3. Individualism and the Church

3. Individualism and the Church
Even if it does not express itself in hijackings and hooliganism, the anti-law syndrome is present and widespread in the Church. It is not only that church laws are often ignored or that church authority is frequently decried, resisted and disobeyed. The very anti-law attitude is defended in the name of Christian freedom and spontaneity. Furthermore, the suggestion is repeatedly made that all of this is in keeping with, and indeed a product of, the spirit of Vatican II.... The very opposite is true. This anti-law individualism goes badly with the community-consciousness that Vatican II sponsored; that should be clear. But, even more clearly still, it is totally incompatible with the concept of the People of God.
Lumen gentium is quite explicit that individualism is not God's plan for salvation; connection with others is. In the opening passage of its second chapter, it says that God "willed to make men holy and save them, not as individuals without any bond or link between them, but rather to make them into a people ..." (LG 9).
Therefore, the Council continues, God "established a covenant" - a legal contract or agreement - with the chosen race of Israel which was "a preparation and figure of that new and perfect covenant which was to be ratified in Christ" (ibid).
Lumen gentium immediately goes on to quote the great biblical passage from Jeremiah about the People of God, where we are told that it is precisely the possession and sharing of the law which sets a people apart as God's People: "Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. . .. I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts, and they shall be my people" (Jer 31:31-34).
A people without law is not a people; it is no more than a horde or a mob. It is the possession and observance of a common law that turns a group of individuals into a people, with shared ideals, customs and destiny, who treat one another with justice and respect under an authority that they look up to as the guardian of the common good and the protector of popular rights.
The concept of a "lawless People of God", therefore, is an absurdity. The anti-authority spirit is anomalous in a Christian, however much we may find it among individual Christians today. If it were to become widespread, it would be a total block to the renewal envisaged by the Second Vatican Council.
This becomes more evident still if we reflect that, in most people's expectations, a renewed Church means (among other things) a Church where there is more respect for people's rights. But, as we saw in the last chapter, rights will not be respected unless law is there to protect them, and unless law itself is respected.
The Council, especially in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, "proclaims the rights of man" (GS 41). It insists that these rights must be acknowledged and defended in civil society (GS 26, 73; cf. AA 11). Particular stress is laid on the right to worship (DH 6), the right to marry and have children (GS 52) and the right to education (GE 1).
But the Council was concerned to stress personal rights - and therefore the corresponding personal obligations - also within ecclesial society. Having established the shared dignity of all Christ's faithful, based on the common grace of their baptism (LG 9, 18, 32), it takes special care to list rights of the laity in particular - the right, for instance, to receive from the spiritual goods of the Church (LG 37), to have their own spirituality (AA 4), to do apostolate (AA 3), to express their opinion on matters affecting the good of the Church (LG 37) - without omitting their obligations: e.g. to collaborate with their pastors (LG 33), to follow the authentic teaching of the bishops (LG 32, 35, 37), etc.
This stress on rights and obligations gives added point to the choice of the term "People of God". An ecclesiology of the Body of Christ, for example, only remotely suggests questions of the rights and obligations of the faithful. But such questions enter naturally and necessarily into an ecclesiology of the People of God, with its emphasis on inter-personal and societal relations, on equality of dignity and diversity of function within a shared enterprise, on a communal purpose and an ultimate destiny.
These reflections build up into a major conclusion: that the Council, in making a deliberate choice of the term "People of God" to describe the Church, is directly inviting us to give new importance to law in the life of the Church. It is in fact emphatically suggesting that we will never discover the true path of renewal unless we approach it also from the juridical perspective.
Clerical service and people's rights
Not everyone in a community has the same role to play. People follow different professions or callings, each of which has its own distinctive rights and obligations. However, rights and obligations are not equally emphasized in all ways of life. Service callings - that of a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, etc. - are more strongly characterized by obligations than by rights. The very service nature of these vocations calls on those who follow them to voluntarily renounce certain rights in the service of their fellows. When they pursue their calling in a spirit of generosity and self-forgetfulness, they encourage and uplift the people they serve and act as a leaven of renewal in society as a whole.
