Purity and Openness Print
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 26 September 2007 19:40
A second topic raised in the discussions over at Commonweal was that of Donatism (the converting Bishop had given a public talk on the subject)

Cathleen Keveny:

A. Donatism in the narrow sense is the heretical belief that the validity of the sacrament depends on the worthiness of the minister. (p.2)

B. Donatism in the wider sense is a certain attitude toward purity, error, and sin, as well as toward the proper stance on the relationship of the church to the world. On this point, he endorses the eminent Augustine scholar Peter Brown’s description:

“The Donatists thought of themselves as a group which existed to preserve and protect an alternative to the society around them. They felt their identity to be constantly threatened, first by persecution, later by compromise. Innocence, ritual purity, meritorious suffering predominate in their image of themselves. . . . The Catholicism of Augustine, by contrast, reflect the attitude of a group confident of its powers to absorb the world without losing its identify. This identity existed independently of the quality of the human agents of the Church; it rested on ‘objective’ promises of God, working out magnificently in history, and on the ‘objective’ efficacy of its sacraments.”

To which Christopher Ruddy made this striking reply:

I acknowledged then and acknowledge now that church-world tension, but I think it is wrong to conflate that unavoidable tension with a Donatist desire for a purer church. A church that is not in some sort of substantial tension with the world is either corrupt or deluded. Augustine, the anti-Donatist, wrote a few words on that tension, as did Vatican II; the church as leaven and the church as light to the nations are not mutually exclusive realities. Moreover, a concern for identity and orthodoxy cannot be reflexively reduced to a fear-driven desire for purity and security. One can be confident and open, as I believe Benedict is, in the face of a difficult, even hostile situation. His words and actions as pope give little evidence of a fearful, cramped man. On an impressionistic level, he looks relaxed and happy; he wears the yoke of his office lightly and does not seem burdened as Paul VI was.

and then went on to articulate an important balance

Gerhard Lohfink captures the difference in "Does God Need the Church?: Toward a Theology of the People of God" through his reflections on biblical election and his description of God's People as a "contrast society," one which avoids both sectarianism and cooptation; God's people are elected, called out (literally, an ek-klesia) through no merit of their own, precisely in order to exist for others, to reveal to the world God's will for all peoples. Election and openness go hand in hand, they call for each other. Donatists and their heirs get election, but forget openness. Some Catholics today get openness, but forget election. Thinking of the church as a contrast society--and living as such--helps one to see how brilliant intensity and broad openness can coexist.

The answer to your second question, I believe, is found in Acts of the Apostles and other New Testament writings, which I consider to be part of the history of Catholic ecclesiology. It's also exemplified in Vatican II's exposition of the universal call to holiness. Vatican II affirmed the basic, if easily forgotten, Christian insight that all of the baptized are called to the same high standard of perfection in Christ. That we all pursue that high standard in different ways and places (and very mundanely, as when I clean up a son who has diarrhea or you serve on a committee), or that we all repeatedly fall short of that standard, doesn’t take away from the intensity of that call, which "costs not less than everything," as T.S. Eliot put it. Calling people to the radical conversion demanded by the Gospel does not in any way necessarily involve excluding those who are searching or uncertain or struggling. God is patient and hospitable, and so must his followers be, too. This is what the then-Cardinal Ratzinger was getting at it in his comments on the catechumenate and the “God-fearers.”

I understand that some Catholics feel judged or excluded by such language and such currents--or dismiss them as 'evangelical'--but that doesn’t negate the basic reality: We are all mediocre, God-beloved people called to conversion and to divine life in community. No one is perfect, and one of the strengths of Catholicism is precisely its mediocrity, its anti-elitism, its willingness to welcome all who are willing to come. Go, for instance, to an urban, northeastern Catholic cathedral to see the congregation for a weekday Mass. I always find moving the communion procession, in which all kinds of people come forward to receive healing and strength and welcome from the Lord. But, that welcome is also bound to conversion, and it would be hard to read any of the Gospels or letters of Paul and not hear that call to conversion. Among the first words from Jesus's lips in Mark's Gospel are, "Repent, and believe in the Gospel." Paul calls the Philippians--and us--to be "children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom yo
u shine as lights in the world" (2:15)--quite literally a "brilliant intensity."

I believe that the renewal desired by Vatican II will take place only when more of the baptized become aware of their personal responsibility for the church’s life and mission—and when ecclesial authorities are equally converted to that vision and help foster it. That renewal will likely be driven by small communities of believers whose "brilliant intensity" shines not for themselves but for others and whom through their life and attractiveness draw the rest of us to live better our own high callings.

I'm liking this Christopher Ruddy guy!