” that they meant as “People of God.”  Of course, John Paul was a Philosopher and Benedict a theologian and they both—and especially Benedict—dealt better with abstractions than with the nitty-gritty dirt of the Incarnation as it unfolds in human life today.  Francis, on the other hand, has a background in the sciences and is more prepared to deal with concrete realities than the sanitized ideals.  Francis has made it clear, whether in regard to gay clergy or nursing mothers or every and any messy life in between, that the People of God is an inclusive reality to which all belong and where all have a seat at the table.  That doesn’t please the Pharisees who want the Kingdom of God to be a more exclusive affair to which the riffraff  find the doors barred. 
Francis also makes the point that God has saved a People and that does not sit well with the neo-trads who, despite their claims to Catholicity have bought into the Protestant idea that we are saved as individuals.  In our Catholic tradition, going back to the Fathers of the Church, we are saved precisely because we belong to Christ—not as his possessions but as his members, the members of his Body.  This is a major theme, of course, in the Letters of Saint Paul. We are the Body of Christ.  For Paul this is not a metaphor.  Paul sees us, corporately, as the physical Body of the Resurrected Christ and individually as the various members (or parts) of that Body.  We have a claim on sharing in his Resurrection precisely because of this membership, not because of any merits (or lack of faults) of our own. 
I remember how th neo-trads wailed and carried on when Hilary Clinton wrote her book It Takes a Village.  I am certainly not going to claim the distinguished Ms. Clinton as a voice that carries a Catholic message, but in this case—or at least in the concept embodied in the title—there is no idea more Catholic.  We Catholics are intensely corporate people and this is something that clashes with our American approach that so stresses individualism.  The neo-trads simply can’t get this.  The see only the individual and forget that the individual—saint or sinner, gay or straight, male or female, red-white-yellow-brown or black, contracepting or birthing, Democrat or Republican, orthodox or heterodox, liberal or conservative, A&P or every Sunday—once baptized, irretrievably belongs to Christ. 
The Catholic Short-Story writer, Flannery O’Connor caught this notion and articulated it well in her story “Revelation.”  Mrs. Turpin, the principal character in the story, is a woman who is very confident of her place in the social and moral hierarchy until an encounter with an ill-tempered girl in a doctor’s waiting room makes her confront her world from a more humbled perspective.  In one of my favorite passages in American literature, Mrs. Turpin sees her fellow denizens of this earth through a different lens.  She is standing one evening looking at the hogs in their pen on her farm:
Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge.  At last she lifted her head.  There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk.  She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound.  A visionary light settled in her eyes.  She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.  Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven, there were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black n****** in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.  And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.  She leaned forward to observe them closer.  They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.  She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead.   In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile. 
We all need, like Mrs Turpin, to come to see that our standard of who stands right in the sight of God is a very arbitrary one and not necessarily the definitive judgment that lies beyond our mortal perception.  

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