Monday 3 September 2012

Cardinal Martini and what's wrong with the Church

Cardinal Martini is dead. So before anything else:

Requiem Aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace.

And that normally would be that. I don't like getting into the liberal/traditionalist inter-Catholic spats and I don't like criticizing the hierarchy or the recently dead.

However, Cardinal Martini left an interview which has now been released: Italian here. English here. As in most of these sorts of things, there's a charitable way of reading it and an uncharitable one. For me, it's notable rather in what it doesn't say or perhaps in its tone, rather than in what it does say. But let's pick two things out of it:

1) The Church has been left behind for 200 years. 

Well, the charitable way of reading that is that, since the onset of modernity, there's been creeping secularization and the Church hasn't successfully dealt with that. I'd like to say quite a lot more about that 'secularization theory' -and almost certainly will do at some stage- but it's not an entirely foolish thought and certainly one that would bear reflection: the Church is not thriving in Western Europe and a perfectly reasonable thought about that is that there is a tension between modernity (as a social condition) and Catholicism. Even given that as a correct diagnosis -and I'm not sure I would accept it- that still leaves the cure. And it's perfectly possible that the cure would involve rejection of modernity rather than its embrace. Anyway, charitably, such a reading is a reasonable request for thought rather than a prescription.

Here's the uncharitable way. 'Two hundred years ago, the Enlightenment showed that the mediaeval and ancient patterns of thought on which Catholicism is based are rubbish. Hence, Catholicism needs to jettison its outdated philosophy and theology and move with the times.' Quite apart from the 'odd' ecclesiology this might entail ('the Church can get things wrong for two thousand years until shown the right way by Lady Gaga'), as a practical piece of advice, it is totally impractical. Uttered in the 1950s, we'd have been dressing up in black polo necks and becoming existentialists. Uttered in the 1960s, we'd have been Maoists. Uttered now -well, what? The raunch culture? The sort of fluffy opinion pieces beloved of the Scottish press which flit from endorsing bistros one Sunday to endorsing same sex 'marriage' the next? Slavoj Zizek or Niall Ferguson? What is the intellectual heritage of the enlightenment which will survive into the next decade, let alone the next century?

I suspect that the only way of making much sense out of such a thought -apart from the straightforward (and I suspect accurate) gloss that it simply means 'let me think and do what I want without having to think too much'- is that it is the claim that, since the Enlightenment (or, probably more accurately, the early modern period) nature is no longer seen as possessing meaning in itself: it has meaning imposed on it by the activities of human beings. Since Catholic moral theology is based on the Natural Law (roughly, the discernment of what is morally required by our nature as human beings) and its understanding of God on Natural Theology (again, roughly, the idea that the state of the universe demonstrates both the existence and key attributes of God), such an abandonment of the traditional understanding of nature throws us back on fideism -blind faith in (usually) scripture- or to atheism (which is what happens when fideists lose heart in the struggle to believe 1001 odd things before breakfast). If that is the change referred to and endorsed here, then of course Catholicism needs to be quite radically revised. But there is absolutely, absolutely no reason to believe that such a view of nature is true. (And if you want more on this, go to Ed Feser's blog: it's the sort of thing he's been tackling day by day for ages: try this for starters.)

2) Neither the clergy nor the Church law can replace the interiority of man. All the external rules, laws, dogmas are data given to clarify the inner voice and the discernment of spirits.

Well, again, a charitable and an uncharitable way of reading this. The charitable way is that Christianity is ultimately the achievement of the Beatific Vision: the face to face contemplation of God by the individual soul.  And, as realized in this world, that sense (as Plotinus put it) of the 'flight of the alone to the alone': the individual, solitary journey through life to God. Or as Thomas Traherne puts its:

Such endless depths live in the Divinity, and in the wisdom of God, that as He maketh one, so He maketh every one the end of the World: and the supernumerary, persons being enrichers of his inheritance. Adam and the World are both mine. And the posterity of Adam enrich it infinitely. Souls are God’s jewels, every one of which is worth many worlds. They are His riches because His image, and mine for that reason. So that I alone am the end of the World: Angels and men being all mine. And if others are so, they are made to enjoy it for my further advancement. God only being the Giver and I the Receiver. So that Seneca  philosophized rightly when he said “Deus me dedit solum toti Mundo, et totem Mundum mihi soli”: God gave me alone to all the World, and all the World to me alone.

Centuries of Meditations: First Century, 15.(Here.)

But the uncharitable way is this: 'Doctrine doesn't matter. Rules don't matter. Just be quiet and listen to God speaking to you in the inner space of your soul.'

And that's clearly utterly useless as the sole approach. From the life of Christ onwards, the Church has taught and articulated. Moreover, in that greater, more important ecumenism with the whole of humanity rather than just with pietist, sola scriptura Protestants, all the great civilizations of the world have thought and talked and argued. Religion, when it becomes a sort of Primary 1 finger painting class doesn't bring us closer to our fellow human beings: it cuts us off from that intellectual and artistic aspect of human culture which is one key place where God is to be found.

Modern Catholics need to be terrifyingly smart and terrifyingly cultured. Not every single one of us, but, in that organism which is the Church, some are called to philosophize, some are called to paint great paintings and write great novels, and some are called to bathe the wounds of the injured and dying. (And some of course are called to that pinnacle of human achievement which is the keyboard warrior.) The danger is that, with each of these vocations -and all the others and combinations of vocations there are- we as human beings tend to forget our incompleteness. The philosopher forgets love in the self-assertion of intellectual debate; the nurse forgets clarity of thought in the shriek of human suffering. (And, perhaps one might add, the biblical scholar forgets the two thousand year history and theologizing of Catholicism. And the keyboard warrior forgets to have breakfast.) Only in a Church which brings all these things together is the fullness of human and divine life present.

So here's one thing that's missing in Cardinal Martini's interview:

Fourth, there are the heights of human culture, as represented, say, in Giotto, Hopkins, Aquinas and Tallis. Any Church which fails to engage with those peaks of human endeavour, particularly as achieved by Catholics, and rejects them from a one sided emphasis on the good of simplicity of heart cuts itself off from the Divine Light.  

                                     Not a good idea to diss Giotto...

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