On “owning” the Church

George Weigel

The question of “who owns the Church” has had a stormy history in Catholic America, although the terms of reference have changed considerably over time. In the 19th century, “lay trusteeism” – lay boards that owned parish property and sometimes claimed authority over the appointment and dismissal of pastors – was a major headache for the U.S. bishops. Today, the question is more likely to arise from the wetlands of psychobabble; thus one Midwestern diocesan chancellor recently spoke about a diocesan “needs assessment” that “can give ownership to the people,” presumably of their lives as Catholics.

A similar imagery of ownership was used during the Long Lent of 2002, in response to the crisis of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance. In March of that year, a religious sister in Boston, the epicenter of the crisis, said, “This is our Church, all of us, and we need to take it back.” Similar sentiments are heard today from “pastoral planners” who take their cues from Protestant megachurches in which creating a feeling of “ownership” on the part of the congregation, often by blurring the border between sacred and profane, is very much part of the marketing-and-retention strategy.

Lent is always a good time to ponder this business of “ownership,” and Lent-2017 seems an especially apt moment to reflect on it. For “ownership” is being contested in the Church in sharp ways: the college of bishops is divided on questions of sacramental discipline; prominent Catholic leaders claim something like an “ownership” of Scripture and tradition, by which they decide what in revelation is binding and what can be jettisoned; the half-century long struggle about who “owns” Vatican II continues to rage on.

A serious reflection on the questions, “Who owns the Church?” and “What does this ‘ownership’ mean?” will begin with the Word of God: in this case, the Last Supper discourse of Jesus in John’s gospel. There, the Lord makes the matter rather clear: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide…” [John 15.12-16].

The Church is not ours; the Church is Christ’s. We did not create the Church; Christ did – “You did not choose me, but I chose you….” No earthly power creates the Church and no earthly power owns the Church. The Church was created by the Lord Jesus, and it is his, not ours. So the Church is not ours to “take back,” and it is not ours to “own,” because it never belonged to us. And if we make the Church our own, we defy the Lord whose Church it is.

That’s been hard to grasp for a very long time, as we learn from another New Testament text that repays reading during Lent, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. There, Paul unwinds a sixteen-chapter-long argument to drive home one essential point: no merely human institution – no matter how clever, pure, or sensitive to its members’ “needs” – can remit a single, small sin. Only the ministry of the Church can do that. And the ministry of the Church can do it because of the salvific history that is recalled when, in confession, we bow before the words of absolution: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins…”

It is Christ’s Church, and the Church celebrates the sacraments through Christ’s power and the grace of the Holy Spirit. During Lent, a season in which the great sacraments of Baptism, the Eucharist, and Penance come into high relief, it is good to think on that, pray over it, give thanks for it – and perhaps resolve, in the future, to avoid imagery and language that suggests that “this is our Church.”

COMING UP: Persuasive disciples, not anarchic disrupters

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We are living through a dangerous moment in our national life, of an intensity and potential for destruction unseen since 1968. Then, a teenager, I watched U.S. Army tanks patrol the streets of Baltimore around the African-American parish where I worked. Now, a Medicare card carrier, I’m just as concerned about the fragility of the Republic and the rule of law.

A uniquely vile presidential campaign has been followed by a post-election rejectionism that conjures up images of 1860. Electoral refuseniks who cannot abide the verdict rendered on November 8 put on a vile display in Washington the day after the inauguration – and this despite President Obama’s plea for civility and a dignified transfer of power. The new administration has not helped matters with its own tendency toward raw-meat rhetoric, seemingly aimed at keeping its electoral base in a state of permanent outrage.

In today’s deeply divided America, the public debate is too often being framed by those who substitute invective for argument while demonstrating a visceral contempt for normal democratic political and legal process. Unless reason reasserts itself over passion, the potential for short term chaos is great and the risk of long-term damage even greater: an ongoing cycle of resentment, bitterness, and revenge that will lead to more of the gratuitous violence that was seen on the streets of Washington this past January 21.

Americans once knew a different way. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the civil rights movement promoted, not rage and disruption, but nonviolent civil disobedience, accepting the penalties imposed under what protesters deemed unjust laws in order to awaken consciences to the injustice of those laws. The canonical text here is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s brilliant Letter from Birmingham Jail. In it, King married a Gandhian theory of nonviolent direct action to Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of the relationship of moral law to civil law, calmly but forcefully explaining his cause and his actions to skeptical fellow-clergymen who were critical of his methods. The Letter is thoughtful, measured, and well worth re-reading – not least because some religious leaders today are taking an opposite tack.

These leaders may imagine that their calls for “disruption,” of the sort Saul Alinsky described in Rules for Radicals, stand in continuity with King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. They do not. They appeal to outrage, not to the people’s instinct for justice. They risk little or nothing, whereas King risked everything. Their program, such as it is, calls for resistance and defiance rather than correction and civic renewal. There is little in their message about “dialogue,” a key theme of Pope Francis; but there is a lot of hot rhetoric about impeding the enforcement of the laws, in terms weirdly reminiscent of the states-rights or “nullification” theory of John C. Calhoun, recently disowned by Yale University for his defense of slavery.

I do not raise these concerns as an apologist for the present administration. I publicly opposed the nomination of Mr. Trump and did not vote for him (or his opponent) last November. A clever e-mail correspondent spoke for me and perhaps many others when he asked, on November 9, “Do the Germans have a word for ‘euphoric dread’?” (They don’t, alas.) The administration has made decisions and appointments I applaud, and decisions and appointments I deplore. I often find the rhetoric from the White House a degradation of what we used to call “the public discourse.” But that fevered talk has been quite matched by the administration’s opponents in a public scream-in.

In a volatile situation like this, the task of religious leaders is not to imitate Saul Alinsky or to mimic Lenin’s strategy of heightening the contradictions. The task of religious leaders is to call their people to live citizenship as discipleship, which in this instance means using the arts of persuasion rather than the anarchic tactics of disruption to do the work of justice. Discipleship will always involve speaking truth to power. But Christian discipleship is a matter of speaking that truth and attempting to persuade others of it, not barking epithets.

Order is fragile. Order is gravely threatened by incivility, from any source. Whatever their politics – left, right, alt-left or alt-right – those contributing to that incivility and that assault on order are playing with fire, which means they’re behaving irresponsibly. Their counsel should be ignored.