Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What must change: the structure of the Church or that of the human heart?

In its document on change entitled "Discerning the Spirit: A Guide for Renewing and Restructuring the Church," Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), an organization established in the wake of the clerical abuse scandal, provides us with a glimpse of its loss of the sense of truth and of the sense of the Church.

In a desperate attempt to convince the faithful that the structure of the Church must change and become more democratic, this VOTF guide quotes the following passage from the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium: "Thus every layman, by virtue of the very gifts bestowed on him, is at the same time a witness and a living instrument of the mission of the Church herself." (LG, No. 33).

But the lay involvement referred to in this passage is a far different thing from the "democratic" Church envisaged by members of the flagging dissent group. If we read just a little further into the same Vatican II document, we are told that: "The laity should promptly accept in Christian obedience what is decided by the pastors who, as teachers and rulers of the Church, represent Christ." (LG, No. 37). Why doesn't the VOTF "guide" quote from that passage?

While it is true that some practices in the Church are similar to those of a representative democracy, for example, Bishops who are united with the Pope share authority with him, and their leadership is collegial (LG, No. 22), and the lay faithful have a right to make their needs and desires known while appropriately expressing their opinions (LG, No. 37), still, authority in the Church has a different foundation from authority in a representative democracy. Not to mention a different function. Leaders in a representative democracy govern in the name of the people. But within the Church, pastors govern in the name of the Lord Jesus. By appointment, mission and commission, Jesus has provided for the continuation of His royal office. The hierarchy of jurisdiction, therefore, is a divine institution (LG, No. 18). This hierarchy constitutes the external framework of that organism in which Jesus Himself lives and of which He is both the juridic and mystic Head, namely, His Mystical Body the Church.

Members of the primitive Church understood this as do faithful Catholics today. They knew that the Apostles had received from Jesus their power to teach, rule and sanctify. They understood that even Jesus’ teaching is not His own and that the Spirit does not speak on his own (Jn 7:16; 16:13). In short, they understood that everything comes from the Father (Jas 1:17-18).

Sadly, there are those who still insist that the structure of the Church must change. Father William J. Byron, SJ is one such individual. In an column written for the Catholic News Service and published in the October 26th edition of The Catholic Free Press, Fr. Byron refers to VOTF as "a reform movement." And speaking of the "structural change" which this dissent group calls for, he writes, "...faithful Catholic people want to have a voice in the selection of their parish priests and local bishops...It is worth noting that structural change never happens suddenly, but structural adjustments are happening all the time. Enlightened criticism from Voice of the Faithful will bring about structural adjustments, which eventually will lead to noticeable change. For this to happen, however, the movement needs staying power..."

VOTF is a reform movement which offers enlightened criticism? Far from it. Any authentic reform movement in the Church has its foundation in Magisterial truth and understands that it is not the Church which must change but the human heart. Writing to the Ephesians, St. Paul said, "Put off the old man who is corrupted according to the desire of error, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind: and put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth" (Eph. 4:22-24).

And as Dr. Von Hildebrand explains, "These words of St. Paul are inscribed above the gate through which all must pass who want to reach the goal set us by God. They implicitly contain the quintessence of the process which baptized man must undergo before he attains the unfolding of the new supernatural life received in Baptism." (Transformation in Christ, p.3). Dr. Von Hildebrand goes on to explain in this work of critical importance that there is a certain type of man, "who, while not lacking a certain elan, refuses to take account of his limitations and is thus driven to magnify his stature artificially." He continues: "Suppose he is present at some discussion of spiritually relevant topics: he will take part in the debate as though he were fully equipped to do so; he will claim impressions as deep as the others; he will not yield to any other man as regards intellectual proficiency or even religious stature. Thus he works himself up, as it were, to a level which he has not reached in reality - and which he may not even be able to reach, so far as it is a matter of natural capacities. He is not without zeal; but that zeal is nourished at heart by pride. He misjudges the limitations of the natural talents which God has lent him, and consequently lapses into pretense. He is fond of speaking of things which far transcend the limits of his understanding; he behaves as though a mere mental or verbal reference to such subjects (however poorly implemented with actual knowledge and penetration) would by itself amount to their intellectual possession. This cramped attitude of sham spirituality is mostly underlain by an inferiority complex, or by a kind of infantile unconsciousness. Stupidity in its really oppressive form is traceable to this pretension to appear something different from what one is in fact, and by no means to a mere deficiency of intellectual gifts." (Transformation in Christ, pp.23-24).

