On saving the Church by breaking the tensions intrinsic to the Church’s life
The furor over the question of how we should respond to Pope Francis’ alleged heresies reminds me of the tensions between the human and the Divine which run all through the Church, and the Faith, and Christian thought. In nearly every case, it is a refusal to be willing to live with this inherent tension that causes people to fall into deadly beliefs and practices. In fact, since the word “heresy” comes from the Greek word for “choice”, we must be aware that its essence is to personally choose one side of this tension, refusing to accept the precarious balance intended by God.
The Catholic Faith is essentially a description of God and His relationship with us, which means that we have God on the one side and the human person on the other. Now the nature of God and the means He has established for our salvation have two important characteristics: First, they deal with infinite realities which extend beyond man’s ability to fully comprehend; second, they must nonetheless be communicated to us in ways which will enable us to respond freely, correctly and effectively to God’s initiative of love.
This means that authentic Christianity is fraught with a theological tension which we humans are constantly tempted to break through all kinds of simplifications. Nearly every heresy has its origin in choosing one pole or another of this tension as it applies to the different realities which we must seek to understand. The most fundamental example of this is that Jesus Christ is both God and man. There is a great tension in how we reflect on Our Lord’s humanity and how we reflect on his divinity, in order to apprehend the integral Christ. The heresies that result from refusing to accept that tension are as numerous as they are well known: Christ is God who has taken the appearance of a human body; Christ is a creature superior to the human person who was created by God; Christ is a human person who has been adopted by God as a son; Christ is simply a great man who shows us the way to God.
All are wrong. In each case, those who chose these solutions were simply uncomfortable with the tension inherent in the truth, a tension insufficiently accessible to their understanding. Therefore, they sought to emphasize one part of their knowledge over the whole framework of Divine-human tension. In doing this, they chose to oversimplify Catholic doctrine into error, and they fractured the Church.
Another example is the faith-and-works controversy that characterized European Christianity at the time of the Protestant Revolt. Once again, the nuances of the relationship between the Divine and the human caused some to “choose” rather than to maintain the tension. A thousand years earlier it had seemed much easier to understand the Christian life in terms of the human effort to follow moral teachings, and so some had fallen into Pelagianism. In the sixteenth century, it was found much easier to understand the free gift of God’s grace than to fathom the human response to grace, and so the Protestant error was born. The catechism was quickly truncated into sola fide (by faith alone) or sola gratia (by grace alone)—causing no end of division among Christians.
And so with nearly every heresy that has ever been: Uncomfortable with the Divine-human tension which is a unique mark of Christianity, one group after another has insisted on making things simpler than they really are, thus falling into grave error and doing serious damage to the Church’s unity and mission.
Such willful over-simplifications mark the impulse which we call “separatism”. Each errant group of believers is attracted to an over-simplified doctrine which seems more satisfying because it is easier to understand. Then each group starts a separate church which claims alone to have the real truth. The excuse is always the same: Those who separate invariably argue that this new and distinct church is necessary to preserve the truth, which the Catholic Church (and apparently every previous sect) has “obviously” failed to do. But this separatism, this breaking of the body of Christ in the name of preserving “the plain and simple truth” has not been limited in our own time to Protestantism. It has also been a major factor in the conflicts between what we might call the Traditionalist and Modernist wings within the Church.
Because of the endemic cultural secularization of the contemporary West—and because the Church herself draws her members and her ministers in the West from this secularized culture—Catholics have fallen into severe errors in faith simply by reinterpreting spiritual realities in terms of their own cultural values. Many have drifted out of the Church, of course, but many within the Church would rather be comfortable with the larger culture than to be challenged by the great sign of contradiction that is the real Christ! This influence of the zeitgeist within the Church—which has always been a factor in various ways—has in our time significantly disadvantaged those who have tried to adhere to a richer Catholicism mediated to them through previous traditions—or even, against a cult of novelty, through Sacred Tradition itself.
