Better a Church of the People than of the Pure

A fascinating piece in Chiesa by the veteran Vaticanologist Sandro Magister on the church's approach in Argentina regarding baptism.  Rather than withholding baptism for children for parents who are on the fringes of the church, Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio (SJ) reminds us that the "child has no responsibility for the condition of his parents' marriage."  As the deck says, "Better a church of the people rather than only of the pure."  There's a long windup but then this, which has implications for the church--particularly in the United States--that go beyond the question of baptism:

What reemerges here is the ancient and still unresolved dispute between a Church of the elite, a pure, minority Church, and a Church of the masses, populated also by that immense sea of humanity for whom Christianity is made up of a few simple things.

In Italy, for example, the dispute came up again during the last major national conference of the Church, held in Verona in October of 2006. On that occasion, one position held by the "rigorists" was precisely that of withholding baptism and the other sacraments from those believed to be unfit because they are not practicing.

It is a dilemma that Joseph Ratzinger himself experienced personally as a young man, and finally resolved in the same direction indicated by Cardinal Bergoglio. This is what, as pope, Ratzinger himself said in replying to the question from a priest of Bressanone, in a public question-and-answer session with the clergy of the diocese on August 6, 2008.

The priest, named Paolo Rizzi, a pastor and professor of theology, asked Benedict XVI a question about baptism, confirmation, and first communion:

"Holy Father, 35 years ago I thought that we were beginning to be a little flock, a minority community, more or less everywhere in Europe; that we should therefore administer the sacraments only to those who are truly committed to Christian life. Then, partly because of the style of John Paul II's Pontificate, I thought things through again. If it is possible to make predictions for the future, what do you think? What pastoral approaches can you suggest to us?".

Pope Ratzinger responded:

"I must say that I took a similar route to yours. When I was younger I was rather severe. I said: the sacraments are sacraments of faith, and where faith does not exist, where the practice of faith does not exist, the Sacrament cannot be conferred either. And then I always used to talk to my parish priest when I was Archbishop of Munich: here too there were two factions, one severe and one broad-minded. Then I too, with time, came to realize that we must follow, rather, the example of the Lord, who was very open even with people on the margins of Israel of that time. He was a Lord of mercy, too open – according to many official authorities – with sinners, welcoming them or letting them invite him to their dinners, drawing them to him in his communion.

"Therefore I would say substantially that the sacraments are naturally sacraments of faith: when there is no element of faith, when First Communion is no more than a great lunch with beautiful clothes and beautiful gifts, it can no longer be a sacrament of faith. Yet, on the other hand, if we can still see a little flame of desire for communion in the faith, a desire even in these children who want to enter into communion with Jesus, it seems to me that it is right to be rather broad-minded."

