Roman Catholicism

There is some justification in considering Catholic experience separately. For most of the period under discussion the Roman Catholic Church kept its distance from other Christians. The Catholic Church also in many ways resisted the spirit of the age. In his encyclical Quanta Cura (1864) and its attached Syllabus of Errors Pius IX condemned those who said that the Catholic Church should come to terms with modernity. Then as the twentieth century opened, Pius X acted vigorously to extirpate liberalism in biblical and doctrinal studies, in a drive against modernism. Some modernists—like the Hegelians so detested by Kierkegaard—explained the elements of Christian faith as symbols of the human spiritual quest rather than as aspects of revelation. Yet the modernists were small in number and the Catholic response to them excessive. Aidan Nichols says that 'much of the anti-Modernist response went to an extreme'. One result was the freezing of discussion within the Catholic Church of those questions the modernists had been asking (Nichols 1991:241, 332-4).

One of these questions was how religious experience related to Christian doctrine. This in turn meant re-examining how grace was understood, how God acted in persons who retained their freedom and responsibility. Aquinas had depicted grace as a divine gift working within human nature to deepen a person's responsiveness to God. Over time this divine gift would become 'habitual grace', enabling the subject to grow in faith, hope and love. These virtues in turn modified the intellect and the will so that the person could live in co-operation with God's will and works. Divine activity within human nature was therefore seen as helping the person to transcend human limitations and be drawn into union with God. Such language was abhorred by the Reformers, especially those in the Lutheran tradition, for it seemed to imply a religion of works. Two aspects of the Catholic defence against the Reformers were particularly formative of post-Reformation Catholic spirituality. The Council of Trent (1545-63) said that no-one could be absolutely certain whether or not they were in a state of grace or saved. Yet Trent also said that mortal sin would drive the grace of justification out of a person's life. Trent, together with the earlier influence of scholasticism, shifted Catholicism towards a narrower account of grace. It was now more difficult to see how grace related to the whole of life as a possible field of divine activity. Grace was presented in what Roger Haight calls 'the abstract, technical and static language of being' (Haight 1979:73). In consequence, Catholic spiritual theology tended to think of grace as something lost and gained in an almost mechanistic way, through sin and confession. Grace seemed less a dynamism at work within human nature, more a precarious possession. Frequent confession became a feature of Catholic spirituality, utilizing the language of the penitent returning to a state of grace. It gave a seriousness to penitence in the Catholic Church that was perhaps equalled only in Protestant revivalism. However, it could also create the impression that sin was limited to a few areas which were gone through almost by rote. Looking back with the hindsight of the late twentieth century it is striking how sacramental confession for much of the time tended to limit the area of life under review, and how little it encouraged reflection on the wider experience of life, with its joys, sorrows, tensions, hopes and dreams. The consequences in Catholic spirituality were profound. Grace was widely seen as something added on to life rather than discovered or experienced within it (ibid.: 72-3, 113-14).

A similar dynamic can be discerned in eucharistic theology. The eucharist has long been understood by Catholics as a sacrificial action in which the bread and wine, through consecration, become the body and blood of Christ. The concept of transubstantiation had been accepted by the Lateran Council in 1215. Aquinas had later explained it by using the Aristotelian concepts of substance and accidents: the bread and wine retained their discernible characteristics (accidents) but in the essence of their being (substance) were transformed by God to become the body and blood of Christ. Trent reaffirmed this teaching. Easily criticized as mechanistic by detractors, the Thomistic account was actually more subtle than was often realized, drawing on an underlying concept of God as source and sustainer of the entire created order. The difficulty was that the presence of Christ could easily be perceived as a static one, so localized within the eucharistic elements as to exclude other senses of Christ's presence. Antony Archer describes the Tridentine rite as ostensibly floating free of any particular time or culture. He adds: 'Any creativity or varying contributions on the part of the people were excluded.' In effect the primary concern of Catholic worship was to establish a different, sacred world into which people entered (Archer 1986:98-9). Moreover, the worshipper was cast in a passive role. David Power considers that

[T]he popularization of the Tridentine teaching.concentrated attention almost exclusively on the consecrated and reserved species and did not place the eucharistic presence of Christ in the context of celebration and eucharistic action. As a result it encouraged adoration and devotion but not communion and active participation in the ritual memorial.

