Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ecclesia Casta Meretrix: My Beloved Church, Loving Mother, Spotless Bride, Chaste Whore (Radical Thoughts for a Radical Season)


My first encounter with the upsetting phrase, "whore of Babylon" was through a small booklet which a grade school friend and classmate handed me many years ago. It was in turn given to him by a schoolmate whose family had left the Catholic Church and joined a Protestant fundamentalist group (obviously an anti-Catholic one). While my young mind couldn't fully understand what the phrase meant (or if there was in fact any substance to it), I found it nonetheless offensive and quite disturbing. Imagine having the church to which you (and your entire family) belonged, labeled a "whore"!

The initial annoyance at what I had read eventually passed though, and I forgot about that reading material altogether, including that derogatory label, "whore of Babylon", that is, until a number of years later - this time in seminary. I was reading the works of the great contemporary theologian (and later cardinal) Hans Urs Von Balthasar, a good friend and colleague of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, when I chanced upon a rather challenging essay entitled "Casta Meretrix" ("chaste whore"). In the opening section of the text, Von Balthasar writes: 

"When Luther dares to equate the Roman Church with the whore of Babylon, it strikes us as the height of blasphemy. But he was not the first to coin the phrase. Similar things can be found in Wycliffe and Hus, and their language was not a complete innovation but the violent simplification and coarsening of a very old theologoumenon. This in turn has its origins in the Old Testament, in the words of judgment spoken by God, the betrayed Husband, against the archwhore Jerusalem, and in the New Testament's application of these texts, which are so fundamental to the old". 

This past week, as I watched and later reflected upon a rather disturbing (and, understandably, not completely unbiased) PBS documentary provocatively entitled "Secrets of the Vatican", my first encounter as a young boy with that unsettling label - "whore of Babylon" - suddenly came to mind; but so did Von Balthasar's reflections on it, which, as a seminarian, I found myself devouring. (For those who didn't get the chance to see the PBS special, I believe it can still be viewed on their website. In fact, I sent the link to one of the older priests here in the seminary who also wanted to view it.)

Why did the phrase, as well as Von Balthasar's reflections come to mind? Because while I personally found the documentary slanted in a number of ways (I thought it played up some angles a lot more than others, completely missed others, whether deliberately or not, and was - not unexpectedly - far heavier on the negative rather than the positive side), there were also a number of things in it that were undeniable true. In my three decades in seminary and sixteen years in the priestly ministry, I have come to gradually see, understand, and accept that the far-less disquieting characterization of the church as a "community of saints and sinners" is no mere pious platitude born out of a saccharine spirituality rooted in that kind of religiosity Christ and the prophets called "hypocritical", "false", "fraudulent", and "an abomination to God".

The church with which I fell so deeply in love as a young man, my "mother", the "community", the "people of God" which I have, on my day of ordination, promised to love, serve, and give of myself completely to my dying day, is truly made up of persons like Teresa of Calcutta and John Geoghan, very real "saints" and very real "sinners", in the most genuine sense of those words.

The Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, have made use of the image of God's people as a "whore". Perhaps the most familiar of these images is to be found in the Old Testament book of the prophet Hosea who was commanded by God to take the harlot, Gomer, for his wife and to have her bear him children as a reminder to Israel which had "given itself to harlotry, turning away from the Lord" (Hos. 1:2). This, of course, was a reference to Israel's infidelity to the covenant. And Hosea isn't alone in using such imagery or theme; it can be found in other prophets such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah.

The New Testament likewise uses the imagery of unfaithful women, not only in the stories of those whose sins Jesus had forgiven and who had, in turn, become his faithful disciples, e.g. Mary Magdalene, but also in those women whose names are included in the lists of Jesus' ancestors, foremost of whom was the harlot, Rahab in the Book of Joshua (2:1) in whose home the spies sent by Israel found refuge and who was herself saved, together with her entire family.

