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Out of Africa: The Church’s need for living rules

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 21, 2017

When Fr. Paulinus Odozor told Crux that African Catholics had long since settled the question of Communion for the divorced and remarried, he gave us a glimpse of a younger and far more vibrant Church. It was this reality that I had in mind when I suggested the successor to Pope Francis might well be called “out of Africa” (see On the role of the Holy Spirit in papal elections). A theologian currently at Notre Dame, Fr. Odozor explained that in Africa those who are ineligible “would not present themselves for Communion because they already accept that these are the rules.” That’s a statement worth thinking about.

At first glance, we might consider this reference to “rules” to reflect the very “rigidity” against which Pope Francis continuously warns. But I would suggest that Fr. Odozor’s way of speaking actually represents the kind of fundamental sanity about reality which we ought to imitate:

The problem with the West is that it narrows things down, stripping down a text like that to one or two issues. Reading Amoris Laetitia again, I was struck by its incredible richness. We in Africa sometimes wonder at the way Catholicism in the West takes just one issue and runs with it, without looking at the whole context.

This is a valid insight as far as it goes. The secularized West does tend to see everything in terms of what some “disadvantaged” group wants, and therefore in terms of “fairness”, at least whenever the desired outcome furthers our modern liberation from the will of God. Only those who are countercultural think in terms of the entire structure of a healthy social order, or even in terms of the liberating power of Divine love to transform us from what we were to what God invites us to become. In Western culture, that would now be regarded as an assault on human autonomy!

But I think Fr. Odozor is also engaging in a bit of ecclesiastical gamesmanship. He is keen to present the African approach as nothing more than a healthy foregone conclusion. Clearly he is not keen to express doubt as to whether this foregone conclusion is recognized as such by Pope Francis. But the fundamental healthiness of the African approach remains. It is the same approach good Catholic parents take in disciplining children who misbehave, when they have already been made well aware of both the rule and the nature of the good which the rule was designed to foster and protect.

In such cases, the child may moan that “it is just not fair” that he or she has lost privileges or been grounded for a month. The parent, however, rejects this argument quickly and easily through the use of a kind of moral shorthand:

Not fair? You knew the rules! You knew what the consequences would be if you broke them. You deliberately did so anyway. It is perfectly fair and you know it. So grow up.

The essence of moral shorthand

Now certainly there are some parents who make arbitrary rules or, perhaps more often, make rules without explaining their deeper point or purpose. But in a healthy family that is seldom the case. Good parents talk with their children constantly, teaching them the difference between good and evil, and the need to develop a pattern of life which guards against evil. Children in such families know exactly why certain restrictions are placed upon them.

With that exaggerated sense of maturity which is so characteristic of the immature, they may insist that they do not need to be “protected” by such “stupid” rules. But when the axe falls, children with even a modicum of fundamental honesty don’t whine too much about it. They are perfectly aware that they know the rules, and that they know them not just as rules. They know them as markers of that deeper moral life into which they are steadily being initiated by those who love them most and who seek, above everything else, their good. They know, to be painfully clear, that they have only themselves to blame.

If this fundamental recognition of what Pope St. John Paul II called “love and responsibility” is not undermined, people generally can become quite comfortable with what it means, in this deeper sense, “to know the rules”. Sadly, in the modern West, we too often embrace false theories of the human person and a carefully orchestrated formation in selfishness. Worse still, when the Church’s ministers attempt to make ample room for the operations of a fundamentally rotten culture—a culture which is rooted in rebellion against God—they are constantly tempted to “baptize” that culture. As the culture commits the sin against the Holy Spirit by calling evil good, such ministers begin to describe that culture’s rotten fruits as positive steps along the path toward an ideal.

But ideals are abstractions. They lack the solidity of “the good”. And by their very nature, they do not admit of rules.

All the difference

The alternative is to insist on this solidity of the “good”, which always participates in the fullness of being, and the vacuity of “evil”, which always signifies the absence of being. This demands clear and consistent instruction along with clear and consistent good example. Sadly, the Catholic Church in the West—despite slow, steady improvement under John Paul II and Benedict XVI—still finds consistent instruction and good example almost congenitally impossible to achieve. It is into this vacuum that Catholics in the West have been born for at least two generations now.

Even Pope Francis finds it difficult to articulate a vision of reality unbounded by this pathetic cultural box. In any case, the Church in the West continues to foster Catholics who are too spiritually vacuous to understand what it really means to “know the rules”.

There is no easy solution, but Fr. Odozor has highlighted one of the important factors that has to change. In Africa, he implies, Catholics “know the rules” in the sense of knowing what rules signify and appreciating their immense benefits, both cultural and spiritual. The Church desperately needs to accustom herself once again to simple discipline. She desperately needs leadership from those who understand that the right rules are as necessary as they are liberating, and who can teach “the rules” so that we can grasp their foundations and their inner meaning.

I suggest again the benefits of leadership from the Church in Africa. This is also a Church very likely to engage the collaboration of Western bishops, priests and teachers who are not confused about the nature of rules, for as the Psalmist says, “I delight to do thy will, O my God; thy law is within my heart” (40:8). And so I am speaking of men and women who are not tempted to pretend that the removal of a rule eliminates the sin associated with breaking it, for it is not the rule but God who is offended. I am speaking of men and women who recognize that rules are not to be denigrated that they might be dismissed, but rather memorized that they might be understood—and cherished that they might be lived.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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