The Church in the broken city of modernity

Jan Massijs, The Apocalypse of Saint John the Evangelist (1563; WikiMedia)

In a recent essay, translated as “The Church Has the Form of a City” (July 26, 2020, at Public Discourse), French philosopher Pierre Manent writes:

The inseparably political and logical obstacle consists in this: to resolve the problem posed by the division of Christian confessions following the Reformation, we decided to conceive of religions simply as diverse opinions between which the State must be neutral. As it says in France’s Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen: “No one should be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as their expression does not trouble public order established by law.” This assimilation, politically or juridically necessary, has a considerable cost. First, it tends to erase the qualitative differences between religions—and also between religions on the one hand, and all other associations founded on “opinions” on the other. Second, in so doing, it tends to dis-educate the citizenry: non-believers know less and less what a religion could look like, and believers themselves hold a view of their religion that is more and more pale and poor. The risk is greater for Catholics, whose religion is the most complex and articulated and the least susceptible to being reduced to an opinion or a collection of opinions.

That is, the risk is greater for Catholics defending the libertas Ecclesiae in the face of the modern secular state. Manent had opened the essay with reflections on current states of affairs in France due to state restrictions on public worship: “For once a Catholic complaint was met with a certain sympathy in the media. Suddenly the Council of State, France’s Supreme Court for administrative law, ordered the government to quickly reestablish the conditions for the exercise of religious liberty—more than the institutional Church had dared ask for. This divine surprise paradoxically showed Catholics how they had remained passive before the situation as it had been made for them. It underscored how weakly they had defended their own good and made their rights respected.” Implied is that we Catholics should not be shy of defending the Church’s rights to religious freedom, so well defended and defined by the popes of the past century plus and both Vatican councils.

Manent laters adds, and not despite his point about the complexity of the Catholic religion, that

Today Catholics may well reject the Church of the sword and aspergillum, or the throne and altar, or the Church of popes thundering interdicts and excommunications, or the “Constantinian” Church—but they cannot reject the Church of Peter and of the council of the apostles. If the Church today is something other than the sum of our nostalgias—or the print left behind by a “big thing” that we don’t know the meaning of, only we know that it does not concern us any more—it is because she is something other than an association of individuals exercising their right to have opinions. She is a kind of city, a “commanding form” in which a specific work is conducted, a work that operates on the whole man and is proposed to all men—this work that the Church in her weighty but clear language calls “sanctification” and whose source and body dwell in the sacrifice of the Mass.*

The other “forms” of the Church which Manent lists arose because Catholics did not reject the Church of Peter and the Apostles. They were the forms taken on by the Church through the ages because Catholics understood the Church as “a kind of city, a ‘commanding form’,” a societas perfecta whose common good is sanctity in this life and peaceful rest in God in the next (Hebrews 4:1–11). Because its common good is the final cause even in temporal affairs here and now, “a work that operates on the whole man and is proposed to all men,” its good and its action for that good is irreducibly public.

To spiritualize the Church into the ether of private opinion and private association would be to protestantize it. Private property is the exemplar form of modern rights, and thus Madison, following Locke, can write that “a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.” (Hanby, 2013: 559, fn. 42) To confine the spiritual riches of the Church in the modern world to the strictures of such a notion of property would end in neo-Erastianism.

In some Catholic writing whose name and author I have forgotten, I recall the writer envisioning a fictional scenario for the end of the world—the sort of thing one would expect to find in Lord of the World or A Canticle for Leibowitz. The apocalypse would be heralded not merely by cataclysms political or natural, but by the loss of the Sacrament. This science fiction eschaton scenario envisioned the last Mass offered by the last priest. Without the Eucharist, such would be the end of history. Perhaps the plot could include its hastening by a state ideology, like the laws of the same Third Republic France mentioned above, when priests were not permitted to enter hospitals to administer last rites to dying faithful (see Rommen 1945: 601, fn. 12). The broken city of modernity wishes to exile the Church, but this would be to exile its soul.

St. Francis de Sales counsels Philothea that the common good of public prayer is preferable, more to be loved, than the private good of personal devotions. In every order, the common good is more lovable than the private good. The public good of public liturgy in the common life of human cities is a necessary—even if not an absolutely unqualified—good. For reasons beyond the current crisis of coronavirus, therefore, Catholic Christians should take Manent’s words to heart.


* I have slightly modified the translation based on the original. Public Discourse has “Today Catholics can reject the Church of the crusades” for “Aujourd’hui les catholiques peuvent bien rejeter l’Église du sabre et du goupillon.” Admittedly the late 19th- and early 20th-century anticlerical French idiomdu sabre et du goupillon” has no equivalent English saying, but it doesn’t denote the crusades. Furthermore, to render “peuvent bien rejeter” as “can reject” is too permissive, and obscures the precision of original’s qualification. Indeed, it creates needless tension in the logical implications of the passage.



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