(Power 1992:587)

Despite these weaknesses, in the life of the Catholic Church the Tridentine Mass was a rite of great numinousness. For many it yielded an intense experience of the presence of Christ.

By the mid-twentieth century, however, Catholic theologians themselves were increasingly aware that the theology underlying much Catholic spiritual practice needed renewal. The most important influence was Karl Rahner (1904-84). Rahner insisted (e.g. Rahner 1974:18) that sacramentality as a whole was only made possible by God's constant initiative towards the world. Sacraments drew their living power from a revelation of the divine presence in our midst. Christ, as the supreme revelation of God, was the primal sacrament. But it was the Church that continued to be the sign by which Christ was known in the world, so if Christ was the primal sacrament, the Church was the fundamental sacrament. Rahner's reworking of the Catholic tradition was influential at the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) when the Catholic Church set out on a path of renewal. The sense that the Church itself was sacramental brought a growing awareness of its importance as a sign. A key Vatican II document about the nature of the Church, Lumen

Gentium (Abbott 1966), describes the Church as being 'in the nature of sacrament—a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men' (para 1). This fitted in neatly with the developing Catholic social awareness, and the desire for the Church to be prophetic. It also allowed a good deal of Catholic self-criticism.

A second major shift in understanding was a new appreciation of spirituality as running through the whole of life. The previous understanding of grace had tended to localize spiritual life within certain observances. But Rahner's influential anthropology portrays each person as always in relationship with the mystery of God, whether this is realized by him or her or not. Rahner draws attention to the many forms of self-transcendence, such as creativity and conscience, and to how every answer to a question is never final but enables a fresh assessment and new questioning (Rahner 1978:32). Human beings carry within them a call to truth. Truth is not 'a proposition which is equally valid in all its possible applications'. Rather, says Rahner, truth is an omnipresent and all-encompassing horizon in each person's life, impinging upon his or her awareness in many ways:

And this is that truth which supports all other particular truths and is not itself supported by any. It is that which is uniquely self-authenticating (in itself) and, precisely in virtue of this fact, that which is to us the incomprehensible mystery.

(Rahner 1971:233)

This is, in other words, the luminous divine presence within. Rahner's approach chooses to go via God as absolute mystery rather than God as absolute being, which may leave a weakness in how he ultimately links these two divine aspects. Critics have also argued that his approach effectively undermines Christianity's claim to a unique revelation (cf. DiNoia 1989:190-200). But his influence and that of his fellow-thinkers enabled a profound shift within Catholicism. Spirituality, including sacramental practice, was now less likely to be seen as the creation of a divine—human relationship where none had previously existed. Rather, it meant becoming aware of God who was always there, the subject now appropriating and celebrating this presence. Together with other developments, such as the women's movement, this trend encouraged a declericalization of spirituality within Catholic tradition, and a freeing of talents within the community of faith.

