By Msgr. Francis X. Meehan
A few weeks ago, New York Times op-ed writer David Brooks wrote on the importance of institutions in American life. He spoke of family, school, profession, banking and even sports. The codes of an institution have a history, a communal logic not always easily understood until they unravel – as in a banking crisis, or when home run hitters admit of drug enhancement.
Brooks quotes Ryne Sandberg (inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005): “I was in awe every time I walked onto the field … I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do, play it right and with respect.”
Brooks’ argument is against a certain form of inspanidualism in our culture. He writes against an inspanidualist anti-institutionalism that cloaks itself in good ideas; ideas of personal discovery, thinking outside the box, following your own star, breaking the mold. And yet, within the excitement of these visions, something healthy, something wise, something of the common good is tragically lost.
As I read Brooks’ insights, I could not help but think about what is sometimes called “the institutional Church.” How often, today, we hear someone say “I am spiritual but not religious,” or “I am a Christian, but I cannot belong to the institutional Church.” Before such claims, we, as pastors and as a Catholic people, must tread carefully. We respect the longings that often lie behind such statements.
In some cases, a person’s disaffiliation with the Church-as-institution is based on something trivial, like, “The pastor is closing the gym for the Holy Week Triduum.” At other times, the reaction has to do with more serious concerns such as true scandal or honest struggling with moral issues.
Yet, all too often, today’s inspanidualist disenchantment is a kind of unthinking drift, a cultural pull, an under-appreciation of all that the Church has done and has been over the years: in works of charity, ways of worship, love, spiritual teaching, announcing Good News, giving meaning to life and death, sorrow and suffering, preserving, holding on, and most of all, in caring for people up close and far away.
I remember one argument that transpired during the Second Vatican Council between several great theologians. One theologian was holding for the importance of a Catholicism which people would be less “born into,” one that is more intentional, one presuming a deeper inspanidual conversion. Important things for sure! Yet, the other theologian wisely cautioned against losing a sense of the structure, the gift of a larger place where the inarticulate, the un-reformed, all of us can run to as a home of last resort, a place where the right thing is expected even without thinking about it. It is this latter point that catches the gift of the Church-as-institution!
The Church-as-institution is sometimes all too bodily. It even seems, at times, to carry a leper’s sores; it can manifest all too visible historical wounds. And yet, it is this Church, this Body of Christ, that we (together with Mary) must take down from the cross and gently pour oil and nard on the wounds in sure knowledge of a coming morning of resurrection.
Strange how a secular writer, David Brooks, writing in the context of a financial crisis, can remind us of hidden gifts of Church structure, ritual, moral codes, important teachings and of a Church institution we call home.
Msgr. Meehan is a former teacher and pastor who now helps in spiritual direction for students at St. Charles Seminary.