Why am I relating all of this? Because, Dr. Von Hildebrand teaches us that such false self-appraisals actually hinder our readiness to change or to "put on the new man" as St. Paul instructs us to do. And what Dr. Von Hildebrand refers to as a "cramped attitude of sham spirituality" is part and parcel of the VOTF movement. Members of VOTF have their own thoughts as to what must change. But this is because they fail to listen to the Word of God as given to us by the Apostle to the Gentiles. Insisting that it is not they who must "put on the new man" in Christ Jesus but that it is the Church which must change, these intellectually and spiritually cramped characters evaluate the abuse crisis within the Church and issue an arrogant vestra culpa (your fault) while refusing to issue a humble mea culpa (my fault). These sophomoric souls, anxious to assign blame to the Church for the sins of some of Her members, forget the words of the great Cardinal Journet: "All contradictions are eliminated as soon as we understand that the members of the Church do indeed sin, but they do so by their betraying the Church. The Church is thus not without sinners, but She is without sin. The Church as person is responsible for penance. She is not responsible for sins...The members of the Church themselves - laity, clerics, priests, bishops, and Popes - who disobey the Church are responsible for their sins, but the Church as person is not responsible...It is forgotten that the Church as person is the Bride of Christ, 'Whom He has purchased with His own Blood' (Acts 20:28)."

VOTF members will no doubt continue to live in denial while loudly proclaiming the need for "structural change" within the Church even while remaining unsure as to what this actually means. This is why their movement is destined to fail. But there is another and no less important reason for their movement's decay. And it is this: most Catholics in this country understand what they themselves do not: namely, that the Church founded by Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word is a perfect society which is immutable. They know and understand this because such is the teaching of the Church. It was Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical letter Mystici Corporis, who taught that:"..The Church, which should be considered a perfect society in its own right, is not made up of merely moral and juridical elements and principles. It is far superior to all other human societies; it surpasses them as grace surpasses nature, as things immortal are above all those that perish...The juridical principles, on which also the Church rests and is established, derive from the divine constitution given it by Christ.."

Such authentic Catholics accept the teaching of Vatican I that, "...the pastors and the faithful of whatever rite and dignity, both as separate individuals and all together, are bound by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, not only in things which pertain to faith and morals, but also in those which pertain to the discipline and government of the Church which is spread over the whole world, so that the Church of Christ, protected not only by the Roman Pontiff, but by the unity of communion as well as of the profession of the same faith is one flock under the one highest shepherd. This is the doctrine of Catholic truth from which no one can deviate and keep his faith and salvation." (Dogmatic Constitution I on the Church of Christ, Session IV).

VOTF rejects this clear and unambiguous teaching of Holy Mother Church. This is why the movement is held in "low esteem" by most Catholics in this country and beyond. With all due respect for Fr. Byron, it is not the structure of the Church which must change. It is the structure of the human heart which must change. Until our hearts are conformed to that of the Sacred Heart of our Lord Jesus Christ, our criticism will never be constructive or enlightened. It will only be bitter.

Let us all pray: Sacred Heart of Jesus, make my heart like unto Thine. Amen.


Anonymous said...

Paul, I had heard of VOTF but didn't really know anything about them. Thank you for this posting.

Paul Anthony Melanson said...

Thank you for the kind note Terri. So many Bishops have banned this organization in their dioceses, some of them referring to the group as "anti-Catholic."

It always amazes me how so many who cry the loudest for reform in the Church neglect the most critical aspect of reform: self-reform in the form of daily conversion, repentance and reconciliation.

But then, it's easier to play the blame game and point a finger at someone or something else. I'll stick with frequent confession and working on my sinful self. There is enough work for me to do reforming myself (with the help of God's grace without which nothing is possible).

Skip Shea said...

I think it is important to note that VOTF was founded in response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Their top priority at that time was to stand with the victims/survivors against the cover-up and lack of accountability.
It had a noble beginning.

Paul Anthony Melanson said...

Skip, thank you for your comment. I believe there were some who were well-intentioned. However, VOTF - from the beginning - had serious problems from both a theological and philosophical standpoint. An excellent source for articles on VOTF is: www.faithfulvoice.com

God bless,

Anonymous said...

A great article on VOTF, considered by many Bishops to be anti-Catholic:


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