Rorate Caeli

"Dear Father": Answers for Troubled Times
I - A Confused Convert

I will periodically answer a question or anxious doubt put forward to me. At least for now, it won't be possible to receive questions from readers, due to pure lack of time, but will only answer those that I receive in regular pastoral life.

The first question comes from a confused convert.

"Dear Father,

I'm a convert from an Evangelical background. Most of my family remained Evangelical, and this has caused occasional attrition. Now, I hear continuous pronouncements that weaken my resolve in my conversion, for instance in visits to Evangelical churches in which 'unity in diversity', at least to me, seems to completely include Evangelicals in a new unity that is already in place. In this case, why did I go through all the trouble of converting? Should I go back?

In Christ,

Lost in Nebraska.

Dear Lost in Nebraska,

May I begin by saying that I understand your dismay and your hurt in your reading of Pope Francis’ talk to the Italian Pentecostalists on July 28.  A quick reading of the talk and remembering the Pope’s recent words to an Evangelical about his not being interested in converting anyone to the Catholic faith could indeed make you ask the questions:  “Why did I leave where I was to enter the Catholic Church if in the end we are all on the same road walking with Christ? And if we are in fact all on the same road whatever communion or denomination we happen to belong to, then does not the whole understanding of the Catholic Church as the unique Church founded by Jesus Christ become irrelevant?  And if unity has nothing to do with the Catholic Church per se and instead depends on mutual claims to love Jesus, then why did I take that very real step that I thought brought me to that place that is the center of unity of Christians, the Catholic Church?”

These questions are even more poignant for those whose decision to enter into the Catholic Church was a painful one in that it meant a break in family relationships and a break with friends and a loss sometimes of even one’s livelihood. I know that your decision to enter the Church was a source of pain and discord in your family. So the questions are not merely academic.

I want to begin with some thoughts on the Pope’s talk to the Pentecostalists in Caserta.  As an aside, one is tempted to speculate on why the Pope is so fascinated by Evangelicals from Waldensians to Pentecostalists. This goes back to his days in Argentina, but given the Pope’s many caustic remarks about  priests, especially in his daily sermons at St. Martha, perhaps he sees in the strong manifestations of individual faith in these Protestant groups what is lacking in the bureaucratic priests that surround him in the Vatican.  

He obviously was very impressed with the Pentecostalist pastor he met while he was in Argentina. He was so impressed that he decided to make a special trip to see him in Caserta, and then, as sort of an afterthought to prevent hurt feelings, decided to meet with the Catholic clergy of Caserta on their patronal feast of St. Ann two days before.  On a minor note, he is the first Pontiff to issue an apology to a group who was persecuted not by the Church but by a civil government.  He spoke about the terrible hurt caused by the laws passed in Italy against Evangelicals during the Fascist regime  to “safeguard the purity of the (Italian) race.”  And he asks the Evangelicals for forgiveness for the fact that some who signed those laws were baptized Catholics. 

But this leads to a more serious declaration. The Pope, in this heated moment says: “I am the pastor of the Catholics: I beg your pardon for this!”  Now this would not raise alarms in the minds of many Catholics.  But when this statement is placed in the context of this talk with its singular understanding of what church unity means, then this statement becomes unsettling.  The talk begins by the use of  the image of "walking with Christ" to describe the Christian who has faith and the necessity of walking to the future with Christ.  Pope Francis refers to the many Christians who are either standing still (not good) or walking around in circles like in a labyrinth because they lack courage and hope (probably even worse.)  He uses Joseph’s brothers as examples of those who cause anger, jealousy and division.  But when they set out to walk to Egypt to buy food, they found their brother instead.  That’s a good walk!

