I’m currently making my way through James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church which succinctly summarizes the main developments of the Church over its 2000 year history. One thing this brief survey of the Church has taught me is that the Church is always in need of reform.
Four Views of History
In broad terms, I have learned that there are four main theories or ways to view history: two secular, two rooted in faith. The first is the nihilistic view, which was prevalent at the time of Jesus. What defines this view of history is a sort of despair. History offers no solace, and the trajectory of human civilization seems destined to take us to self-ruin, or at the very least, endless cycles of pain, suffering, triumph, and defeat.
Another view is the secular humanist view. Devoid of any action by God, this view suggests that the trajectory of human civilization is destined to take us to our self-exultation. While at the same time inherently hopeful about what the future may bring, it is also entirely ruthless in execution. Since history is the result of human action, any structure or any behavior that is at odds with this future vision of humanity must be rooted out and eliminated, the sooner the better. In our American culture, this is arguably the most pervasive view, affecting both political parties and our public consciousness.
People of Christian faith also have analogous though strongly oppositional views, when compared to those two above. As compared to the first, the Christian faith clearly presents an end to human history, meaning in this case both the purpose and its eventual finality. There are no endless cycles or ultimate self-ruin. The course of human history, for the Christian, is ultimately worked out for the good of man, even if not all can participate in it. As compared to the second, the Christian faith clearly shows that history is the work of God. Because human beings are sinful, human action without divine assistance is destined to fail.
So what are these Christian views of history?
On the one hand, Christian fatalists are those who would suggest that our world is doomed, that God has sent suffering upon us to punish us, and that our death becomes a release from the pain of this world for those who he has predestined to save. Maybe to a lesser extent, those who hold this view would be somewhat ambivalent regarding the immediate future of this world. They cling to the divine where it is found, but otherwise avoid or even ignore the struggles, temptations, sufferings, and challenges posed by the secular world and as experienced by others.
Finally, Christian humanists are those who suggest that our future is inherently bright, that God’s grace has permeated the world and that we are on a path to greater holiness, peace, justice, and the fulfillment of God’s kingdom on earth. Not altogether denying the work of God or the need for God’s grace, these progressive Christians see a radical need to reform human structures, including those of the institutional Church. The existence of sin is a function of the Church being ineffective at communicating God’s grace to others, and so we have a responsibility to rethink everything, to make it easier or less painful for others to live in faith and the grace of God.
And a Fifth View
But there’s at least one more view of history which I purposefully neglected to mention. Missing from the above four views is the real sense in which human history is not entirely defined by impersonal or structural forces, or even through the action of God alone, or by man alone. Instead, human history is the story of individuals acting for evil, or by the grace of God, for good.
One of my favorite quotes is by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” History is a story of sin and redemption, in which man’s failures and shortcomings are ultimately healed by Christ on the cross through Baptism. With God’s gift of faith, each person begins his or her journey to the fullness of holiness, which is our happiness and our end. Human beings fail often, and yet God offers his forgiveness even more often. History is the product of this ebb and flow, not only of “humanity” in a general sense, but each person, as we waver between sin and holiness, between choosing ourselves and choosing God.
The existence of sin is primarily a problem of individual human failings. Since human structures, including the Church, cannot dictate human actions, structural reform can never uproot sin completely. Structure may be changed or reformed as needed to better facilitate growth in holiness, but sin will always be part of human life on earth. Still, the existence of sin illustrates the need to reassess where we as a Church need to focus our attention. In this sense, the Church must always live by a spirit of reform, never standing still, never patting ourselves on the back, but always looking for the next challenge.
Major changes in the Church in the first millennium after Christ, included standardization of the liturgy, Church governance vis-a-vis secular authority, and the institution of priestly celibacy. In a broad sense, these reforms were to help people grow in holiness but they were also specific to the preeminent, often secular, concerns of that age. The Church, as an institution, looks dramatically different between year 200 and year 1200, but both successfully safeguarded the faith just as both were working out the best way to achieve the mission of the Church in their respective times.
Reforming the Church in the Modern World
It is worth considering today how the Church’s circumstances have changed and are changing and whether the structures we have in place are serving the Church’s mission of evangelization in the modern world. Is the Church best helping people to be holy or not?
One potential reform may involve the increased participation of the laity in the management of the Church. Vatican II, Pope Benedict, and Pope Francis have all indicated a need for the laity to take “co-responsibility” with the clergy for the care of the Church. While never replacing the roles of bishops, priests, or the Pope, the laity can assist them and be involved with their work. It seems desirable to do so for various reasons, including helping the Church with the skills and experience of a broader set of people, to provide independent auditing and oversight, and also to increase the sense of community among the lay faithful, helping them to regard their neighbor’s good more than their own.
The clamor for reform may, at various times, reach fever pitch. The failures of our priests, bishops, and even our Popes to completely eradicate the scourge of sexual abuse from the ranks of the clergy (even to the point of condoning it) has rightfully resulted in outrage among the laity. The best solution here is ultimately one that will best serve the Church in her mission to increase holiness among all the faithful, most especially the clergy.
Increasing holiness among the faithful is a complex task. It must take into consideration a wide number of pastoral and doctrinal factors, and must be careful not to scandalize those who are weak in faith. Reform and the very process of reform, therefore, must be thoughtful. However, as even the appearance of inaction can be a scandal, the Church must be prompt and focused on the task. Still, while we pray the Spirit brings forth fruit sooner rather than later, human history suggests that even after our best efforts we will find new ways of screwing things up in the not-too-distant future.
Between the anger of the laity and the sometimes slow and ineffective processes of reform, there is an opportunity for populism to take hold in Church, which can lead people to doubt the Church itself. Nefarious actors have already taken advantage of any seeming inaction to impassion others for their own self-aggrandizement. But they offer only a progressivist view of human history, suggesting that the fundamental structure itself–i.e., the Church–is suspect, thereby leading others to abandon it. Or they may offer a fatalistic view, speaking on behalf of the God like a prophet, but doing nothing to assist others in their actual struggles. They gladly bring suffering down on their fellow men and women to assuage their own righteousness, and in so doing, neglect the real way in which God is still working in others to reconcile them to himself.
The history of the Church is at the same time painful and joyous. There is much suffering, including the suffering that constitutes much of our Christian life. But we have hope in a world beyond this one, our ultimate destination, and we know this Church is how we’ll get there. Enlivened by this hope, we work for the good of others, wherever and however we find them.
In closing, I share this quote from Pope Benedict XVI:
The Kingdom of God is a gift, and precisely because of this, it is great and beautiful, and constitutes the response to our hope. And we cannot—to use the classical expression—”merit” Heaven through our works. Heaven is always more than we could merit, just as being loved is never something “merited”, but always a gift. However, even when we are fully aware that Heaven far exceeds what we can merit, it will always be true that our behaviour is not indifferent before God and therefore is not indifferent for the unfolding of history. We can open ourselves and the world and allow God to enter: we can open ourselves to truth, to love, to what is good. This is what the saints did, those who, as “God’s fellow workers”, contributed to the world’s salvation (cf. 1 Cor 3:9; 1 Th 3:2).