By JUDE DOUGHERTY
At a time of when strong ecclesiastical leadership is warranted as the West drifts further from its historical anchorage, the voice of Church seems to be muted or confused. With reason, Pope Francis has been accused of deliberate ambiguity, given that he has not responded to repeated calls for clarification of his teaching in Amoris Laetitia, and now as reported in the pages of this newspaper [see story by LifeSiteNews, The Wanderer, March 2, 2017, p. 1], the new head of the Jesuit Order, Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal, seems to call into question the literal meaning of Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage (Matt. 19:3-6).
“The words of Jesus must be contextualized,” he has said in an interview. “Over the last century in the Church there has been a great blossoming of studies that seek to understand what Jesus meant to say.”
If doctrine must be replaced in favor of the “discernment” of the true meaning of the words of Sacred Scripture, what are we to make of Christ’s words at the Last Supper?
Given that the Church seems to be unsure of itself under its present leadership, Jacques Maritain’s treatise on the Church and her personnel is worth revisiting. “To speak of the ‘person’ of the Church,” Maritain says, “is to recognize a certain transcendence in time of a body that remains essentially the same. Just as a human being is not to be identified with the personality it manifests on a given day or at a given period in life, the visible Church cannot be identified with one council or one papacy.”
Maritain’s reflections on the subject are to be found in his last complete book, On the Church of Christ: The Person of the Church and Her Personnel. Published in English translation from the French in the year of his death (1973), it was ignored by the secular media and given scant attention in the Catholic press.
It followed by seven years the publication of Le Paysan de la Garonne, which had earned Maritain the enmity of the Catholic left for its critique of some of the theology developing in the wake of Vatican II. John Courtney Murray in We Hold These Truths (1960) noted happily that the Church in North America was not divided between left and right as it was with destructive consequences in Europe.
By the close of Vatican II, the European virus had spread to North America. Maritain, who had been the darling of the liberal Catholic intelligentsia because of his social philosophy, was suddenly ostracized, his later work ignored. For Maritain, a liberal social policy did not presuppose a liberal Catholic theology, certainly not one at war with the intellectual heritage of the Church. Many American scholars, otherwise cognizant of Maritain’s vast oeuvre, remain unaware of the publication of De l’Église du Christ.
In On the Church of Christ, Maritain speaks of the “profoundly troubled moment” at which he was writing. He calls himself “an old Christian philosopher who has thought about the mystery of the Church for sixty years.”
He is appalled by the appreciable number of Catholic intellectuals who in his judgment employ themselves to destroy the treasure of truth which is the Church’s responsibility to transmit. He would “have done with the tempest of widely diffused foolish ideas that have caused confusion among the faithful.” He would “have done with the demythization of doctrine and the secularization or profanization of a Christianity which our new doctors and spiritual guides would like to entrust to the hands of the sociologist, of the psychoanalysts, of the structuralists, of the Marcusists, of the phenomenologists, and of the pioneers of technocracy.”
The subtitle of On the Church of Christ is indicative of a distinction that is crucial to an understanding of the Church. “Churchmen will never be the Church,” writes Maritain. “One can take a detached view, making positive and negative assessments of the activity of Churchmen throughout the centuries while remaining confident of the holiness of the Church itself.”
This distinction runs through the work, that is, the difference between the “person of the Church” and “her personnel,” the difference between the Church visible to the intellect and the Church as visible, one can say, in the eyes of the public who know it only through the media.
“The Church visible to the intellect” is seen in the writings of Catholic scholars, laymen and laywomen, both on the Continent and throughout the English-speaking world, who have joined Raymond Cardinal Burke and other members of the hierarchy in calling for clarification from the Vatican. Many of these lay scholars, professors, for the most part, may be counted as disciples of Maritain.
Almost as if he were writing today, Maritain acknowledges that inexactness of language often leads some to attribute to the Church an act or decision of her directing personnel without distinguishing whether the act belongs properly to the perpetrator as its sole cause or as an instrument of the Church herself.
He reminds his reader that “it is only the solemn Magisterium of the Pope speaking alone (and not through a Roman Congregation) or when he speaks conjointly with the bishops assembled in General Council (the ordinary Magisterium) that it is the Church speaking and acting, the Church one, holy, and infallible.”
The person of the Church is then, before our very eyes, manifestly at work, and teaching infallibly. Maritain is convinced that even when one of its personnel uses badly his judicial or his moral authority, the person of the Church remains intact, although in a certain indirect manner, which does not render her responsible for the maverick who betrays her spirit.