Vatican II chose to place very major emphasis on the whole concept of clerical "diakonia" or service [6]. In the internal life of the Church, the clergy are not a privileged class; they are "ministers", i.e. servants, of the rest of the people (cf. Chapter 11). In imitation of Christ the Servant, they are ordained and dedicated to ministering his grace and truth to their brothers. In freely answering their particular calling, clerics too have chosen a service-vocation which, as we have said, is a way of life characterized by obligations more than by rights. Their duty of celibacy (c. 277) makes them freer for service; their duty of obedience (c. 273) means that they can be sent on this or that service-mission as the good of the people requires; their obligation of residence (c. 283) is meant to make them available to the people; their obligation of clerical dress (c. 284) is meant to make them identifiable in public so that the people can more easily call on their services, etc.
The conciliar stress on clerical "diakonia" offers a whole key to renewal, but this key must be grasped properly. In stressing the obligation of the clergy to serve, the Council necessarily stresses the right of the rest of the faithful to that service. The clergy are meant to be wise and faithful servants, and the rest of the faithful have a strict ecclesial right to that faithful service.
Here we could pause and ask: Do the clergy show renewed awareness of their duty to serve? Have they a renewed awareness of the particular rights of the faithful? Are these rights taken as a main standpoint from which to view efforts at renewal? Are they taken as main guidelines for policy decisions? Are they upheld and defended in practice? Are the people themselves aware of their rights?
The fundamental right of each Christian is to enter into a growing communion with Christ, and with others in Christ, by drawing on the spiritual riches of truth and grace that Christ himself has left to his Church. This main right is summed up by canon 213 in these words: "Christ's faithful have the right to be assisted by their pastors from the spiritual riches of the Church, especially by the Word of God and the Sacraments
Many other canons relate more in particular to this fundamental disposition of the Code and are simply aimed at protecting people's access to these riches. For instance, the main church laws regarding the Sacraments are designed to ensure that these seven extraordinary means of grace will always remain what their divine institution has meant them to be - actions of Christ [7] -, and that the people will not be cheated by finding less than an encounter with Christ in each Sacrament. Hence the important laws determining what is necessary for the valid administration or reception of the Sacraments (if a Sacrament is administered or received invalidly, there is an external ceremony but there is no life-giving sacramental encounter with Christ).
Much the same holds good for the people's right to have the riches of God's Word communicated to them. Canon 762 insists that the People of God "are fully entitled to seek this Word from their priests". To this right of the people corresponds the obligation of preachers to exercise a ministry of the Word which must be founded upon Sacred Scripture, Tradition, Liturgy and the Magisterium and life of the Church" (c. 760). If preaching were to offer - as a message that saves - a word not founded on Scripture, Tradition or the Magisterium, it would not be the genuine salvific Word of God, and the people would be cheated in their expectations and rights.
Now it is possible that these last paragraphs, with their insistence that law is needed to regulate worship or the administration of the Sacraments or the preaching of the Word of God, may spark a negative reaction in some readers, especially priests, who feel that such an approach is equivalent to stifling the Holy Spirit or rightful personal spontaneity. In Chapter 9 we try to show that a major way in which the Holy Spirit speaks to us is precisely through law, and a main way in which we show our responsiveness to the Holy Spirit is precisely through obedience to the law. With regard to spontaneity we should say that, while the right to spontaneity is nowhere defined in church law, it certainly can be legitimately defended. There is indeed plenty of room for spontaneity - within the law. Spontaneity outside the law is almost always a sign of individualistic self-assertion and shows a lack of respect for the legitimate rights, tastes and interests of others which the law seeks to protect. Priests, it is worth repeating, are servants of the people, volunteer servants, who have spontaneously offered themselves for service. If they sincerely see themselves as servants of the people, they will have little difficulty in seeing themselves as servants also of the law that protects the rights of the people. Excessive and self-assertive insistence on spontaneity and personal approaches shows a weakened sense of "communio" and a lack of the spirit of service, even though the person in question may not be aware of this, especially if he is adept at the use of community rhetoric.
