Losing to Preserve

a guest post by Aaron Matthew Weldon

Election season seems to provide impetus for Christians to come to terms with the declining influence of the Church on the broader culture. The conscientious Christian is aware of her political homelessness, but she can use that awareness to reflect on how the disestablished Church can serve the world. For decades, theologians have been grappling with this issue and what it may mean for the future Church in the West. A collection of luminaries readily comes to mind.

The Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, famously asserted that the Christian of the future would be a mystic or would not be a Christian at all. He saw that the Church would decline as a culture-shaping institution, which provides a supportive milieu to the baptized, and so only those persons who undergo an experience of God’s love in Jesus Christ would be able to remain Christian. Influenced by contemporary Anabaptist theology, Stanley Hauerwas has placed a strong emphasis on the Church as a community of witness, a people of virtue, whose shape of life points to the story of the God who has saved the world in Christ on the Cross. Much of the vision that Hauerwas articulates can be understood as the synthesis of two major figures who also deal with this issue: the Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, and the Catholic philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre. One crucial point that Yoder develops is the notion that the Church can imitate the non-violent practices of her Lord because she understands that it is God, not the Church, who is responsible for the direction of human history. In other words, for Yoder, as well as Hauerwas, it’s not our job to make sure that everything comes out right. MacIntyre, in his well-known final chapters of After Virtue, points to St. Benedict and the communities he established, which proved to be outposts of culture through an age of barbarism. In a liberal age, in which political discourse can no longer refer to final ends – for moral discourse has been uprooted from the particular communities and stories in which those ends would be intelligible – perhaps the best service that people of goodwill can offer to civilization would be to form communities of traditioned inquiry in pursuit of the good.

Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his career as both professor and churchman, has brought together some of these themes in a way that can be helpful for talking about how the Church relates to the world. His 2008 address to the College of the Bernardines in Paris stands out as a helpful reminder of what Christian communities, which we may call “creative minorities,” must be about in a secular age. He points out that the monks transmitted a culture, a tradition, not by seeking to preserve, but by seeking the face of the God who has made Godself known in the Incarnate Word. They did not seek influence. They did not seek to save civilization for the sake of preservation. They sought the Truth, the “definitive behind the provisional.” In this sense, there seems to be a certain logic to the thinking of Ratzinger/Benedict, which might be summarized in one of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples: you must lose your life to save it. That is, we only achieve some objectives that pertain to the temporal order by stepping back from the temporal and toward the spiritual. Influencing politics and culture may be one of those objectives.

For three years, I was a part of a Mennonite congregation, and in my experience with the Anabaptist world, the issue of faithfulness versus effectiveness often arose. I expect to see more Catholics taking up that question, and the focus on St. Benedict, which comes from both MacIntyre and Ratzinger, provides a helpful starting point. The legacy of Benedict seems to argue that we lose our life to save. That is, we are influential precisely to the extent that we seek to know and perform the truth, even at the expense of our lives.

[Note: This is the first post of a series by Aaron Weldon.]

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  • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com Robert Martin

    I think Aaron has effectively summed up the historical Anabaptist position here. While more modern Anabaptists have chosen the path of “effectiveness”, I think that is more from Anabaptists adopting the ways of the rest of the Christendom rather than out of any faithfulness to The Way.

    • Julia Smucker

      Robert, from my own Anabaptist background I can sympathize with your concern to a certain extent, but I would question the assumption that consideration of effectiveness is necessarily selling out. Generally speaking, Catholics have tended to err on the side of involvement at the risk of moral compromise, whereas Anabaptists have tended to err on the side of moral purity at the risk of disengagement. Since the rationale either way can easily become a kind of cop-out, both have a lot to learn from each other.

      • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com Robert Martin

        Oh, most certainly agree with that. I think there is a middle ground there somewhere.

      • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com Robert Martin

        After a bit, considered something else…I think the traditional Anabaptist disengagement is a misreading of what it means to not be involved in the world’s way of involvement. This is, I think, what Yoder is trying to get across in his “Politics”, that we don’t need to adopt the structures of the systems of the world in order to be engaged in the corrective actions of the church. I find it amazing that Jesus did not take a Pro-Roman nor a Pro-Israel position and yet still managed to turn those folks inside out to the point that they considered politically motivated assassination. Faithfulness as a follower of Christ automatically leads to effectiveness by challenging the established systems, not by trying to reform them or take them over, but by doing what they claim to do more effectively simply by being followers of Christ.

