On the Church and the World: Lessons from the Easter Liturgy and the Russian Prophet

Lessons from Today’s Liturgy. During Easter Week, the traditional liturgy presents us with rich Scripture readings proper to every day of the week. Today, Wednesday of Easter Week, we read the Gospel account from John 21 about the post-Resurrection miraculous draught of fishes. One lesson here is that when the first pope follows Jesus’ directions, he gets it right. (After the Resurrection, he is quicker to follow the Master’s instructions in this matter.) He succeeds in catching his fish, even though morning isn’t time for fish and even though they had labored all night unsuccessfully.

The Epistle for today complements this papal fishing lesson wonderfully. It is a passage from Acts 3 wherein is related one of St. Peter’s great sermons to the Jews. It is most appropriate for this time of the Church’s year because he is preaching the Resurrection. We see his zealous Apostolic charity: He hits his audience between the eyes with the naked truth, but, at the same time, gives them a gracious invitation to the life of divine grace.

“But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you. But the author of life you killed, whom God hath raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses. (Acts 3:14-15)

“Be penitent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out. That when the times of refreshment shall come from the presence of the Lord, and he shall send him who hath been preached unto you, Jesus Christ, whom heaven indeed must receive, until the times of the restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of his holy prophets, from the beginning of the world.” (ibid, 19-21)

This powerful preaching converted many, as we learn from the next chapter: “But many of them who had heard the word, believed; and the number of the men was made five thousand.” (Acts 4:4) Of course, all this brings upon the Apostles the wrath of the high priest, who has them literally beaten.

The Lesson for Our Times. If we can pinpoint the reason for the setbacks of the Church in the recent times, her failure to convert the nations and her sinking deeper and deeper into internal crisis, at the risk of oversimplifying, we can do so in this fashion: Churchmen in authority set out to show the modern world that Holy Mother Church is really a nice gal after all, and that she does not wish to be too harsh on modernity. Further, nature isn’t all that fallen and isn’t so badly in need of supernatural repair and elevation through Christ and His Church. In order to get this message to the world, we watered down our doctrine, made our liturgy “a banal, on-the-spot product” (in the words of the current Pope), and made our preaching less than the virile Apostolic variety we just cited from Acts. The whole post-Vatican II program, regardless of what’s actually in the conciliar texts or not, has brought this upon us.

(We believe that, ultimately, a great Roman pontiff will sift the wheat from the chaff in the texts of the Church’s Twenty-First Ecumenical Council, giving clarifications of conciliar teaching in light of the Church’s perennial doctrine.)

But we see that this sort of “getting along” does not work. Not only does it not convert those badly in need of conversion, but it does not even accomplish the short-term result of getting people to like us. Witness the rage against the Church in Italy – a spate of vandalism of Church property and public threats against staunch Catholics (including at least one bishop) simply because they are standing up for the natural law. This is happening right in the Holy Father’s backyard.

Perhaps this hatred — the opprobrium that the children of this world heap upon the Church and the Vicar of Christ Himself — will be the evil out of which God can bring the good of a renewed evangelism, one based on perennial dogma, not fruitless dialogue.

Why do I say this? I will soon flesh out the idea a bit from the thinking of the “Russian Prophet,” but for now, let me state it simply. If Catholic dogma were a mere dry formula, an abstraction, a being of the mind only, the world would not hate it. But Catholic dogma — being the Word — must be “made flesh.” It must take life in men’s lives and be lived socially, first in the Church, and then in families and states. Society itself is to be leavened by the Gospel so that “all nations” will be converted to God through Christ and Christ’s Mystical Body, the Catholic Church. This is what Father Dennis Fahey called “God’s Plan for Order.”

