For about two weeks religious life in major parts of the world has been in a state of emergency that had been almost unimaginable before: in matters of pastoral care, social care, and liturgy.
Theological handbooks deal with such a situation only in an abstract and theoretical manner, in footnotes that refer to times of war, dictational regimes, or other extraordinary conditions. And who had expected that the religious communites themselves would ever agree to such strict limitation of their public lives? But the restrictions are appropriate and ethically required, and religion is not as hostile to rationality as some people like to assume.
I read a lot of theological analyses of what is currently going on in the Catholic church under big time pressure and mental stress, and I must confess: I am irritated by the severity of some of those analyses. Some have found proof that the Catholic Church is still bound to pre-conciliar egotistic clericalism, others have found proof that we are currently experiencing a kairos of laity, liberated from hierarchical chains. Some already know that after the crisis Sunday services will be attended by fewer people than before (and Christianity will decline quicker than ever), others observe the revival of the “house church” that makes Christianity as powerful as it has never been since the 2nd century.
When colleagues analyze what bishops (including the bishop of Rome), liturgical commissions, religious orders, parishes, and individuals currently introduce under much pressure (e.g. laws for the celebration of Easter in 2020, hotlines for pastoral needs, support for coronavirus risk groups, webstreaming of liturgies, publications for Easter services in families, sermon podcasts etc.), they mainly continue to use the same systematic categories as before the crisis. Hence the opinions and verdicts remain clear and simple, there is no time for readjustment of the criteria, and after all you can only achieve media impact when you are vigorous, pithy and quick.
I would describe all this as symptomatic for the typical Western way of theological thinking that requires clear distinction between right and wrong. Even when there is room for gray tones, the system still tries to describe them by exact criteria in order to tame and scale them.
I currently hope for more of what Eastern thinking calls oikonomia: a term that oscillates somewhere between common sense and wisdom. Oikonomia means what is salutary for an individual in an individual situation. When the Bible talks about virtue and prudence, one can see that this cannot be done in a finalized and definitional manner, but only in examples and metaphors.
Oikonomia does not look for an opportunity to enforce one personal’s opinion against others. Oikonomia draws on the treasure of the joint identity markers (in this case the network of Bible, councils, liturgy, canon law, cultural and spritual traditions etc.) and tries to find what is the most important, what must be omitted for the moment, and what must be modified to be salutary for the needs of a certain situation. Since oikonomia is always related to individual cases, it cannot be used for blanket judgments and apodictic demands, and it does not offer a simple grid for decisions and analyses. It requires skills that cannot be described in handbooks but that nevertheless everybody knows: experience, sense of responsibility, awareness, a mixture of humility and courage, a mixture of seriousness and serenity.
The corona crisis has caught all of us, even those who analyze the others: mentally, socially, intellectually, some financially, and some physically—they are fighting for their lives right now. Under these circumstances individual people have to find individual solutions for individual challenges, hence finalized systems are inappropriate. They were designed for regular cases, not for emergency and individual cases.
For those who currently arrange the church life, oikonomia might lead to questions like the following: What are my personal skills that I can introduce, and what tools can I use? What are my limits that I have to accept and that I dare to accept? What are the needs of the people that I am responsible for? Who can give feedback to me and help me clarify whether I serve the people, the church, and the Christian faith, or simply use the favor of the moment to enforce my personal goals?
Those who analyze the others might ask themselves: Do I keep in mind the individuality of people and situations, or do I subject them under my unquestioned personal criteria? Do I use my system of interpretation in order to understand what is going on, or do I use it to strengthen myself and assess the others according to my personal standards?
I consider usual classification schemes inappropriate for the current crisis experience. In retrospect, we will be able to get on a meta-level in a responsible way. Then we will see what has gained acceptance and how we can reasonably judge on that. But as long as we are amidst the crisis, I do not see any better tool than the attitude of oikonomia.
My goodness, Liborius: It’s bad enough we have to know so much Latin to get around at Pray Tell, now we need to know Greek too!?
But, seriously, I think you have put your finger on something of this time and I am grateful that you have invited us to think about this. In times of great uncertainty, we see a surge in predictions. For a while I was reading headline after headline that were all in the form of questions. And you’d read the story and find out that nobody knew the answer to the questions. It’s true. Actually nobody knows what will happen. To the church, to the economy, to our personal fortunes of health and wealth and all the rest. So the market is open for projections of either what we would like to happen or what we fear will happen. In either case, it’s a rush to escape from what is happening.
I think the opposite tack is more fruitful. We need to focus on the present moment and what it requires of us, which I think is also your suggestion, expressed in another way. This is really hard for people to do, surprisingly. Just to be present to what is happening now is a discipline, especially because it means facing our fears and accepting a sense of helplessness in the face of something we are powerless to control. There is a temptation to flee, intellectually, to territory where we feel protected and powerful, judging and deciding, rather than suffering and enduring and being in a state of “not-knowing.”
Since I have never been “here” before, I find trusting in what God is doing in the present moment more difficult. I stand at times with those the Pope prayed for today who are in fear of what all this may mean. I wonder if it was like this in the dessert at Massah and Meribah when God’s people grumbled and were ready to turn on Moses. I can relate to the lament “how much can we take?” Is The Lord with us or not? To which all I can say is God, come to our assistance. Lord, make haste to help us.