The New York Times editorial page has really been into this papal resignation business lately. I’m not generally one of these people who talk about the conspiratorial-like motives of certain media outlets “against the church” as I hear from time to time. I simply do not believe that this claim is true. However, there has been a fair share of problematic pieces that have run in recent weeks and the latest, by the author Paul Elie titled “Give Up Your Pew For Lent,” is one of the worst that I’ve read so far. What makes matters worse is that Elie is generally a good writer whose work includes a relatively well-received book about four iconic American Catholics (Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy). However, as is made clear in this op-ed contribution, this does not guarantee that he has an adequate understanding of what the Eucharist is all about or why “giving up one’s pew,” as he suggests, could never accomplish that for which he is advocating. In fact, it actually undermines his agenda.
This is how Elie summarizes his premise:
Resignation: that’s what American Catholics are feeling about our faith. We are resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won’t be fixed anytime soon.
So if the pope can resign, we can, too. We should give up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time.
The problem is, that by making this parallel, Elie is unintentionally equating the pope with the church because the resignation of one of the bishops of the community of believers is not at all the same as the Body of Christ, which is the church, not coming together for what the Second Vatican Council in its text Sacrosanctum Concilium teaches is the source and summit of our life and faith. The pope isn’t the church, we are the church — all of us, including the pope and every other baptized woman and man.
There is an ethical dimension and a baptismal obligation we have to recognize that we gather each week to be renewed and challenged by the Word of God and nourished at the Lord’s Table. But this is not simply some club, like the Knights of Columbus or Elks Lodge, which ought to be protested. It is the very heart of our faith.
In a sense, I understand what Elie is suggesting. He’s interested in calling the People of God to be more mindful, more aware of their priorities. But it is precisely in the hearing of the word and the breaking of the bread that becomes the privileged place of that rediscovery.
See, what Elie misses from the start is that the pope resigning from an office in the church is not the same thing as Joseph Ratzinger refusing to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist this weekend. If the assembly doesn’t gather, there is no Mass. And, if there is no Mass, there is no church. As Henri de Lubac has pointed out in his lucid work: the Eucharist makes the church.
Elie goes on:
In traditional parlance, Benedict’s resignation leaves the Chair of St. Peter “vacant.” So I propose that American Catholics vacate the pews this weekend.
We should seize this opportunity to ask what is true in our faith, what it costs us in obfuscation and moral compromise, and what its telos, or end purpose, really is. And we should explore other religious traditions, which we understand poorly.
He is absolutely correct about the need to ask “what is true in our faith,” but the beginning and end of the search does not take place in spiritual lone rangers exploring on their own. The source and goal is the community, is relationship, is Body of Christ. What is most true about our faith is the radicality of relationship: with God, with others, with all of creation.
What Elie, probably with the best intentions, is suggesting misses the point of his aim. If he wants Christian women and men to be more committed to their faith, more aware of the ethical and praxiological implications of the Gospel they profess, more interested in working for justice and peace — then they should fill the pews this Sunday and every Sunday.
And, if this is Elie’s point, they shouldn’t stop there! They should form small faith communities, engage in outreach and work to fight injustice in our communities, reflect on the word of God and its implications for today, consider learning more about the actual meaning of the liturgy and the history of the church and the significance of doctrinal faith claims.
Elie’s suggestion bears the same offensive logic that certain politicians who used the “self-deportation” rhetoric does. His call is for “self-excommunication” — literally moving outside of regular communion and participation in the life of the community, the Body of Christ, which is the church.
I’ve got news for you, Paul Elie, change doesn’t happen outside the church according to your proposal. Change happens through those who are committed to the real meaning of what it is we do when we gather together as the Body of Christ, regardless of how it might appear on the surface, to renew ourselves in our mission and our fundamental identity. Change is ushered in by the wisdom of those who strive to understand their faith — the very definition of theology according the Anselm of Canterbury: Faith seeking understanding. Change in the church is the work of the Spirit uniting and moving the People of God, which is a Pilgrim people, closer to the Creator who lovingly brought us into being and always already desires to be in relationship with us.
To suggest that we forgo that relationship in order to be more individualistic is a sad and misguided suggestion indeed. I understand the frustration expressed in this advice, I feel it too, but “giving up your pew” this weekend is not the answer.