The summer is now traditionally over and the last of the season’s BBQs and beach visits are happening today. A day set aside to honor work and laborers, it seems fitting to consider the work to remains to be done in the church. As many have already noticed, the retired archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, died last week at the age of 85. For a time he was considered one of the most likely candidates to replace Pope John Paul II after the late pontiff’s death, but the diagnosis of a terminal illness quashed any hopes that the world might have another John XXIII-like pope in the short term. Martini was a man who was very practical and able to sensibly gauge the “signs of the time” in relationship to the Gospel, which is, of course, the call that Gaudium et Spes demanded of the whole church. It is indeed a sad loss for the faith community that such a leader has embraced Sister Death, but his example and words will continue to inspire.
One of the last things he did was give an interview just a few days before his death. Much has been made about the comments offered by the late cardinal in that interview (see the Reuters English brief), but one thing strikes me as both significant and telling. Among other things, he said: “The church is 200 years out of date. Why don’t we rouse ourselves? Are we afraid?”
In an age marked by extreme partisanship and polarization, in political as well as ecclesiastical circles, such a remark from a Catholic cardinal is likely to elicit bloviating diatribes from people who feel that this is “anti-church” or that the late cardinal was “not faithful to the church” or something else equally caustic, premature, and wrong. Our time has, somehow, become an era during which “the faithful” are seen as such only insofar as they are able to parrot certain ideological positions in a uniform manner. To raise questions, especially challenging questions, becomes something not only unwelcome but something becoming a traitor.
But Martini was a loyal and faithful member of the Roman Catholic Church and the broader Christian community. His questions were often quite sensible and, at the risk of announcing the proverbial “new clothes” of an otherwise diluted emperor, he spoke what many others were thinking and he said what we needed to hear.
Such is the case with this “200 years out of date” remark. How do we make our faith relevant for our age? In every prior period this was the task of ministers and theologians: living their faith and seeking to understand it in light of the time and in the language of the day.
Yet, here we are in time when faithful religious women — collectively, as in the case of the LCWR, and individually, as in the cases of Elizabeth Johnson and Margaret Farley — have been publicly reprimanded for doing just what the late cardinal prescribed. Furthermore, they have been and are doing precisely what the Second Vatican Council has prescribed!
We would not have the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed if Fourth-Century bishops, theologians, and average christians did not raise difficult questions (wait, wait, wait… what do we mean by human AND divine?). The church would still endorse slavery as a matter of historical fact and something seemingly supported by scripture if the difficult questions were not asked. The church would only be for Jewish converts if the difficult questions were not asked (e.g., the “council of Jerusalem”).
The church would simply not exist if difficult questions were not asked — those early followers of Jesus and the greatest proponents of the faith (e.g., Paul) struggled with hard questions that were of theological, sociological, and moral significance. But today all sorts of things are “off the table!”
Martini’s comments about being out of date should be taken as a prophetic call to labor, a clarion announcement of our need to pick up the mantle of our predecessors in faith who were willing to do the work of asking the difficult question in order to embrace the task of those who understand that any true faith is always fides quaerens intellectum!
On this Labor Day may we recognize the work that lies before us in the church and, as the late cardinal cautions, not be afraid of the task at hand. Can we be faithful enough to ask the difficult questions? Can we be loyal enough to seek understanding of our faith? Can we do the work necessary to understand who God is and who we are according to the “signs of our time” and “in light of the Gospel?”
Or do we just not want to work?