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The Mature Christian and the Church

by P. Engelbert Recktenwald

Nobody believes all by himself. Already during his time as a theologian, this was a favourite thought of Pope Benedict XVI. The acting out of our faith is always embedded in the life of the whole Church. This stems from the will of God, to whom the Church owes her foundation. But this will of God, in human terms, does not arise on a whim, but from love, which as far as possible meets human nature. Man, as Aristotle already knew, is a social animal: by nature he is dependent on community. What may sound like a trite proposition becomes an exciting discovery as soon as the forgotten truth is rediscovered in a new way. For example, 2014 in a book review, "Spektrum der Wissenschaft" magazine reported on the unprecedented discovery of behavioral scientist Michael Tomasello that language and thought did not develop individually but in community. Somehow I had always imagined that language is not the result of solitary self-talk, but of communal communication.

But what is true for language also applies to faith, which we could call the supernatural faculty of speech in the matter of revelation. Likewise, on the supernatural level the social nature of man should be just as obvious to us as it is on the natural level. But this is not the case, as we will see when we cast a glance at Luther. To Martin Luther, faith was a matter of the individual ego conducting a lonely search for a gracious God. Just as in his view grace touches man directly without the mediation of the sacraments, so does the word of God without the mediation of the Church. The individual is ultimately alone with the Bible. In his effort to understand it, he is thrown back on himself. The enlightenment by the Holy Spirit in this effort of understanding, proclaimed by Protestant theology, remains in the uncontrollable subjectivity of the individual; it can neither be verified nor can it be credibly asserted in view of the many conflicting interpretations of the Scriptures. The individual is in a precise sense his own pope, that is as the ultimate authority for the interpretation of the Bible: "General priesthood in reading the Bible - every Protestant Christian is Pope," wrote for example the Protestant pastor Michael Borkowski. Against this background, the Catholic restriction of infallibility to just one person is an act of modesty, as Manfred Lütz emphasizes. In the Catholic Church there is only one infallible Pope, while among the Protestants there are as many as there are faithful Bible readers.

To the marginalization of the Church today corresponds the rejection of the Church in the past: the rejection of Tradition. For the individual's acting out of faith the Church becomes irrelevant in the present and in the past. This corresponds to a missionary practice which consists mainly in the distribution of Bibles. If the reader comes to believe, he seeks a church that corresponds to his idea of faith. If he does not find one, he still has the option to found his own free church.

Church becomes an afterthought and secondary here. The decisive act of salvation takes place in the solitude of the relationship between God and the individual soul. We begin to fathom how different this idea is from that of the Fathers of the Church when we think of the words of St. Cyprian, for example: "Whoever does not have the Church for a mother can not have God for a father." The Church is the mother and thus the life-giver who bestows upon us supernatural life. She imparts grace to us through the sacraments, and faith through faithful preservation and unadulterated proclamation of the Word of God. She is not an afterthought, but, like revelation, she is given to us by Christ as a salvific authority.

This does not cancel out the element of God's immediacy. Not in its assertion, but in its isolation consists Luther's error. We are called to a personal relationship with the Lord, there is the prayer from heart to heart (Newman: cor ad cor loquitur), the being touched immediately by God's word and grace. But at the same time this immediacy of God is always embedded by God Himself into the life of the Church. When Paul was struck by the light of Christ and, after his instant conversion, wanted to know what he was to do, the voice directed him to the Church: he would find out in the community of Damascus. This simultaneity of immediacy of God and ecclesiastical mediation, that is Catholic!

When Pope Benedict says that each one of us believes because he met Christ, then this is an idealized way of speaking. Most of us believe because we were baptized and brought up in the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, in a person's life, typically at puberty, the moment usually comes when he is faced with the decision to abandon traditional beliefs as mere childhood faith, or to embrace them in a new, conscious way, in a way that corresponds to his maturity. Only then will he become a responsible Christian. But conversely, this also means that the maturity of the Christian does not consist in a shaking off of the faith as an ecclesiastical yoke, but in a renewed affirmation. Rebellion of the type of the 1968s against the ecclesiastical authority is more a sign of adolescent immaturity. We are and will remain the children of the Church in the Cyprianic sense. Only the manner of receiving what the Lord gives us through the Church changes. An underage child accepts everything as a matter of course and without thinking from the mother. As he grows in understanding, he learns to appreciate the love of the mother gratefully. He is no longer merely the unconscious beneficiary of this love. Some nominal Christians are stuck at this level: they see the Church as a service company that has to live up to their expectations, and they call this attitude maturity. Maturity is much more a matter of deliberately adopting a positive attitude toward the Church, accepting her as mother and acting like a responsible, intelligent son (or daughter).

