A Clock Set to Eternity: Why It’s Never ‘Time’ for the Church to Do Something

What time is it? For Catholics, it’s always eternity.

My Patheos Catholic Channel colleague Mark Shea asked for prayers yesterday because he’d been invited to participate in a HuffPost discussion about “whether it’s time to end the celibate priesthood.” Leaving aside the chances (nil) that what the Huffington Post wants to do with this topic is anything resembling discussion, the question itself gives me fidgets. It’s emblematic of the cluelessness of so much of the interregnum blather, from without the Church and (sadly) from within.

This business of whether it’s time for the Church to do something or other—ordain women, end the Western discipline of clerical celibacy, recognize gay marriage, or even turn the altars back around and return to the Latin Mass—operates from a false assumption. For it to be “time” for the Church to take some action or make some change presumes that the Church operates on the world’s timetable, bound to regular updating (or, in the trads’ view, backdating) or doomed to obsolescence.

But the Church is not a computer operating system, or a college textbook, or a clothing line. It does not require regular upgrades in order to satisfy the demands of the marketplace. In fact, such slavish attention to the moment would doom the Church to obsolescence.

The moment—whatever the moment is—is ephemeral. The Church’s clock is set to eternity.

That means we are always living fully in three dimensions. Our now encompasses the past that shaped us and the future that beckons us. We stand, in a world of ticking timers and fickle fashions, for timelessness.

This does not mean the Church is ignorant of time, or immune to its effects. In fact, the world’s calendar is a product of the Church, of its great gift of marking the passage of the seasons, the numbering of days, the celebration of the moments that recur in our lives. Our “red-letter days” are a memory of the Church’s marking of religious feasts in red. Yes, we received this heritage of sanctifying the calendar from our Jewish ancestors, and we freely incorporated the customs with which many natural religions celebrated the seasons and sacramentalized the gifts of creation. But our purpose was never “to keep up with the times.” It was our way of infiltrating eternity into time, not the other way around.

And yes, the Church and its leadership have often been guilty of mistaking the world’s calendar for the clock of eternity. At our worst, we have reflected the times too well instead of challenging them. We have listened to the voice of the world crying “It’s time!” rather than the voice of the Spirit crying “Eternity!”

An interregnum is a particularly dangerous time for this. The voice of the world’s clock is so seductive. That’s why it’s so important to call on the Holy Spirit now. The cardinals, on Monday, will begin to synchronize their watches to eternity. When the Conclave begins, they will gather under Michelangelo’s great reminders of the Alpha and the Omega—the creation of the world and its final judgment. If they are faithful, the pope they choose and the Church he will lead in these times will do many things and take many actions. Some of these things—who knows?—may appear surprising and radical and new. But it will not be because “it’s time.”

It will be because we are once again calling the world to the timeless reality of the Gospel. Come, Holy Spirit! To infinity and beyond!

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  • http://www.thecatholicbeat.com Gail Finke

    “It’s time for the Church to do something” also means that the person saying it knows what ought to be done and when it ought to be done — things that the Church believes are known only to God, but also things that are rarely known by the news media, pundits, or bloggers. Deep down inside, we all think we know exactly how the world should be run. But very few of us ever do, and things often don’t turn out well for them, do they?

  • Jo Ann

    What I am praying for is a return of reverence. Since we internalize what we do, that can only come about as a result of changing what we do. It seems to me that the time has come when we will need every grace and blessing to withstand the persecution of a society that insists that evil is good and what we know to be good is really evil. We will not be able to stand up for our beliefs and turn the other cheek if we are not able to acknowledge that God is God and not a buddy diety made in our own image. I work with teens and children and think that it is a disservice that we are not teaching them reverence for God through the way we worship and conduct ourselves, especially in church. I see many of even our practicing Catholic young people feeling incredibly entitled, amazingly self-centered, and technologically distracted beyond belief. Everything in their culture reinforces the idea that their lives should be easy, comfortable, and entertaining. To get through that mind set, to reach them with the message that they are not made for comfort but for greatness, will take a major upheaval. I pray that it comes soon.

    • Bill M.

      I attend 6:30am Sunday Mass at a church in a Los Angeles suburb. The celebrant, a young Nigerian priest, has us kneel during the Confiteor. I was a little befuddled when I first encountered this practice, but quickly warmed to it. A small thing, but very much in line with the return of reverence you mention here.

    • Wanda

      Jo Ann – you have certainly exosed the problem in a succinct yet devastating manner. The culture; totally depraved and designed to be so. I might add that Catholic Mothers have a distinct resonsibility to see that they filter out that which is harmful to their children. Sadly, I see many Catholic Mothers out there either ignoring the signs of the times or embracing them. We need Catholic parents to be that counter-revolutionary model for their children and raise them in a Catholic culture that “Seeks first the Kingdom of God”; the world seeks to destroy them.

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  • http://www.thelittleredblog.typepad.com Jack Shifflett

    Without getting into a major philosophical debate, and with all due respect, the Church operates in time just like everybody else. It has eternity in mind, no doubt, and its mission surely includes reminding people of their eternal destinies–but I don’t see where it has the power to transcend time. The Church has changed over the centuries; the Church has made, and sometimes corrected, mistakes; the Church has embraced and been seduced by secular power and wealth; the Church has waged war; the Church has executed dissenters; the Church has been torn apart by schism; and all those things are reminders that the Church is not immune to the frailties, the passions, and the temptations of the fallen world. That it was founded by Christ doesn’t spare it from anything, including time–weren’t we all founded by Christ? Given recent and ongoing scandals, this doesn’t strike me as the time to wax eloquent about how the Church is somehow above petty time-bound concerns; that sort of spiritual arrogance inevitably leads to abuses of all kinds. “It’s time” may not be the most persuasive argument for doing anything in particular; but we still ought to dispute arguments on their merits and not by suggesting that the Church can hide behind a magic cloak called Eternity.

  • rumitoid

    To be in the world but not of the world demands one timeless quality: love. The moment is eternal, not ephemeral, for it is always now…and that is where we must share this love. If the question were only do something now, that something meaning keep up with popular opinions or be doomed to obsolescence, then of course it is of no consequence. But if it were something about the way the Church handled child abuse by pirests, the time for change was long ago; that was not something to put on the eternal back burner. Being slow to apologize as to how the Church behaved concerning the Jews and Hitler is another thing that needed to by more attention to the clock of earth time. I do not see some of what is being asked as a call to be more worldly to survive but to be more in sync with the Eternal Word of God, which means NOW.

  • linda

    Why do you believe chances of returning to the discipline of voluntary celibacy ‘nil’? It is not doctrine. The Church has many married priests now for a variety of reasons and hasn’t imploded. The charism of voluntary celibacy, which I live, can be a powerful witness, but it is a gift of the Holy Spirit and never a mandate.