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Father Richard Neuhaus on Loving the Church

"Main Problem Is a Lack of Faith"

NEW YORK, MAY 24, 2006 (Zenit) - The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope has brought clarity to confusions and gentle firmness to controversies in the Church.

So says Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things and author of "Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy and the Splendor of Truth" Aasic Books).

He shared with us his thoughts on thinking with and loving the Church, and why lack of faith is the faithful's greatest challenge.

Q: One of the main themes of your book is St. Ignatius of Loyola's exhortation that we should "think with the Church." What did he -- and you -- mean by that?

Father Neuhaus: Yes, it's a marvelous phrase -- "sentire cum ecclesia." It means to think with the Church, but also to feel with the Church. In short, to love the Church.

If we love the Church, as a lover loves the beloved, then we will her to be, we will her to flourish, we will her to succeed in the mission she has been given by Christ.

As in a good marriage, the Catholic never thinks "I" without thinking "we." It is necessary to cultivate this communion of shared devotion, affection and purpose in a very disciplined way, for not all aspects of the Church are lovable, just as we are not always lovable.

Nonetheless, we are loved by the Church, and most particularly by all the saints in the Church Triumphant. "Sentire cum ecclesia" means being concerned never to betray St. Paul, St. Irenaeus, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, St. Theresa and the faith for which they and innumerable others lived and died.

And, for all the inadequacies and sins of the Church and her leadership in our time, it means always doing one's best to support, and never to undermine, the effectiveness of her teaching ministry.

She is, after all, the bearer and embodiment of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is nothing less than the story of the world -- without which the world, and we with it, is lost.

Q: In your days as a Lutheran pastor, you were known as someone who "spoke truth to power," yet in your book you extol docility and obedience as typically Catholic virtues. Do you see any necessary tension between the two?

Father Neuhaus: I hope I am still someone who speaks truth to power, although that phrase has in it the temptation to an arrogant assumption that I have a unique hold on the truth.

The phrase is more appropriate in a political context of challenging corruptions of power in earthly regimes. Unlike the Church, political orders are not established by Christ to be his body on earth.

As Pope Benedict writes in "Deus Caritas Est," politics is the realm of justice while the Church is the realm of love. That does not mean that questions of power and politics do not arise in the Church. They do, but they are alien elements.

The Church is constituted by and for love. Docility and obedience are strong, not weak, virtues. They require sensitivity and responsiveness to the beloved. In such a relationship, one may sometimes admonish, reproach and suggest a better way, but always within the bond of love. See above on "sentire cum ecclesia."

Q: Your book seems to echo G.K. Chesterton's statement that there was never anything so exciting or perilous as orthodoxy. Why do you believe this is the case?

Father Neuhaus: I am always honored to be associated with Chesterton, one of the great Catholic spirits of modern times.

Yes, orthodoxy is a high adventure -- intellectually, spiritually, aesthetically and morally. It is ever so much more interesting than the smelly conventions that so many, viewing orthodoxy as a burden, embrace in the dismal ambition to be considered progressive.

In the encyclical "Redemptoris Missio," John Paul II said that the Church imposes nothing; she only proposes. But what she proposes is an astonishment beyond the reach of human imagining -- the coming of the promised Kingdom of God, and our anticipation of that promise in the life of the Church.

It is a great pity that so many are prepared, even eager, to settle for something less than this high adventure.

For instance, in "Catholic Matters" I discuss the preoccupation with being an "American Catholic" when we should really want to be "Catholic Americans." Note that the adjective controls.

The really interesting thing is not to accommodate our way of being Catholic to the fact of our being American but to demonstrate a distinctively Catholic way of being American.

Q: Are the main problems in the Church today primarily intellectual or spiritual?

Father Neuhaus: The main problem in the Church today -- as it has been from the apostolic era and will be until our Lord's return in glory -- is a lack of faith.

Our sinful nature resists, does not dare to believe, the good news of our salvation now and forever. This has intellectual, spiritual, aesthetic, moral and whatever dimensions you want to name.

We have turned the high adventure of discipleship into something dreary, drab and predictable. This is nowhere so evident as in the long-standing intra-Church squabbles between left and right, liberals and traditionalists.

In "Catholic Matters" I refer to the "discontinuants" of both left and right -- those who speak of a pre-Vatican II Church and a post-Vatican II Church as though there were two churches. The alternative is to gratefully and loyally take our place in the glorious, and sometimes stumbling, march of the one Church through time to the end of time.

Q: A major theme in your book is the importance of a revitalized liturgy for renewing Catholic life. How do you see that occurring?

Father Neuhaus: Don't get me started. The banality of liturgical texts, the unsingability of music that is deservedly unsung, the hackneyed New American Bible prescribed for use in the lectionary, the stripped-down architecture devoted to absence rather than Presence, the homiletical shoddiness.

Where to begin? A "high church" Lutheran or Anglican -- and I was the former -- braces himself upon becoming a Catholic.

The heart of what went wrong, however, and the real need for a "reform of the reform" lies in the fatal misstep of constructing the liturgical action around our putatively amazing selves rather than around the surpassing wonder of what Christ is doing in the Eucharist.

All that having been said, however, be assured that there has never been a second or even a nanosecond in which I've had second thoughts about entering into full communion with the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time.

Q: What have we learned from Pope Benedict XVI thus far about the appropriate approach to the "confusion" and "controversy" existing in the Church?

Father Neuhaus: When Pope Benedict was elected, my first words were "Deo gratias." And I repeat those words every day since.

John Paul the Great, as history will surely know him, was a gift of person and charism that happens every millennium or so. As Benedict was his intimate collaborator, so he has pledged himself to continue and expand John Paul's initiatives, and especially his teaching initiatives. Nobody is better equipped to do so, as we have seen in the year past.

To the confusions he brings an exquisite clarity in setting forth the truths by which the Church is constituted, and in inviting the world to engage the truths upon which its future depends.

To the controversies he brings a pastoral heart and a gentle firmness that can turn rancor into reason and recall those who are at odds with one another to their shared devotion -- as in "sentire cum ecclesia."

He is not going to straighten out everything that is wrong with the Church, beginning with ourselves. Our Lord will do that in due course.

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