Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Catholic Church and Group Identity

"...the Catholic Church is not, and cannot be, a 'denomination' as the term is usually understood in America. A denomination is something with no fixed form, but rather a structure than can be changed at will by its membership; the Catholic Church has a form given to it by Christ, and that form involved certain truths (e.g., the sacraments) and certain structures (e.g. the office of bishop) that are not susceptible to change. The Christ-given "form" stands in judgment on the local embodiment of the Church; the local Church doesn't stand in judgment on it.

In a denomination, porous and shifting boundaries do not present serious problems because group-maintenance is the highest value and 'being non-judgmental' is crucial to keeping the group intact. In a denomination, effective moderation of the ongoing discussion about 'who we are' is the most sought-after quality in a leader. None of these attributes of the American denomination has very much to do with the Catholic Church as it has understood itself for almost two millennia. Yet the Church today often displays each of these characteristics in one degree or another."

- George Weigel, The Courage to be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, p 99 (emphasis mine)

When I read the above paragraphs, I had to lay the book down in amazement and simply say, "Whoa. He nailed it."

Some of you may like George Weigel and some may not, but God is using his writing to clarify so many things that have concerned me about churches (non-denominational ones, in particular) but yet I didn't have the perspective needed to understand why these things concerned me. It took returning to the Catholic church and deeply examining it to recognize some of the key distinctions between Catholic and non-Catholic churches.

I am beginning to believe we have an identity crisis with not only non-Catholic churches, but many Catholic ones as well. I emphasized what Weigel said about group maintenance because I saw this time and time again with my own eyes. Heck, I was a part of that maintenance for many years. I was part of a church-planting team where we had many, many meetings about our "vision" and "mission." Our leader, though, was a man who was highly creative but yet as unpredictable as the wind. One week we would focus on one thing but the next week it would change as he sensed something "new" was revealed to him from the Lord. He is a dear man and I still love him like crazy - but the constant changing of plans may have been the cause of my going gray early.

When so much time is spent on defining a group's identity and purpose, it hampers true progress toward the mission. One of the unfortunate aspects of this approach is that it keeps church members in constant motion, preventing them from entering into the deeper truths of their faith. For many churches, there is the expectation that change is the only thing you can depend upon and you best be prepared to be in a constantly rocking boat.

When a church's main focus is on "who we are," then the group identity is vulnerable to the shifting prism of culture. What has truly bothered me is watching some churches conform to the world, not transform the world as we have been commissioned to do by Christ.

One of the "mega-churches" I was involved with used to pray for deliverances. These were often messy events. When I first witnessed one, I was slightly anxious but yet intrigued. I felt this was one area of ministry that had been neglected. I even participated in a few and was humbled when I saw the person we prayed for had experienced a real deliverance.

I moved away to attend a ministry school and months later, returned for a visit. I saw the woman who was the pastor of the prayer ministry. I chatted with her for a few minutes before asking about the deliverance part of the ministry.

"Oh," she said mildly. "We don't do that anymore."

"You don't? Why not?" I was both suprised and disappointed.

"Well, it got too complicated. Besides, it was making the newcomers feel uncomfortable." I thought I detected a small bit of relief in her voice.

That bothered me. Wasn't part of the church's mission to not only bring people the saving gospel of Jesus Christ, but to pray for a release from bondage? Now you may not agree with this type of ministry, which is fine. The point is, the "vision" of the church, the "group identity" was changed because it made people uncomfortable.

Whereas before it was believed to be a Biblical mandate, now because some of the newcomers weren't sure about it or it creeped them out - that "mandate" was forgotten.

When I was a member of a political message board, there was a lively and very funny debate on Capt. James T. Kirk vs. Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. Who was the best captain? Most of the men sided with Kirk and most of the women chose Picard. One man put it succinctly: leadership is not sitting around the table, asking what everyone wants and then going with the majority. It's not group consensus. When the rubber meets the road, someone has to be the heavy and as far as the men were concerned, Kirk was the perfect leader.

I think of this now when I look at the Catholic Church. It would seem that after Vatican II, many wanted to turn their priests and bishops into Capt. Picard. It is no surprise that as a result of all this "discussion" and trying to be "non-judgmental," we have squishy boundaries or no boundaries at all.

The shift from this type of group identity to a return of acknowledging Catholic identity is, I suspect, going to be fraught with many more debates. It will take divine wisdom to walk the fine line between loving the sinner as opposed to identifying with the sinner. Pope Benedict XVI declared last year that Roman Catholicism was the true church and Protestant churches were not "full churches." (And if you want a fun little excursion, try Googling this story and you'll see all kinds of spin on this story.)

The Catholic Church may have its problems but one thing it doesn't have is a case of multiple personalities. That does say something.

No comments: