Of Many Things

As they have done for more than 800 years, Parisians crossed the narrow bridges leading to the eastern half of the Île de la Cité last month. They were en route to Sunday Mass at Notre Dame, the 12th-century cathedral that is the pride of Paris, the most magnificent building in a city with a surplus of splendor. The skies were lisping rain, turning the cobblestoned streets into a slippery hazard for the many tourists who filled the plaza in front of the church.

The scene inside was at once familiar and entirely foreign to me. The cornerstone of Notre Dame was laid more than 300 years before Columbus sailed for the Americas. There is no church in the new world that evinces a similar sense of connection with our forebears in faith across so many generations. Like every Catholic church, however, Notre Dame is home to me, the place where there are no strangers, only brothers and sisters, where there is no ultimate division but only the unity-in-diversity of a eucharistic people.

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As the procession wended its way across the ancient stones, images from long-ago high school history classes came to mind, scenes from a drama in which I did not feature but is nevertheless my story as well as yours. I thought especially of the role that hubris played in that story, the toxic pride that the Greeks believed was the besetting sin of every classic protagonist. How else to explain the prideful idolatry of the French revolutionaries who rededicated Notre Dame to the Cult of Reason. As the choir intoned the Kyrie, I could not help but think that while the French Revolution was the result of multiple social and political forces, the very best account of its principal cause can be found in the first four chapters of the Book of Genesis.

The lights and shadows of this musty Gothic mammoth reveal the lights and shadows of human history. At Communion, the capacity crowd traversed the same center aisle that Napoleon used en route to his self-crowning in the sanctuary, the very same aisle that some German Catholic soldiers no doubt used during the occupation. All thought their worldly empires would last 1,000 years, yet the church alone can claim that longevity, as well as the hope that we will survive yet another 1,000 years of inhumanity.

Over the next year the church in the United States will enter into a difficult conversation about the work of the Synod on the Family. We will discuss and disagree, no doubt, about the best way for the church to meet the temper of the times. “A particularly delicate question,” writes the Rev. Robert Imbelli in this issue, “is whether, besides the usual criteria bearing upon validity, one ought, in a highly secularized society, take into account the Christian faith (or lack thereof) of those who entered into the marriage covenant” when assessing the grounds for an annulment. We will also discuss whether to modify the present discipline regarding the admission of the civilly divorced and remarried to the Eucharist.

Throughout that discussion, we would do well to remember our own history. The forces of contemporary secularism are strong, but it is unlikely that Richard Dawkins and his colleagues are going to storm St. Patrick’s Cathedral and rededicate it to the Cult of Reason, or that a change in pastoral practice is going to bring down the only institution to have survived antiquity, not to mention the French Revolution and two world wars. Some argue that the proposed changes are too dangerous to contemplate, that they are, in effect, a slippery slope more treacherous than an unscuffed sole on a wet Parisian sidewalk. While that is a legitimate concern, let us remember that the challenge before us is not nearly as great as those we have already met and, by the grace of God, we have always overcome.

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Anne Chapman
3 years 8 months ago
.the only institution to have survived antiquity, not to mention the French Revolution and two world wars.This is a bit muddled. The discussion tries to link the church at the time of Notre Dame, to a Synod to be held in the US church of today, founded hundreds of years after Notre Dame was built, then swings back to to "antiquity" and then to relatively recent wars in a rather sweeping way, seeming to claim that only the Roman Catholic church has survived all of these historic eras.. This is not the case actually, as most western democratic "institutions" survived them also - and have grown stronger, unlike the Roman Catholic church in the west. The most important secular ideas and movements - including principals of democracy and freedom of religion - are relatively "new" in the history of the world - but few would say they were a mistake. They are among many ideas and movements (including promoting historical and scientific understanding of "traditional" interpretations of scripture) that were promoted by the non-"traditional" institutions, not the the "ancient" ones. Monarchs did not like seeing the collapse of their ancien régimes, considered by them to be their God-given right. Popes supported this idea - the divine right of kings. It was the secular world that pushed for democractic freedoms - including religious freedom - freedoms that were soundly condemned by the Institution known as the Roman Catholic church. Who can forget the Syllabus of Errors? The unthinking attacks on "modernism" that led to the forced signing of "oaths against modernism' by Catholic priests as late as the 20th century? Need we point out that it was not the Roman Catholic church that was in the vanguard force for "morality" in many issues - such as slavery? Rather the Roman Catholic church lagged many in both the larger christian world and the secular world, teaching that slavery was "moral", in accord with the "natural law"". The Catholic church is not the only "institution" that has survived the two world wars and the French Revolution. The great democracies of the west survived the world wars and France survived its own revolution. The word choices are also muddled. While Fr. Malone speaks initially of being part of the universal "family" worshipping at Notre Dame, he uses the word "an institution" when discussing how the Synod should approach dealing with the issues facing 21st century families. However, that is a good "slip" because the use of the word "institution" is indicative of what many Catholics see as the great divide in the church, especially the western church . It is the source of many of the reasons that Catholics in the western nations, including the United States, have chosen to leave the church "family" of their birth by the tens of millions. They are not leaving the unity-in-diversity "family" of which Fr. Malone speaks at the beginning. They are not leaving God. They are leaving an "institution". Most disaffected educated Catholics see the locus of the divisions as the "institutional" church, especially in those areas of teaching that are the central aspect of their personal lives, It is the "institutional" church - those who wear Roman collars and have not formed any marriages of their own, nor created families by having children - that has pridefully refused to consult with THE church on these matters, with the exception of manipulating the meetings, showcasing a handful of carefully picked non-clerical "tokens" who accept the views the "institution" teaches and will parrot the same ideas. Those with mitres are even more removed from "real" life than are the priests in parishes. They talk among themselves, they issue decrees from their academic, ecclesial ivory towers, they "rule" by fiat, as did the monarchs of old. So - yes - use the word "institution" but with understanding of the full implications. As far as religions go (rather than "institutions"), there are many including christianity, about half of whose members are baptized in the Roman Catholic church that have "survived" for varying lengths of history. Several have survived "antiquity" and for longer than has christianity, as they are older religions - Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism etc. Fr. Malone is right about one thing - as the institutional church meets to discuss matters that are of little import to them and the "institution" in their personal lives, but great import to THE church - they should keep hubris in mind.
Joseph Manta
3 years 8 months ago
I disagree with Fr. Malone that the challenges are not nearly as great as those already met and overcome. In some ways they are greater because they come wrapped in the mantle of "mercy" but without truth. If we allow divorced and remarried Catholics to take the Eucharist there are only 2 logical conclusions: 1) living in "sin" without any intention to repent and move away from "sin" is in fact no longer a sin; or 2) one can be in mortal sin without any intention to repent and still take communion. There is no other logical conclusion

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