Sunday, December 04, 2005

The not so secret agent

This follow up post is a little late. I had hoped to have it up last night, but as usual I underestimated my subject and this will now be the second of a three part series. Part One is here.
Yesterday I posted about the Cross as profound light shed on the nature of humanity, and I wrote that the light it sheds serves as a warning to those who think they can effect a liberation of humanity through reform and expansion of the law. That school of thought is called "positive liberty" and it crashes against man's failure to know in the fullest sense what the good is, and into the consistent failure to adhere to even what he does know. Negative liberty, freedom from unnecessary and unenlightened law, is better but does not entirely escape the need for an Authoritative Criterion for just action either. Negative liberty has the virtue of restricting the damage that government can do by restricting the number and scope of its powers. We are, however, still left with problems that can't be casually dismissed as small stuff. Smaller scale human problems are in no way "small" when they afflict you. The abuse of minor powers, such as those wielded by neighbors, family members, merchants, and so on can cause serious misery. In addition to these "man vs. man" problems we also have problems with nature - natural disasters, disease, and aging among them. There is little doubt that natural disasters are of a scope that we naturally expect governments to deal with them. On how to deal with disease and aging there can be differences of opinion. Where do we turn for the solid ground that we need in order to even begin to discuss our differences, having shown that our human resources are not up to the task? How do we attempt to minimize the abuse of minor powers without being careless in drawing in larger human powers prone to the very same sorts of abuse they were created to rectify? These are questions of Authority. The issue is greatly complicated by the fact that we are social creatures and we must live in close contact with one another. It is not enough to "get right with" the world or with God as an individual. We have to get our relationships right and we need to do it with others who may not reciprocate our efforts. We ourselves can fail to get it right despite good intentions. The excerpt from Pope Ratzinger yesterday said: "In the abyss of human failure is revealed the still more inexhaustible abyss of divine love." So, in the midst of all this human failure, large and small, where is God, the unmoved mover of good and right? Is there no sign of Him that we can turn to? We have the Bible but it seems that no two people can read that and come to the same conclusions about what it means, either symbolically or practically. And the Churches? I can hear the sucking in of breath at the mere mention of that! Nevertheless, I do think the Church is, as it claims, the place to look for an anchor in faith and morality, and that those things are the keys to understanding relationships large and small. Two problems raise themselves up right away. Which church are we talking about, and how can it be THE one church given all the scandal in it (regardless of which one you pick)? Anyone who reads this site regularly knows that I think this Church is the Catholic Church but it's not my intention to dwell on that particular issue. Briefly, John Henry Cardinal Newman, a famous Anglican convert, gives an idea of why I attend where I do:
consider the vast difference between believing in a living authority, unerring because divine, in matters of doctrine, and believing none; - between believing what an external authority defines, and believing what we ourselves happen to define as contained in Scripture and the Fathers, where no two individuals define quite the same set of doctrines; between believing a creed, which, as far as such definitions go, is ever increasing, and believing the letter of Creeds which we may expand and explain for ourselves. In the one case, the living authority, deciding in controversies of faith, is the Church, in the other (whatever men pretend,) it is we ourselves who are the ultimate authority.
This is taken from Pontifications, where they are running a number of Newman excerpts at the moment. All of this so far has merely been an introduction to Pope Ratzinger's exposition of the Creed's "One, Holy, Catholic Church" , taken from his book, Introduction to Christianity. His explanation may not be what you expect:
We are tempted to say, if we are honest with ourselves, that Church is neither holy nor Catholic... The one garment of the Lord is torn between the disputing parties, the one Church divided up into many Churches, every one of which claims more or less insistently to be alone in the right. And so for many people today the Church has become the main obstacle to belief. They can no longer see in her anything but the human struggle for power, the petty spectacle of those who, with their claim to administer official Christianity, seem to stand most in the way of the true spirit of Christianity. There is no theory in existence that could compellingly refute such ideas by mere reason, just as, these ideas themselves do not proceed from reason but from the bitterness of heart that may perhaps have been disappointed in its high hopes and now, in the pain of wronged love, can see only the destruction of its hopes. How, then, are we to reply? Ultimately one can only acknowledge why can still love Church in faith, why one still dares to recognize in the distorted features the countenance of the holy Church. Nevertheless, let us start from the objective elements... The word "holy" does not apply in the first place to the holiness of human person but refers to the divine gift that bestows holiness in the midst of human unholiness. The Church is not called "holy" in the Creed because her members, collectively and individually, are holy, sinless men - this dream, which appears afresh in every century, has no place in the waking world of our text, however movingly it may express a human longing that man will never abandon until a new heaven and a new earth really grant him what this age will never give him. Even at this point we can say that the sharpest critics of the Church in our time secretly live on this dream and, when they find it disappointed, bang the door of the house shut again and denounce it as a deceit. But to return to our argument: The holiness of the Church consists in that power of sanctification which God exerts in her in spite of human sinfulness. We come up here against the real mark of the "New Covenant": in Christ, God has bound himself to men, has let himself be bound by them. The New Covenant no longer rests on the reciprocal keeping of the agreement; it is granted by God as grace that that abides even in the face of man's faithlessness. It is the expression of God's love, which will not let itself be defeated by man's incapacity but always remains well disposed to him, welcomes him again and again precisely because he is sinful, turn to him, sanctifies him, and loves him.... The Lord.. becomes present in her [the Church]... and chooses again and again as the vessel of Its presence - with a paradoxical love - the dirty hands of men... So the paradoxical figure of the Church, in which the divine so often presents itself in such unworthy hands, in which the divine is only ever present in the form of a "nevertheless", is to the faithful the sign of the "nevertheless" of the greater love shown by God. The thrilling interplay of God's loyalty and man's disloyalty that characterizes the structure of the Church is the dramatic form of grace, so to speak... One could say that precisely in her paradoxical combination of holiness and and unholiness the Church is in fact the shape taken by grace in this world. ... [God] has drawn drawn sin to himself, made it his lot, and so revealed what true "holiness" is: not separation, but union; not judgement, but redeeming love... People may well say that such words express a sickly existence - but it is part of being a Christian to accept the impossibility of autonomy and the weakness of one's own resources... rancorous bitterness [against the Church arises when] she is only regarded as a political instrument...
I will have more to say about the strange nature of this open but hidden sign in part three. Francis in his comment on part one of this little series was headed in the right direction and his post (the last part) is worth your time.

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