What does it mean to say, “I am a Catholic?” or “I belong to the Church?” I think this is certainly a great thing to think about and discuss as Pentecost approaches – the day we celebrate as the “birthday” of the Church.
I was thinking about this question in light of a homily given by the pope Francis and a recent interview with Angelo Cardinal Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals. Both, from very different perspectives, touch upon the nature of belonging to the Church and different ideas that people have.
In his homily on Thursday Morning, June 5th, our Holy Father focused on the need to cultivate a real sense of belonging in and to the Church, and spoke of three temptations into which people who call themselves Christians often fall: “uniform-ism”, “alternative-ism” and “exploitation-ism”.
Pope Francis spoke of some people, who seem to have “one foot inside” and one foot outside the Church, so that they reserve “the possibility of being in both places,” both inside the Church and out of it.
He described the first temptation as, “Uniformism,” meaning those who do not have the freedom that the Holy Spirit gives. They confuse the Gospel that Jesus preached, with their doctrine of equality. Christ never wanted His Church to be so rigid – never – and such as these, because of their attitude, do not enter the Church. They call themselves Christians, Catholics, but their attitude drives them away from the Church.”
The second group or kind of Christian the Holy Father identified is made up of those who always have their own ideas about things – people who do not want to conform their minds to the mind of the Church. The Pope called these, “alternativists”: They enter the Church, but with this idea, with that ideology, and so their membership in the Church is partial. They have one foot out of the Church. The Church is not their home, not their own, either.
The third is made of those, who call themselves Christians, but do not come from the heart of the Church. These are the “exploitationists” he said, “those who ‘seek the benefits’, and go to church, but for personal benefit, and end up doing business in the Church”: “we see them in the parish or diocesan community, too, in religious congregations, among some benefactors of the Church – many, eh? They strut their stuff as benefactors of the Church, and at the end, behind the table, they do their business. These, too, do not feel the Church as a mother, as their own.”
The Pope went on to say, “We are all called to be docile to the Holy Spirit.” Precisely this docility, the Pope said, “is the virtue that will save us from being rigid, from being alternativists, or exploitationists – or businessmen in the Church” It is precisely this docility that transforms the Church from a rented house, into a home.”
I am sure that there are more than just these categories that the pope listed in his homily. And while I am not necessarily looking to build onto that list, I would simply add those who want to the church to change in such a way that the Gospel would be subject to public opinion, and as such, change with each generation.
Here is where I think the interview with Cardinal Sodano comes into play. He wasn’t necessarily speaking of membership in the Church as much as he was speaking about the issue of the reform of the Church and trying to help develop a proper understanding of the need for continual reform.
He stressed, first of all, that a “clear vision” of the Church’s nature and the limits to ecclesial reform is required, as well as the importance of keeping in mind the Church’s divine origins and her supernatural reality.
“Not for nothing did theologians like to talk about the ‘Church of Christ’ and not just the Church,” Sodano said. “In this way we can better understand that if the Church is of Christ, man cannot change her nature. The Lord’s words are, in fact, very clear: ‘The heavens and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’ (Lk 21, 33).”
The Church “as a divine institution, her Gospel, her Creed, the Sacraments, and its hierarchical structure of course cannot be changed”, he stressed. “Only those ecclesial realities of human origin can be changed, ones that no matter how noble and providential they were in their time, no longer correspond to the needs of today, or may even be a counter-witness for the Church.
He further stressed that the “first motive” for reforming the Church “doesn’t arise from the mere desire to adapt to the times.” Instead, the first impetus comes from the desire “to respond more fully to the will of Christ, and that is the desire to bring the Church to the ‘form’ that the Lord wanted to give it.”
In summary, the Cardinal said, reforms are “not born out of a desire to satisfy any pressure of public opinion, or just to adapt to the fashions of the moment. Here, too, is the principle of all time, namely, that the good of souls is the supreme law of the Church. Who does not remember the old Latin phrase: ‘Bonum animarum suprema lex’? [The good of souls is the supreme law].