Thursday, April 2, 2009

Culture and Identity in the Current Crisis

Now I'll be almost the last to weigh in on the Notre Dame controversy, except for perhaps Suzanne (unless I've forgotten). Here's Stephen, Fred, and Deacon Scott as well as a more general observation which I thought pertinent from Conjectures, a quote from Bishop Blase Cupich of South Dakota who warned his fellow bishops that “prophecy of denunciation quickly wears thin.” I'll post here in case we take it up together since for some reason it just won't die.

I'm also (like Stephen) not shocked or particularly surprised by Notre Dame's decision. I've both attended and taught at mainstream Catholic colleges. I'm mildly curious about why Bill Clinton isn't on the list of presidents who received this honor (was he asked? did he refuse?). It would be more useful, in my opinion, to put resources to fighting the erosion of conscience protections for health care workers than to fight this battle.

Some years ago at the national diakonia in Chicago, we heard Cardinal George speak about the original immigrant culture of Catholics which really never took root in the American culture. It has been a while, so I may be overstating this observation, or not. Instead Catholics after some generations assimilated to the culture. You can find some of this thought of his in an interview with John Allen, where he said:
[W]e created alternatives to the mainstream institutions. They were never, I think, ghetto institutions, because they prepared people to take their place in mainstream society. They didn’t try to cut them off from it, but to prepare people to take their place in the mainstream precisely as Catholics. Once they succeeded, then the value of those very institutions seemed to be lessened, and the institutions themselves said it’s important for us to be mainstream, and to no longer be so identifiably Catholic. So they’re porous in ways that they weren’t before....
Notre Dame, perhaps the most prestigious Catholic institution in the country, is an example of this ambiguity, at least in respect to the current controversy.  It's certainly not true of the entire institution, as witnessed by various friends of mine.  Note that the response to such ambiguity often has been to again set up alternate institutions, separate and culturally apart.  This counter-culture is robust, though we may wonder how significantly it leavens the common culture.

What bothers me most about the current debate is the painful public lack of unity which is probably not helped by the Catholic blogosphere. Tangentially, there was the set-up with Archbishop Burke which was part of a lay campaign to remove bishops who were not aggressive enough in denying communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians.  That most saddens me, some of our finest pastors, denounced for their own pastoral approach.

The entire situation we find ourselves in today, since the November election, reminds me of the 1968 crisis Fr. Giussani spoke about in 1972 in his talk "The Long March to Maturity". Perhaps the crisis itself was quite different, but the challenge of our response is really the same.
Perhaps it is useful to remember that in the life of those He calls, God never lets anything happen unless it serves for the growth and maturation of those He has called.

This is so above all for the life of the individual, but in the final analysis, and more profoundly, for the life of His Church, and therefore, analogously, for the life of every community, be it a family or an ecclesiastical community in the broadest sense. God never permits anything to happen unless it is for our maturity, our maturation...

This, we can say, is the indicator of our faith’s truth, its authenticity or lack thereof: if the faith is truly in the foreground, or if in the foreground there is another kind of concern; if we truly expect everything from the fact of Christ, or if we expect from the fact of Christ what we decide to expect, ultimately making Him a starting point and a support for our projects and programs.
Now look at Fr. Giussani's judgment of the "Reduction of the Christian Fact", which could not sum up better the risk we take right now in our political *reactions*.  A campaign even for a good cause becomes an ideology.  As if solving the political problem would conquer the evil.
What were the consequences identifiable in the attitude assumed by this large sector of the Movement in the era we are commenting on?

a) First, as it says on the sheet: “An efficientistic conception of Christian commitment, with accentuations of moralism.” Not accentuations–with wholesale reduction to moralism! Why should anyone remain Christian? Because Christianity pushes you to action, presses you to commitment, no other reason! It’s like a father and mother who tell you, “Come on, you have to do this!” and then they leave you alone to do it yourself, as if they weren’t there. (Instead, Jesus says, “I will be with you to the end of time.”) This is a concept of incarnation in which the Christian is truly cut in half, cloven in two. And from the contingent, historic point of view, Christians still have the right to remain in the world only to the degree in which they throw themselves into worldly action: it’s ethical Christianity, that is, Christian ethics, Christian behavior, which means being Christian in the world identified with worldly commitment....

