Thursday, April 08, 2010

Church of Power vs. Church of Piety

Everyone talks about the polarity that plagues church life in America and throughout the industrialized west. I've spent a lot of my adult life trying to figure out what is behind this polarity. My friend, Kevin Miller, usually refers to Gen. 3 when I ask this kind of question. Some people will simply say that the polarity is not only regrettable, but unnecessary, caused by defects in those who promote the division. This may, in fact, be true in many cases, such as tensions over the Ordinary and Extraordinary form of the liturgy. The Church's policy, including that of Pope Benedict, makes it clear that the OF is not only "valid," but is rich, if celebrated properly. I am writing a book right now to show the richness of the OF.

On the other hand, some of the polarity is in fact a result of real, unresolvable differences in which one side can be said to be right and the other wrong. Contraception is one instance. There is no way the Church will ever allow contraception qua contraception as a valid component of the marital act. Too much magisterial ink has been spilled to the contrary since 1930. And the theology of the body of John Paul II has pretty much put a nail in the coffin of "exceptionalists."

I was reminded of this polarity when reading Rodney Stark's God's Battalions, a very intriguing attempt to distinguish the truth about the Crusades from the "black legend" about them which dominates much scholarship and almost all popular sentiment. When he is addressing the true motivation for the crusaders, which he says was genuinely religious, he makes a distinction between the Church of Power and the Church of Piety.
The Church of Power was the main body of the Church as it evolved in response to the immense power and wealth bestowed on the clergy by Constantine. It included the great majority of the priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes, who ruled the Church most of the time until the Counter-Reformation set in during the sixteenth century. In many ways the Church of Piety was sustained as a reaction against the Church of Power.
This distinction actually predates Constantine. The vocation of St. Antony was, in fact, this type of reaction of the Church of Piety against what he perceived as a decadent Church of Power in Alexandria. Also, Stark associates the Church of Piety too closely with monasticism, many of the leaders of which in the Middle Ages were more conscious of being temporal rulers than spiritual fathers.

There is something of this kind of division in contemporary polarization, although I might not see the two "Churches" exactly as Stark does. In our day, as always, the Church of Piety sees religious action in relation to our ultimate goal, union with the Triune God. The Church of Power, on the other hand, sees religious activity and Church participation primarily in relationship to some temporal end or benefit gained from such participation. And this does not have to be a cynical, selfish power grab, like a cardinal Richelieu. I would say that some strains of liberation theology, because of their emphasis on the role of faith in temporal "liberation," are exhibits of the Church of Power, as are some strains of charismatic piety that put so much emphasis on healing or prophesy about temporal weal or woe.

This is not to say that there is not temporal benefit to our participation in the Body of Christ. "And he said to them, 'Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life'" (Lk. 18:29). The "problem" is, we cannot predict or control what that benefit is. For every Lepanto there is a defeat of pious Christian soldiers. For every healing of cancer due to prayer, there is a death despite prayers for healing. That does not, by the way, mean that when healing does occur that prayer was not involved in the healing effect. That would not be a logical conclusion.

One area where are think this division is at play is in disputes about the basis for moral decision making. There is a common division made by moral philosophers and theologians between the deontological approach and the teleological approach to accounting for the content of the moral law. Deontologists can be characterized (roughly and simplistically, Kevin) as those who say that the moral law is based purely upon Divine command, distinct from what kind of benefit or effect it has. The teleological approach looks for the basis of the content of the moral law in its effect.

Contemporary proportionalists or consequentialists (a position that has been condemned by the Church in Ven. John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Spendor (VS)) judge the licitness of a human act on the sum total of effects which that act will cause. These tend to be temporal effects. You can weigh the various positive and negative effects to see whether a given act is justified. The de facto result of this approach is that there are no exceptionless moral norms for human behavior.

Another result that I've noticed is a kind of pharisaism about justice issues. For instance, I once heard a sermon, which I may have mentioned before, in which the priest said point blank that we should feel guilty so long as there is still someone hungry in the world. I demurred, saying that we should only consider ourselves guilty if we have not done what we could reasonably be expected to do in our situation in life, given the other legitimate demands that we have, such as taking care of our families. God does not judge us by the result of our actions. It says, "When I was hungry you gave me to eat," not "When I was hunger I was filled, because I actually ate what you gave me."

Many people think that this is the only kind of teleological approach. However, JPII, in VS, emphasizes a different teleology. The question one asks is not simply what is the temporal effect of the human act, but rather more importantly, what is the effect that the act has on the acting person. Specifically, how does this action affect the person's fundamental relationship with God, and therefore other people. Or, in other words, does this action make the acting person more worthy of heaven because it makes him more a "partaker in the divine nature?"

I think there are people in today's Church who think of their participation in Church life primarily in relation to temporal effects--whether it "builds community," or "brings about justice," or gives one a certain emotional experience--all good things, mind you, but none of them guaranteed because of our ecclesiastical life. In fact, as I get older I become more conscious of the extent to which failure marks our efforts to achieve all kinds of human natural or supernatural goods, whether it be a perfect family, an end to hunger, or deep religious feeling.

The polarity in contemporary Church life seems to me to often be along these lines. Avery Dulles talked about the three "parties" in the 1985 Synod of Bishops, the Augustinians, the communitarians, and the liberationists. The Augustinian's concern is primarily "piety," or "vertical" relationship with God. There is a deemphasis on temporal results (although not temporal concerns). The other two parties at the synod had temporal values as their primary concerns: community and liberation. (Ironic, isn't it, that an organization which can definitely be seen as members of the Church of Piety is called Communione e Liberatione!) The Augustinians were represented by Cardinal Ratzinger, the communitarians by John Quinn of San Francisco. I can't remember who represented the liberationists. Dulles opined that the Augustinians won out in the Synod's interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. This is clearly the approach of both John Paul II and Benedict, neither of who can be said to be indifferent to either communitarian or liberationists concerns. Why would Benedict's encyclicals all be about justice and charity, if not?

In summary, for a member of the Church of Piety, his relationship with God is prior to and more important than the pursuit of or achievement of any particular temporal end. This means that for those for whom the pursuit of particular temporal ends is the highest value will see the members of the Church of Piety as neglecting justice or community or whatever. That is why so many "progressive" Catholics have such a strong distaste for Benedict. He actually thinks the way we worship is as important as the way we help the poor.

1 comment:

Joe said...

A stimulating reflection.