Catholics who are alive in Christ know that “in hope we are saved.” We know and trust that God is working, even in what appears to be chaos, to bring salvation to the world.
The beginning of Lumen Gentium contains this beautiful passage:
When the work which the Father gave the Son to do on earth was accomplished, the Holy Spirit was sent on the day of Pentecost in order that He might continually sanctify the Church, and thus, all those who believe would have access through Christ in one Spirit to the Father. He is the Spirit of Life, a fountain of water springing up to life eternal. To men, dead in sin, the Father gives life through Him, until, in Christ, He brings to life their mortal bodies. The Spirit dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful, as in a temple. In them He prays on their behalf and bears witness to the fact that they are adopted sons. The Church, which the Spirit guides in way of all truth and which He unified in communion and in works of ministry, He both equips and directs with hierarchical and charismatic gifts and adorns with His fruits. By the power of the Gospel He makes the Church keep the freshness of youth. Uninterruptedly He renews it and leads it to perfect union with its Spouse. The Spirit and the Bride both say to Jesus, the Lord, “Come!”
Between these truths, there is a lot of room for human beings to screw things up and to sin. But even worse are those who reject the Spirit’s work, who only see chaos and sin, and as a result, despair.
Chaos in the Beginning
The ancient understanding of “chaos” referred to a lifeless void, a primordial unity of nothingness. From this “chaos” came life. Strands of the Jewish faith, in fact, describe creation not as an act of sheer “something out of nothing” but rather a separating of this original chaos: light/dark, day/night, sun/moon, waters above/waters below, oceans/land. God then filled the world with life.
One way to describe this initial phase of human existence is that it was dynamic or energetic. Day and night cycled in and out. A variety of trees and plants grew and produced fruit. Adam named the multitude of animals previously unnamed. God put the world into motion.
But here, in the Garden, there is no chaos, by the modern understanding of the word. Chaos implies a world that is out of sorts, spiraling out of control, entropic. Chaos was only introduced when the order of this dynamism was upended, when a created being chose himself over God. Only then did chaos enter into the world.
Yet from that first sin, through the cross, and to today, the Spirit has been working in the world to restore that order, by calling humanity to love God above all things and to live in accordance with his holy will.
The Spirit Today
The Spirit is not opposed to development and change. In fact, the opposite is true! There is no other possible way to move from the life of sin to a life that is well-ordered without change and growth and development. At the same time, this change revolves around Truth.
St. John Paul II writes in Familiaris Consortio, “[M]an, who has been called to live God’s wise and loving design in a responsible manner, is an historical being who day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.”
In Gaudete et Exsultate, Francis puts it this way:
[Discernment] is all the more important when some novelty presents itself in our lives. Then we have to decide whether it is new wine brought by God or an illusion created by the spirit of this world or the spirit of the devil. At other times, the opposite can happen, when the forces of evil induce us not to change, to leave things as they are, to opt for a rigid resistance to change. Yet that would be to block the working of the Spirit. We are free, with the freedom of Christ. Still, he asks us to examine what is within us – our desires, anxieties, fears and questions – and what takes place all around us – “the signs of the times” – and thus to recognize the paths that lead to complete freedom. “Test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess 5:21).
The Spirit is also not opposed to diversity. Per the beautiful imagery of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, some people are majestic roses, others lilies, yet together we create a beautiful meadow that gives glory to God. Uniformity is not the antidote to chaos. Order is. And even within the life of holiness, the Spirit continually renews us, bestowing on us a variety of gifts and in a variety of magnitudes. Some gifts great, some small, but all in service of God and others.
A Detracting View
And yet, Philip Lawler, in his book Lost Shepherd, argues for a uniformity within the Church, not only a doctrinal uniformity but also a pastoral uniformity as well. He laments the hypothetical divorced and remarried Catholic, who is anxious enough to follow the rules of the Church, that he would drive around from parish to parish until he could find a priest to give him an easy path back to the Eucharist.
Lawler laments that two dioceses or two bishops conferences–he gives the example of Germany and Poland–might have completely different solutions to the problem of divorced and remarried Catholics.
What is the matter with diversity and variation in pastoral practices?
