Beyond 'Certitudes and Order'

I am told that Karl Rahner, the German Jesuit theologian who was an expert at Vatican II, concluded toward the end of his life that there were two major groups of people in the world - those who want certitude and those who want understanding. I would very much agree with that, and just add that those two groups have a very hard time understanding one another! I think we saw some of that in last fall’s election process.

My great fear and sadness is that if the Catholic Church continues on its present course, it will largely be peopled by people in the first group. An enclave of settled and certain people will serve a real need in history and culture. But it is not the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic" church that the gospel needs and the world so wants to admire.

I do not see a pattern of natural or strong leaders, creative, or risk-taking people being ordained in the Catholic Church in the last 15 years, nor do I see the same being appointed to the episcopacy. I know the Holy Spirit can do anything, and often does, but just speaking structurally, it is a sure recipe for a failing company or institution. Rigid people finally turn against one another and against the success of the mission. Circling the wagons produces a superior and safe identity, but it does not really make sense unless you are under attack, afraid, or still in the first half of life. I had hoped this ancient and wise institution would be beyond all of these. After all, it was the Catholic Church that educated me to think this way.

My disappointment in the present pope is that he has said and written many fine and courageous things that will stand the test of time, but he tends to preserve the heroic gesture for himself (praying in synagogues, kissing the ground of "alien" territories, visiting mosques, proclaiming a gospel of justice for the poor, condemning our war, criticizing both communism and capitalism), but it is quite clear that he does not appoint cardinals or bishops or call forth a church culture that does much of the same - which is a self-defeating management style. He himself always looks larger than life, but anybody who actually imitates him is invariably suspect and usually marginalized. A strong leader normally appoints other strong leaders. We have become more and more an exclusionary institution, all in the name of a Jesus who told us to "go out to the crossroads and invite everyone to the wedding feast." And "they collected everyone they could, good and bad alike" (Matthew 22:9-10). Our present list of necessary "purity codes" has little gospel support and does not speak to mature people in the second half of life.

Rome’s record of appointing very limited leadership worldwide is visible to all. Not bridge builders to a larger world, but wagon circlers around a world where we are in charge: Catholic mythology more important than honest scholarship. Group loyalty and verbal orthodoxy more important than the lived faith of "orthopraxy." Pious and private devotions more encouraged than scripture. I think John Paul II is much more a "philosopher pope" than a pastoral fisher of men and women, yet the irony is that he is not appointing nor attracting self critical thinkers, much less outsiders. Statistically, the crowds that he gathers are the already "converted" choir.

I think the Catholic Church will undoubtedly continue to grow, however. Many, if not most people in Europe and America, have grown up without any clear sense of identity, order, or boundaries, without much inner experience, and even less any authentic religious experience. The need for meaning is deep and profound. A strong authoritative institution will get these folks off to a good start, just as it did for me in the 1940s and ’50s.

The small self needs certitudes and order to get started when the ground is always shifting beneath your feet. The only trouble is, that’s not what Jesus promised us or offered us. He offered us the dark journey of faith. He offered us communion with a Larger Self that alone can overcome such darkness.

The church today seems a far cry from St. Anselm’s great "faith that seeks understanding." We can and have done so much better in the past, and I am sure we will again.

Richard Rohr, OFM, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the author, most recently, of Soul Brothers: Men in the Bible Speak to Men Today (Orbis Books, 2004).

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