The complementarity of rights and obligations can never be forgotten. It is certainly easier and more pleasant to claim and exercise rights rather than to acknowledge and fulfill obligations. Nevertheless, a true "rights-lover" will also strive to be a wholehearted "obligations-lover". Self-centeredness, self-concern, is the main reason why people tend to see opposition rather than complementarity between rights and duties. Other-centeredness overcomes this opposition. It is clear that a sense of respect for others is a basic condition if one is to readily accept one's obligations towards them - precisely as an expression of respect for their rights.
This is true for everyone. But the Christian should go beyond this. If he is imitating Christ, his attitude towards others will be not just one of respect but one of service. To serve others, in imitation of Christ (Mt 20:28), is not only an obligation; it is a right and a privilege - also because he sees Christ in them (Mt 25:40).
All Christians can and should have such a fully integrated view of the relationship between rights and duties. The priest should have it in a special way because of his particular call to ministry. Many complaints about "violations" or "denials" of rights evaporate when Christian life - and particularly the priesthood - is understood and lived in this way; i.e. when rights and obligations are seen in the light of service. Take, for instance, the issue of the ordination of women. It is hard not to wonder whether those women who complain about denial of their rights regard the priesthood as an opportunity for service or as a means to "power-sharing". If the latter, then they have the priesthood all wrong (cf. Chapter Ii). If the former, if they really want to serve the Church, would their complaints be so bitter just because one particular way of service - the ministerial priesthood - is not open to them? Those who want to serve do not dictate their conditions of service; they are happy with the particular service God calls them to. Mary, the greatest of human persons, was content to describe herself as "ancilla", servant, slave, of the Lord.
As a genuine spirit of service grows, law and authority come to be not only tolerated and obeyed, but looked up to and loved.
Whose rights are more threatened?
The real threat within the Church nowadays is not so much that the law will oppress individual rights, but that individual action (or rather individualist action) may violate the rights of the great body of the faithful. The law is there precisely to defend those rights of the ordinary people.
The people have the right to liturgical celebrations which express the true purpose and spirit of the liturgy, and not just the moods and preferences of the celebrant. They have the further right (which is a requirement derived from their Christian dignity) that they should not be made objects of experimentation in the liturgy (so as to see their "response", how much they will "stand", etc.).
The priest given to liturgical experiment and innovation may find the law restrictive. The reason is that the law, in such cases, is not on his side but on the side of the people.
Similarly, the parish priest who neglects to administer the Sacraments to his people or who imposes modes or ways for the reception of the Sacraments which are not required by church law, is violating the rights of the people.
The Code of Canon Law says that the governing authority of a Catholic University is to ensure that teachers are "outstanding in their integrity of doctrine", and "are removed from office" if they are not (c. 810). This is to protect the rights of students who go to a Catholic University to receive a Catholic formation there.
Effective concern for the rights of the people is a major test of community sense and of service. Who is showing more concern for the people's rights: the theologian who claims the freedom to present - as Catholic doctrine - whatever he likes to the people, or the Magisterium which says to the people: this or that part of Fr X's theology is not Catholic teaching, is not compatible with the message of salvation that Christ entrusted to his Church? [8]
Who is showing a greater spirit of "diakonia" or service towards the people? Who is showing an awareness not just of personal rights but also of personal obligations and a readiness to fulfill them? ... The theologian is claiming the right not only to teach what he likes but also to give his teaching greater authority by attaching the tag "Catholic teaching" to it. But what obligation - towards God or towards the people - is he fulfilling? The Magisterium is indeed fulfilling an obligation - laid on it forcefully by Christ and never more burdensome to fulfill than today - to guard the deposit of truth for the sake of the people. Thus it is protecting the people's rights.
