Escape from Theological Minimalism
In the United States and elsewhere in the Western world, we have been immensely weakened in our understanding of both the Church and our role in the Church by the problem of theological minimalism. Originally thought to be the stock-in-trade of Modernists, this intellectual disease is now affecting most of us. The result is a loss of ecclesial communion, a weakening of apostolic mission, and a growing unconsciousness of the links between the Church here on earth and the Church in her heavenly reality. Much of this arises from the loss of “corporate thinking” in Western civilization, but it has been greatly exacerbated by the failure of large portions of the Western episcopacy in the twentieth century, and by all the succeeding chaos.
By “loss of corporate thinking” I am not at all referring to big business. In a business, the term “corporation” is merely an indication that a business structure has been embodied by law as an entity distinct from its officers and agents. Thus the President of Entrepreneurial Experiment, Inc. does not lose his personal wealth if the entrepreneurial experiment doesn’t work. Some would argue that we have way too much of that sort of corporate thinking today.
But if we cast our minds back to the distant past, before the so-called Enlightenment of the 18th century, we find that people actually identified themselves first and foremost as members of groups, of bodies that both gave expression to and protected their own personal identities. Thus persons in the Medieval and Early Modern periods, for example, conceived of themselves not as atomic or alienated individuals who were wholly on their own, but as constitutive members of a family, a social class, a guild or, above all, the Church. They thought corporately.
When people think this way they are far more conscious of the ties that bind. In those days, one’s religious identity was inextricably bound to the identity of the Church, just as one’s personal identity was inextricably bound to the identity of the family. Nowadays, we tend to think of our religious identity over against the Church, and our personal identity over against the family. Both must be fractured if our own self-actualization demands it, as we see in the astronomically high rate of divorce and custom-built “families”, as well as in the ease with which people move from parish to parish and even from Church to church—to take just two telling examples of the problem.
When people “thought corporately” as members of the Catholic Church, they had a sense that the Church mediated their experience of the Divine through a hierarchy and community bound to an eschatological reality, not only in the present day but forward and backward in time. To be a member of the Church was to realize the reality of the body of Christ—militant, suffering and triumphant—engaged in continuous and glorious worship of the Father while carrying out the Father’s will. There was a time, and not very long ago, when our sense of rootedness in the Church was such that Catholics didn’t even feel right about changing parishes for any but the gravest of motives. When we “think individually”, however, we constantly measure our experience of “church” against our own personal needs. If we are discomfited in any way, we go elsewhere and do something else. The only difference all this makes, we too often think, is the difference it makes to me.
The Failure of the Episcopacy
In the West we were all incredibly ripe for the cultural turmoil that took center stage beginning with the 1960’s. Even earlier, a process of ecclesial disintegration had begun among Catholic intellectuals and academicians. From the rise of Modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholic intellectuals increasingly focused on the new religious reality they could create, not on their rootedness in the life of an eschatological community which preceded, followed and, indeed, was all around them, on earth, in purgatory, in heaven.
Out of the ranks of scholars, or at least under their influence, are bishops born. Whatever the deficiencies of early 20th-century bishops who focused on buildings and political clout, the semi-Modernist bishops who began taking office around mid-century were much more interested in chasing the culture in ideological ways. Bishop after bishop lost sight of the corporate dimension of the Church, both in terms of visible communion on earth and invisible communion with the heavenly host. Instead, they pursued individual plans and programs designed to make the Church more a part of the larger social order—the worldly society which the Church is in fact called to serve precisely by virtue of her distinctiveness as a community of grace.
The widespread failure of the Catholic intelligentsia and the Catholic episcopacy to cope adequately with a rapidly secularizing culture led to a massive breakdown in faith and authentic Catholic action—a breakdown in self-understanding, really—on the part of many priests, religious and laity. This breakdown confirmed and strengthened the growing Western tendency for people to think primarily in terms of their own personal convenience and desires. A huge number—perhaps even a majority—of Catholic leaders were busy demonstrating how easy it was to drop or transform whatever in Catholicism conflicted with prevailing secular attitudes, even while claiming to offer a more relevant Christianity to the surrounding world: In other words, a Christianity more like the surrounding world.
