Friday, July 8, 2011

"Deacon Reader" Summer Reading 6

Chapter 3 - The Deacon and Gaudium et Spes (Fr. McPartlan)

This essay argues that "We must try... to relate the diaconate... to some of the major principles of Vatican II's teaching," and especially to the main themes of the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes.

The first major principle he notes, in the second paragraph and following, is Church unity (my p. 57). Charity, he notes, serves unity, as does the authentic kerygma of the Good News, along with reaching out to the marginalized (probably envisioning both ecumenism and social justice) and defending the rights of the weak. Then he has a long section on the relationship between Church and the world, and the relevance of this to the diaconate (which we'll come back to in a moment), before listing other major principles at the end (by way of demonstrating what he's been trying to say). The other major principles he notes (my p. 73) are (2) the Church as servant, (3) the central role of the College of Bishops (and the implications of this for the meaning of the Sacrament of Holy Orders), (4) that "good liturgy animates the apostolate [of the laity]," and (5) solidarity.

Now, as principles for the Church, these five are quite solid. The challenge of the essay is in the part about the relationship of Church and world.

He wants to argue that the Church and the world should be united in the manner of "seamlessness" (p. 65, beginning of the section, "Deacons and the New Ecclesial Embrace of the World"). He says, "Everything she [the Church] does is for the salvation of the world, of which she is thoroughly a part" (p. 60, just after the long quote from JP2 at the Assisi ecumenical meeting in 2002).

Now, there's an obviously sense in which this is true: the Church has never not understood herself to be both "in the world" and "for the world." Even the most isolated hermit serves the world by praying and sacrificing. And every attempt to deny that Christ established the Church for the whole world (e.g., Manicheaism in the 4th-5th c., Waldensians et al in the 12th c., Jansenism in the 18th-19th c.) has been roundly condemned.

But at the same time, the Church has also always understood that she is supposed to be "not of the world." The world is fallen. Original sin exists. Personal sin exists. This is the universal and unchanging basis for admitting that we need a Savior. By baptism, we die in a very real sense, in the order of fallen nature, so that we can live the new life of Christ. The life of struggling to carry the Cross is, at the most basic, completely different from the life of not struggling to carry the Cross.

It's not clear in this essay that this "seamlessness" argument includes both of these terms. The "in and for the world" part predominates; the conversion part is hard to see. At best, it's implicitly present in what is preached, and how that preaching might be received by the modern world.

In the section on the "Deacon and the New Ecclesial Embrace..." (my p. 65ff), he states that deacons should be signs of this seamless solidarity; present in the world, somewhat like what the worker-priest movement tried in the 1950's; a kind of link between altar and world (he doesn't mention that both priests and laity do this also, each in different ways from deacons); a reader of the signs of the times and an applier of the Gospel to them.

If he means all this as "in and for the world" only, without the expectation of conversion to Christ, then all this is pretty obviously flawed. Without the demand of conversion, solidarity degenerates into mere niceness; presence gives way to autonomy and moral relativism; the Eucharistic altar stands well apart from the world; and the signs of the times can never say anything truly human, but only fads and whims as culture drifts.

I have a hard time thinking this is what Fr. McPartlan really meant. So, we must read in explicitly the need for conversion. Then I think his argument is pretty good, although still imprecise. With the demand for conversion to Christ (even if that demand is not made explicit in every act), then these things make more sense. Solidarity with my neighbor is a way of being in Christ, together; presence brings the grace of Christ into a situation; the Eucharistic altar calls everyone to truth and beauty; and the signs of the times can speak essential human needs, where Mercy is most hungered for.

But, I still note that this is only descriptive, not definitive. I argue that the set of {solidarity, presence, linking to the altar, and responding to true need} is what deacons do, not because of ordination, but because of baptism. These four aspects are general modes of discipleship. We have to dig deeper if we want to see in what particular, unique manner they are modes of diaconal ministry.

For example, in his opening list of principles, he notes the special role of the College of Bishops, and therefore of ordained ministry, and therefore (one infers) of the particular share in the apostolic ministry each of the lower grades (priests and deacons) receives. So how does the sacred power to proclaim the Gospel by word and action, in liturgy and in ministry, give a unique shape or character to the deacon's particular discipleship? He says it should be "symbolic of their [deacons'] relationships and activities in the world at large" (my p. 76, third-to-last paragraph). But none of our sacraments are mere symbols; so, symbolic in what sacramental sense?

Likewise, the principle that good liturgy animates the apostolate clearly means something different for deacons than for priests, since our liturgical roles are distinct. So, what exactly does it mean for deacons? How can we, in our liturgical ministry, be in solidarity with the laity, or with the whole world; or be present to them; or link them to the Eucharist; or (help) respond to their actual needs for grace and mercy?

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