The early Church fathers, among them, St. Clement, saw the cord she let down as a symbol of the Paschal lamb and the blood of Jesus himself. St. Justin Martyr interpreted her house as the ark and the Paschal lamb as symbols of salvation. St. Hyppolytus regarded her house as a symbol of the Church itself. And Origen, going even further, interpreted all these allusions as the "transformation of Rahab from whore to holy Church as the engrafting of the Gentile Church into the Jewish Church", and even coining the phrase "outside Rahab's house, the Church, there is no salvation". (This, by the way, became the foundation for that quote from St. Cyprian, "extra ecclesiam, nulla salus". Finally, St. Jerome himself, proclaimed: "Rahab, the justified whore, contains us all"

Now, granted these texts from the early church fathers emphasize the transition from "whore" to "saved", from "sinner" to "saint", such transition isn't a one-time thing, a one-shot deal. Rather, as Origen and St. Augustine both point out, it has continuing relevance. As Von Balthasar stressed, "for St. Augustine and the exegetes who follow him, the really pure Church is an eschatological concept". This means that while the church is the community of those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, the fullness of this reality is both - to use a phrase I often heard in my theologate years, "already and not-yet".

There is a reason for thus the continuing relevance of that phrase, ecclesia reformada, sed semper reformanda ("the church reformed, but always being-reformed"). For as Von Balthasar continues, St. Dionysius the Carthusian says, the Church is both "spotless Church and disfigured Church", always both "virgin and harlot". "The whole, through the diversity of its parts, can get conflicting names... thus the Church is called disfigured, estranged, bloodless, or whorish with regard to believers without charity or good works, yes, those who have been befouled by vice, whose souls are not brides of Christ but adulteresses of the devil".

Pope Benedict XVI, reflecting on the abuse scandals that have rocked the church, used the very strong word "filth", to describe the sinful dimension of this community; and Pope John Paul II famously asked forgiveness for the "sins" committed by the Church's sons and daughters. 

For Von Balthasar, then, it becomes possible to speak of the Church as a whore in the sense of the unfaithfulness of its members, in particular, the sins of its teachers and leaders. Thus even Origen, sometimes spoke of heretics being holier in life than some of the leaders of the Church. (Reading these lines from Von Balthasar, I couldn't help but be reminded of Jesus' story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.)

In Medieval Philosophy class today, I was telling my students about the so-called "Synod of the Cadaver". We were talking about some of the "darker days" in the history of the church, and as I told them, whenever I encounter people whom I sense to have a beef with the church, and who seem to fancy themselves experts in the "ugliness" of Catholicism (usually rattling off the usual "dark ages", "inquisition", "crusades", "the Galileo affair", etc.), instead of being upset, angry and defensive, I tell them the story of Popes Formosus and Stephen who lived towards the end of the 9th century, a time when the church (and the papacy!) seemed to be populated more by "sinnners" rather than "saints".

Months after Pope Formosus died, his successor, Stephen who belonged to a rival Roman political faction, had the body of poor Formosus exhumed. It was naturally in a state of advanced decay. But that didn't prevent Stephen from having his predecessor's corpse dressed up in papal robes, setting it on the papal throne in St. John Lateran, and then proceeding with a "trial" of the dead pope, accusing him of all sorts of crimes. Unable to defend himself, the dead Formosus was found guilty, the three fingers of his right hand (the digits used to bless) were hacked off, his corpse dismembered and then thrown into the waters of the Tiber. Imagine what a sight that must have been! And these were successors of Saint Peter?!

Why do I share such horrific (even revolting) episode with people I sense are anti-Catholic? Because based on my experience (you'll have to forgive my inelegant expression), it "shuts them up". Seriously! 

As I was telling my students this morning, in my head, what's usually going on is this: "You think you've got a corner on what's bad, ugly and sinful about my church?! Well, let me tell you a thing or two about what's bad, ugly and sinful! You've got nothing on us!"  

It may sound daft, but really, what I'm trying to tell such folks is that, we Catholics aren't ignorant of the reality of sinfulness in our church. We know it's real; we know it's there; we're not denying it. At least most of us aren't. And true enough, the question I'm usually asked after my retelling of Formosus and Stephen's story is, "But how can you still belong to such a church?"  

(Ah! And if I were a fisherman, that question would be my "baited hook".)

Years ago, when the clergy sexual abuse scandals were "exploding like bombs all over the place", a good friend of mine who left the priesthood (not because of any scandal or problem, but because, as he said, he had become so discouraged and depressed that he just "didn't feel he could still be part of an institution that allowed such horrific crimes"), asked me similar questions:  

"How could you still belong to that church? How could you still be a priest? I don't understand how you could stay in there."

As I watched that PBS documentary last week, and the narration moved to the truly horrific, evil (and yes, criminal) deeds of Marcial Maciel Degollado, my mind went back to an experience I had a number of years ago when a priest friend had to take time off from active ministry and confine himself to a facility on account of severe depression. 

