Is a Smaller Church a Better Church?

Is a Smaller Church a Better Church? November 1, 2016

(A mosaic by the Master of Torcello, 12th century. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).
(A mosaic by the Master of Torcello, 12th century. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).

Last week, Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia gave a, by-now infamous, speech, read by some as an uncharitable—even un-Christian—call for a smaller Church and by others as a faithful reaffirmation of God’s plan for His people: He will spit the lukewarm out of His mouth, so to speak.

The archbishop’s talk, however, is much more complex than all that; in fact, it is critical of both major sides of the American Church, that is, not just the “liberals,” who are often seen as the lukewarm, but even the “conservatives.” As one might expect, his criticisms of the conservative wing are a bit more veiled, but their obfuscation is no reason to ignore them. Any Catholic—liberal, conservative, whatever—can be blinded by ideology, and that is, I think, the kernel at the center of his talk Witness Chaput:

For all its talk of diversity, democracy is finally monist. It begins by protecting the autonomy of the individual but can easily end by eliminating competing centers of authority and absorbing civil society into the state. Even the family, seen through secular democratic eyes, can be cast as inefficient, parochial and a potential greenhouse of social problems. Parental authority can become suspect because it escapes the scrutiny and guidance of the state. And the state can easily present itself as better able to educate the young because of its superior resources and broader grasp of the needs of society.

Here, he invokes suspicion of the state—a common “conservative theme,” which goes well with his the criticisms of Hillary Clinton he levels earlier in the talk. And yet, he goes on:

Clearly our civil liberties and our equality before the law are hugely important premises for a decent society. They’re vital principles for our common public life. But they’re also purely human constructs, and in a sense, fictions. What Christians mean by “freedom” and “equality” is very different from the secular content of those words. For the believer, freedom is more than a menu of choices or the absence of oppression. Christian freedom is the liberty, the knowledge and the character to do what’s morally right. And the Christian meaning of “equality” is much more robust than the moral equivalent of a math equation. It involves the kind of love a mother feels for each of her children, which really isn’t equality at all. A good mother loves her children infinitely and uniquely — not “equally,” because that would be impossible. Rather, she loves them profoundly in the sense that all of her children are flesh of her flesh, and have a permanent, unlimited claim on her heart.

And just when you thought he was done:

I try to remember that every day. Americans have never liked history. The reason is simple. The past comes with obligations on the present, and the most cherished illusion of American life is that we can remake ourselves at will. But we Christians are different. We’re first and foremost a communion of persons on mission through time – and our meaning as individuals comes from the part we play in that larger communion and story.

Taking on those treasured, American values—freedom and equality, understood in their 18th-century, Enlightenment senses—is daring; it’s daring because many wish to declare that this is a Christian nation, that the American experiment is closely tied to Christian (and even Catholic!) principles, that the war in American is between “godless” liberals and true, Christian Americans.

Chaput’s criticisms run deeper, even deeper than I have the time to cover here. But the point is clear enough: the lukewarm in America can take many shapes; they are not, as is often assumed, just the liberals, just the Novus Ordo goers, or just the #NeverTrump-ers. If you’re pro-choice, or if you place America and its individual rights above the Catholic belief in the priority of community, you’ve allowed yourself to be blinded by ideology; you’ve allowed yourself to become lukewarm for Christ, but hot for vanity.

And to take the point a bit further, it seems to me that this is made even more evident when we examine a criticism commonly levelled at American liberal Catholics: they’re Neo-Pelagians.

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