Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 30, 2005
Church polarization can be overcome
The bread is given 'for you,' but the cup is poured out 'for all'
By THOMAS RYAN
Special to the WCR
Scratch the surface of life in the Church today, and you find varying degrees of polarization. In this the Church community fails to transcend and only reflects the tensions prevalent in the wider civic community represented by different political parties.
Perhaps you saw the polarities in the various reactions to the election of the new pope, or intuited them in the recent resignation of the editor of America magazine. We're living in an era of the Church when Catholics are more concerned than usual about other Catholics.
At a spirituality convocation held at St. Elizabeth's College in New Jersey at the end of April, keynote speaker Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe, former master general of the Order of Preachers, offered some helpful reflections on how we might address a prickly situation that is strangling the Church's ability to be both evangelical and missionary.
We tend to see polarization, he said, in terms of left and right, conservative and liberal, but the Church must not allow a wedge to be driven between creativity in response to developing conditions, and the wisdom carried in two centuries of tradition. It needs both.
Radcliffe proposed "Church Catholics" and "Kingdom Catholics" as better descriptive terms than liberal and conservative. Kingdom Catholics are those who are convinced the Church must interface with the modern world. The Church Catholics are those who stress the contradictions between the Church and modernity. They represent two different sensibilities, but the Church needs them both.
Both kinds of Church members are motivated by the search for home, and both suffer from a loss of Church-as-home until they can provide space for one another. Home is where you feel safe, Radcliffe observed.
The tension between the two kinds of Catholics is summed up in the very name Roman Catholic. "Roman" indicates particularity and identity. "Catholic" infers universality and inclusivity.
Yet, we need both. If we were only "Roman," we wouldn't be a sign of the kingdom. But neither would we be a sign of the kingdom if we had no coherent order and authority. The Church must breathe with both lungs: the particular and the universal.
Radcliffe brought an insightful reflection to bear on Jesus' words at the Last Supper. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the bread is given "for you," but the cup is poured out "for all." The "for you," he said, relates to Church Catholics; the "for all" to Kingdom Catholics. The bread gathers in. The cup sends us out. Both have an essential role to play in the Church's mission.
The conversion required all around will be appropriately expressed in how we speak to one another and listen to one another. There can only be dialogue if we take time to listen to those with whom we tussle. Don't just hear the words, Radcliffe urged, but inquire about the experiences from which the words come.
It's not just a clash of ideas, but of different human experiences that give rise to the words we use.
The aristocratic Swiss theologian Urs Von Balthasar (Church Catholic) and the Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez (Kingdom Catholic) both live in different "locations," but both are deeply committed Catholics, and both are mystics. God is "roomy," said Radcliffe, and we must find ways of speaking that are "roomy."
Truth cannot endanger truth. Polarization happens when we lose our nerve and cannot live with a certain incoherence or with provisional positions as we're stumbling together toward what the truth is and how it should be lived in a given situation.
We need, Radcliffe proposed, to stand in each others' shoes and avoid taking each other to court. We must dare to live not just on the side of black or white, but to upon occasion step into a demilitarized zone marked by some grey. We must find new words, and give our common search for the best way forward some time.
(Paulist Father Thomas Ryan directs the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in New York City.)
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