The Catholic Thing
The Part and the Whole Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Wednesday, 12 August 2009

In the past fifty years, the Catholic Church in America has found itself facing several national challenges. There was that divorce thing, the contraception thing, the abortion thing, the scandal thing. Sadly none of these crises led to a national effort to educate each individual Catholic in the real truth of Catholic teaching.

The culture dictated and the Church, at least in appearance, simply went along. Each time the Church, in any de facto way, concedes a truth, it weakens the one Truth that it represents. Unlike a political platform that is a grab bag of disparate policies, the Church’s teaching on Marriage for example is actually connected to the teaching about the Church as the Spouse of Christ. Weaken one, and you weaken the other.

The teaching against contraception is connected to the Church’s teaching on human life as gift and Christ’s humanity as well. Deny the real meaning of human activity and common human nature, and you relegate Christ to being merely a great historical figure, one among many.

Looking at the whole – and I would contend that is a central job of the Church at this moment – shows that all truths are interconnected because there is in fact only one truth about humanity and salvation and that is Jesus Christ Himself. This is so even where we allow for the proper distinction between those decisions that cannot contradict Church teaching – where the Church must appear publicly as having a unified national stance – and those at the level of prudential judgments, where bishops may differ.

The Obama administration has placed the Church in the United States in a quandary: does the Church nationally present a unified truth or does it instead show the face of competing truths? On the political scene, we have a bureaucracy with a grab-bag of policies confronting a vast living society. The policies are just ideas dreamed up in some classroom or some activist meeting. No one knows whether they have any relation to reality at all. But they are the beginnings of a massive social engineering experiment on a scale that beggars Lenin’s efforts in Russia both in terms of the number of people involved and the degree of change that is envisaged.

The policies target very specific areas of society without any consideration for the way this society works or their overall impact on society as a whole. The taxes on energy, the plans to interfere with massive parts of the economy using the stalking horse of “healthcare reform,” the appointment of so many new “czars,” are all experiments with unknown consequences because ideas do not necessarily conform to reality and ideas have no built-in guarantees despite the best of intentions. They have as much chance of simply embodying someone’s appetites and desires as they do of being effective in their stated aims. In fact, the former is usually more likely given that power and wealth are in the mix.

This is where the Church comes in. The Church is unabashedly about reality and about the whole of reality. Better put, the Scriptures and Tradition are about reality. Many members of the Church in America (50 percent?) see the Church as just another political institution with a grab bag of teachings and one picks and chooses what to believe and to live out. But in fact the Church is another kind of society, a community built around THE truth. This is one meaning of the word “Catholic.” The Church embodies in its tradition THE all-embracing truth about mankind and God.

The Church has clear intuitions about the way in which the parts relate to the whole and she knows the principles that underlie an authentic human society, thanks to the Scriptures and Tradition. So she can help with principles by putting them visibly in the public square in a unified way. The government on the other hand wants to change parts of the American social fabric and has no idea how that will affect the whole. The Church can help by first reaching all of her own people for the first time in fifty years, and then speak to the nation as a whole.

In The Making of Europe, historian Christopher Dawson says: “the episcopate was the one power in the later empire capable of counterbalancing and resisting the all pervading tyranny of the imperial bureaucracy.” That was in the last centuries of the Roman Empire when the bureaucracy was only about its own advancement and the people were mere pawns in the political and economic ploys of the government. The Church served as a kind of meta-society that could remedy the shortcomings – materially, intellectually and spiritually – that arose as the administrators lined their pockets and planned their next ideological or career moves. We need that kind of Church again.

Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

(c) 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (15)Add Comment
written by Fr Tim, August 13, 2009
How will this occur when modernism and liberalism are supported by the media? Catholic Churches no longer instruct their people about what the Church teaches. We have become sheeple in the hands of an authoritarian elite based on pure secularism. Where are the Augustine's or the other brave Bishops who face crumbling empires and rising dictators?
Vincit Veritas
written by Willie, August 13, 2009
A great article presented with compelling clarity. I agree we need a Church that can be a meta-society as it was in the past, whereby discussion of Christian truths was part of daily discussion. Perhaps the episcopacy is partly responsible for the present quandary by its long standing reticence on matters of faith, but those days of a meta -society have been swallowed up in relativism and denial of Absolutes, thus allowing for others to give us a "change you can believe in." We are also to blame.
written by John McCarthy, August 13, 2009
This essay makes two points that deserve further elucidation. First is the fact that many of us today, both inside and outside Catholicism, perceive the Church as just one more political organization which happens to be in many respects regressive. Second is the insight that President Obama and his leadership team are attempting nothing less than a cultural transformation of the country. This, of course, is a dangerous thing to do, the costs of which are unpredictable.
written by Virginia, August 13, 2009
Thank you for a wonderful article to the point. The Church must look inward as to the way it is teaching the TRUTH and then steadfastly teach ordinary people like me sitting in the pew.