b) Second consequence (and this is the gravest thing): the incapacity to “culturalize” the discourse, to bring one’s Christian experience to the level in which it becomes systematic and critical judgment, and thus a prompt for a modality of action. It’s the Christian experience blocked in its potential for impact on the world, because an experience impacts the world only to the degree to which it reaches a cultural expression (which doesn’t mean only to the degree to which it reaches the university–this has nothing to do with it!). Cultural expression means judgment, capacity for systematic and critical judgment of the world, of worldliness, of the historic circumstance, and thus it becomes a suggestion for a modality of program and of action.

Experience that doesn’t reach this point has no face, lacks a face in history; it has no face and therefore can subsist for a long time in “pre-historic” eras, but to the degree to which the relationships in society, in human life become denser, press against that experience, it disappears, because it’s alienated in the pressures of the environment. ...
Our experience disappears.  How tragic.

So how do we respond?  What kind of campaign should we raise?

I remember being so struck by this text by Fr. Giussani when I first read it as another way to proceed:  this method, which is following, obedience, something far more solid than my own presumption.
In any case, the methodology is faithfulness to experience. I don’t know whether anyone here has remembered in this moment what it says in the premise: that Christianity spreads in the world not because of our work, but by the grace of God. So then, leaving behind our immaturity, becoming mature, is a grace of the Spirit within us. Let’s keep reminding each other! The Holy Spirit descended where they were gathered together in the Cenacle, where they were all gathered together. The Holy Spirit descends upon our communion. Therefore, for example, a “settlement” is an outcome of cultural expression, but before being an outcome of cultural expression, at least as a tendency, it’s the premise for cultural expression. In fact, our maturity is expressed in our passionate desire that the Church of God live visibly here where we are, in our striving that it be lived here, and therefore that Christian communion be built here and wherever we are, so that this “new person,” this “one body” as Saint Paul says–“in which there is neither man nor woman, neither Greek nor barbarian, neither left nor right” (“All of you are one, one person in Jesus Christ”)–may bring good to the neighborhood, university, work, parish… bring good to the world, as an incarnate presence, incarnate!

But the logic of the incarnation, that is, the logic of mission, happens entirely in us, because the incarnation in the world, in the sense of interest in and help for the world’s problems, of real collaboration in the world’s struggle for authenticity, is only a ray of light, only an inevitable consequence of those problems, of the world’s needs, of flesh and blood, of the world, of life lived as Christian community, converted, translated in terms of faith. Incarnation doesn’t mean getting involved in the labor union, the factory, or university. Incarnation, that is, mission, is living the university, the factory, etc., as communion. It doesn’t mean getting involved in this or that cultural or practical or socio-political problem, but living our whole humanity as communion.
I remember once, in a time of great trial, when we were living hard things faithfully and enduring the lack of understanding of others, thinking that "living well is the best revenge". We were certain that all would be well if we held onto the One we trust. How many psalms state just this in every situation of threat, injustice and untruth.

The only way, it seems, is to live this communion in the place where Christ is present, this living experience.  However awkward, rough, we hold to this communion which is home to this life-giving experience, a house with a necessary human structure.  It isn't for us to save the world, but to witness by our unity to One who is saving all.


Dcn Scott Dodge said...

As always, Sharon, very thought-provoking and insightful. Most of all, what you draw our attention to educates. Thank you.

Fred said...

Yes. Thank you for bringing to mind what Cardinal George said, which is the underside of the iceberg as it were. For me, this issue is precisely the tip of the iceberg. And if it is a problem for folks, it should impel them toward a deeper understanding of the history which Cardinal George points out. That history is the camel we swallow while straining at gnats...