The children of the world do not hate abstract ideas of Christian dogma. Those, they simply mock and scoff at. But they hate Christian dogma when it asserts itself in society: in the family, in the political sphere, in the life and mores of the nation. For it is one thing for me to believe an abstract idea, quite another for me to advocate its incarnation. It’s fine for me to practice it in the privacy of my own home or behind the stained-glass windows of the Church of my own choosing. It’s quite another for me to assert that this creed and this life of grace ought to be believed and lived by other men, that the moral norms I have accepted are a rule by which to measure true normalcy, that you can disagree with me on these matters of revealed religion, but you are wrong if you do so. In short, whenever Catholics assert themselves in the social order, the children of the world cry foul — and they do so with a deafening stridency.

Lessons from Soloviev. These ideas are confirmed in the penetrating analysis of Vladimir Soloviev in his wonderful book, Russia and the Universal Church (edited and renamed The Russian Church and the Papacy in a Catholic Answers edition.) The Russian philosopher gives a deep estimation of the early heresies. He summarizes them all as a denial of “The fundamental dogma of Christian orthodoxy — the perfect union of the Creator and the creature…”(p. 37). He says that the nominally Christian Eastern emperors always encouraged heresy (he has in mind the early Christological heresies) because all the heresies denied this fundamental dogma. If Christ is not God and Man perfectly united (contra Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Monothelitism, Iconoclasm, et alia), then the divine and the human cannot be perfectly united. No incarnation of God in Christ; no incarnation of God in society.

Soloviev puts it this way: “Heresy attacked the perfect unity of the divine and the human in Jesus Christ precisely in order to undermine the living bond between Church and state, and to confer upon the latter an absolute independence.” (p. 25)

He thus estimates the failure of the Byzantine Empire to be truly Christian: “The true central dogma of Christianity is the intimate and complete union of the divine and the human without confusion or division. The logical consequence of this truth — to confine ourselves to the sphere of practical human existence — is the regeneration of social and political life by the spirit of the gospel, in other words the Christianization of society and the state. Instead of this synthetic and organic union of the divine and the human, the two elements were in turn confused or divided, or one of them was absorbed or suppressed by the other.” (p. 39, emphasis mine)

Says Soloviev, the worldliness of the princes of Byzantium allowed politics and society to remain pagan while the princes themselves embraced some form of Christianity, often with an outward appearance of orthodoxy.

According to Soloviev, the ruin of heresy was always and consistently the Holy See and the Chair of Peter, which he calls “the real objective center of the visible Church.” He insists: “…all of the heresies… encountered insuperable opposition from the Roman Church and finally came to grief on this rock of the gospel.” (p. 28)

If the gospel is socially “enfleshed,” it must needs be “picturable,” as Our Lord could be pictured in Holy Icons. Therefore, the image of the principle of the Church’s visibility, according to this practicing member of the Russian Orthodox Church1, is the papacy:

“There is in the Christian Church a materially fixed point, an external and visible center of action, an image and an instrument of the divine power. The Apostolic See of Rome, that miraculous icon of universal Christianity, was directly involved in the Iconoclastic struggle, since all the heresies were, in the final analysis, denials of the reality of that divine Incarnation, and Rome represented its permanence in the social and political order.” (p. 28)

What a stunning profession of faith from this mystical philosopher!

May our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, assert the full vigor of his pontifical office in the face of the world’s hatred, reaffirm the Church’s necessity for salvation (both for individuals and for society), and consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary — thus helping Mother Russia to become “Holy Mother Russia” once more. With God’s grace, it can be done!

Afterword. The edition of Soloviev’s book I’ve been citing has a forward by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, O.P., and a preface by Scott Hahn, both of whom are enthusiastic for the “renewal” of Vatican II. Judging from these passages I’ve cited, and others, I believe it is fair estimate that the Russian thinker himself would not have been so enthusiastic for the Church attenuating her robust social teaching as was the net effect of that Council’s work. Nor, I believe, would he have been for churchmen softening the doctrine of the Church’s own necessity. Father Ray Ryland writes in the book’s Introduction: “He {Soloviev} contends that the Church is the necessary instrument by which Christ seeks to bring the human race into the kingdom of God.” (p. 19, emphasis mine)

Amen to that!

1For an explanation of Soloviev’s “Orthodox Catholic” position, and his apparent conversion to Catholicism, see Ad Rem No. 25.