The Guardian has a piece on the aftermath of the resignation of Bishop Kieran Conry, written by Andrew Brown, who is a journalist I much admire. (Incidentally, so did the bishop: he even quoted him once in a pastoral letter.)
Brown’s analysis of the Catholic Church is that it is in disarray, wracked by infighting and riven by culture wars. There is quite a lot of truth in what he says, but – and this is the interesting bit – this sort of article could have been written by any non-Catholic journalist in the last 40 years. I well remember, about 30 years ago, watching a programme by Gerald Priestland which took exactly the same view.
Indeed, if you were to opine that there were fault lines in Catholicism, most people would have agreed with you 30 years ago. And they would have agreed with you at the time of the Second Vatican Council, as well as the First Vatican Council and indeed the Council of Trent. In fact, was there ever a time when the Church was strong and united?
Well, yes there was. Remember this?
The community of believers was of one heart and mind (Acts 4:32)
And also this:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favour with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:44-47)
That state of affairs held good in the early days of the Church just after the first Pentecost, though we do not know how long it lasted. And then, of course, there is that foundational scene of unity, when the Church consisted of three people: Jesus, Mary and John the Evangelist. Jesus was on the Cross, and His Blessed Mother was standing at its foot, with John to support her. That was, contrary to what some people thought at the time, a strong and united Church. It was not the end for the Church, as the Romans and other enemies of the Lord thought; it was the beginning.
One needs to distinguish here between a group of people who are united sociologically (for want of a better word) and a group of people who are united in Christ, which is a theological reality. Unity in Christ is something we are always on the way to achieving, if we were not constantly impeded by our sins. Thus we should be in a constant state of repentance for our sins, in that they frustrate the unity that Christ prayed for and which He bequeathed us on Calvary.
Now, this is not something that you would expect Andrew Brown to say, because he is not a Catholic and not an avowed Christian. He is a really great guy (or so I have heard), but he does not believe in the Church as a theological reality. But I do – and I profess that faith whenever I recite the Creed, though, thanks to my sins against unity, I do not live the vocation to unity to the full.
Mr Brown’s stance is hardly surprising. But what is surprising is the amount of professed, self-avowed Catholics who seem to have no real understanding of, or belief in, the theological reality of the Church as the Body of Christ. It is these people that Andrew Brown pinpoints, funnily enough, in his article, when he mentions “the rejection of the Church’s sexual teaching by Britain’s middle-class Catholics” and that “the Catholic laity in this country take their view of sexual morality from the liberal society around them and not from the celibate conservatives in the Vatican”.
If you have to choose between being liberal and being Catholic, choose Catholic.
If you have to choose between being middle-class and being Catholic, choose Catholic.
This is the true fault line: those who believe in the Body of Christ and our vocation to belong to it through baptism, and those who believe the Church needs to catch up with the world, and other such dreary clichés. St Paul had to put up with a lot of them, because he writes: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2).
That was sound advice in the first century, and it remains sound advice today.