Tuesday, April 05, 2005

"In the midst of life, we are in death"

I have no idea whether Mr. Cahill is right about the situation in the Catholic church, or not, but it doesn't seem likely that church would be immune to the forces working on the Protestant churches. In any case, his analysis is interesting on the point (as for his larger his point about the significance of John Paul II, I literally have no basis for an opinion).

The situation is dire. Anyone can walk into a Catholic church on a Sunday and see pews, once filled to bursting, now sparsely populated with gray heads. And there is no other solution for the church but to begin again, as if it were the church of the catacombs, an oddball minority sect in a world of casual cruelty and unbending empire that gathered adherents because it was so unlike the surrounding society.

Back then, the church called itself by the Greek word ekklesia, the word the Athenians used for their wide open assembly, the world's first participatory democracy. (The Apostle Peter, to whom the Vatican awards the title of first pope, was one of many leaders in the primitive church, as far from an absolute monarch as could be, a man whose most salient characteristic was his frequent and humble confession that he was wrong.) In using ekklesia to describe their church, the early Christians meant to emphasize that their society within a society acted not out of political power but only out of the power of love, love for all as equal children of God. But they went much further than the Athenians, for they permitted no restrictions on participation: no citizens and noncitizens, no Greeks and non-Greeks, no patriarchs and submissive females. For, as St. Paul put it repeatedly, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus."
Churches, of course, are not immune to the culture they find themselves in. Churches are thriving in Africa and Latin America, even as their counterparts wither in Europe and North America. The reasons for this are complex, and not to be reduced to simple statements. However, Mr. Cahill is right: the church in Europe, in North America, must become the church of the marginalized again. Not necessarily the church of the catacombs that is oppressed by society, but the church of those society regards as dead-in-life. "Catacombs" has become a metaphor for the church-in-hiding. It should become the symbol for those who are "invisible," whose deaths, as well as lives, mean nothing to the rest of the world.

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