    • http://gravatar.com/aaronmweldon Aaron Matthew Weldon

      Thank you for your comments. What I have taken to be key from Ratzinger (and perhaps Yoder would agree) is that we Christians, above all, seek the truth, and God has made the truth known in the Incarnate Word. Here’s a quote from Pope Benedict, to which I allude in the post:

      “First and foremost, it must be frankly admitted straight away that it was not their intention to create a culture nor even to preserve a culture from the past. Their motivation was much more basic. Their goal was: quaerere Deum. Amid the confusion of the times, in which nothing seemed permanent, they wanted to do the essential – to make an effort to find what was perennially valid and lasting, life itself. They were searching for God. They wanted to go from the inessential to the essential, to the only truly important and reliable thing there is. It is sometimes said that they were “eschatologically” oriented. But this is not to be understood in a temporal sense, as if they were looking ahead to the end of the world or to their own death, but in an existential sense: they were seeking the definitive behind the provisional.”

      It seems to me that any engagement with “the world” should be measured against this standard: does this action perform the truth? Sometimes such performance will lead to tangible effects, and sometimes it will not, but if the Church does not hold up the “definitive behind the provisional” before the world, then I’m not sure who will.

      I hope to think through this topic in one or two more posts, so I appreciate further insights.

  • Brian Martin

    Aaron, wonderful post. It seems to me that we are in the process of seeing the Catholic Church in the United States trying to cling to/gain political influence, when in fact that influence is waning, and that a society that says all are equal eventually tramples on the rights of individuals or groups to maintain that “equality”. I suppose when “Truth” is yoked as equal to “Untruths” as it must be if all ideas are equal under the law of the land, then the Believers are Unequally Yoked with the Unbelievers as stated in 2 Corinthians 6:14.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ron.chandonia Ron Chandonia

    I spent part of this day at a demonstration against an immigrant detention center that was organized by the Mennonite leader of an intentional community here in Georgia. Forming the community was a way of distancing his family and followers from the norms of mainstream America, but pressing for changes in the law requires an effort to influence and transform those norms and the public policies that follow from them. Just today, I could see the conflict of faithfulness v. effectiveness illustrated in the speakers at the demonstration as prayerful Christian witness was juxtaposed with radical secularity. Is the ACLU really our friend? Surely no more than the Republican Party is.

  • brettsalkeld

    Thanks Aaron.

    I am reminded of a wonderful paper just given here in Vancouver by the Presbyterian theologian Peter Leithart. In it he demonstrated how Christan martyrdom undid the Roman Empire. Evil is ultimately self-destructive, the quicker if Christian witness allows the world to see it for what it is. When we cooperate with it, it looks better and we look worse.

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  • Ronald King

    Aaron, I enjoyed reading your post. I am particularly interested in this line, “The Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, famously asserted that the Christian of the future would be a mystic or would not be a Christian at all.” This is an idea along with “dying to self” which has constantly been in my thoughts since my prefrontal cortex began to fully wire itself and be directed through the instincts of my unknown soul into a passionate search for the Love which I knew had created me. One of the ideas which entered my awareness two years after my return to Catholicism as I was beginning to awaken from the trance of fundamentalism which had enveloped my psyche during that time, was and is a disconnection between the mystics and the bishops. The mystics seem to be honored yet appear to be marginalized by the bishops who have been indoctrinated into the politics of religion in the institutional church and thus have been influenced to save themselves while influencing the members of the Church to join them on this worldly path.
    Is it possible to have a discussion about the Way of Christ, which is Love versus the way of power incorporated by the institutional church. And, is this pursuit of political power an unconscious influence of evil being acted out under the guise of doing good?

  • Mark VA

    Ronald King:

    It is hard to characterize your post as anything other than an attack on the Catholic Bishops in our country. You accuse them of being under “… an unconscious influence of evil … “, all the while pleading for a more mystical Catholic Church.

    If you want to be a mystic, then be a mystic, and stop wasting your time attacking them.

    I would like to appeal to all those who read this blog to resist the temptation to attack the Catholic Bishops, or to engage in sweeping (and usually very poorly reasoned) criticisms of our shepherds.

    Learn a new concept – de-lamination, and get to know its antidote, solidarity.

    • Julia Smucker

      Are you suggesting that we at Vox Nova are inciting attacks on the bishops? We do get quite the gamut of comments and can’t be held responsible for those. Let the record show that I, for one, have been wearing myself out trying to refute many of the “sweeping (and usually very poorly reasoned) criticisms of our shepherds.”

      • Mark VA

        Why don’t you try to refute Ronald’s post below, Julia (with charity, of course).

        The stage is yours.

        • Julia Smucker

          Why? Because I’m tired of this. Ronald’s anti-institutional bent bothers me, but I’ve been fighting these quixotic battles elsewhere and shouldn’t have to go onstage and prove my orthodoxy every minute. That’s not why I say what I say; that is, when I defend the bishops I am not simply defending myself. If you read anything I’ve written, I trust you will see that I am not in any way hostile to the episcopacy.

