It is reported that when Karl Rahner was asked to state why he remained in the Roman Catholic Church, he refused in principle to answer the question. “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her,” we read in Ephesians 5, and so should it be for the Catholic Christian. Even to entertain the question of whether to stay, also with an affirmative answer, is a sort of betrayal.
Something deep within me agrees with Rahner. Given my upbringing, it’s hard for me to imagine life outside the Catholic Church, without the Mass, the sacraments, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, the calendar of saints, the invocation of the Blessed Virgin, the prayers for the dead, and all the rest.
But we are admonished in 1 Peter 3 to give an account for the hope that is in us. The Catholic tradition affirms both faith and reason – fides et ratio – and is open in principle to rational inquiry into every aspect of the faith. Some years ago a speaker at the nearby University of Saint Thomas affirmed emphatically that the Catholic university must doubt everything – everything! – including the existence of God. The speaker was Joseph Ratzinger.
And so I doubt, and I wonder why I stay. Of course, this isn’t just an abstract philosophical question or a stimulating intellectual game for the theologically inclined. It is made timely by the current crisis of the Roman Catholic Church. The response of the Pope and the Holy See to the crisis thus far is disturbingly inadequate, with seemingly little honesty, humility, or sensitivity. The exercise of authority in our Church can’t help but raise the question of why one stays.
Our Lord says in Matthew 20, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you.” Among us, alas, it is so. The hierarchy of our Church does lord it over others. Pope Benedict readmitted the preconciliar liturgy universally and without restriction, despite the earnest pleas of several bishops’ conferences, thereby taking away from bishops the authority to regulate the matter. In announcing the change he wrote: “Nothing is taken away, then, from the authority of the Bishop.” Pope John Paul II erected the new archdiocese of Vaduz, Lichtenstein in 1997 solely as a face-saving strategy because he could not admit that he had made a mistake in appointing Bishop Haas to the diocese of Chur, much less apologize. Archbishop Haas now presides over an archdiocese with 12 parishes. The Holy See is about to impose a revised Mass translation upon unwilling clergy and laity with virtually no consultation of those whose prayer lives will be most affected. Even if the coming translation isn’t as bad as its reputation, it is difficult to read Bishop Maurice Taylor’s insider account of the process and not conclude that Rome lorded it over others.
Why, then, do I stay?
It’s the liturgy. More precisely, it’s the reformed liturgy. This is the only liturgy I’ve ever known, and I love it deeply. I am still moved, after all these years, when I read the stirring and revolutionary words of Sacrosanctum concilium, the liturgy constitution of the Second Vatican Council. Or the introduction to the restored Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, with its thoroughly evangelical vision of conversion, discipleship, and church membership. Or the introduction to the lectionary, with its inspired understanding of the place of Scripture in the liturgical life of the Church. Increasingly often, in these days of overheated liturgical controversy, I go to Mass and think to myself, “They got it right, the reformers.” (OK, there are little things here and there I would have done differently, but let it pass for now.) It was the reformed liturgy which brought me to Christ and brings me to Christ, and I’m grateful.
And therein lies the paradox: the reason we Catholics have in common a beautifully reformed liturgy is that the full authority of the magisterium promulgated it. The Pope is unable (as of this writing) to address forthrightly in his own name the serious charges from Munich, or take responsibility for what happened there under his leadership, or apologize to Father Hullermann’s many victims – but without the papacy there wouldn’t be a reformed liturgy uniting 1.1 billion Catholics. The Congregation for Divine Worship which now seems ready to divide the English-speaking church with a controversial translation is the Congregation for Divine Worship which once worked mightily in the production of the reformed liturgical books. The centralism which sometimes lords it over others or fails us in other ways is also the centralism which gives us a common liturgy and holds us all together.
I’m glad that we Latin Rite Catholics, in all our different liturgical languages, share a common missal and a common lectionary. Whether it’s the monks of Solesmes doing it in Latin, or the inmates and I at the Stearns County jail doing it in English to volunteer’s guitar strumming, I find it tremendously moving that every Sunday the monks and the inmates and everyone else around the globe hears the same Scripture readings and follows the same Eucharistic rite.
To be sure, I’m all for a bit more cultural adaptation and a bit less centralism. (It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that some Roman officials would want to examine the red ink used for the rubrics in the new English missal, lest a variance in color shades introduce a spirit of nationalism into the Catholic churches of the English-speaking world.) At the same time, I’m quite glad we don’t have “high church Catholics” who favor weekly Eucharist and “low church Catholics” who favor monthly Eucharist. I’m glad we don’t have a “ritualist” faction which uses ashes and palms and holy water and a “pietist” faction which rejects all these. I’m glad that the RCIA isn’t a hobby program for a few “liturgical types” here and there, but the universally mandated manner of initiating adult converts.
[I know, I know, the readmission and increased use of the preconciliar liturgy threatens to impair the liturgical unity of Latin rite Catholics. As far as I know, it is unprecedented for Catholics in the same territory under the same Ordinary to employ two forms of the same rite, one of which is an earlier version of the other. Surely this is the biggest innovation and the largest rupture introduced into the liturgical life of the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council. For the purposes of this essay, I simply bracket this problematic issue and hope that the liturgical anomalies will remain limited to the fringes of the larger church which uses the so-called “ordinary form.”]
When I uphold the liturgical unity which is typically Roman Catholic and is made possible by the office of the Pope, I do not mean to cast negative judgment on my Protestant and Orthodox brothers and sisters with their unique polities and liturgical practices. I don’t think it’s the properly Christian thing to claim that “we are the One True Church and you aren’t.” Competition and comparison hardly befit people believing in a Christ who “emptied himself.” There are many aspects of other Christian traditions which I esteem – the hymn heritage of Lutherans, the careful textual crafting of Anglicans, the peacekeeping of Mennonites, to name a few. The inadequacies in the Christian witness of the Roman Catholic Church would benefit from the salutary influence of others. But at a time when the failures of the Catholic hierarchy give rise to the question of why we remain Roman Catholic, it seems good to recall some particular strengths and blessings which are ours in the Roman Catholic tradition.
And so, at a time of scandal and embarrassment, let us treasure the reformed liturgy. Let us treasure the bonds which unite us with Catholics around the world. Let us pray for greater unity between all the Christian traditions. And when we hear the familiar words of the Eucharistic prayer at Mass, let us pray more than ever “for Benedict, our pope.”
Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB
Saint John’s Abbey