The theologian can say to the Magisterium: what is at stake is my right to think what I choose. The Magisterium can reply: you have the right to think what you choose, but not the right to call anything you choose to think Catholic. What is at stake here is not only the Truth of Christ but also the people's right - their freedom - to know that Truth without confusion.
Is the Church a democracy?
The Church is not a human institution. It was founded not by men but by Jesus Christ. Christ gave it its fundamental constitution (cf. Chapter 10), which is not that of a democracy - in the sense of a society ruled by the people through delegates whom the people freely choose and can freely remove from office. The Church is not a democratic society, but is in fact a "hierarchically constituted society" (LG 20), ruled by persons appointed from above.
This is the doctrine of Vatican II confirming the teaching of the centuries. It is noteworthy that Chapter Two of Lumen gentium, "The People of God", is followed immediately by a chapter entitled "The Church is Hierarchical". In its opening paragraph this chapter states that "Christ the Lord set up in his Church a variety of offices ... (whose) holders are invested with a sacred power" and continues, even more emphatically: "this sacred synod, following in the steps of the First Vatican Council, teaches and declares with it that Jesus Christ, the eternal pastor, set up the holy Church by entrusting the apostles with their mission as He himself has been sent by the Father. He willed that their successors, the bishops, should be the shepherds in his Church until the end of the world. In order that the episcopate itself, however, might be one and undivided He put Peter at the head of the other apostles, and in him He set up a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion" (LG 18).
That the Church is not a democracy may well not appeal to the sentiments of contemporary man. But surely what matters here is not the will of men but the will of God. Debate about the question of whether the Church "ought" to be a democracy makes no sense if its divine Founder thought otherwise; to campaign for a democratization of the constitution of the Church is to campaign for a form of church which would no longer be the Church founded by Jesus Christ.
However, in affirming that there are no grounds in Vatican II for suggesting that the Church is a democracy or should be turned into one, we are not implying that Vatican II did not mark a break with the idea of autocratic exercise of power or did not seek to guard against arbitrariness in government. It did. Further, it emphasized concepts - collegiality, for instance, or corresponsibility, or participation - that certainly bear an affinity to what can be broadly called the "democratic process".
The new Code gives ample proof of how this collegial or participatory process is meant to enter into the work of running the Church. The Synod of Bishops (cc. 334, 342-348) gives particular expression to the collegial spirit on a universal level. Its findings or recommendations clearly carry the greatest weight in shaping overall church policy. It would be hard for the Roman Pontiff to ignore them even if he were so inclined. At the diocesan level, a Council of Priests, which acts as the bishop's senate, is mandated by law (c. 495); a bishop would act unlawfully if he did not provide for the establishment of the Council of Priests or did not consult it in major matters (cf. cc. 461, 515, 536, 1263). A College of Consultors must also exist (c.502); and there are certain cases where the bishop cannot act without the approval of this College (cf e.g. cc. 272, 485, 1277, 1291, 1292) or of the Diocesan Finance Committee (cc. 1277, 1291, 1292). Further, there should be a Diocesan Pastoral Council (cc. 511-514). Similarly, at parish level, the Code mandates a Finance Committee (c. 537) and recommends a Pastoral Council (c. 536).
However, rather than review the modes in which the collegiate or participatory spirit can be applied to church life, I should like here to direct attention to two ideas that seem to be floating in the minds of those who hanker after a "democratic" Church.
Is the Church a free society?
Some people find it hard to accept the statement that the Church is not a democracy because they take it as implying that the Church is not a free society. But does freedom exist only in a democracy, or is a democracy the only safeguard for freedom?
It is enough to think of the self-styled "people's democracies" of communist countries to realize that invoking the magic word "democracy" does not always reveal a concern for true freedom or promote its existence. It is also true that in many democracies of the West, freedom is endangered or on the decline; there is clearly less of it than fifty years ago. Growing interventionism on the part of governments and bureaucracies, the injustice of many legislative measures, the manipulation of people's opinions by the media, exploitation on the part of firms, individualism on the part of private persons, all tend to violate human rights and erode freedom.
