Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?

fracis_at_five_nodate_1080x276Last night Fordham University, in association with Religion News Service and Salt and Light Media, held a debate on the effects of the first five year’s of Pope Francis’s pontificate, between theologian and historian Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University, and the columnist Ross Douthat of the New York Times. For those of us who couldn’t be there, video of the entire conversation, moderated by David Gibson, is available here.

In the course of their conversation, Massimo said that “the church isn’t a mineral, it’s an animal. It moves. It adapts. It grows.”  This question of whether the church can develop, and if so, how, is at the heart of almost all of the conflicts within Roman Catholic Christianity in the past three centuries, if not earlier. For example, one of the primary arguments for re-affirming the church’s prohibition of artificial methods of birth control in Humanae Vitae was not an argument on the merits of issue, but rather the perceived threat to the authority of the church had it followed the majority of its commission’s recommendations and changed its previous teaching on the matter. More recently change has been at issue in questions around continuity and discontinuity at the Second Vatican Council and in the suggestions surrounding Amoris Laetitia to provide greater pastoral encouragement and access to the sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics. So while I can’t claim originality for Massimo’s metaphor, I’d like to ask about doctrinal and ecclesial development in the terms he suggested, going back to the old twenty-questions starter question, is the church an animal, a vegetable, or a mineral?

In one sense, the church is obviously a mineral; it’s the rockiness of the church and of Jesus’s apostle Peter, or “Rocky”, if you prefer, that is to prevail against the gates of the netherworld. And so at one level it is precisely the stability of the church in relation to its changing circumstances and its incarnation in various times and places that provides a bulwark against haphazard change or facile, or even sinful, adaptation. Built on rock and not sand, the church’s faith must always be apostolic, that is, always be built upon the firm foundation of the apostles’ faith and witness to the teaching and resurrection of Christ, as taught in the scriptures and through the continuing teaching of the church over the centuries.

But beginning in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Catholic theologians, in dialogue with the philosophers and historians of the Enlightenment, began attempting to take seriously the historical nature of the church. Some variations on the rock metaphor would suggest that history was something that the church floated above the vicissitudes of human history, or, better, stood still in the riverbed as history flowed around it. By contrast, greater awareness of change as a constant of human history, and awareness that the church’s life was part of that history, led theologians to attempt to take ecclesial change seriously. This was not to deny the church’s connection with its eternal and unchanging God of love, but to ask about how to take seriously the human reality of the church, “a complex reality composed of divine and human elements.” Grace quickens and elevates human nature, without destroying it, and part of our nature is to be conditioned by time, space, and change.

The metaphor most often used in this period is the one Massimo left out – the vegetable. More specifically, theologians from the University of Tübingen in Germany as well as thinkers like Cardinal John Henry Newman discussed change in church and development of doctrine primarily in “organic” terms, that is, in plant terms – development in the church entailed growth in ways already foreshadowed by the direction of a branch or the upwards thrust of the trunk as a whole. This was a great intellectual advance, in that theologians could discuss the development of something “new” in Catholic life or thought really existing, but existing as the expected fruit or growth of an earlier planting. The adoption of a consistent ethic of life, then, took some of the earliest tendencies towards respect for the human person and applied them more consistently to abortion and the death penalty; the appropriation of human rights discourse and ideas of religious freedom could be seen as the “filling in” of a particular bare path of the church’s canopy of teaching, based on the energy of its teaching on the dignity of the human person.

But where this metaphor fails is on the question of radical development – what about those cases where change in ecclesial life or teaching is not an organic outgrowth of previous development, but instead seems an abrupt departure from past teaching or practice? The most obvious candidate in the past century of Catholic thought, and one that came up in last night’s debate, is the rupture between centuries of Catholic teaching and practice regarding those who were then called the “perfidious Jews,” and our current relations of dialogue and mutual aid between Catholics and those John Paul II called “our elder brothers and sisters.” To quote Massimo’s words, shows something of the church’s ability to move, to adapt, to grow.

One question, of course, is about the horizons and the limits of such adaptation. If we’re talking about the lifespan of a single animal, we can still talk about changes as radical as an ugly duckling becoming a swan, a 3.5 ounce hairless baby panda growing into a 330 pound bamboo-eating adult, or – more radically – the caterpillar that emerges from its chrysalis as a butterfly. It should not be insignificant for how we think about ecclesial change that that last image is used so frequently to talk about Christ’s resurrection.

So where does that leave us? Well, one first thing that it does is to show the limits of such analogies. The church is a complex human institution, further complicated by the fact that it is a human institution healed and transfigured by its graced relationship to God. So, at the end of the day, an image is not a theology, but just an image. Invoking the church as a vegetable or mineral, just like invoking the church as the People of God or the Body of Christ, is a starting point for a theological conversation, not an answer.

And yet, images or metaphors might be helpful in either sparking our imagination, or pointing to limits in our imagination. A friend of mine on Facebook commented that the church isn’t infinitely malleable; he may be right. Those of us who tend to imagine the church as able to have such a radical transformation may need to listen to the voices of those pointing to the need for stability or continuity in the church. But given the long history of the prioritization of continuity and stability above all else in the Catholic Church, particularly in the last two centuries, appreciation for the fact of development, both vegetable and animal, seems to be necessary to understand a church that has never not been part of human history. And Massimo’s comment is a good reminder that while the stability of the church is important, it’s a dynamic stability rooted in the life force of the Spirit who animates it.

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