From The Ashes – Fifth Sunday of Easter 2019
One could select scriptural passages from the Acts of the Apostles that give the impression of a unified Church in its earliest days. However, we know that there are as many passages in the New Testament that betray the reality – skirmishes and arguments and fights on different sides of an issue. Take a look at Paul’s letters.
Today’s Gospel includes Jesus’ plea that we love one another. I don’t think that it is far-fetched to suggest that he would offer that reminder at any point in Church history. That is no less true today than it was in the early Christian community.
I’m writing this in Holy Week, in mid-April, just a day after the devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
And, just a week before that, the 92-year old Benedict XVI added fuel to the fires of controversy in the Church’s conflicts over theology and sex abuse. Recall his infamous links between the sex abuse crisis and the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.
A few commentators linked those seemingly divergent events in Paris and Rome, notably Ross Douthat writing in The New York Times on April 15, 2019 (From the Ashes of Notre-Dame – How a burning cathedral rebukes a divided Catholic Church).
Douthat stated that Benedict’s intervention “contributes to the sense of a church in pieces, a church almost with two popes, each offering partial diagnoses to their respective factions.” He says that this adds to the situation of the pope and the former pope as being “symbols gripped by partisans.” This is not just about the sex abuse crisis.
It is the problem of Roman Catholicism in this age – “an age in which the church mirrors the polarization of Western culture,” rather than seeking a synthesis. That’s where Douthat brings in Notre-Dame. He describes the cathedral as “a particularly triumphant moment of Catholic synthesis … a new hybrid civilization embodied in the cathedral’s brooding, complicated, gorgeous sprawl.”
Douthat’s critique of contemporary Catholicism is that we have no grand synthesis to offer; we are torn between competing visions of how to be Catholic in the 21st-century. He suggests that both sides see themselves as the fire fighters inside the cathedral, trying to extinguish the flames and restore order. He offers further comments, connecting what he terms the civil wars in the Church with the image of a burning cathedral
The cathedral will be rebuilt. But Douthat suggests that the real challenge for us in a post-Christian world is “to look at what our ancestors did and imagine what it would mean to do that again, to build anew, to leave something behind that could stand a thousand years.” Is a synthesis possible? Can we surmount the scandals and anger of our present reality?
The destruction of Notre-Dame offers many images as we contemplate the life of the Church at this time in history. As I watched the cathedral burn, I couldn’t but help view it as a physical image of the sad levels of destruction that are occurring through the sins of so many in the Church.