Sunday, October 01, 2006

Several years ago I read a book in which the author was trying to inject a sense of the psychological divide between the Middle Ages and our modern era. To do this, he has the medieval narrator describe the main protagonist. The narrator begins his description by admitting that there would be little sense in providing the reader with a physical description. After all, a man's body changes over time. A physical description based on a ten year old will not help you recognize that man twenty years later. Nor will you discern in a ninety year old man, the physical characteristics that were attached to him in his prime. A far better description can be found in the nature of the man's character, personality and soul. The narrator then goes on to describe these characteristics of the protagonist.

Interestingly, in doing so, he provides enough of a framework for the reader to visualize the ten-year old, the thirty year old and the ninety year old as a single flowing and dynamic representation of the character. Whether you apply blonde hair or red hair to your visualization becomes irrelevant. Either child has the same insolent tilt to his head and the same flash of dark eyes. Either young man has an off-putting arrogance. The old man you imagine is equally assured of an impatient manner.

Such a literary devise is extraordinarily useful in describing Catholic culture. Catholic civilization is over two thousand years old. There probably isn’t a corner of the world in which her presence hasn't been at some time manifest. The Church of the Apostles is the same Church as the Church of medieval Christendom. Both are the same Church as exists today. She is both the visible unity of Rome and the multitude of underground Churches that circle the globe. How does one begin to describe such a phenomenon?

Too often in the past half-century, people have perceived the Church primarily in political terms. Catholics make up about 18% of the world's population. In itself, that is a pretty significant number. Just fifty years ago, the Church was considered the model of corporate governance with Catholics the world over being in lock-step with Rome. The lure of low-hanging fruit simply became too irresistible. A battle for the 'soul' of the Church ensued. Some wanted to smash the 'stranglehold' of the Church but I suspect most simply wanted to maintaiin that 'stranglehold' and divert the river of Catholicism to their own well-intended ends. Either way, a superficial analysis suggests that the authority of the Church over the Catholic masses has been irredeemably ruptured.

At the same time, however, another shift was taking place. The prestige of the Pontiff in the modern age has never been higher. He has become the moral compass for a much broader audience than the Catholic Faithful. One of the more intriguing aspects of the recent dustup over the Pope's address was the response of both non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics. All kinds of people from all walks of life and all sides of the 'culture wars/clash of civilization' expressed a sense of personal affliiation with the Pope. Of course, there were probably as many people 'disappointed' with the Pontiff as supportive. But there wasn't a single voice raised arguing that this was an internal Church matter of little or no consequence. The Pope has an undeniable and significant impact on the world beyond the Tiber…An influence many might consider as dangerous and as tempting as the presumed power of the lock-step Catholicism of old.

Some say that the Pope expended the good will and moral authority of the Papacy on a foolish and ill-considered remark. For some, this assessment is one of malicious hope. For others, it is tinged with melancholic regret. Either way, a superficial analysis might suggest that the authority of the Church on the world stage has been irredeemably ruptured. But such an assessment remains political in nature. It reflects an outsider's perspective of the Church. Essentially, it sees the shadow of the Church and not the Church Herself.

The Church is not a political entity. Catholicism is not and has never been a political or even a spiritual ideology. We are instead a single body with a communal nature and a spiritual mission. We are the Body of Christ… never-changing and always new.

+ Ad maiorem dei gloriam +

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