The Part and the Whole Print
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.

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