The homilies we hear are so weak. No wonder young people leave the Church. We must start with Ten Commandments. Does anybody ever think of them in their every day life? Our Church must be strong in the face of socialism prevading all phases of our life from a Godless administration.
Kata Holos
written by Martin Dybicz, August 13, 2009
Thank you, Father Bramwell. You have reminded us of the literal meaning of "Catholic," which is "according to the whole" from the Greek "kata holos." The bishops should ask all those in leadership positions of all Catholic institutions how they are communicating that the fullness of the means of salvation objectively subsists in the Catholic Church alone. Each bishop should regularly incorporate the same message in his own homilies and communications, especially at Confirmations.
written by Bradley, August 13, 2009
The US church has irrevocably changed. Catholics remain a minority, but the immigrant, pre-Vatican II Church of 50 years ago is now successfully integrated into politics/society (look at the Supreme Court!). In this context, US bishops would do well to contemplate the example of our Holy Father: he met with Obama publicly, accorded him a measure of respect (both as President and as a human being), and at the same time advocated forcefully for the Truth. Suaviter et fortiter.
straight to the heart
written by Mrs. Rene O'Riordan, August 13, 2009
This is the very heart of the solution. When we learn what marriage means, the beauty of human sexuality, the love of God who shares everything with us, our final destination; when we are properly catechised, and our hearts burn with love and gratitude for the gift of life, we are a people truly alive and our joy is infectious. It is then that we speak up for all that is lovely and true. Thank you so much for this piece. Blessings - Rene
A necessary stopgap
written by Donna Procher, August 13, 2009
I have a plan. Enlist solid Catholic theologians and catechists. Together with bishops like Chaput, Dolan, and Bruskewitiz, create a two-year teaching program which incorporates evangelization and catechetics. Break it into 72 20-min. homilies, employing the most dynamic homilists in the nation. Film each homily and distribute them to every diocese in N. America. At homily time, parishes will show segments for three weeks each month. This is an unusual, but very necessary, stopgap measure.
To Donna
written by Brad Miner, August 13, 2009
Good idea! I wish I were a venture capitalist, in which case I'd fund your program in a heartbeat. -Brad
To Donna
written by Miriam, August 14, 2009
As the mother of two young children, I would not entrust our family's instruction in the faith to Bishop Bruskewitz, who was the only US bishop who refused to sign the USCCB's Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
white elephant
written by Achilles, August 14, 2009
Even a bad Catholic is likely to recognize Obama's invaluable worth as a person, but to tolerate the insanity and corruption of the principles he propigates is suicide. Thanks for the wonderful article!
Well Said!
written by James Stagg, August 14, 2009
We need this type of leadership from the bishops INTENSELY. This is being provided here and there by stalwart Archbishops, but there seems to be no effort to set a "national" position in place, nor to instruct the faithful on the elements of the Faith that are under attack. Right on!
"To Miriam"
written by Richard, August 15, 2009
Did Bp. Bruskewitz have good reasons not to sign the charter? Do you know what those reasons are?
All but a very small handful of American bishops have signed onto the USCCB's project to suppress holydays of obligation in this country. Is that small handful not to be "entrusted with our family' instruction in the faith"?
written by the bishops are tied to it. W, August 17, 2009
Well done. One problem that prevents our bishops from forming a meta-society is the existence of huge diocesan bureaucracies which they must adminisiter. In this sense they mirror the late empire or the Obama admin. In these bureaucracies, there is much federal money and much left-liberal advocacy. Do the research. The USCCB is, of course, in the same modality. Much of the Catholic bureaucracy is essentially a proxy for the state
Dennis Larkin
written by Dennis Larkin, August 18, 2009
With the returning health of the Catholic bishops, we can still expect good things from the Church in America. There are still too many compliant bishops who sincerely want to get along with everyone. But the newer bishops seem to have a spine, and Faith. With more of them, they'll find the way forward. But the question I ask of a friend from time to time is, "will there be anything left upon which to build when this generation of bad bishops has gone?" I trust so.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author