The Church Catholic

This morning Pope Francis reversed Benedict XVI’s 2007 decision, Summorum Pontificum, to loosen the restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass which had been put in place in the wake of Vatican II. His reasoning was that the re-adoption of worship in Latin had led to division; ironically this is precisely the reasoning Benedict XVI had relaxed the restrictions in the first place. If we are to judge by the effort being put into ending divisions then “the one true church united” is anything but. You can read more here, and the voices one would expect are variously praising Francis and raging against him. But as one of my more sensible Roman Catholic friends put it to me, “this could be a big deal, or a nothingburger… depends on how it’s implemented.”

I attended one Latin Mass in my life, and I can testify to the formally well ordered nature of the old liturgy, and the ancient and uncanny quality which the use of Latin lent to it. As an aesthetic experience it was nice. However, formal order and church discipline do not a Christian make. I am a Reformed catholic myself and so this decision doesn’t affect me. My heart goes out to my many friends who worship in a Latin Mass church, or who have enjoyed formative and moving experiences there. For my part, though, this is an opportunity to consider once again the meaning of what we, as Christians, say when we recite the creed and declare that we are “catholic.”

“Catholic”, as we all know, means “universal”. Thus in the movement of the creed we see it appear alongside the one-ness of the church. How many churches are there? One. Where and when is it? Everywhere, and everywhen. The case would seem to be open and shut but for one nagging problem: by “universal” we could mean two things. The normal reading of universal in our day is universal in the sense of uniformity. All matter is matter in a universal sense. It contains the same properties and behaves in the same way. This conception of universality is similar to what Kant was striving for with universal moral norms. Or again:  universal education is now taken to mean that everyone should learn the same body of knowledge. Perhaps universality is, in this sense, nowhere more evident than in the mass-market products of the factory. Identical is the goal. Every Campbell’s soup can is ultimately interchangeable by design.

But there is another and an older sense of what would have been meant by catholic. This sense I will here call “universality-in-its-particularity.” We know this sense by thinking about what it would mean to say “that man knows everything about the history of our town.” Suspending for a moment the problem that no one knows everything about anything, what are we gesturing at in saying this? The meaning is, as near as I can make out, that such a man knows in a detailed way. The knowledge of the town is comprehensive; it is textured and attentive to intimate things more general knowledge would gloss over. This man who knows everything about our town has universal knowledge of the town. But this universal knowledge is the awareness of the rich particularity of the place.

This second sense is what we mean by catholic. You can read much more about it from the Protestant perspective here from the Davenant Institute’s 2018 conference on catholicity. The church catholic, confessed by all Christians, is a belief in the church across space and time, yes, but also a confession of a belief in a church as rich in caramel-soaked detail, as jewel-dappled and care-worn as the history of the human family itself. Right order is important and church discipline is needed to ensure that the Word and sacraments are administered to the people rightly. But outside of these essentials, we ought to expect the workmanship of the people’s hands to be all over the form that worship takes in any given place or time. Worship is always the worship of particular people in their particular context.

Whether Francis’ decision stifles such luxuriating in the particularity of the church’s worship, or frees it by returning power back to the local bishops where it arguably ought to be, is not my concern. But let us pray that the church lives up to its catholic nature as we engage in it week by week, and pray for a unity founded on the truth of the Gospel. 

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