The fact is that the key condition for freedom is not democracy but justice: the effective protection provided to freedom by the existence of just laws and their proper enforcement. This is always true. In no society can there be any true or lasting freedom except under the law.
The Church, then, though not a democracy, is a free society not only because one belongs to it freely, but - more importantly - because it is built on the knowledge and possession of the Truth of Christ the acceptance of which makes man free (Tn 8:32). That is why its fundamental laws, derived from that truth, constitute "the perfect law of freedom" (Jas 1:25).
St James, be it noted, does not say "freedom from the law" or "freedom without law", but the law of freedom. In other words, it is within the law of Christ that we find freedom.
Another mistaken notion that keeps clouding our mental atmosphere is the idea that in a participatory or collegial society law is somehow less binding. This is quite false. It is a reflection of the erroneous belief we saw earlier that "popularizing" or "democratizing" trends loosen the bonds of authority and exempt people from respect towards it.
It is not correct to think that an emphasis on collegiality means a de-emphasis on authority. Collegiality (just like subsidiarity) refers to modes or processes through which authority may be exercised in a society. It refers especially to the way certain authoritative decisions are arrived at. It does not and cannot mean that there is to be less authority, or that each one is entitled to despise authority, to ignore decisions or laws legitimately given and to do what he or she chooses.
Some priests today and some lay Catholics have assimilated a lot of the modern secular spirit that finds submission to authority particularly irksome. That is undoubtedly a problem; but it should remain their problem. When they talk and write and agitate as if the majority of the People of God found the yoke of authority oppressive and wished to be under no authority, they are basically extrapolating their own problem and trying to communicate their own restlessness to others. I suppose that all Christians today, as those of any past age, find Christ's law difficult; it has always been difficult. But the vast majority of the faithful are not inclined to resent church authority or to rebel against it. No one, after all, is forcing them to be Catholics or forcing them to try, with their ups and downs, to live as Catholics. They are Catholics because they choose to be. And they choose to look to their pastors for ministry, for guidance, for rulings, for the government of dioceses and parishes, etc.
That some elements outside the Church try to stir up a sense of friction between pastors and people may be lamentable, but is easy enough to understand. It is also understandable that some priests burdened with restlessness find their burden a troublesome cross (if they carry it well - which also means quietly - it can become a cross that saves and sanctifies). What is not so understandable is that some of them read their burden into (and, worse, unload it onto) the minds of the people entrusted to their pastoral care. Pastors are meant to carry burdensome sheep, but not to become themselves burdensome shepherds.
A brief but important consideration suggests itself here. A man who does not respect authority when he is under it, is not fit to wield it. A person who has not obeyed just law is hardly likely to administer it justly. Many possible episcopal appointees are no doubt disqualified on this account.
A brief word, too, on exclusion from the community. One can - perhaps - belong to "oneself' on one's own terms. One cannot belong to a people or a community on one's own terms, but only on common terms. Common acceptance of goals and laws and guidance defines a people.
One can belong to a constituted people only on constitutional terms. A people must have a common constitution, written or unwritten. In the case of the Church, the People of God, that common constitution was given by Jesus Christ. Those Christians who hold themselves free to redefine or rewrite that constitution in their own terms are separating themselves from the People by a process of self-chosen marginalization.
A person can be excluded from the community - in other words, he can be excommunicated - by the act of those of the community who are invested with authority. The danger nowadays is rather that a person, by refusing to accept the common law, the common inheritance, the patrimony of the People of God, excommunicates himself (cf. Chapter 16).
Vindicating one's rights
We have been emphasizing the obligations of the members of a community to accept the just decisions of those in authority. But, what if those decisions are unjust, or doubtfully just?
Naturally if an interested party feels that a particular decision or action is detrimental to the common good or to the rights of others or to his own rights [9], then in justice it must be possible for him to make recourse through proper channels of appeal.
