Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Obedience and authority in Luigi Giussani's trilogy

I was fascinated to discover that neither "obedience" nor "authority" appear in the index to The Religious Sense! What can it mean? I can only imagine that adhering to authority and living in obedience are not for rank beginners!

Again, it is very interesting to note that "authority" does not occur in the index to At the Origin of the Christian Claim, and "obedience" makes its first appearance, but only shows up twice in this book. In the first instance, Fr. Giussani is recounting a dramatic event, recorded in chapter 8 of the Gospel of John. Jesus has been confronted by the Pharisees, who press him to explain who he claims to be. Jesus responds, "If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing; it is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say that he is your God. But you have not known him; I know him. If I said, I do not know him, I should be a liar like you; but I do know him and I keep his word" (John 8:54-55). Fr. Giussani doesn't refer directly to Jesus' obedience, but quotes from the work of two scholars, R. Schnackenburg and H.U. von Balthasar, who use this word to characterize Jesus' attitude. Balthasar comments, "the attack on Jesus' arrogance collapses on his obedience" (The Glory of the Lord, page 478). The only time in At the Origin of the Christian Claim when Fr. Giussani uses the word "obedience" himself comes toward the end of the book, in a discussion of the value of the human person. He characterizes Jesus as demonstrating, "a passion for the individual, an urgent desire for his happiness." Jesus expresses, "The problem of the world's existence is the happiness of each single person. 'For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?' (Matthew 16:26)" (page 84, in At the Origin...). Fr. Giussani concludes, "No force of energy and no paternal or maternal loving tenderness has ever impacted the heart of man more than these words of Christ, impassioned as he is about the life of man. Moreover, to listen to these radical questions Jesus poses, represents the first obedience to our own natures" (page 84, emphasis mine). Thus, even before introducing the idea of obedience to authority, Fr. Giussani first stresses Christ's own obedience to the Father, and with even greater emphasis, our need to be obedient to our own natures and irreducible value. I think these points are fundamental, and cannot be skipped over or forgotten. This type of obedience is an essential step; without it, we are not capable of obedience to authority.

Can you guess where Fr. Giussani first begins to speak about authority? Not until we are a good three quarters of the way into Why the Church? do we find a discussion of the subject. Authority, Fr. Giussani stresses, is a function of the life of the community: "The supreme authority of the magisterium is an explication of the conscience of the entire community as guided by Christ. It is not some magical, despotic substitution for it" (page 172). Then he goes on to discuss the Church's teaching authority, pointing out that even in the case of the dogmas that seem to have come down from "on high," in fact, in every case (The Assumption, The Immaculate Conception, papal infallibility), they are the fruit of the whole community; debated, voted upon, and tested, these dogmas were not proclaimed until the popes had come to the firm conclusion that the entire community's conscience had been sounded. Fr. Giussani observes, "Clearly, then, the vast majority of people have no idea of the Church's procedure leading to the proclamation of a dogma, never mind comprehending the meaning of the expression. But, as we have seen, it defines a value when that value has become a sure and living part of the conscience of the Christian community" (page 174). In other words, the Church's teaching authority derives from its unity (and consistency). This is a very different picture from the one conjured by the term, "authoritarian." Then, in the final chapter of Why the Church? Fr Giussani returns to the question of authority. If the Church's catholicity, that is its universality and unity, is a sign of its authority within space, then her apostolicity "is the characteristic of the Church which signified its capacity to address time in a unitary, structured way" (page 230). Then he says something that is really worth pausing over: "...Just as Christ's will was to bind his work and his presence in the world to the apostles and in doing so he indicated one of them as the authoritative point of reference, so, too, is the Church bound to Peter's and the apostles' successors -- the pope and his bishops" (230). Jesus stooped to bind his work and presence to particular persons (colorful, even sometimes idiotic persons!), and the Body of Christ makes the same gesture, in obedience to its own nature. There is a beautiful and audacious symmetry in this thought! For the Body of Christ to fill time and space, in order to be truly "all in all," then it teaches what is true for all (preserving its catholicity/universality) and it remains faithful to Christ's original method, to bind itself to a particular succession of persons, who become its authoritative point of reference (preserving its definitive presence in time). The concept of obedience to the Church also makes a brief appearance in this book on page 86 and is worth quoting at length:
Christians are often far from aware of this authentic source of their value, for we frequently find people who are either seeking clarity and security or a motive for their actions, and in so doing, they interpret their own community, or movement, or special association in a reductive way, depriving themselves of the source of unity that gives them life -- the mystery of the Church as Church. Or, there are those who in referring to the Church, mean a mechanical super-organism unrelated to their daily reality, the concrete community close to them. In this way, then they incorrectly separate themselves from the living Church. This is why one must learn what the total Church is, and this is why we must explore the depths of the ecclesiastical experience one has encountered, providing that is has all the characteristics of a true ecclesiastical experience. This means obedience to the total Church, depending on it, organizing one's life according to its rhythms, seeing oneself reflected in the other factors within the sphere of the Christian life. These are aspects which define the validity of gathering together...

We have thus demonstrated how reflection on the word "ecclesia" has helped us to understand the type of consciousness of the first Christians of the value of their community, a value which derived totally, entirely from participation in the one Church, the Church governed by the apostles. (pages 86-87, emphasis mine)
Far from recommending "blind obedience," Fr. Giussani is urging us to adhere to "the total Church" in order to assure that our gatherings are invested with the life of Christ.

1 comment:

Freder1ck said...

I really appreciated Fr. Giussani's discussion of the dogmas: it really helped me to look to them as something that helps me grow.