Digesting Laudato Si’ in the USA, Part I

The Inevitability of Priests

I have gone for a run and/or a walk in 38 of the 50 states (so far).  No ear-buds, and never a smartphone in my hand.  Pure and natural, touring these lands we occupy as a nation, on foot.

I would say that we can live in communion with God while traversing the earth here.  We can perceive by the beauty before our eyes (and the smells, and the songs of the birds and burblings of the brooks) that a Creator reigns.  And, in church, we can learn this wisdom: that the Creator sent His Son, Whose priestly sacrifice consecrated us.  So we can make our pilgrimage on the earth with upright consciences, on this soil of the USA.

Cover of English edition of Pope Francis' encyclical on environmentWe could say the same, of course, of every land which the Apostles and their successors have reached.  Our land has her own history, though.  I think we could divide American history into two ages: the period before English-speaking people took over, and the centuries since then.

(There was a brief interval, in some states, between the arrival of the Gospel in America and the takeover of the English-speakers.  Click HERE for more on that.  I offer this particular essay as a sequel to my July 1 homily on Fr. Junipero.  Forgive me–late July seems to bring essays out of me.)

The pre-colonial people did not know about the Christ.  I daresay, though, that they might have had more overall wisdom than we do, with respect to walking as upright pilgrims on these lands.  They could ask us:  Why do you live in these little airtight pods you live in?  Everyone travels by enclosed pods at great speeds, from the enclosed pods where you sleep and watch your personal tvs/use your personal websurfing gadgets, to the enlcosed pods where you use your own computer for eight hours, then travel by high-speed pod back to your other pod.

Sure, you have plenty of food, and air conditioning, and ritalin and stuff.  But your pod-enclosed existence strikes us natives of this continent as wretched. You have to travel great distances to national parks for a glimpse of the beauty and freshness in which we lived our whole lives.  We do not envy you.

Good points.  It seems to me that all the American institutions that involve something other than enclosed personal pods–institutions like cities, shopping malls, bowling alleys, the Boy Scouts of America:  little by little, they are failing, replaced by non-descript colonies of pods connected only to the internet and the highway system.  Only one institution really remains, impervious by Her very nature to pod-enclosure:  the Church.

tjeffersonChrist founded the Church to liberate the human race from sin, selfishness, worldliness, the dominion of Satan.  We receive the Gospel as the light of freedom, by which we can walk the earth with upright consciences, beholding true beauty, serving God and relating to Him as friends, seeking Him as our final goal by obeying the designs of His Providence.  We do this together, a band of people who share the deepest-possible bond:  we live from, with, and for Jesus Christ.

Christian freedom means coming out of the darkness–the darkness of knowing only vaguely about the Creator, confused by a lot of nonsense of purely human origin, powerless to master ourselves and live reasonably.  Freedom means coming out of this darkness into a place where the light shines.  The light shines in the Church of Jesus Christ, in her perpetual observances and activities, all of which revolve around Holy Mass.

“But, Father!” you may righteously interject, “What about Vatican II and Dignitatis Humanae?  Hasn’t the Church accepted the Enlightenment and acknowledged the fundamental freedom of the individual?  Don’t we teach now that individual freedom is what enables us to believe in the first place?  How can freedom come only from the Gospel, if we must have the freedom to believe in the Gospel when we hear it, to respond freely to Christ?  Don’t we have freedom by the dignity of our nature, even without the Church?  Also, don’t we Christians want to co-operate with non-Christians in the pursuit of the common good?”

Okay.  First of all, we have not left St. Augustine behind.  St. Augustine’s teaching still binds us.  The freedom with which our dignified nature can respond freely to Christ’s invitation to believe in Him–that freedom comes as a grace, through the Church.  (Regarding our co-operation with non-Christians of good will, I’m going to leave that to others to study; it’s not really my forte.  No comment regarding how easy it is to find non-Christians of good will these days.)

st-augustineWhen the English-speaking people came here, they had this idea:  Freedom means I get to decide.  If I get to decide, then I am free.  If I don’t get to decide, then I’m not free.  Going to church or not, listening to the priests or not, the free man decides.  Freedom means having that choice.