Title I of Book Two of the Code of Canon Law, listing the obligations and rights of all Christ's faithful, says that "Christ's faithful may lawfully vindicate and defend the rights they enjoy in the Church, before the competent ecclesiastical forum in accordance with the law" (c. 221, 1); this includes the right to appeal. So every one of the faithful is entitled to have recourse to a higher ecclesiastical authority if he or she feels that justice has not been done at a lower level. Canons 1628ff deal with appeals against ecclesiastical judgments; and canons 1732ff with recourse against acts of administration.
With the new emphasis on rights and obligations it is very important that all Christ's faithful, lay people as well as clerics, be aware of what their proper rights and obligations are, and of the channels through which, when necessary, they can defend their rights against abusive action or omission by others. Diocesan bishops have a particular responsibility to respect people's rights to appeal from diocesan tribunals to metropolitan or higher courts (cc. 1438-1439). Not to do so would be a grave abuse of authority and a violation of justice.
Currently we have a situation in the Church where the clergy tend to be strongly conscious of their rights but, perhaps, do not have an equally keen consciousness of their obligations. Lay Christians, by contrast, are rather hazy about both their rights and obligations; they know little of the conciliar emphasis on clerical "diakonia" or service, and in consequence are largely unaware of the nature of the service that the clergy are meant to provide to the laity and to which therefore they, the laity, have a right.
The press frequently enough reports complaints by clerics that their rights are not sufficiently respected by bishops or the Holy See, yet very seldom reports similar complaints by lay people directed against their bishop or parish priest. This contrast could be explained in different ways. It could be that priests are more respectful towards the rights of the lay people they serve than are bishops or the Holy See towards priests' rights. Or it could be that priests are more sensitive about their own rights than lay people are about theirs. Or it could also be that lay people are simply not aware of their rights, and therefore not aware of possible violations of those rights, committed by clerics.
Let us consider a simple example to which we made a brief reference earlier. Lay people have the right to the ministry of priests and to be able to identify those who are appointed to serve them. Canon 284 prescribes that "clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical dress". Most clerics see an irksome element in this requirement; understandably enough they find casual lay attire more comfortable to wear. Some maintain that wearing lay dress brings them "closer" to lay people, without apparently realizing that many lay people object to the lack of openness they find in this tactic. Others, going further, actively criticize the use of clerical dress as if it implied "status-seeking" or the defence of a dated "caste" system. The fact nowadays, in any event, is that few priests wear any distinctive clerical dress in the street [10], and that lay people complain that they can seldom identify priests in public. It is hard to see what elements of "renewal" can underlie this phenomenon.
May we suggest that this is a matter which priests tend to see from a rather narrow and self-concerned viewpoint - that of their own convenience - and not from the viewpoint of the rights of the faithful? The purpose of the law is indeed that the priest should be set apart and distinguishable (cf. PO 3), not however as a man entitled to or claiming privilege, but as one who is ready at all time to serve; its clear purpose is that the people should be able to identify their ministers and servants.
More deeply disturbing, therefore, than the failure to observe the law would be the failure to understand it: i.e. to understand both that it underpins a particular expression of priestly service and that it also protects an important right of the faithful.
Canon 284 is one more example of how a law directed to servants is likely to remain a dead letter if the spirit of service is insufficiently understood or insufficiently present. A general restoration of priestly and religious garb can only be expected when clerics come to understand and to love the law regarding clerical dress - the sign of their interior readiness to serve. The process can be hastened if lay people who like to see their priests dress as priests (the vast majority of lay people) remind the priests whom they know that there is a law to this effect, and that this law confers on the laity a right and an expectation that priests should not defraud. But in the end it is only a renewed sense of service on the part of priests that will lead to a renewed desire to be available and identifiable at all times for that service.
The post-conciliar Code - a key to renewal
Our considerations so far should point to the unique importance of the new Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983. The fruit of twenty years of study and consultation between Rome and the bishops and experts of the whole world, Pope John Paul appropriately called it the "last document of the Second Vatican Council" [11]. In effect it seeks to give juridical expression to the ecclesiological insights and pastoral spirit of the Council, so much so that it can well be termed the Code of Vatican II or "the Law of the People of God".