          • Ronald King

            Julia, I am sorry that I may add to your distress. I am not anti-institutional. In my career/vocation I have been exposed to and attempted to attend to the physical, cognitive and spiritual harm caused by the emotional and/or physical abuse of innocent human beings. A lot of this harm was intentional and a lot of it was unintentional. There is nothing “quixotic” in this work. I have directly seen the harm inflicted on others by the clergy and the laity of the institutional church due to the ignorance of healthy human development and relationships because reason appears to be more highly valued than empathy. Without empathy, reason projects a cold and dispassionate image of a desire to control and/or to have power. Reason can also be seen as a defense against being emotionally vulnerable. Ideas become more important than experience because they are safer than face to face encounters. Beliefs become the armor of protection against vulnerability. This is what I see the Church projecting to the world. If you looked up the research on mirror neurons you will see why it is so important for the Church leaders to learn the importance of empathy in their relationships within and outside the faith.
            I love our Faith very deeply and I distressed when I see hardness when there needs to openness. Only empathy can create openness and Christ showed us what kind of empathy we need to develop while He was stripped of everything and hanging on the Cross. Why should I expect anything less from our Faith.

        • Julia Smucker

          Ronald, I must apologize for a miscommunication: I was not calling you quixotic; I was calling myself quixotic for trying to convince some people, who seem determined to remain perpetually angry no matter what, that the bishops aren’t evil. I’m not particularly referring to you in this case, but given some of your dismissive remarks about the “institutional church” I think I can be excused for thinking you were anti-institutional.

          I completely agree about the need for servant leadership and Christ-like kenosis in our Church leaders (and in all of us, really). I even agree that there should be more of this than there is, and when it is not present, that’s a counter-witness to the whole Church and to the Gospel. But if you are suggesting that such humility is nonexistent among the hierarchy, I must disagree. Take this example (and it is not an isolated one) of them getting something very right: http://usccbmedia.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-council-at-50-priest-ever-growing.html. Allow me to highlight the final paragraph which was quoted by the USCCB facebook page:

          Finally, “The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests” calls priests once again to imitate Jesus the Master: They are to serve and not be served. They are called to improve their ability to listen before they speak. This humility is central to the spirituality of the priesthood and is an ever-present challenge to any attitudes of superiority or pride. Clericalism has no place in a Church that seeks to evangelize – to bring Christ and his love to the world.

          This is coming from an archbishop – God bless him.

  • Ronald King

    Mark VA, I asked a question about the possibility of an unconscious underlying evil influence directing the institutional church in its pursuit of political power. For example, I look at my intrapersonal influences which are my internal reactions to people and situations which will influence my interpersonal relationship with them. With God’s help I attempt to determine if this is Love or something less than love which is attempting to guide me in this particular moment. This process does involve de-lamination and is the daily spiritual practice in my life to reveal to me what is within me which continues to prevent me from more fully growing into the mystery of God’s Love. This process is a process of dying to self and it is what I take to the confessional. The only true solidarity which will work in my opinion is the solidarity built on the continuing immersion into the mystery of God’s Love which is only possible if we are willing to discard the layers of beliefs used to indoctrinate us into the church when we were in a state of being highly suggestible and vulnerable. We must be willing to question what is Love and what isn’t and this begins with self. I have seen mystics within our faith and they are like the canaries in the coal mine who show the symptoms of the presence of a toxic substance before the less vulnerable are aware of its present danger. If they are dismissed as being too sensitive or crazy by those in charge then the poison continues to contaminate the others and their solidarity will be built on a struggle to survive a feeling of internal distress without knowing the true external cause. The Bishops exercise of the faith will be mirrored by the laity. It appears to me then that the Bishops must confess their sins openly to us in order for the Church to develop the solidarity of Love which can only exist within the context of mutual trust and understanding.

  • http://gravatar.com/digbydolben digbydolben

    I–who, unlike Ronald or Julia, am quite willing to attack the corrupt, power-seeking American Catholic episcopacy–would like to suggest that many might be persuaded to return to faithful practice of Catholicism if they could see Benedict XVI Ratzinger and hierarchs of his ilk “dying to self” sufficiently to admit their complicity in the crimes that have done more to undermine lay Catholics’ faith in their clergy’s pastoral care than anything else:


    My own sister, who has always been far more of a Catholic pietist than I, would never allow her two sons to go near a Catholic priest as an “altar-boy,” and she has always insisted they give her a less-than-probing de-briefing regarding what went on in the confessional. If you don’t understand why, perhaps you should watch the documentary Mr. Sullivan refers to.

    • Ronald King

      Digby, I am confused by your statement, “I–who, unlike Ronald or Julia, am quite willing to attack the corrupt, power-seeking American Catholic episcopacy,” I thought I was being confronted for attacking the Bishops.

