E Pluribus Unum (Easter Exegesis III)

pluribusIn Psalm 22, we sing: “I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.” “I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.”

This is our hymn. We sing it together. God made us to be together—to praise Him together, and to work together for His Kingdom.

The Lord Jesus told us: “I am the vine. You are the branches. You cannot bear fruit unless you remain on the vine.” (John 15:5) A vine has many branches, and the branches live and bear fruit together. Left alone, a branch detached from the vine withers and dies.

When Pope Benedict was here in the United States last spring, he praised our country for being religious. He also warned us about America’s four distinctive sins: Materialism, the fallacy of ‘privatized religion,’ false individualism, and relativism.

A Dutch sociologist studied the cultures of the world. He determined that the U.S. is the most individualistic nation on earth. This comes as no surprise. Our nation began with a declaration of individual liberty. Rugged American individualism always has been our defining characteristic.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson
First, let’s distinguish between, on the one hand, wholesome respect for the individual, and on the other hand, false individualism.

The human individual is made in the image and likeness of God. The human person is the center of all God’s providential care. Society should be organized around the true good of the human person. Nothing can justify the arbitrary sacrifice of the individual for the sake of some supposed collective good.

The Church has opposed socialism and communism because these false ideologies subvert the legitimate freedom of the individual. Creativity and enterprise flow from free individuals, not from bureaucracies. Throughout American history, our country has helped to remind the world of these truths.

Nonetheless, the Pope warned America with these words:

In a society which values personal freedom and autonomy, it is easy to lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear towards them…From the beginning, God saw that “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). We were created as social beings who find fulfillment only in love—for God and for our neighbor. If we are truly to gaze upon him who is the source of our joy, we need to do so as members of the people of God.

In his encyclical on hope, Pope Benedict explained how the Christian religion is inherently social:

Salvation has always been considered a ‘social’ reality. Indeed, [Scripture] speaks of a ‘city’ and therefore of communal salvation…Sin is understood by the Fathers as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division. [R]edemption appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers.

The Pope’s warning is a great help to us Catholics in the U.S., because American religious sensibilities tend to be Protestant and therefore falsely individualistic: “Me and my Bible! My religion is between me and my God!”

In fact, there is no such thing as an ‘independent’ relationship with Christ. I would not know anything about Him if it were not for the unbroken chain of witnesses that has bravely marched through two millennia, proclaiming the Gospel from one generation to the next. I would not be able to read the Scriptures at all if they had not been carefully sorted-out, preserved, and translated by fellow Christians who have gone before me.

Pope Benedict in Amman, Jordan
Pope Benedict in Amman, Jordan
My faith and my relationship with God are utterly and completely dependant on other people—namely, the Fathers and saints of the 2,000-year-old institution known as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

The American fantasy of “me, my Bible, and my God,” can be a cover for pride. Am I too proud to admit that I need guidance from the shepherds the Lord has appointed? Am I too proud to submit humbly to the teaching of the Church?

The truth is that no one lives without guidance. If I do not submit myself to the authority of the Church, then I will inevitably submit myself to someone else. I will wind up on the bandwagon of some trendy ideology or passing pop theory. The Pope put it this way:

America’s brand of secularism is aggravated by an individualistic and eclectic approach to faith and religion. Far from a Catholic approach to “thinking with the Church”, each person believes he or she has a right to pick and choose, maintaining external social bonds, but without an integral, interior conversion to the law of Christ. Consequently, rather than being transformed and renewed in mind, Christians are easily tempted to conform themselves to the spirit of this age.

We cannot get to heaven as rugged individuals. We need leaders and guides. The Pope and bishops keep Christ’s flock together. They are the shepherds God has appointed. When we are with the Pope, we are with the Church of Christ, and we can praise God together in the assembly of His people.


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