But the heart of the whole talk is the Pope’s understanding of the unity of Christians and of the ecumenical movement itself.  He seems to be enamored of the concept of unity put forward in the 1980s by  the Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullman, whom he refers to as “an Evangelical that I love very much”.  The Pope says:

What does the Holy Spirit do?  I said that he does something else that perhaps we may think of as division, but it is not.  The Holy Spirit is the agent of “diversity” in the Church.  The First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12.  He brings about diversity! And indeed this diversity is so rich, so beautiful.  But then, the Holy Spirit is the source of unity, and in this way the Church is one in her diversity.  And, to use a lovely word of an Evangelical that I love so much, a “diversity reconciled” by the Holy Spirit.  He does both things: he brings about diversity of charisms and then produces a harmony of these charisms.  This is what the first theologians of the Church, the first Fathers—I speak of the third or fourth century—said:  “The Holy Spirit, he is the harmony, because He brings about this harmony in diversity.

This approach to unity coupled to what seems like a reduction of the Christian faith to a personal relationship to the person of Jesus can indeed raise serious questions and not only for those who have converted to the Catholic Faith but also for all Catholics.  Cullman’s last (for there were others put forth in his career as a theologian)  understanding of what the unity of the Church really means is known as “Reconciled Diversity”. It is surely linked to the failure of the Ecumenical Movement to get beyond writing documents that are full of pious phrases about each other but lead nowhere.  And so the final solution to the situation of division is to rename what used to be called “divisions in the church” as “diversity” and to make the claim that this diversity is the work of the Holy Spirit, who takes these diverse elements with their special charisms and makes the diverse groups one.  So the Papacy is a charism of the Catholic Church, and hence the Pope’s statement about his being the pastor of Catholics sounds like the role of  the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England.   This special charism of the Papacy, in this unity in diversity, Reconciled Diversity,  need not have any meaning for those who are not Catholic, and members of a diverse group can even, presumably, be in opposition to the Papacy, and yet these disparate groups are really in union because the author of this diversity is the Holy Spirit and that same Spirit makes these groups one.  And the same could be said for the Sacraments and for the Mass:  charisms of one part of the Church that are like "baptism in the Holy Spirit" and speaking in tongues in another part of the Church, neither of which charisms are necessary for the Church as a whole.

Now, dear Lost in Nebraska, can you really take this seriously to the point of questioning your decision to enter the Catholic Church?  This is another example of trying to do theology without any reference to dogma and doctrine and instead trying to replace theology with praxology, which is unreasonable, sentimental, ahistorical and therefore anti-incarnational, and highly dangerous.  I will not offer you at this point some pious reference to “the gates of hell will not prevail” to make you feel better, for, while they are true, just saying these words as a mantra can lead us to forget that we are called to suffer in the Church for the sake of Truth and also that we must not just sit on our hands and wait for the Holy Spirit to swoop down like part of a Magical Mystery Tour and make everything OK.  We witness to the Truth of the Catholic Church by the use of our intelligence and reason to proclaim our faith and to live that faith as best we can.

I am convinced that not only are we replaying the 1960s in the Church but also that the forces of reaction that we see in men like Cardinal Kasper and the like are mounting their last battle.  The problem is, dear Lost in Nebraska, that the Church is tired, and that tiredness comes from almost fifty years of pretending there is no battle, fifty years of trying to make Herself relevant to a world that sees Her as irrelevant, fifty years of deliberate forgetting of Her role as the locus of Salvation in Jesus Christ within this world, fifty years of desacralizing  Her liturgical life.  Even the efforts of Saint John Paul II could not stop this self-sapping of Her own energy. Pope Benedict XVI seems to me to be the living symbol of this stanchezza profonda, this deep tiredness.  And this is not the best condition to be in to fight the battle of bringing the world to see the terrible end of a life lived without God and to bring the world to an acknowledgment of sin and to tell them the Good News about God’s infinite love and infinite mercy in the Cross of Jesus Christ. 

But take heart, Lost in Nebraska.  Deepen your Catholic faith, love God, love your neighbor as yourself, and be joyful in remembering our Lord’s words:  "But be of good cheer,  for I have overcome the world."

Fr. Richard G. Cipolla