The German and the Polish Church are very different countries, with different cultures, and different problems facing the faithful. The question is not whether diversity is contrary to the Spirit. We’ve established that it is not. Rather, the question is whether their respective practices are best helping the faithful in their respective Churches become more well-ordered to God. This is the essential criterion.
What practices are best for a particular church or a particular region is an open question, one that I’m not equipped to answer here. Still, I expect the local priests and bishops, in keeping with the Church’s eternal teaching on Scripture and Tradition, to be in a better position to answer than anyone else.
I also think what Lawler might be envisioning in his book is a more “unified” Church. I would certainly agree that a Church that is alive in the Spirit is also a unified Church. But a unified church is not a monolithic church; rather, it is a Church unified in diversity. It is a Church unified in its “right-ordering” of relationships, between God, man, and others, even as those relationships look different for different people, at different stages of life and of development.
A Spirit of Truth
Lawler laments the Church today in which a lack of clarity seems to reign. It is a Church unified in the Truth, but, as is clear, we are not a Church unified by billions of people all sharing the same understanding of the Truth. Everyone is growing into the Truth in their own way. These differences are regional, cultural, and even personal. Some Catholics have reached ecstasy at the contemplation of God, while others struggle to grasp foundational concepts of the Church’s Tradition, such as transubstantiation.
Is this a Church that is lacking in unity? Hardly. Assent or adherence to the Truth is necessary for unity; perfect understanding is not. Pope Benedict writes in Caritas in Veritate, “Each person finds his good by adherence to God’s plan for him, in order to realize it fully: in this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free (cf. Jn 8:32).” In Deus Caritas Est, he also writes, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
Lack of clarity, therefore, should not be considered a flaw or a defect of the Church but rather an opportunity to continue growing and developing. Francis warns us, “When somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right road.“ Charity includes seeking and helping others to grow in understanding, and by consequence, love of God. But it is precisely through “adherence” to Truth that we “find our good.” Our faith is not in a set of propositions, but in a real person, Jesus Christ himself.
Pope Benedict furthers this thought in a homily he gave in 2012, in which he expresses concern over an “intellectualization of the faith and theology.”
No one can say: I have the truth — this is the objection raised — and, rightly so, no one can have the truth. It is the truth that possesses us, it is a living thing! We do not possess it but are held by it. Only if we allow ourselves to be guided and moved by the truth, do we remain in it. Only if we are, with it and in it, pilgrims of truth, then it is in us and for us. I think that we need to learn anew about “not-having-the-truth”. Just as no one can say: I have children — they are not our possession, they are a gift, and as a gift from God, they are given to us as a responsibility — so we cannot say: I have the truth, but the truth came to us and impels us. We must learn to be moved and led by it. And then it will shine again: if the truth itself leads us and penetrates us.
The Weeds and the Wheat
When we look at the Church today, how can we distinguish between chaos and dynamism, between sin and development? On the path out of sin and into holiness, people will exhibit varying degrees of virtue as their consciences are being formed. This is a lifelong process.
It would be wrongheaded to look at those who are just beginning their journey, and still being ravaged by the habits of sin, and say that the Church has failed them. Likewise, it would be foolish to exalt another who appears holy without knowing their heart. The essential criterion of a Church alive in the Spirit is a Church unified in the right-ordering of relationships, which are often hidden from public view. A sinful man might long to please God but lack the formation to live the faith consistently; a man might exhibit external signs of holiness but internally he is filled with pride.
As the parable of the weeds and the wheat suggests, chaos and dynamism exist together in the Church today. They look similar and grow alongside one another, making it impossible to uproot one without also uprooting the other.
The Church is dynamic and it is full of growth, but it also is home to chaos and sin. I’m not trying to suggest a sort of dualism here; we know where the victory lies. But these two “forces” are part of our daily living, and I think we ourselves struggle every moment of everyday to choose rightly. “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” says Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Where chaos seeks to dismantle the right-ordering of relationships and put things out of place, the Spirit calls men back to the Truth. Chaos is the product of men who choose themselves before all else, whereas authentic dynamism is the vibrant life of a Church that chooses God above all things.
Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.