And since the secularists or Modernists within the Church have largely had things their own way, it has become very difficult for more “orthodox”, “conservative”, or “traditional” Catholics to walk the fine line through the current set of Divine-human tensions within the Church. At various times, therefore, some of these Catholics have failed to distinguish the essential from the inessential, or have even fallen into the error that Christ’s promise to be with the Church cannot be trusted, and so have separated themselves into rival groups, still claiming the name “Catholic” but cut off from Rome through oversimplifications which eliminate the tensions which they find personally intolerable.
Now things have reached the point at which some Catholics of this general type have concluded that the tension between the human and Divine found in the peculiarities of the pontificate of Pope Francis must be seen as the proverbial straw which breaks the camel’s back. They argue that we must find a way to declare the successor of Peter not to be the successor of Peter, because they find it intolerable to live any longer with the severe tensions they experience between the Divine and human elements in the contemporary Church.
The result, were this ever carried out, would of course be another round of ecclesiastical fracturing, this time perhaps with two or three rival popes presiding over different groups of faithful claiming to be the true Church. The inauthentic groups would actually collapse into something more comfortable than the Church herself, something their adherents can live with, following a leader who reduces the tension for them. And this disaster would arise simply from the human propensity to make a choice when a choice ought not to be made, to decide that it is far better to assert one side of the Divine-human tension than to put up with things that, as mere human persons, we have great difficulty understanding to be part of God’s Providence.
Discerning the Elect
Another motivating factor in such separatism is tension in the Christian heart over the question of whether or not one is saved. Down through the ages, both the self-confident and the timid have felt the need to identify those who are saved. In the fourth and fifth centuries, for example, the Donatists denied that priests who had sinned seriously could validly administer the sacraments, even after being absolved in the Sacrament of Penance. A century earlier, the Novatians denied that those who had apostatized under persecution could ever be forgiven and readmitted to the Church. The line between human weakness and Divine power must be drawn somewhere!
The murkiness in the Church caused by the sins of her members has not infrequently led people to try to find clearer ways to determine who will be saved and who will not. Such concerns were a major factor in Protestantism. Luther was so uncomfortable with the reality of sin that he finally theorized that all we needed to do was to have faith that Jesus would throw the white garment of grace over our putrid human nature. Calvin theorized that, from all eternity, God predestined some to Heaven and others to Hell, so assurance of salvation simply required identifying the signs of election.
This same theme runs through the contemporary Church. Many assume they are saved if they are reasonably nice people as judged by our broad cultural standards; they discern their election essentially through the eyes of the dominant culture. Those who (rightly) react against such self-deception are deeply pained by the havoc it causes in the Church. But the result is that they are often tempted to identify righteousness with the ability to answer catechism questions properly and to appreciate forms of the liturgy which evoke a more stable period of Catholic history, and so convey to them a certain peace.
It is true that a Church of sinners creates many problems for itself. It is also true that we need to find ways to protect our children from being badly formed spiritually as a result of the broad refusal of so many Catholics and their leaders to be even remotely countercultural. But the larger truth is that this has always been a problem within the Church, and will continue to be until Christ comes again. The resulting tension and confusion within the Church does not justify the failures of those who take advantage of it to ignore the requirements of the Faith and the spiritual life, but neither does it justify the various schemes some have come up with for separating from the Christ-given jurisdiction of the Pope and bishops.
The latter approach simply enables its adherents to order things as they think best, and to self-select into like-minded communities consisting of those who outwardly demonstrate by their doctrinal purity and liturgical superiority that they are securely placed among the elect of God. Such efforts, like the efforts to depose the Pope or declare him deposed in accordance with our own lights, are simply more proof of how difficult we find the strain between the human and divine elements of God’s Church.
It is always a great tragedy that, when they reach a certain point of tension, some Catholics will say that enough is enough, that something decisive must be done to bring this suffering to an end. A solution must be found and implemented to make things simple. We must remake the Church to save the Church, just as every set of heretics has done since the Gnostics rose up at the time of the apostles themselves.