At the same time, quite a few lay persons, who had just had their importance to the Church emphasized as never before by the Second Vatican Council, found themselves forced into a rapid deepening of their sense of apostolic mission by the very vacuum created by failing bishops, priests and religious. Laymen emerged nearly everywhere as defenders and teachers of the Faith. This was a great thing, but it too came at a cost, because this new lay commitment had to be exercised so often in opposition to the local priest or even the local bishop. And so the same habit of mind that had already done so much damage elsewhere was reinforced here, the habit of individually judging Catholic principles over against the competent ecclesiastical authority, and of explaining away in consequence many aspects of authority one might have otherwise obeyed.
This could be amply justified in cases in which priests and bishops exercised their authority illegitimately, by ignoring either the disciplinary directives of the Holy See or the Magisterium itself. But under these circumstances it became very difficult to think of oneself as part of the corporation of the local Church bonded to the diocesan Church bonded to the universal Church. Too often, a bad habit was formed. Everything spiritual became a case of “me against the world”.
The result of all this is a truncated form of Catholicism, characterized by theological minimalism, even among the most traditional of Catholics. The Modernists began it with their arguments in favor of fusing Catholicism with the prevailing attitudes of the Western world. By now Modernists are pretty far away from anything but a frank contempt for Catholic doctrine, but for a long time the Modernist method was to insist that only the great dogmas were essential objects of Faith. Thus Modernists often concentrated on reinterpreting these as necessary, but they did not deny their importance. But everything that wasn’t a great dogma was simply dismissed on the grounds that it did not require the assent of Faith.
Thus the characteristic stance of Modernism is that one is a good Catholic if one minimally adheres to a few very basic points. Within that rather nebulous and sketchy framework, one is free to unroll the form of Catholicism one prefers. For Modernists this typically creates a religion more or less based on “what everybody knows”—a religion congenial to our cultural elites. This same stance was adopted by a great many bishops who, having become freelancers in their individual churches, figured they had to pay attention to only a few minimal points of Catholic unity while largely running their local churches as they saw fit.
Increasingly the rank and file learned that there were only a few immutable points about Catholicism (none of them, apparently, moral), and that anyone could claim the name of “good Catholic” as long as he described himself as caring about the faith, believed that Christ loves all of us, and affirmed that the Church is “very important in my life.” Based on theological minimalism, who could judge among the competing forms of Catholicism? The case against contraception? Not a dogma! Opposition to abortion? Mere politics! Soon, in fact, it became widely apparent that only those who did presume to make such judgments could safely be described as bad Catholics.
Such minimalism has also afflicted those who, rejecting ecclesiastical chaos and infidelity, have erroneously concluded that this crisis was caused jointly by the work of the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent popes who have defended it. Desperate to preserve their own peace of mind as believing Catholics, such persons have been psychologically compelled to argue—like the Modernists they hate—that, fortunately, only a very few dogmas and definitions require our assent and obedience. The idea here is that everything thought to have contributed to the ecclesiastical collapse can be proved to be non-authoritative, and so it can be safely ignored. Way too much of what it means to be Catholic is reduced to the question of infallibility. On this basis, the whole thrust of an ecumenical council can be dismissed as a “bad option”, and it becomes possible to embrace and affirm a contrary Program of Our Own.
Even those who recognize and deplore this theological minimalism are not always much farther ahead. They may yearn for a renewed corporate sense of the Church—the visible but messy flesh and blood Church on earth joined to the invisible triumphant Church in heaven—but they are hard-pressed to develop the new and more fully Catholic habits that alone can bring it about. Indeed the road back is exceedingly difficult. But it must begin with a rejection of this Catholic reductionism that I am calling theological minimalism.
