"The best thing about the Catholic Church is that it treats us like adults." That was the beginning of a homily preached a couple of weeks ago at my home parish, St. Mary's Church. Like many in the congregation, I was startled by that assertion and had to stifle a laugh. "What Catholic Church did he belong to?" I wondered. On balance, I thought this was probably a better beginning that to focus on wives being submissive to their husbands which was included in the reading from Ephesians. Of course, I wondered why those verses were included when the United States bishops had provided an alternative reading that excluded those words. At the end of both alternative readings, there is an almost poetic flight by Paul that gives us a fundamental insight:
He who loves his wife loves himself.
For no one hates his own flesh
but rather nourishes and cherishes it,
even as Christ does the church,
because we are members of his body.
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.
This is a great mystery,
but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:28-32
Paul isn't teaching so much about marriage as he is about the relationship between Christ and the church. That relationship is so close, so intimate, so life changing and life giving that the relationship between a man and woman (two becoming one flesh) seems to be only metaphor to even come close. Christ and the church become one!
But back to that homily about the church treating us as adults. There are two things to notice about this formulation. First, we tend to use that phrasing about treating people as adults when we are not treating as adults. Isn't this typically what we say to a child or to someone who we think is acting childishly? "I am treating you as an adult but you continue to act like a child." That is something that typically a parent says to a child, not one adult to another. So while it appears that this very formulation that seems to say one thing actually underscores the paternalistic instincts of church leadership.
Ah, but that brings to the more important learning from this homily. There is a fundamental question that was unasked and thus unanswered in that homily: Who is this "church" of which we speak? From years of being a Catholic in the pre-Vatican II church, the word "church" conjures up church building, Sunday Mass, priests, bishops, cathedrals. You know, "the church." The hierarchy and all its manifestations, isn't that the church? Well that is not what Paul was writing about and not what Vatican II tried to reclaim for ordinary Catholics. The church is the People of God, an assembly of faithful Christians, a gathering of disciples of Jesus Christ. The church is us. There are individuals who hold offices of service to and for the church, i.e., us, but these office holders are not the church, at least not the church that Paul was writing about.
If we are the church and the church is us, how is it that the church can treat us as adults? You see how this very formulation simply fails to communicate once we understand the church in this way. Who is this church that treats us as adults? It is the administrative apparatus that is sadly corrupt in so many ways and that fails to serve the assembly of disciples in so many ways. The flip side of that, however, is that this administrative apparatus is not the church and thus we as members should not look to it for life and grace as much as to ourselves. We must step forward to provide the common life and spirit of the church.
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Location:Charissa Run,Rochester,United States