The same opening up can be partly attributed to the work of Edward Schillebeeckx (b. 1914). Schillebeeckx, drawing on personalism, stressed the element of sacramental encounter with God. Christ, who was once encountered through his bodily presence, now made himself known through the sacraments, which were 'a personal act of the Lord in earthly visibility and open availability' (Schillebeeckx 1963:44). Just as the Church met Christ through the sacraments, so the world met Christ through the Church, which was a sacramental sign of Christ's living activity reaching out to the world (ibid.: 48-54). At this time, scriptural studies suggested that the sacraments, instead of being seen in abstract terms of grace, should be seen as part of salvation history inseparable from Christ's death and resurrection. Patristic studies suggested that sacraments were not isolated acts of individuals but communal events. Liturgical studies stressed participation and celebration of the sacraments rather than administration and reception (Martos 1983: ch. 4). Scholars such as Yves Congar, M.-D. Chenu and Odo Casel were among those at work here. They enabled a huge shift in Catholic sacramental emphasis, from the laity as done unto to doers themselves. Even Catholics who have a strong sense of priestly ministry as pastoral would hesitate today to use the language of Ronald Knox, who wrote that just as God intended the human race 'to look after the dumb he would have priests to look after the faithful, to fold them and guide them and feed them in the ways of the supernatural life' (Knox 1959:18). The foreword to the new Roman Missal (a normative document of Vatican II) states (para 5) that 'the celebration of the Eucharist is an act of the whole Church.. .The celebrating people are in fact the People of God.. .who continually grow in holiness by active, conscious and fruitful participation in the eucharistic mystery.' The phrase here, the People of God, recurs throughout the documents of Vatican II and inspired Catholic renewal thereafter. The adoption of this as one of the key images highlighted how all the members of the community of faith constituted the Church, not just the hierarchy. As Richard McCormick notes, 'This has immediate implications for the elaboration and development of moral doctrine, for consultative processes and for the free flow of ideas in the church' (McCormick 1991:65).

It is worth noting briefly the change wrought in eucharistic spirituality. A symbol of this is the devotion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to Jesus, the 'prisoner in the tabernacle' (i.e. in the reserved sacrament). Devotion to the eucharistic presence of Christ is still a potent form of prayer in the Catholic Church. But such prayer is now balanced within a larger, dynamic understanding of Christ present in the community and in the Scriptures. This also provides the context for understanding transubstantiation. David Power suggests that we go beyond anthropological or phenomenological categories if we talk of substantial change in the eucharistic elements:

They can be better appreciated for what they say of Christ's presence if the starting point is the resurrection and the Spirit that assures the presence of the risen Lord in the church. After the memorial thanksgiving over them, the bread and wine are indeed no mere material substances. They belong in the world of communion with the risen Lord and thus assume a new reality whereby he is present in the midst of his faithful.

(Power 1992:608)

This draws out the eschatological aspect of the eucharist and its challenge that those who celebrate the presence of Christ should themselves be a transforming presence in the world.

Catholic spirituality at the close of the twentieth century is quite different from its earlier decades, when on the one hand, there were books of devotion, some of them quite saccharine, and on the other, manuals about the spiritual life for seminaries and novitiates. Even before Vatican II the tide was changing. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) captured the imagination of many with his picture of the universe as full of divine life, in which Christ energized and drew all things towards himself as the omega point of evolution (cf. Corbishley 1971; King 1980). His respect for the material order was profound: 'Nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see' (Teilhard de Chardin 1960:38). Some aspects of de Chardin anticipated the Gaia hypothesis in which the earth is seen as a single interacting biosystem (cf. Lovelock 1989). He continues to influence those in the New Age movement who seek a spirituality which speaks to ecological concerns (Woods 1993), but his influence within the churches has faded. More staying power has been shown by Thomas Merton (1916-68). Less systematic than de Chardin, he combines the mystical tradition of Christianity (and towards the end of his life, of other religions) with a sharp-eyed critique of the pretensions of Western culture. A more analytical critique was offered by liberation theologians, many of them Catholic and seeking to speak from the experience of suffering and oppressed people.

This section has focused on priestly writers, but this could give a false impression of Catholic spirituality today, in which women and men from many walks of life reflect on their experience in the light of their faith. This raises, though, the question of the extent to which Catholic spirituality now exists as a discrete entity. Unlike their forebears, Catholic authors no longer assume that they are writing for the ghetto: most want to address persons of goodwill interested in spiritual aspects of the human condition. Some, like Merton, bring together the insights of tradition and the questions of modernity. Others make little attempt to mediate between received truths and present-day concerns, seeking a fresh and untrammelled look at the latter. In this respect the Catholic Church reflects the same situation as much of the wider Christian community.

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