Thursday, 5 January 2012

Heaven now or later: What is the Church's mission?

Over at Sentire Cum Ecclesia David Schutz has queried my description of the Church's mission in an earlier post as being about 'getting people to heaven'. 

I'm not sure that I've entirely understood the nuances of what he is saying, but if I've interpreted his post correctly he seems to be reflecting the contemporary ambivalence about a focus on individual salvation (viz going to heaven), and advocating instead a focus on transforming ourselves and this world here and now.

In this light, it is worth recalling then Blessed Pope John Paul II's warning in Redemptoris Missio, of the dangers of an excessive focus on this world:

"Nowadays the kingdom is much spoken of, but not always in a way consonant with the thinking of the Church. In fact, there are ideas about salvation and mission which can be called "anthropocentric" in the reductive sense of the word, inasmuch as they are focused on man's earthly needs…The kingdom of God, however, "is not of this not from the world" (Jn 18:36)."

Regardless of whether I've understood David correctly, this is one of those key dividing issues in perspective between the more traditionally inclined, and many conservatives and liberals in the Church today, so I thought it would be worth setting out some of the context for the debate.

The selfishness of salvation?

It is, I think, Romano Amerio in his book Iota Unum who has best articulated the paradigm shift in the Church which elevates action now over contemplation, and service of man now over our ultimate salvation.  In relation to religious life, for example, he suggests that:

"The new end assigned to the religious life is the service of man rather than the service of God, or rather the service of man identified with the service of God, and it rests upon the false assumption that man’s end is not and cannot be his own salvation, because to aim at that would be a kind of theological utilitarianism."

In essence, the traditional concept is that holiness is measured by charity, not works, and that we should "seek first the kingdom of heaven".  Many today however de facto reverse this proposition, interpreting Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes as promoting a notion of holiness based on action in transforming this world.

Sr Carmel Pilcher, for example, wrote a Cath News blog a year or so back, pointing to the importance of religious life not in terms of helping others to heaven, but in transforming the here and now.  She even went so far as to say that

"Many [religious] die as they live, not with their own salvation uppermost in mind, but imploring a loving God to be compassionate toward the poor and the needy."

False ideas of heaven?

There are, I think, three key things that lie behind this paradigm shift.

The first is an entirely protestant notion of salvation, namely that we are either "saved" or not, from some definitive moment when we 'accept Christ into our lives'. If we are saved now, then of course, heaven can be realized to some degree on earth amongst the justified at least.  This idea also implicitly means that we don't need to keep worrying about whether we are saved, but rather can take final perseverance at the point of death for granted.

Moreover, courtesy of the influence of Rahner's concept of  'anonymous Christians' and that unfortunate mistranslation in the Mass ('for many' vs 'for all'), many modern Catholics seem to think that pretty much everyone is justified regardless of whether or not they ever actually gave any indication of being a practising Christian!

But of course, these notions are entirely contrary to Catholic doctrine.  In summary, Catholic teaching:
  • insists on us as inherently sinful creatures with a tendency to fall back into sin even after baptism and needing to be constantly in a state of conversion;
  • requires us to be baptised as the normal means to salvation, make an explicit choice to accept God's offer of salvation made possible by the sacrifice of the Cross, and be in a state of grace; 
  • sees salvation - and the process of sanctification - as an ongoing process, whereby we seek to become ever more holy, ever closer to God to the extent possible in this world;
  • holds that our choice for God is not final until our death, and final perseverance requires a special grace; and
  • understands that the fullest vision of God we are capable of will be realised after our death in heaven.
The second reason is, I think, an entirely false concept of what heaven is and what we will be doing there, perhaps unduly influenced by the Muslim concept of heaven (remember those virgins in reward to martyrs!) aptly satirised by The Simpson's inter alia (you know the one, unfortunately no longer available on youtube where the protestant heaven was filled with boring people praying, while the catholics were having a wild party...).

The nature of heaven is a great mystery, with Scripture and the tradition giving us only hints and brief glimpses in the form of visions.  But I think we can pretty much state firmly that the idea of heaven as a kind of hedonistic paradise devoted to the pursuit of sensual pleasures is not a Catholic one!

The third and most fundamental reason, though, is I think, that if we start talking about heaven (rather than nice safer terms that have become almost euphemisms in modern culture such as the 'kingdom'), then we are inevitably drawn to also think about that other place - you know, the one that if we must think about it, we like to tell ourselves is probably, almost certainly, maybe empty, viz hell!