Priest, Prophet and King
As a matter of very fundamental fact, the Catholic Church is rooted in the three-fold mission and authority of Jesus Christ as priest, prophet and king. By virtue of baptism, every Christian participates in this mission and authority. Bishops, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, possess its fullness. They are vicars of Christ in their own dioceses so long as they exercise their authority according to the will and dispositions of the Roman Pontiff, and in union with him. They share this mission and authority, partially but significantly, with their priests, who find their own mission and authority fulfilled in collaboration with their bishop. The laity too exercise priestly, prophetic and kingly roles under the guidance and direction of their pastors, formed and nourished by the sacramental, teaching and disciplinary functions of the hierarchical Church.
It is important to note that the concepts of “dogma”, “definition” and “infallibility” apply only to one part of what it means to be Catholic. They apply to the prophetic office, the teaching office, of the Church. Catholicism is never less than her certain doctrines, but it is always much more. To use one apt analogy, doctrine simply forms a skeleton for a sturdy body. Theological minimalism makes of the Catholic life something skeletal (often with an incomplete skeleton!), as if nothing but the certain propositions of our Faith govern our lives as Catholics. Every form of theological minimalism is a sin first and foremost against the prophetic office, which encompasses every expression of the truth. But it is also a sin against both the priestly and kingly offices, for theological minimalism by its very nature tends to exclude them both.
Now let us consider the priestly office, which finds its perfection in the sacrifice of Christ in obedience to the Father, a sacrifice in which we are all privileged to join. This priestly office is exercised preeminently in the Mass, which joins us to the universal Church in both earth and heaven in an unbroken chorus of sacrificial praise to God. In addition, all the Church’s sacraments, deriving their power from this sacrifice, are part and parcel of the priestly office, as is every denial of self by which, through the power of the Holy Spirit, all of us may be sanctified. Through the priestly office we are brought to interior union with God, experiencing the flow of grace and consequent growth in holiness. All failures to properly implement or properly accept and participate in the Divine liturgy are sins against the priestly office, as is breaking with the Church in our worship, or the failure to accept the Church’s counsels of holiness, or the refusal to accept spiritual direction.
And finally there is the kingly office, the office of governance. This is the office most often today honored only in the breach. The pope and the bishops, by virtue of the fullness of the kingly office they possess, are charged with the governance of the Church of God, and have the authority necessary to command everyone in the Church in this regard. All those, whether Modernists or Traditionalists or simply Individualists, who actually define themselves through a certain resistance to the legitimate governing authority of their ecclesiastical superiors, sin against the kingly office of the Church. While terms such as “definition” and “dogma” and “infallible” are not properly used in describing the kingly authority and mission, there is another highly relevant word that must always be brought to bear: Obedience. All of us are to some degree affected by our habitual failure to obey. The blight is not a characteristic of just one group; it is universal.
The way out will be difficult for all of us, for either we have voluntarily adopted a bad habit or we have been pressed and harried into adopting it. And indeed this bad habit—this intense quest for self-satisfaction which justifies itself in the Catholic context as theological minimalism—is in our time one of the major defining elements of Western culture; and so we absorb it continuously almost without realizing it. It will take work both long and hard to overcome this habit, work that includes a difficult but sincere effort to rebuild mutual trust among the different grades and orders of the Church. But the road to authentic renewal runs straight out of theological minimalism into a deeper understanding of what it really means to be fully and richly Catholic. That meaning will be effectively appropriated only through a deeper commitment to the priestly, prophetic and kingly offices of the Church.
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Posted by: elts1956 -
May. 17, 2010 4:10 AM ET USA
This is a great article. I am forwarding it to friends and making a copy for myself and my pastor. Many thanks. I just wish EVERYONE would read it and take it to heart.
Posted by: Cornelius -
Feb. 28, 2010 7:57 AM ET USA
To the Scylla of 'theological minimalism' there is also the Charybdis of ultramontanism, or a sort of ecclesiastical positivism which elevates every episcopal utterance to the level of dogma. Many Catholics, strenuously avoiding the one, simply fall into the other.
Posted by: dschenkjr9859 -
Feb. 27, 2010 7:56 AM ET USA
This is an outstanding article. I don't know how much time you spent on it, but it was worth every minute. I am sending it to our pastor and to friends of mine who attend daily 6:30 mass and consciously or subconsciously fight this trend of theological minimalism.