But something else happens in the development of the child: he also discovers the flaws of the mother. Of course the Church is "glorious, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but holy, and without blemish" (Eph. 5:27). But even this is an idealized way of speaking, and the Christian's maturity comprises the ability to distinguish between the areas in which it applies and those in which it does not apply. The Church is sacred in her origin (Jesus Christ), in her work (the sacraments), in her sacrifice (the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass), and in her teaching. This holiness is inalienable. But it is ineffective in many members, because they refuse to participate. We carry this treasure "in earthen vessels" (2 Cor. 4:7), says St. Paul. This is true even of the vessels in which the treasure is presented to us: the authorities of the Church, too, are susceptible to sin and failure. Each one of them, up to the Pope, has a dual role, as it were: on the one hand he is recipient, on the other hand, giver: the recipient in the face of the Church, his mother, and the giver as the representative of the same Church. Strictly speaking, this applies to every member of the Church: the individual believer, too, is recipient and at the same time, towards outsiders, representative of the Church, who is to witness the faith: light of the world, salt of the earth. The failure of a pope or bishop does not change these truths about the Church any more than my own failure.

The maturity of the Christian thus consists neither in the emancipation from his childlike dependence on the Church nor in the denial or sugarcoating of abuses in the Church. Rather, it consists in the art of discernment: the Christian knows that he is dependent on the grace which the Church imparts on him, but not on the sanctity of its representatives. His peace of mind depends on God, not on the pope. Saint Paul humbly received the instructions of Ananias in Damascus, but opposed Peter in Antioch.

Using the example of St. Paul, we can examine more closely the entanglement of the immediacy of God and ecclesiastical mediation: once we have received the grace of faith, this grace remains in our soul independently of the Church. The Church has kindled the light of faith in our hearts through baptism, but then this light burns on its own, because God does not remove grace from anyone who does not voluntarily turn away from Him. We are dealing here with an immediate relationship with God that is beyond the reach of the Church. Nevertheless, we are still dependent on the Church regarding the knowledge of what belongs to the content of the faith. It is the Church who watches over the deposit of faith (depositum fidei) and in disputes decides what belongs and what does not belong to the substance of faith. As long as she has not taken the decision in the subject matter of the dispute, there is - positively expressed: - freedom to think whatever one wants, or - in negative terms: - uncertainty about what is true and what is not. But once the Church has decided the matter with the highest authority, then this insecurity is remedied, because for such a decision, the charism of infallibility is bestowed upon the Church. That means: precisely by the infallible doctrine a new independence is granted to me. My belief in this truth becomes independent of any future interplay in the Church. The independence of my faith is the fruit of acknowledging my dependence on the magisterium of the Church.

A classic example of an infallible teaching decision is the Canon of the Council of Trent on the indissolubility of marriage: "If any one saith, that the Church has erred, in that she hath taught, and doth teach, in accordance with the evangelical and apostolical doctrine (Mt. 19:6 ff; Mk. 10:6 ff; 1 Cor. 7:10 ff), that the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved on account of the adultery of one of the married parties; and that both, or even the innocent one who gave not occasion to the adultery, cannot contract another marriage, during the life-time of the other; and, that he is guilty of adultery, who, having put away the adulteress, shall take another wife, as also she, who, having put away the adulterer, shall take another husband; let him be anathema."

Maturity of faith in this case includes the ability to know the value of the gift that the Lord has given us in the indissolubility of marriage. Today, we see Christians increasingly sharing in the world's incomprehension of marriage, considering the indissolubility of marriage harassment, and frowning upon the fact that the Church adheres to the truth even in the face of failed marriages. These Christians exchange their dependence on the church for dependence on the world. Dependence on the Church is honorable because, to quote Chesterton, "The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age." Dependence on the world is humiliating because it puts us at the mercy of passing fads.

Louis Bouyer has pointed out that the Church was never as missionary as she was at the time when she distanced herself from the world, that is in the first few centuries: "All the baptismal catecheses we have spoken about are, from beginning to end, nothing more than detailed affirmations of the completely renewed view of life that is imposed on the new Christian by his entrance into the Church, with its corollary: an unending struggle against the 'spirit of the world'." (The Church of God: Body of Christ and Temple of the Holy Spirit, p. 20). Today, we witness the rule being put to the test in reverse: they outdo each other in showing sympathy towards the spirit of the world, and the missionary power of the Church is as paralyzed as hardly ever before.

St. Paul called the Christians in Philippi "children of God, without reproof, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation; among whom you shine as lights in the world" (Phil. 2:15). Today this Pauline self-esteem has given way to a prostration before the world. And the lower this prostration, the harsher the verdict pronounced over the "conservatives" in the Church, who seem to be spoilsports of the mainstreaming trend. Paul, however, writes after the quoted passage: "Hold fast to the word of life."

Bouyer explains this "strange paradox", that the early Church was able to win the world over even though she so energetically distanced herself from it, with the awareness of "living from a reality that possessed her more than she possessed it: from a gift of God, which is not only a gift to her, but in which He gives Himself to her."

For the mature Christian, neither conforming to every ecclesiastical zigzag course nor leaving the religious community is an option. The fact remains that nobody believes in isolation. But this faith makes him independent from current events because it lets him live from a reality that can not be taken from him by any earthly power.


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Love as the Key to Knowledge

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