A difference in perspective that matters

At one level this is not really a doctrinal debate, but a matter of perspective. Yet is a difference in perspective that has profound implications.  And it is about where we perceive the world as at in relation to the realization of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The split is, I think, between those who see the kingdom of heaven as essentially already here as a result of the Resurrection, such that the Second Coming will arrive, as Scott Hahn has argued for example, 'not with a bang but a whimper'; and those such as Pope Benedict XVI who tend to emphasis the 'already but not yet' nature of the time we live in. 

The second perspective is of course the one I share, and argues, as Pope Benedict XVI puts it in the Spirit of the Liturgy, that though the Eucharist takes us back to the historical Pasch as its foundation, it also points forward to a future which is as yet still mediated by earthly signs: we do not yet see the Lord 'as he is'.

The effects of this difference in perspective are profound. 

If you see heaven as essentially already realised in the here and now, then of course the Church's mission must be to work first for justice for all now. 

If, however, you see this as rather a time of dawn, still partly in shadow rather than a realized reality, your priorities will be quite different: in the words of American Catholic thinker Robert Royal, the world has a severely limited importance because of what it truly is for us: a brief interlude between two eternities in which all things are passing.

What we do now does matter...

This doesn't mean that we can neglect our earthly duties of course!  Rather, I think it means that rather than simply looking to see the immediate effects of our thoughts and actions, the traditional perspective sees all our thoughts and actions also having a spiritual dimension and effect.

My view is that every moment of every day counts, and not just in the ways we can see. 

Firstly our thoughts and actions affect others not just directly, but indirectly: if we pray for others; assist at Mass or the Office; or offer our suffering for them, we can, provided we are in a state of grace, add to the spiritual treasury of the Church. 

Even when it comes to the corporal works of mercy, what really counts is not just or even primarily their direct effect, but the charity with which we carry them out, which can also aid even those not being directly helped by the good work in question.  And the converse applies: sin affects not just ourselves and our relationship to God, but the whole fabric of reality.

Secondly, our thoughts and actions as we strive for perfection affect our future: we can 'lay up treasure for ourselves in heaven'.  What this means in practise is, the more perfect we are when we die, the greater the degree of perfection of the beatific vision that will be open to us.  Heaven, in other words, is not just an in or out thing, but has varying degrees of  'rewards'.  So too when it comes to the punishments of hell - the worse your sins, the greater the punishment!  And this means that we can be a little more relaxed about the outcomes we can see.  Justice, in the traditional view, may not be realised in this life, but it will be realised!

Finally, though we think about heaven as a reward - and of course it is - we shouldn't think our work for the good is over once we get there.  Those in heaven continue to aid us, doing 'good works' by their intercession, and they participate in the heavenly liturgy of praising God that we participate in in shadow. 

The nature of heaven remains a great mystery, but we shouldn't let ourselves get sucked into some notion that aiming to live with God, the absolute good, is somehow a selfish objective, or that it isn't the Church's job to get as many people as possible there!


Bernie said...

It's a topic with huge potential for fruitful reflection and nuance - yet, we mustn't lose sight of the practical essentials.

Kate, I think you would like how Pope Benedict once summed it up very simply:

‘Esta é a finalidade, e não outra, a finalidade da Igreja, a salvação das almas, uma a uma.’

‘This, and nothing else, is the purpose of the Church: the salvation of souls, one by one.’

(Address to the Bishops of Brazil, 11 May 2007)

(I've included the Portuguese original since the official Vatican English translation finishes, with less poetic force, '...the salvation of individual souls.')

Kate said...

Yes indeed Bernie, a great quote!

Schütz said...

No, Kate, you have completely misunderstood my point. I tried to post a reply here, but blogspot limits the length of replies, so I have had to post it on my own blog:

Kate said...

Brevity is a virtue David, so let me try once more and sum up what you are saying.

We need to construct something that is meangingful to peple now which implies not being about salvation, but not just a social Gospel either? So what precisely is it that you are advocating?

Schütz said...

Composing an answer on my blog - once again! Sorry about being "selfish" in using my space rather than yours for this debate - but in part it is because I want to have my thoughts and your counter thoughts in one place for future reference (that doctoral dissertation, maybe?)!

Kate said...

Have fun with that Phd David.

But I think you've conceded now that the business of the Church actually is salvation, and all you are argung about now is how we sell that content.

Give that my original post wasn't actually about that topic but rather the position we are in to conduct the mission of the Church, however you wnat to conceptualise that, I'm gong to take this as a win, sort of.