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Joe Garcia
9 years 1 month ago
Always a delight to see Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, SJ get some airplay. I commend anyone to seek out his homilies (some are translated into English) as well.
John McCloskey
9 years 1 month ago
If this sort of talk continues, we will end up letting in the poor, the blind, the lepers, the crippled, the gays, the liberals, those who vote democratic......and then where will we be?
Gregory Popcak
9 years 1 month ago
I agree that it is inappropriate to suggest that the Church is only for the elite or the pure.  There is actually quite a lot of scripture condemning this kind of pharisaism.
That said, I wonder if stating the question in these terms isn't missing the point.  While the church is not only for the pure (as if that kind of purity really exists) it is for the striving.  People often correctly point out that the Church is a hospital for sinners not a museum for saints, and this is true, but it is also not a lobby where we just stand around milling about with no discernable purpose and occaisionally stopping to stare at the pretty pictures.  The Church IS a hospital for sinners and recovery from spiritual dis-ease takes real work.  As the metaphor suggests, we may not be pure, but we better damn well be striving.
As this applies to, say, baptism, I think it is important to consider what canon law says about infant baptism.  Namely that infant baptism is predicated upon a "founded hope" that the child will be raised in the faith.  Again, this doesn't, to my mind, mean that the parents have to be perfect, but it means, to me, that they need to give real evidence of striving and a willingness to teach their children how to strive.  To require less is for the Church to enable spiritual innoculations that inject far too many people with a weakened strain of faith that is too easily killed by the world but makes one immune to authentic life in Christ-potentially forever.
The state of one's soul may be impossible to evaluate (and inappropriate-at least to some degree-to judge), but the quality of one's effort is not.  And it is not judgmental in the least to remark that a person's effort is insincere or ineffectual and therefore, some kind of good-faith change is required before admission to the sacrament is granted. 
Otherwise, we end of treating sacraments as magical rituals that do not demand our cooperation or cultural trappings that have no real meaning.  I think both ideas are as common as they are tragic, and the Church must do what it can, not to protect the so-called "purity" of the people but rather its mission as a hospital for sinners, an instrument of healing and conversion.
Fran Rossi Szpylczyn
9 years 1 month ago
A church who lets anyone in! Thanks be to God! When we are otherwise we are but the other brother in the Prodigal Son parable. Justice and equanimity are a pain in the neck, aren't they?
On a more serious note, this brings into focus the whole question of infant baptism. I am not saying yay or nay, just saying that it has changed over time and this makes me think of that.
9 years 1 month ago
Hi Greg;
Your concerns do not resonate with me. I say anyone who , having experienced the mess the Church has been in the last decade, and still brings their baby to be baptized, in the bringing, has already manifested a strong faith and an enough faith. let it be done unto them. Pax
Pearce Shea
9 years 1 month ago
It's a great article and it really gets to the heart of the complexity of administering the sacraments (and the beauty of the Sacraments).
I do want to point one thing out here that some posters seemed to miss out on: there is still "some catechesis" involved in the baptism and there is still notion that the sacraments are sacraments of the faith. The Pope and Cardinal talk about how it is important that we not impose a "purity test" as a condition of access to the Sacraments. 
I guess the bigger question is whether a politician who, let's take Congressman Kennedy, professes to be Catholic but advocates public policy in direct opposition of a central tenet Church moral teaching ought to be provided similar access to the Sacraments, and it's here where I don't think the article provides a clear directive. Because that clearly is a very different case than the one described by the good Cardinal with the woman with seven children. I'm ambivalent as to whether Kennedy ought to present himself for communion (I don't go up unless I've been to confession recently and when, a few years ago, I wrestled with Church teaching on abortion, never went up for communion; this seems fair to me), but it seems obvious to me that the Cardinal acted courageously and correctly.
I agree with Ed that baptism, especially in situations where money and time (places in the world where a person might be able to attend Mass once a month) are controlling factors, need not necessarily have strings attached outside of an interest in membership in the body of the Church. But I guess the crux of where we and Ed seem to depart are those instances where a parishioner seeks communion or a similar sacrament (say marriage or the priesthood) without really being comfortable with some core church teachings (be it human dignity in the unborn or in the indigent). (a) ought they be doing so? (b) more importantly, are we doing them any favors by not telling them they ought to reconsider?
Think of an alcoholic. They persist in behavior which hurts them and those around them and if we permit their behavior, aren't we really just making their live's worse? I sincerely hope Con. Kennedy or Kathleen Sibelius, or Con. Pelosi, etc, etc experience the sort of conversion experience that can help them bring their political beliefs in line with Church moral teaching, not because I think I know better than them or because I don't like it when people "break the rules," but ultimately because I care for the condition of their mortal souls. 