In contrast, those who remain faithful accept the tensions generated within a Church of sinners, recognizing that Christ’s guarantees and promises to the Church are sufficient for the purpose. They understand that in the course of trusting these promises they may be asked to suffer much through the reckless handling of what is sacred within the Church herself. They know that a Church of sinners is essential to God’s mercy, and that human sinfulness within the Church does not for a moment jeopardize Our Lord’s insistence that it is precisely through the Church that He will be our way, our truth and our life.
In contrast, whenever we insist on breaking the Divine-human tension, whenever we choose one side or the other of that tension to make things easier and more tolerable for ourselves—we become separatists. In the name of saving the Church, we reject the essential authority of the one alone whom Our Lord has confirmed in faith, and the one to whom alone Our Lord has given the keys to the Kingdom. We find some excuse, under the guise of some fresh human theory, to justify one more split, one more division, one more branch torn off the vine, one more fragment broken from the Body of Christ.
When this happens in response to the puzzling interplay between the Divine and the human which characterizes God’s plan for us, we conclude that the tension is intolerable, we attempt to re-order the Church so as to eliminate the tension, we make a choice of a part over the whole for no better reason than that we are more comfortable with the part. This is what it means to spiral into schism or heresy.
Even if some do not see the reality that papal deposition is theologically and spiritually impossible, everyone ought to be able to see that it is impossible in practice without fracturing the very Body its proponents wish to save. Such a break can be the only outcome of any effort to proclaim the pope a heretic and declare him removed from office, no matter how many errors he makes when not teaching infallibly, or how many sins he commits, or whom he associates with, or what contempt he may show for those who have at least tried to be more faithful than many others. In our distress, then, we finally give the Devil the victory he has sought over us. Because others have failed the test of faith given to them, we choose to fail the test of faith now presented to us by their failure.
How? We separate ourselves from the Body of Christ because we believe the tension between the human and divine elements is unbearable. We argue that the suffering of this Body has become too acute. More to the point, perhaps, we no longer feel the comfort and solace we are sure ought to be part of being Catholic. But make no mistake; this is a failure of faith. It is a failure of faith for us to rupture the Body of Christ for the purpose of protecting exactly what Christ has promised does not need our protection—because it already has His.
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Posted by: marianjohn7861 -
May. 12, 2019 4:12 PM ET USA
I am presently re-reading a pamphlet, “The Daniel Papers”, copyright 1994 by a protestant ministry now named Our Daily Bread Ministries. Having just read your excellent piece, their last chapter caught my eye because it mentions tensions. The authors believe the next event in God's prophetic program is described by the apostle Paul in 1Thess. 4:16-17. Assuring his listeners that they were not entered into the great tribulation of the end times, he said that would not begin until after the man of sin had been revealed (2 Thess.2:1-3). He went on to tell about the restraining (church and Holy Spirit together)(2Thess 2:6-7). The restrainer “can leave the earth.....when the Lord catches up His church to be with Himself”. Quoting again from the pamphlet: “Believers therefore must live in healthy tension. On the one hand, we are looking for His any-moment coming for us. On the other hand, because we do not know exactly where we are in God's end-time program, we pray and work to spread the good news about Jesus Christ
Posted by: sariwilden5679 -
May. 08, 2019 5:01 PM ET USA
this is an excellent article! Thanks!
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
May. 08, 2019 10:16 AM ET USA
Jeff wrote: "we no longer feel the comfort and solace we are sure ought to be part of being Catholic." As was made clear by St. John Paul II himself and through his Ecclesia Dei Commission, and by Pope Benedict XVI in Summorum Pontificum and his accompanying letter to the bishops, the laity have a right, in the midst of their spiritual combat with the world, to a measure of comfort and solace during confection of the sacraments. Distraction from the sacred is not essential to Catholic worship.
Posted by: SPM -
May. 07, 2019 6:03 PM ET USA
Excellent. I would add another point: it is my understanding that in the United States, to find a law unconstitutional, the court must find that there is no possible interpretation of the law that would be constitutional. In the same way, in the case of heresy, I believe that it must be proved that there is NO possible interpretation of the comments that would be orthodox. In other words, the fact that they could possibly be interpreted in a heterodox manner is not enough.