Meanwhile, an inescapable fact reigns in the Church:  our communion with the light of true freedom endures only while we frequent the sacraments.

Now, those of us who do try to frequent the sacraments often face a particular question, asked of us by those who don’t go to church.  We find the question odd.  They ask:  How can you accept papal infallibility?

And we’re like, What?  Do you have a problem with the idea that the Virgin Mary was conceived without sin, or that she was assumed into heaven?  It’s not as if the pope has ever infallibly declared anything controversial, really.

The actual issue, I believe, is this:  A parish priest does not possess the charism of infallibility; a good Catholic could ask his/her priest a question and then decide for him/herself that the priest gave the wrong answer.  But the parish priest has this little share in the charism of infallibility:  He possesses inevitability.

A Catholic can think his priest is boring, obtuse–a thoroughly patethic excuse (as many have thought these past four years in Franklin and Henry counties, Virginia).  But still the priest remains an inevitable fixture in the Catholic’s life.  No one can be Catholic without a priest.  (Which means no one can be Catholic without all the other people who have the same priest, too.)  Freedom does not mean the freedom to go through life without a priest, without participating in communal life directed by a priest.

The ceremonies of all the ritual families of the Church, eastern and western, all express one fundamental thing:  Faith that the Incarnation began in the womb of the Virgin and continues on earth in the Blessed Sacrament.  I think we can say that the rites and outward observances which we have–they all originally came into effect, in the earliest days, precisely in order to express this central principle of Church life.

To live in harmony with a priest (and all his other people, too) means participating in these observances.  Our ceremonies implant and nourish the Christian faith; by the same token, the faith makes the ceremonies make sense.  Church practices don’t make any sense without faith in the Incarnation and the Blessed Sacrament.  Submitting oneself to this, to the inner logic of the traditional life of the Church:  that is what liberates a soul from the interior slavery that we inherit as children of fallen Adam and Eve.

(It seems to me that all the side issues that gave rise to Protestantism have basically fallen by the wayside.  The late-medieval failures of clerical discipline that produced so much criticism have long since been addressed.  For at least a century and a half, the Apostolic See of Rome has given the Church inspiring leadership.  We Catholics have explained how we can agree with many of the original Protestant propositions.  Meanwhile, mainline Protestants find that they cannot avoid invoking ‘tradition.’  No reasonable person can really deny that the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers the world the synthesis of Christian doctrine.)

We walk this part of the earth, the USA, gazing at the Creator’s handiwork, purified in our consciences and animated by hope for eternal life, because we have communion with Christ through the mediation of a Catholic priest.

This is real freedom.  Our English-speaking forefathers would not have agreed (Thomas Jefferson, for primary example).  With all due respect to them, we have to regard them as wrong when it comes to priests and their inevitability.

The “freedom” to live outside the Church, estranged from the rites of the Incarnate God:  we cannot call that freedom.  In 2015, we can only call it paganism.  And we offer the invitation to everyone living that way:  come out of that darkness into the light in the Church!

Then we can come out of our pods.  We can live for more than fleeting moments of escapism, by way of leisure.  Together, we can stop wounding Mother Earth.  With respect to our ancestors who knew how to take care of Her better than we do–we can learn how to make them proud of us.

The first thing that has to go is the idea that “freedom” is about me, myself, and I.

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One thought on “Digesting Laudato Si’ in the USA, Part I

  1. Is the Holy Father speaking “ex cathdra” in “Ladato Si”? I find much of what I am reading really hard to swallow. Who denies that we must be respectul of our environment? We aren’t the only ones to possess its fruits and blessings. We are faced almost daily with the greed and abuse within corporate America. “Sweatshops” exist today espcially in the treatment of illegals. Are there Simon Legrees even today? Most assuredly..
    Maybe I just cannot wrap my brain around the ongoing disrespect, yes evil in our world. The Holy Father seems to find nothing good about Capitolism or human use of resources. Where is libration theology in all of this?
    Point: how much of this encyclical am I bound to believe?

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