This is a fundamental law of renewal. Unless this law is known, observed and loved, no renewal of the People of God is possible.
I am quite aware that this last affirmation may be greeted with raised eyebrows, or with laughter, in certain quarters. If this occurs, however, it is a sign of how confused some people's ecclesiological thinking and social sense has become. All our efforts at renewal will remain ineffectual and will only end in abuse, discouragement and decline, until we see that love for God and love for God's people necessarily implies love for justice and love for law. Rights will not be respected, obligations will not be fulfilled, remedies for abuses will not be found, ministry will not truly express itself as self-sacrificing service, the People of God will not live in the true harmony of a people, nor will they "serve God in holiness" (LG 9), unless the renewed common law of the People - the Code - is known, respected and put into effect.
The present moment in fact presents a critical paradox inasmuch as we have an optimum instrument for renewal, and little desire to use it. We have acquired a well thought-out law, but retain a poor way of thinking about law.
The new Code, in short, comes at a good moment in the post- Conciliar efforts at renewal. It also comes at a bad moment. It comes at a good moment because we need it. It comes at a bad moment because we are not prepared for it. The advent of the 1983 Code necessarily marks a testing point of the sincerity of approaches to renewal. The renewed Code should have been looked forward to expectantly, above all by those who are particularly called to service. Instead it was largely feared. When it came, it should have been welcomed with joy and eagerly put into effect. In fact it is in danger of being ignored and remaining a dead-letter. If this happens, we Catholics can become an increasingly individualistic and lawless people. And a lawless people is a non populus meus, "No-people-of-Mine", in the words of the Lord (cf. Hosea 1:9).
The new Code of Canon Law which expresses the ecclesiology and the spirit of Vatican II in juridical form, can be properly described as the legal instrument for renewal.
But - it may be objected - can one bring about reform or renewal simply by legislation or legal enactment? One clearly cannot, at least in a voluntary society like the Church, unless the members of the society themselves actively back the legislation.
But I would maintain that though legislation cannot bring about reform on its own, it remains an essential condition to reform. No spontaneous reform is likely to last or to be just, unless it can be and is legislated. Here it is worth recalling the obvious. Vatican II, considered as a movement or phenomenon of renewal, was not something spontaneous nor did it begin at the "grass roots" level. It began at "the top", with Pope John XXIII; and its renewing message has been conveyed to us through conciliar and post- conciliar legislation. It is this legislation that needs to be implemented at the grass-roots level. Measures of renewal need legal expression, implementation and protection. Otherwise they will be ineffectual and will not enter into the life of the people, bringing renewed Christian spirit to both clergy and laity.
We have a renewed law. We need a renewed approach to law, so that we neither put the new law cavalierly to one side nor interpret it subjectively. Subjectivism and individualism rupture fellowship. No community can be fashioned of individuals each of whom is a law to himself. A "common" law subordinate to the subjective interpretation of each member of a community is not a common law. When people no longer hold themselves subject to the law but rather subject it to themselves, then law can no longer hold people together as a people. The people become a lawless people, and fragment.
The People of God need a common law
This, then, is the thesis of the first part of our study. If we are to be a People - and not just a series of disconnected groups or individuals - we need a common law; we cannot become a renewed people without it.
Despite many achievements over the past forty years, the whole issue of church renewal remains a big question mark. A main reason is that many of the faithful in general, and of the clergy in particular, having failed to grasp the deeper implications of key conciliar ideas - "communio", "People", "diakonia-service" -, have also failed to see how the prevalent individualism of the secular world is at logger-heads with these key conciliar principles, and how its presence in the Church is an effective block to renewal. An individualistic faith is not compatible with any true participation in the life of a people.