      • http://gravatar.com/digbydolben digbydolben

        But I don’t think that yours was much of an “attack,” Ronald; you’re too charitable to “attack” anybody.

        • Ronald King

          Digby, I agree with you that my comment was not much of an “attack”. I prefer face to face encounters where I can look into the eyes of the other and go from there. I do want to say that I admire your heart, passion, intelligence and your knowledge of many different areas of human relationships. Without technical advances I never would have been exposed to such a blessing as you.

  • Mark VA


    I hear you, but must admit, as I read your reply, this music in 3/8 time started playing in my head:

    La donna è mobile …


    Again, I must admit I respect your open approach. As you wrote, you’re “… quite willing to attack the corrupt, power-seeking American Catholic episcopacy”.

    Perhaps the most common common denominator in all this attacking, is the clerical sexual abuse scandal in our, and a few other, countries, plus the fact that there are no Bishops (some include the Pope among them) in jail. Fair enough. However, it should be clear to those attentive to the signs of the times, that the Holy Spirit has began dealing with this in His way, and on His own time schedule. I think most of our Bishops realize that by now.

    It should also be clear that this scandal has mobilized those who’ve hated the Catholic Church all along. Opportunists that they are, they are hoping to bring the entire structure down, in as many countries as possible. Well, good luck with that.

    The rest of us, buffeted by these winds, should get the best information and lucid perspective we can get. Dwelling in emotions will only leave us vulnerable to manipulation. A good start may be to read Michael S. Rose’s book, “Goodbye, Good Men”. I can praise this book by mentioning that it was attacked and denounced by all the “right” people.

    • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com digbydolben

      they are hoping to bring the entire structure down, in as many countries as possible. Well, good luck with that.

      Hierarchs of the ilk of Pope Ratzinger probably HOPE that Catholics like Ronald and me will leave the Church. It won’t happen; we’re not Protestants and we’re not going anywhere else. But what we WILL do is camp out in the Piazza San Pietro at the next conclave, refuse money for the bishops’ legal defense, and do everything else to FORCE a return to the “Spirit of Vatican II.” And the corrupt hierarchs WILL back down eventually, because “faith” is not their motivation: power and money are.

    • Julia Smucker

      Mark VA, I’m not sure what you’re suggesting, but see my response to Ronald above. Satisfied now? If you still don’t believe me, read any of my comments on this page, especially the discussion on Ray Ward’s post.

      Please forgive my frustration, but as I said to Ronald, I’ve been investing more time and effort than it’s probably worth, quixotically trying to convince people that the bishops aren’t evil – some of whom absolutely will not be convinced. And then to be grouped into an accusation of tempting people to attack the bishops – it’s just too much.

      • Mark VA


        I was paying you a compliment – I wouldn’t ask someone to defend the Bishops, if I didn’t believe they were able and willing to do so.

        We must be steady in this effort, because the attacks are, and will be, steady, or worse (hence my allusion).

        I think God will judge us by the steadiness of our effort, and not by its effectiveness, which is beyond our control, anyway. We are running in a marathon.

  • Ronald King

    Julia, Thank you for your kind response and for the link. I put it in my favorites to read on a daily basis. I appreciate the Archbishop’s comments and I would like to see how this would effect the public encounter with the secular world. I am providing a link to something I came across on my facebook page and if you have time I would appreciate your take on it. Here it is http://www.womenofgrace.com/blog/?p=17620. You can feel free to delete if you want. Thanks

    • Julia Smucker

      Ronald, thank you in turn for your kind response. My response to this link is ambivalent. Not being much of a feminist, I tend to have some sympathy toward perspectives like this, and I agree that there are valid concerns about religious conscience and statism (a problem that is manifest in different ways in both political parties). On the other hand, the Mennonite in me bristles to hear words like “persecution” and “martyrdom” thrown around so loosely. To juxtapose the purported instances of this in the United States with the real thing strikes me as particularly audacious, even insulting to those who are actually dying for their faith. As my friend and fellow “Mennonite Catholic” Gerald Schlabach has written, there is a difference between being outvoted and being persecuted. http://www.readperiodicals.com/201210/2796299821.html

      • Ronald King

        Thank you for that link. I subscribe to commonweal and thoroughly enjoy the intelligence of the contributors. I am in total agreement with Gerald’s article. There seems to be a persecution complex present in a certain population of Catholics in this country and it concerns me because of the aggressive nature of these complainants a self-fulfilling prophecy may occur. I love that statement, “…there is a difference between being outvoted and being persecuted.”

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  • http://gravatar.com/digbydolben digbydolben

    According to this article , a significant portion of the Catholic population of America are very closely heeding a PART of the bishops’ message, and ignoring the part that seems to them to be abhorrent, in contradicting that part they cherish.

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