True Conversion of the Church
Rev. Frank DeSiano, CSP
In the past twenty-five years or so, the Church has been through its own form of culture wars. Somewhere in the 80s, questions about the Second Vatican Council, and its implementation, became standard. In this period, Catholics began to think of themselves more explicitly as “conservatives” or as “liberals.” Pope Benedict, whether intentionally or not, stoked the flames behind these culture wars with his questions about the Second Vatican Council: was it a Council of discontinuity-dismissing the past traditions of the Church; or was it a Council of continuity, upholding those past traditions, even with its new emphases.
There are certain landmarks for these culture wars: liturgy and the sexual teaching of the Church have come prominently into play. Some people wanted to emphasize older forms of vestments-those famous “fiddle back” chasubles-and how many candles were on the altar. Not only was the new form of the Mass allowed in Latin, but Pope Benedict urged even the old form, the Tridentine Mass, to be celebrated in certain places in dioceses. All of this came to its climax for the English-speaking world with the translation of the Roman Missal, third edition, and a return to a form of speaking that closely mimicked the Latin wording. Relevance to current cultural expressions, then, was not a primary consideration. Faithfulness to the Latin text mattered most.
Similarly, issues of sexuality have always stirred discussion. After Pope Paul Vi’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, there seemed to be two streams in current Catholic attitudes. The dominant one verged toward a cautious and almost reserved commentary on current sexuality (without, however, actually denying Catholic doctrine). In the 80s and 90s, however, there emerged a rather vigorous pushback among some Catholics, emphasizing the evils of promiscuity, abortion, and contraception. As the Holy Father, Pope Francis, commented recently, the Church cannot be seen only as denouncing homosexuality and abortion. Our message is broader and deeper.
I think, however, there’s a more fundamental conversion that Pope Francis is urging upon the Church. He’s not asking a conservative church to become more liberal, or a liberal church becoming more conservative. In a way, Pope Francis is asking us to put these categories aside.
Rather, he is urging a “self-referential” Church to become more outward-looking. He is looking for the Church to re-situate itself in terms of the world today. By “self-referential,” the Pope refers to the attitude that our vision can shrink down to the scope of the Church by itself. The Church is the center, and its influence or glory are the things we have to work for. The Church in this way becomes so centered on itself that it cannot keep its mission in focus.
The Church, Pope Francis is saying, exists to look beyond itself, primarily in service to the world, walking humbly in the midst of people today, in dialogue with others about the deepest problems humans face, portraying the love of God shown in Jesus Christ, and helping the world see its struggles in terms of seeking and finding this God of love. The way the Church serves is through mission—not only the proclamation of a clearer Gospel of love, but, more importantly, committing itself to deeds of loving service to the poorest and neediest of people.
What a conversion this would be—back to a clearer Gospel passion, and a more forceful engagement with the Modern World that the Second Vatican Council looked upon with hope and love!
This creates a different dynamic for the “New” Evangelization. Rather than thinking there is some golden age that we have to retrieve in such a way that we can speak to people of today, we can think about the way the world is calling us to look into the treasures of our Catholic faith. The world around us gives us clues as to their hungers and needs. We can dispose ourselves as disciples in dialogue with the world, offering with passion and humility the great gift we have ourselves received.