MaryMargaret Flynn
9 years 1 month ago
Might try reading Graham Green's novel "The Power and the Glory". With my maiden name I come for a long line of people who suffer with the illnesss of alcholicism. My cousin a priest for exmple; I still run into to some of his parishoners who found great spiritual direction from him and prayed for his healing when he was actively drinking and miss him. I think the Lord welcomed him and my other loved others to heaven when their time on earth ended. Only ONE is without sin. Praise Him.
9 years 1 month ago
' He was a Lord of mercy, too open – according many offical authorities'
A little more of this kind of talk and the calls/cries to throw people under the busses will go away.. 'Lord hear our prayer'
Gregory Popcak
9 years 1 month ago
Sorry, one more point.
Continuing the metaphor, all manner of sick people are admitted to the hospital, but patients who are uncooperative with treatment are routinely discharged.  This is not because hospitals are being judgmental or are interested in seeing only "the pure."  Its because hospitals must concern themselves, not with being a warehouse for malingerers, but rather being a place of healing for those who wish to strive for health. So it is, I would argue, with the Church.
Ok, all done now.  ;-)
Winifred Holloway
9 years 1 month ago
So kind of PS to be thinking of the souls of Kennedy, Pelosi, et al.  However, the sacraments are encounters with grace and the sacred.  They are not meant to be a hammer to use on Catholics who may have problems with this or that teaching.  If that were the case, really, none of us could participate in the sacraments. 
9 years 1 month ago
Reading all of the above, including the article by Sandro Magister, I am reminded of a recent conversation I had with a lay woman who provides catechesis at her parish for young parents coming to the church to have their babies baptized.  We were attending a class given by our diocesan institute.  This woman wanted  to learn all she can about our faith to be an effective catechist, because, she said:  these young parents are hungry to learn about the faith.  I suspect that there are other young couples who are themselves, baptized, but not practicing the faith  who have some glimmer of wanting a better spiritual life  for their children than what they can provide.  Their coming to the church, in spite of everything (as Ed pointed out) may show a chip in the armor, a "little flame of desire", a tiny mustard seed that we need to address and nurture.  To go further with the metaphor of the church as hospital for the spiritually ill, perhaps these young people need emergency room services or maybe, intensive care.  The church has a golden opportunity to reach out in love and competent teaching to our young Catholic people who got the short end of the stick when it came to be their turn as children to be catechized.   If the teaching in the past was inadequate and confusing, don't we of older generations owe , in simple justice ,the attention, love and competency that they need and deserve?
While addressing the issue of First Communion, Pope Benedict said:" The proper meaning of catechesis, infact, must be this; to bring the flame of Jesus' love, even if it is a small one , to the hearts of children and through the children to their parents, thus reopening the places of faith of our time." 
Jim McCrea
9 years 1 month ago
Now John answered and said, "Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us." But Jesus said to him, "Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side."
[Luke 9:49-50]
Jim Lein
9 years 1 month ago
Who is one Catholic to judge another?  What if certain Catholics were judged unworthy to receive communion because they were for welfare cuts that led to the highest rate of abortions among those formerly elgible for welfare?     
Kathleen O'Brien
9 years 1 month ago
Our bishops and priests in Little Rock should read this.  We have just been forbidden to have communion services during the week.  I remember as a child in the 50's being warned that if the communists would take over we would lose the Eucharist.  Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the church would deprive us of the Eucharist.  Rural parishes do not have the luxury of just going to another parish when their pastor cannot have daily Mass. I had to explain to a church full of children this Wednesday that we were forbidden to have communion because our pastor was at a funeral for a fellow priest and could not be here for Mass.  See for their attempt to explain, of course, with no reference to the situation in rural parishes.
Jim McCrea
9 years 1 month ago
“Catholic Christendom is a vast assemblage of human beings with willful intellects and wild passions, brought together into one by the beauty and the majesty of a superhuman power, into what may be called a large reformatory or training school, not as if into a hospital or into a prison, not in order to be sent to bed, not to be buried alive, but (if I may change my metaphor) brought together as if into some moral factory, for the melting, refining, and molding by an incessant, noisy process, of the raw material of human nature, so excellent, so dangerous, so capable of divine purposes.”   
J. H. Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua.
John XXIII said said the same thing albeit more succinctly:  “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.”


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