He had been sexually abused as a child and the painful memories which he had repressed, began to resurface and wreak havoc in his life. He had been a hard-working, kind, loving, generous, and solid priest - until the wounds of his very early childhood, long-forgotten, were reopened by the abuse scandals that were in the news on a daily basis. 

[Yes, there are good priests who are themselves victims of abuse. This is a painful reality that is often forgotten, their stories left untold.]

While visiting him at the facility, I had the opportunity to visit a neighboring place that housed a different group of priests - those who can no longer be in active ministry because they have committed acts of abuse against children. I remember, one morning, walking into the dining room, a hall where time seems to have stood still, the atmosphere (and furniture) straight out of the 70's. What greeted me as I entered (I merely passed through the room in order to get to the exit which was on the other side of the building) was a sight that made my heart sink and made me want to cry, a sight that I believe will haunt me for a very long time, perhaps for the rest of my life.

There they were, a group of them, having their breakfast. I don't remember their exact number, but it was significant enough that the first thought that came to mind was "this could very well be a refectory in any seminary". That's what it looked like. For a couple of seconds that seemed like an eternity, there I stood, my vision seemingly tunnel-like, the peripheries all blackened, with only those men sitting there having their coffee and cereal and whatnot, illumined by a hazy, yellowish-kind of light.

"What happened to these men?" I thought to myself. "These were seminarians once, young men who were most likely filled with hopes, dreams, visions, a strong desire to give their lives in the service of God's people. Surely they prayed, studied, worked hard, did everything they were asked to do by those the Church had tasked to teach and mold them. What happened?"

I still do not have answers to these questions; and it may take me a very long time to find the answers that would satisfy them. I have, since the morning of that encounter though, immersed myself in greater research, reflection, and prayer, in the hope that the ministry in which I am involved, i.e. forming and teaching future priests, would be enriched by the findings and conclusions at which I may eventually arrive. My daily prayer since that day has always included the heartfelt plea that God in his mercy, may shield, protect, and safeguard my students from such tragic fate, and that I may somehow, in my own small way, assist them in keeping on the straight and narrow path. 

We priests are called to heal the wounds of those who have been hurt by life, not to add even more to their scars.

And so, to my friend's questions: how could I still belong to this church? How could I still be a priest? How could I continue to stay in here? I think that booklet given to me by my grade school classmate many years ago, which first introduced me to that upsetting phrase "whore of Babylon" - from hindsight, and perhaps given the distance of time, challenged me to grow in my knowledge, understanding, and yes, love for this church that, as St. Augustine pointed out, is made up of "wheat and tares".

As I ended that brief mention of the episode between Popes Formosus and Stephen in class this morning, I said something to my students that was also my reply to my friend's question, how could you remain in that kind of church? 

We enter the church, we enter into the priestly ministry, not with rose-colored spectacles, nor squinting or half-open eyes. Rather we enter with eyes that are wide-open, with a realistic mind, and a heart that truly and fully comprehends the greatness, the beauty, and the goodness of this community which we call the church, but one that acknowledges and accepts as well, the weakness, the fallenness, the sinfulness, and the genuine and constant need for Christ's redeeming compassion, forgiveness, and love.  

Ecclesia reformada, sed semper reformanda. The Church will forever be in need of reform, of transformation into that community envisioned by Christ.

I fell in love with this church many years ago as a young man, and the more I got to know her, the more I realized how truly human she is, but how truly divine she is as well. And every single day, I come to know a little more about her: the things that make her beautiful, but also the things that make her unpleasant, the tremendous good, and the awesome sinfulness that can likewise dwell in her. She truly is a "loving mother", a "spotless bride", and a "chaste whore". And yet I love her still, all of her. Because like the prophet Hosea, we are asked to love her still; because God loves us still - we who are, in the final analysis, the Church, sinners and saints, truly.

Quoting once last time from Von Balthasar, "the spirit of God co-exists in the Church with the spirit of Babylon, and the latter can erupt at any moment. The Church can become a victim of Babylonian captivity... by corrupt clergy, and by Christian rulers who tempt her to simony. The Church's hope and salvation is in conformity to her head, in clinging to Christ, in always adopting the posture of a penitent... The Church prays, "forgive us our trespasses", and will do so until the consummation. Until then, as St. Isidore of Seville says, 'the one and only house of Rahab, the one and only Church... remains as a whore in Jericho'."

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)