Dear Fr. Bloom,

Just ran into your web site while doing a search on AltaVista for "Catholic Book Reviews." Thank you for extending your ministry into cyberspace! I look forward to reading a lot of your material.

Your section on misleading slogans caught my eye quickly, and when I saw that you listed We Are Church among them, I had to send you the following original essay. You're welcome to post it to your web site, if you want to.


Holding a mirror up to the church

By Patrick O'Hannigan

What should the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church look like? As the feast of Christ the King caps another liturgical year in the shadow of the millennium, that question assumes special poignancy. How we answer it depends in part on whether we’re more comfortable with what Avery Dulles S.J. calls the “otherworldly” or “this-worldly” tendencies of contemporary liturgical piety. Do we emphasize God’s transcendence or God’s immanence, God beyond us or God within us? It’s an old question whose answers include Jesus’ prayer for disciples “in the world but not of it” (John 17:14-16), the “true God and true Man” language of the Nicene Creed, and C.S. Lewis’ musings on “The Weight of Glory.”

Writing earlier this year in the journal First Things, Dulles described a banner on a Baltimore pulpit proclaiming that “God is other people.” He further recalled being tempted to insert a comma between the words “other” and “people.” This impulse (which he resisted for lack of a magic marker) flowed from his opinion that the proper aim of liturgy is to focus on “the exalted mystery of the Transcendent.” Other forms of popular piety give greater attention to “God’s accessibility in the here-and-now.” One suspects that in the Gospel story of Martha and Mary, that shining example of active and contemplative responses to Christ, Dulles casts his lot with Mary.

Martha has champions of her own. In a July 1998 column titled “The Face of the Church,” Father Richard P. McBrien suggested that the world sees the church as smiling or grouchy. This was a setup, not an oversimplification. Chainsawing his way through the tall timber of tradition, McBrien wondered whether God had “ever had anything relevant to say about a city council ordinance granting certain legal rights to same-sex couples.” Readers puzzled by McBrien’s tone found its root in his thesis, that the church should concern itself with “big sinners who injure the weak and the vulnerable,” rather than “small sinners who violate the conventional codes of sexual and reproductive behavior.” Note the choice of adjectives. By calling it “conventional,” McBrien reduced the practice of centuries to small print on the menu of lifestyle choice. Per the terms of his setup, we can be tolerant and Christ-like or judgmental and wrong. For the former chairman of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, there is no middle ground.

Unfortunately, his argument desperately needs middle ground. The church has more than two faces. As Terry Cross, Junior of Morro Bay explained in a letter to his diocesan newspaper, McBrien was wrong to imply that “to help the poor and the powerless, we must first give up attempts at leading a holy life.” Another intractable problem with McBrien’s argument is that “big” and “small” sins fraternize constantly, so the borders between them cannot be redrawn with impunity. Never mind the posturing of Pharisees or partisan hypocrites. Conventional moral codes exist because they protect the weak and the vulnerable better than anything else. Not for nothing did God provide the supreme example of one such code on stone tablets for Moses. McBrien purports to serve the weak by abandoning what protects them—what protects us. He forgets that “the person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones, and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones” (Luke 16:10).

Certainly we are all sinners, and judgment ultimately belongs to God alone. But we dare not on that account shirk our duty to name things rightly. We should not confuse humility with willingness to compromise essential principles. On these points, the popular media seldom helps. As William Murchison noted on the occasion of Mother Teresa’s death, “even when it condescends to acknowledge their existence, the world only imperfectly understands saints.” By lauding the church for her stand on social justice while lamenting her intolerance for some kinds of personal conduct, McBrien reveals himself as a modern Martha, anxious about the details of hospitality but unwilling to let others listen attentively to the words of Jesus.

How does someone more like Mary describe the face of the church? Returning to the description of worship styles with which he opened his essay, Dulles concludes that “the God of Christian faith is neither absent from his people nor fully identifiable with them.” Consequently, “neither reading of the banner in the parish church does justice to the mystery.” It comes to this, then: the church has many faces. It needs both Martha and Mary. It also needs Juan, Leroy, Mustafa, Mercedes, Hiroshi, and as many other children of God as it can find. Together we must admonish each other when necessary, and affirm by our lives the truth that anchors every promise: character matters. Someone’s striving Lord, Kumbaya.