Readings — From the March 2015 issue

Church Going

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From The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis, by Garry Wills, out this month from Viking. Wills holds the Alonzo L. McDonald Family Chair at Emory and is the author of many books, including What Jesus Meant and Nixon Agonistes.

Pope Francis heartens some Catholics but frightens others, for the same reason: the prospect of change. The Catholic Church is the oldest institution in Western civilization. Surely the secret to its longevity is its ability to defy and outlast the many breaks and discontinuities of the past twenty centuries. From that vantage point, a changing Church is simply not the Catholic Church. Immutability must be built into its DNA.

It helps, if you wish to hold such a view, not to know much history. Since one begins from the certitude that the Church was always what it has become, you simply have to extrapolate backward from what we have now. We have priests, so we must have always had them — though they never show up in the Gospels. We have popes, so they must have been there, too — they were just hiding for several centuries. We have transubstantiation, so we did not have to wait for the thirteenth century to tell us what that is. The beauty of the Church is its marble permanence. Change would be its death warrant.

Early on, I was given a different view of the Church. G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man was published nine years before I was born, and it took me another sixteen years to catch up with it — but when I did I was intrigued by a chapter called “The Five Deaths of the Faith.” For Chesterton, the story of the Church’s long life was not a tale of certainty formed early and never altered. It was a story of hairbreadth escapes, as the Church kept dying of old age, or of inanition, or from external causes. Corruption should have killed it, or the Roman Empire, or the Renaissance, or Galileo, or Darwin, or Freud. “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”

This was not because the Church simply defied change. In fact, it often changed with the age — became Roman during the Roman Empire, shedding its Middle Eastern roots and adopting a Latin structure; became a supermonarchy in the age of monarchs; became superascetic in the age of Stoic contempt for the body; became misogynistic during the various patriarchies; became anti-Semitic when the world despised Jews. But when each age died of old age, the Church somehow didn’t.

Instead of reading history backward, from the Church’s current form to a fictive immutability in the past, Chesterton led me to read history forward, from the early evidences and from the different guises the Church had to adopt in order to survive. That is not only a more interesting story, but a more exciting one — of narrow escapes and improbable swerves.

Far from being the enemy of Catholicism, change is its means of respiration, its way of breathing in and breathing out. Even before Pope Francis, the Second Vatican Council, in the Sixties, had found evidence in the Church’s sources that “the Church” did not always mean what some of its defenders insisted it must mean. That meaning is implicit in usages like “the Church teaches” or “you must obey the Church.” For some, “the Church” is the Vatican, the papacy, the magisterium, the Church’s teaching authority. But that apparatus was not there at the beginning. Another usage of “Church” was older, broader, and better attested in the sources. Vatican II returned to that meaning when it proclaimed that the Church is “the people of God,” which includes all those who believe in, follow, and love Jesus.

This people first organized itself under the guidance of the spirit imparted at Pentecost. It chose its own leaders, it tested authority, it rejected attempts by outside authorities to dictate to it from above. It had various leaders, who played off against one another — James in Jerusalem, Peter in Antioch, Paul in Corinth. Its councils voted on doctrine through representatives (bishops) who were themselves elected by the people. In the nineteenth century, the magisterium was so far from this understanding of the Church that the theologian John Henry Newman was silenced for claiming that the laity had some role in forming doctrine, and that the Church could undergo some change (under the rubric of “development”).

Hanging on to set ways stifles creativity. Pope Francis describes the condition:

Whenever we Christians are enclosed in our groups, our movements, our parishes, in our little worlds, we remain closed, and the same thing happens to us that happens to anything closed: when a room is closed, it begins to get dank. If a person is closed up in that room, he or she becomes ill!

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