Individualism is opposed to communio, opposed to service, opposed to any real sense of belonging to a People or any real concern for the good of the People. Individualism means self-centeredness, and is utterly opposed to diakonia, communio, People of God, all of which are powerful calls to "other-centeredness".
This has been, and continues to be, our problem: thinking that renewal is compatible with an anti-law mentality; trying to combine communio and individualism, people-centeredness with self-centeredness, concern for rights with contempt for authority.
Renewal in the Church has never been the work of individualists: schism and heresy have. Renewal has always been brought about by community-centered persons imbued with a spirit of service and forgetful of their personal rights.
Advanced liturgies, trendy sermons, experimental pastoral approaches, do not necessarily show love for others or a spirit of service towards them. Concern for their rights does. This is the turning point we have to reach. When it becomes habitual for priests to ask: what are the rights of the people?, what service are they entitled to expect from me?, what do I owe them?, then the ministers will be truly community servants and community builders; then we will have embarked on the path of renewal.
The Council, in showing special preference for the term "People of God", opened up juridical perspectives that we have yet to pursue in practice. A renewed ecclesiology will not be possible if it does not go hand in hand with a thorough renewal of legal science where the true vivifying and liberating nature of law and authority are understood.
If we want a more positive concept of law we have it in the fact that law is the defence of freedom, the charter on which human rights are proclaimed and held up for all to see. And if we want a less impersonal concept of authority, we have it in the fact that behind church authority stands Christ with his personal call to find him and to respond to him there: "whoever listens to you, listens to me" (Lk 10, 16).
No doubt the Code of 1983 is improvable in its human elements. But renewal of the Church does not have to wait on our once again renewing the law. It depends on our definitively renewing our attitude towards the law. And this will take both an intellectual effort - to understand the positive value of law as the protector of rights - and a moral effort - to conform to the law and to fulfill our obligations at least as keenly as we exercise our rights.
Serene and deep reflection, and plenty of mental adjustment, will be necessary if we are to understand these various key points and act on them.
The Chosen People of old began to be a People - God's People - once they were given a law. They were renewed and prospered and fulfilled their mission when they observed that law. They went into spiritual decline, social decay and subjugation when they turned from the law. No one would wish for a law quite as detailed as the waywardness of the Jewish people apparently demanded. But we do need a law that is sufficiently specific to ensure that the new People of God have access to the Truth and Grace of Christ, so that both the direction they follow and the dynamism they enjoy and communicate come from him.
Only a renewed People of God will renew the world. The signs of the times should be easy to read. Our individualistic world needs the witness of Christians who have overcome individualism, and love the community bonds and obligations that bind and keep them together. Our selfish world needs the witness of Christians who live the spirit of service, and so love all that promotes the good of others. Our lawless world needs the witness of Christians who freely love the law - the liberating law - and look up to authority as the guardian of individual rights and common liberties.
Only a Church which is truly a united people, one in ideals, one in love for laws, one in respect for rights, one in acceptance of authority, can be "that messianic people which is a most sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race" (LG 9).
* * *
We will now conclude these broad introductory considerations and go on to deal with more specific topics concerning freedom and authority within the Church. One further point, however, should be noted. The anti-law attitude in the Church is not just anti-authority, it is anti-institution. It tends to be, or become, hostile to the whole concept of institutional religion or of the institutional Church, which it sees as a block to the freedom of the spirit or the freedom of Christ.
This attitude of mistrust towards the institutional Church which is so widespread today is a consequence not primarily of possible past abuses of church government, but rather of weakened present faith in the way Christ is living and working in the visible Church.
Therefore, while our study has begun with more legal concepts - law, rights, obligations -, we will gradually shift through personalist themes of freedom and conscience to an ecclesiological perspective, trying to achieve an understanding of the Church seen as no mere juridical or authoritarian institution but as the organ or means by which the living Christ continues to come to us with his saving power and truth.
In the end is not the merely institutional aspect of the Church's being that ought to enamor us, but the sacramental aspect: the mystery of the Church as "the sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all men" (LG I).