For the Paradox of the Wide Road on the Narrow Path

Joe Six-Pack, USMC here with a few brief words on Why I Am Catholic. Actually, there is one word that sums up what I am getting at with this post: pluralism. Before pitchforks and torches are mobilized, and hordes of angry, conspiracy theory influenced folks attempt to hurl themselves upon my redoubts and battlements, and risk being bitten by my ferocious and cunning battle dog, let me clarify which definition of this word I mean.

Using the handy Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary, you will find the definition of pluralism, as I use it here, listed as the fourth one with two parts.

4 a: a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain an autonomous participation in and development of their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.

b: a concept, doctrine, or policy advocating this state

Catholic Cathedral Bamako, Mali

If when reading the definition in 4 a) you didn’t immediately notice the similarity of this with the actual makeup of the Catholic Church, think about it for a moment. Do you see it now? I don’t mean just in your particular parish, or even in your diocese, though if they are anything like mine, it may be enough. No, I mean the whole Church, the entire Body of Christ spread as she is throughout the world; every parish, and every diocese from Rome, Italy to Bamako, Mali, in all countries, from A to Z.

Whoa Frank, you may be thinking, there is only one way, and that is the Catholic way! And if you note the title of this blog, it should come as no surprise that I agree. But I do so with the caveat that within the “one way” of Catholic tradition, there are many variations that allow the adaptation of practices not only to the cultural mores of local parishes, but even extending out to the widely different charisms that give rise to the multitude of orders and societies within the Church as well.

If there was only “one way,” there would be no allowance for the orders of the Benedictines, the Franciscans, the Paulists, or the Poor Clares. There would be no tolerance of the charisms of the Capuchins, the Carthusians or the Cistercians. No need for the Carmelites, the Brothers of the Holy Cross, the Redemptorists, or the Sisters of Mercy. Seriously, if there is only one way to be a faithful, Christ-centered, and blessed by grace, Catholic, the enterprise of saving the whole world was doomed to failure at the beginning.

But it wasn’t a failure. Instead, the mission has been a rousing success, in spite of all the challenges, travails, and martyrs. From the death and resurrection of the Founder, to those of our brothers and sisters that endure persecution for being faithful Catholics today, the saving mission of the Church continues on. The sharing of the Good News, and the provision of inward grace via the outward signs of grace (which are the sacraments) continues apace.

And the Church was successful, and will continue to be so, because the catholic nature of the world demands an embrace of pluralism that, frankly, the leadership of the Church understands and encourages. This is why when you hear some folks ranting about there being only one way to receive communion, only one correct way to sing songs (and even diatribes on certain songs that are in in your hymnal? Lord have mercy.), only one proper way for the Mass to be said, in only one proper language, etc, etc., there is something to remember: there is a wideness in God’s mercy within the narrow path of Catholicism.

Oh, and thank God for bishops. Who, among their many responsibilities, have one also “to affirm legitimate pluralism and to challenge simultaneously contemporary currents which exceed the boundaries of justice, holiness, and mutually forgiving love, so that the unity of truth and the unity of Spirit can be even more deeply renewed ” among the faithful and spread to the world. See Matthew 7:16.

I lifted that quote from Brother James Hanson, CSC and I’ll also share this one from the introduction of his book, If I’m a Christian, Why Be a Catholic? as well,

To be Catholic today is to live in the pluralism of the post Vatican II Church. For many the experience is as confusing as it is renewing. Gradually the dust is settling as the wheat is separated from the chaff while gently nurturing new shoots of life at the same time (Matthew 13:25-30). I am convinced that all truth is beautiful and that the revealed truth of Catholic faith is compellingly beautiful when it is properly understood. In John 10:14, Jesus called himself the good shepherd who knows his sheep and is known by them. When Pope Gregory the Great preached on that text, he wrote, “If someone does not love the truth, it is because he has not recognized it.”

I thank God for helping me to recognize it. And a huge part of that recognition is from seeing the beneficial fruits of the pluralistic policies of the Church as seen in the various approaches she allows in following her. She is so accommodating and hospitable, you know, like you would expect your best friends mom to be.

Now, Brother Hanson wrote those words 27 years ago about the Council, which concluded 19 years before he wrote them. Perhaps he was premature in saying the dust was settled, because there was plenty of threshing to be done, as there always will be. But to me, and remember, I’m just Joe Six-Pack, she believes, practiced, and continues to practice E Pluribus Unum long before that motto was adopted on the Seal of the United States (1782, for you history buffs). In fact, a variation of the phrase was used in the fourth book of the Confessions of St. Augustine (which is just another reason why I am Catholic).

Why has pluralism been a “Catholic thing” since the beginning? Well, I’ll venture to again keep things simple with a one word answer, that may require development in further posts to make it evident. Agape. A simple answer that again is seen as the reason for the saving mission of Christ, and thus of His Church,

A mustard seed

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)

And thus the mustard seed of agape was planted and now we behold the truth as the Truth Incarnate foretold us in this short parable,

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’”

Not just for one kind of bird, and in a very large bush. Thanks be to God.

  • Sandy

    Great column. Much of this separation leads to confusion and much ballyhooing about nothing. The point is to remember the root of the tree and happily find your branch. You might even head across to your neighbor's branch for a chat, but you're still in the same tree. 1 Corinthians 13:12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.I'm loving this quote a lot, these days.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Sandy, that entire chapter is a treatise on agape. One inspired by the Holy Spirit. :)


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