Sunday, July 1, 2007

Power versus Service

A couple of weeks ago, a friend forwarded an article from the National Catholic Reporter ( The NCR is one of the more militantly liberal papers in the Catholic world and, as you might expect, it isn't normally at the top of my reading list. However, this particular article did catch my interest. It was written by John Allen, a thoughtful man, who, though theologically liberal to the core, tends to write with a balance and grace that is worth reading. His column this time was on the just-concluded annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America. For those of you who are not familiar with the CTSA, it is probably safe to say that the society is an organization of liberal academics who spend much of their time challenging church doctrine. I'll admit that the last sentence borders on the "catty", but a quick perusal of the documents of the CTSA will show it to be true.

Allen wrote of the speech given by Daniel Finn, the President of CTSA, in which Finn described the changing approach of the CTSA. Finn stated that, in the past, CTSA had issued position papers that openly debated points of church teaching. Now, Finn says, this has become an ineffective strategy. He says that this type of direct, confrontational approach is no longer effective and that Vatican congregations will not even pay positive attention to this type of activity or use it to facilitate dialogue (which simply translates, "We'll talk until you agree with me.") Instead, Finn stated that dealing with theological opponents and with the Vatican calls for a new understanding of "power" and its exercise.

Allen writes, "Finn’s comments came as part of a broader analysis of power, in which he argued that theologians have been insufficiently attentive to the way that power operates, which he described as 'part of the software of daily life.' He drew on his experience in community organizing, as well as in higher education, to lay out a theory of how power – in both good and bad forms – works in daily human interactions.

"An understanding of power, Finn suggested, among other things leads to an appreciation for the importance of maintaining relationships in obtaining one’s aims. He quoted a maxim among community organizers that the most powerful person in a community is usually the one with the longest list of phone numbers."

This problem of power highlights what, I think, is one of the major sticking points between liberal Christians and more traditionally-minded ones. That one could even frame a discussion in these terms suggests that liberals see Christianity in terms of the Hegelian Dialectic. For those who do not recall the dialectic, it is the theory that suggests that life is a series of unending conflicts between a dominant thesis against which is developed an antithesis. These two engage in a struggle for power until a synthesis emerges which then becomes a new thesis. And so on. Karl Marx used the philosophy of Hegel to create his Communist Manifesto. In this line of thinking, the struggle is everything because the synthesis is most often written by the winner.

For a liberal Christian, then, the idea of a fixed Revelation is ludicrous because Revelation is constantly being modified and expanded as it goes through ever more syntheses. This is why a liberal Christian can support women's ordination or homosexual marriage and do so with a straight face. To them, as Christianity has developed, its understanding of itself and its place in the world has changed. Christianity, then, must modify itself to accommodate these changes or risk irrelevance. Power for them is a tool to be wielded in order to shape the faith for a new generation. The faith is not a deposit to be protected and cherished, but a lived experience that is ever-changing according to the time.

Now compare that with what a traditional Christian, such as an Anglican Catholic, believes. We believe that God has acted definitively and for all time in the person of Jesus Christ. We believe that the faith which has been given to the Apostles has been passed on and lives through the bishops, whose primary obligation is to see to it that the faith is preserved whole and entire for future generations. The primary task for the traditional Christian, then, is not the exercise of power in order to shape the faith. It is, however, the exercise of service to the Tradition, a submission to it, if you will. For Christians like us, our concern is to see to it that the faith that our children receive is the same faith that we received. This means that we place ourselves at the service of the Scriptures; we resist changes in liturgy and worship. We don't do this because we are clutching at ecclesiastical power. Rather we do this in order to maintain that which was given to us.

Liberal Christians seek to exercise power to bring about change. They seek to remake the Church in the world's image. Traditional Christians seek to exercise service to the Word and Tradition. They seek to remake the world in Christ's image. I'll side with the traditional.


Anonymous said...

Dear father Jones,
This article goes a long way in explaining why liberals also believe that our US constitution and Bill of Rights are "living documents" that must be modified over time in order not to become obsolete.
I'm certain the Ten Commandments will soon be under attack as being "behind the times." One modification you might see with "Thou shalt not commit adultry" is the tag line........unless you're out of town on a business trip, you've been having problems at home with your spouse, and you happen to meet somebody at a convention that you really connect with, that you swear is your soul mate. THEN it's OK. Whatever...
God Bless you, Father.
John Snyder

Father Bob Jones said...

Dear John,

EVERYTHING is grist for the mill, because EVERYTHING is in constant dialectical struggle.

Thanks for your response.