The Church Annie Selak Wants: Part II

The following is the Part II of my response to Annie Selak’s Washington Post article. Part I can be read by clicking here.

Third, Selak desires “a church that embraces that God is everywhere.” In particular, she relates a “need to affirm and emphasize that God is present in other religions and sincerely work on improving our relationships with them.” She states that “some of Pope Benedict XVI’s biggest missteps related to his interactions with other religions.” She fails to realize, however, that in Pope Benedict she has an ally. Benedict himself informed the Roman curia in 2012 that “in man’s present situation, the dialogue of religions is a necessary condition for peace in the world and it is therefore a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities.” He calls for a dialogue about the relationships between religions, and also about the relationship of religion to culture, reason, and society.

In alluding to Pope Benedict’s “missteps,” she is surely referring to his Regensburg Address, in which he famously poses the question of the relationship between religion and violence, particularly within Islam. It seems his critics only read a single sentence of this intellectually complex and interesting speech. Those who have read the speech in its entirety have tended to have more balanced responses. As James Schall of Georgetown University notes in his commentary on the speech, “What is to be remarked is that apparently no one in the German audience in Regensburg saw any reason to take to the streets or protest because of what was said there.”

In his speech, Benedict cites the words of Manuel II Paleologus, a 14th century emperor: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword by the faith he preached.” Critics found these words to be unreasonable, as well as intolerant and unfair to Islam, especially in the 21st century. They take these words out of context and falsely treat them as if they were the entirety of the speech. Further, they usually fail to take note of the fact that, shortly after the speech, as the Washington Post noted, “several Iraqi terrorist groups called for attacks on the Vatican. A cleric linked to Somalia’s ruling Islamist movement urged Muslims to “hunt down” and kill the pope. In an apparently linked attack Sunday in Mogadishu, a nun was gunned down in a children’s hospital.” These were all done in the name of Islam, even in the 21st century.

Pope Benedict XVI asks the question of the relationship between religion and violence, a question that is extremely relevant in the 21st century. This question and similar questions are not only relevant to Islam; they are relevant to all religions. Benedict has noted the importance of having a kind of critical approach to religion in general. In his September 2010 address at Westminster Hall, he discusses the relationship between reason and religion:

“The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms… but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion… And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process.”

Benedict notes that religion must be open to purification by reason. When I studied Christian martyrdom in a course in the Fall, I was confronted by disgusting and disturbing moments in the history of the Catholic Church. I was forced to admit that Church history has not always been pretty, and the sexual abuse crisis of recent years shows that Catholics are still not perfect. I learned that it is important to have religious dialogue, but I also learned that, if we do this dialogue honestly, we may find some parts of religion to be pretty ugly. This is one lesson of the Regensburg address, perhaps one of its most important lessons.

If we want “a church that embraces that God is everywhere,” especially “in other religions,” we are confronted with the fact that some Muslims (perhaps many, certainly most in history) believe that violence is not only an important, but a necessary part of their religion. Western culture is quite open about criticizing Christianity, but one might wonder, given this fact, why it is unwilling to criticize Islam. We are willing to say that sexual abuse by a few priests, covered up by even fewer bishops, raises questions about the legitimacy of Catholicism everywhere. But we are unwilling to ask what the extreme violence of many Muslims may says about the legitimacy of that religion.

Catholicism is quite willing (and quite happy) to say that God is present in other religions. This presence, however, is not unqualified. Catholicism holds itself as the fulness of truth. That is, God may be partially present in other religions, but He is most manifest in Catholicism. He is surely present in many parts of Islam, but, if violence is intimately tied to Islam, surely God is not present in this part. All religions contradict each other in some ways. Honest interreligious dialogue will make us very aware of this fact. But no fact can be both true and not true at the same time in the same respect. So when we say that the Church is the fulness of truth, we say that the Church is right and other religions are wrong where there are true points of disagreement. In this sense, all religions can contain some truth, but some religions are more true than others.

Fourth, Selak desires “a church that engages struggles and is open to dialogue.” If Selak were to merely take a look at the last 100 addresses and speeches given by Pope Benedict XVI, she would notice that the man has had more international and inter-religious dialogue than almost any other religious or political leader in the world. Further, he does not only “play nice” when he engages in this dialogue. He calls for reason and religion to perfect themselves, and this involves healthy criticism. In his writings, he does anything but provide “spoon-fed theology.” Theologians from all over the world have praised his intellectual nuance and brilliance.

Selak points out the human desire “to wrestle with the hard questions of how our experience interacts with Scripture and tradition.” In light of this struggle, most people respond to the tradition of the Church “by either taking everything the hierarchy says as absolute truth or completely disregarding the church.” She further states that “neither of these responses are what the church actually calls us to do. We do not need answers; we need to engage the world… And we want our church to do that with us.”

Ms. Selak seems to insist that we treat the discipline of theology quite unlike any other discipline studied. In physics, mathematics, biology, literature, philosophy, and political science we begin learning by taking for granted certain facts, given to us by appointed authorities. When a teacher tells me that an atom is composed of electrons, neutrons, and protons, I am expected to assume that this fact is true. I may later go on to experiment and conduct my own research, but all learning first begins with humble submission to authority. Further, I cannot on my own verify every claim that is ever told to me. For the most part, my life is lived by the assumption that I can trust a variety of authorities, whether they be my family, my friends, or my professors.

My experience in the Church progresses in much the same way. Its teachings have been built upon more than 2000 years of Tradition, and it would be foolish of me to try to understand every part of this tradition before assimilating it into my own life. Rather, I have come to trust that the Church is like a loving mother whose authority I simply trust. I do not submit to my mother in order to be spoon-fed answers. I submit to my mother, because this is the beginning of finding my place in the world. I can grow and ask the hard questions, but I begin by trusting that she is telling me the truth because she loves me. Life begins with answers, the first answer being love. Only when I am equipped with this answer am I able to ask the questions.

Finally, Selak seems to underestimate her own role in the work of the Church. She is identified as a “lay minister” in her article, but, as many students at the University know, she is also the rectress of Walsh Hall at the University of Notre Dame.

The laity now play an extremely important role in the Church. Selak calls for “a church that” does X, Y, and Z. But she fails to recognize that, through her Washington Post piece, the church is taking our experience seriously, emphasizing the inclusive ministry of Jesus, emphasizing that God is everywhere, and engaging struggles and being open to dialogue. Many laity say that the Church should do this or that. They seem to assume that “the Church” only acts through its magisterium, but they fail to recognize that the majority of the members of the Church are laity. The Church is not only the clergy. The Church is also the laity. When we say “the Church should do this,” perhaps we should do it ourselves. When we are at work, the Church is at work. So let’s get to work!

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