Sunday, September 6, 2009

Seeing Beyond the Human

One day, while eating lunch at the National Archives (pictured left), I heard the next table over discussing the Bible. My ears immediately perked up, since matters of faith are hardly normal lunchtime conversation material in such quarters. I was disappointed, however, to realize that the discussion was strictly about translations of Scripture, and not matters of faith or theology.

I have complained before about the inability of contemporary culture to consider the Highest Things. Recently I have observed another dimension of this problem.

Outside the confines of the Quincy House - whose dining room alone contained a dozen religious images at last count - and similar circles, I have frequently observed that the Church is viewed as a strictly human institution. More to the point, even the Church's claims to being more than human are overlooked. This often - though not exclusively - focuses on the Church's failures and the crimes that have been committed in her name. Admittedly, the Church's failures are real and not to be overlooked; aside from historic massacres and torture, in our own day there are many who have been profoundly hurt by injustices committed by the sons of the Catholic Church.

In light of such visible shortcomings, I would expect one of two responses. The first, which you can hear from the Church's adherents, is that the Church is both human and divine, always sanctifying while herself in need of sanctification. Moreover, not all who call themselves Catholic, or are even visibly joined to the Church, are in fact members of Christ' mystical Body and animated by His Spirit (cf. St. Augustine's City of God). The other response I would expect would be to argue that a loving God would never allow such injustices and therefore Christ' presence must not reside in the Catholic Church (or, for that matter, any human institution. If you really want to get picky, you might even call into question the Incarnation or the notion of divine self-revelation, both of which are bound to get mixed up in human messiness).

Oddly, I rarely hear this second response. Instead, the Church's supernatural claims are usually ignored. Rather than denouncing the Church for failing to measure up to perfection, she is simply castigated for being a tad lower than other human institutions, which are thereby deemed better. (By extension, on the days when the Church is perceived as doing good - feeding the hungry, caring for orphans - she may rise to the top of the heap, but it is nevertheless a low heap.) Nowhere is there a consideration of the Perfect, the Absolute, something that might circumscribe all human institutions and activities.

Perhaps this is simply a result of the fact that much of my time is spent with fellow historians, who are some of the more practically-minded members of the liberal arts family. But I think the problem is far more widespread than that, and it has a name: materialism.

Materialism is by no means new. The First Vatican Council condemned it in its First Canon: "If anyone is so bold as to assert that there exists nothing besides matter: let him be anathema" (section 2). Of course, most people would not be so bold as to say that. It is fairly difficult to prove that nothing but the material exists, so most folks are intelligent enough to concede that the spiritual may be out there. But aside from this single concession, the same people will elsewhere ignore the possibility of the spiritual, both in their thought and in their actions.

What then are we to make of this rampant materialism? What are we to do in such times? I am afraid I have no genius answers, other than to throw generous quantities of salt about and pray for the best.

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