Friday, September 07, 2007

Donatism, Niceness and Belonging

I've received a number of helpful comments on the phenomenon of niceness. A couple of them pointed out that being nice is better than being outright vicious, and that sometimes niceness is required for survivial in some workplaces. Agreed. I recognized after posting that, read the wrong way, I could be seen as encouraging an unhealthy suspicion of others who are nice. In fact, what interested me more in the post was the link I was attempting to draw between the habitual lack of belonging in our contemporary world and the pressures this existential situation puts on us to be superficially nice. The implication then is that we should strive to be faithful to our commitments and not simply nice when it benefits us.

The reasoning goes like this: many people today lack the 'givenness' of corporate identity that used to come with being Catholic/Lutheran/Episcopalian, etc. Instead, we are urged to make choices for ourselves in terms of our commitments, confessional or otherwise. The root uncertainty with this approach is that my own decision lacks that 'givenness' of character, and I can always opt out, convert, withdraw my support for Pastor Whoozit and take my commitment elsewhere. By extension, everyone around me in the parish/religious community seems to have that same option. Instead of learning to make do with the people with whom we're stuck, we opt for various types of coercion. Niceness is a way of rewarding people who commit to us. The problem is that this removes the commitment from being to Jesus Christ as mediated by the Church.

For the past three years, I've attended the Cardinal's meeting with religious superiors. One year, in a discussion of men leaving seminary, he noted that today if you look at a seminarian sideways, he falls into a crisis. In an earlier day, he said, young people grew up expecting their elders to look at them sideways most of the time. It was not a sign of impending institutional or personal collapse. That was just life in a group of people who in fact didn't choose each other (like a family). You just shrugged and said, "Well, that's Uncle Bert/Monsignor Schwartz/..." and you moved on and thought maybe tomorrow he'd cheer up. Today, such crusty characters tend to run young people out of religious communities and seminaries because the impetus to stay is the sense of belonging that comes from 'everyone being nice here'. If the people aren't nice, well, then why give my life to that group? Or, for the less secure, the conclusion is that I don't belong; I'm doing something wrong and that's why 'people' are mean to me (could just be one guy, in my experience). Again, notice the lack of sense that Jesus Christ is somehow present and is the one who ultimately matters, not Uncle Bert or Deacon Emmit's wife.

One of the most influential bits of theology I have ever read fell into my hands a year or two before I entered the monastery. I picked up a textbook at the now-defunct Ex Libris bookstore in Hyde Park. In it was a chapter on the Donatist controversy into which Augustine fell as bishop of Hippo. In many more recent tellings, this episode is mainly lamented over the fact that Augustine called out the Imperial troops against the unfortunate schismatics, making fateful use of the gospel text "Compel them to come in!" [Never mind that the Donatists were in the habit of ambushing Catholics on the roads] However, I had stumbled upon an older text that gave the theological debate pre-eminence.

The Donatist stance maintained that in order for a priest's celebration of the sacraments to be valid, he needed to be a man outstanding in virtue (in particular, there was lingering suspicion over those wo had apostatized under persecution in the previous century). Augustine, himself always struggling at virtue, noted that the sacraments were valid based not on any human power, but on the grace that comes through rites given by the Church's tradition. Frankly, no human being is worthy to celebrate the sacred mysteries of the Faith, except by grace. Given that even after baptism, we continue simul iustus, simul peccator (to give Luther's formula of being 'at once justified and a sinner'), no sacrament would be valid unless Christ Himself were present by the power of the Holy Spirit. So in the Catholic Faith, we say that the Eucharist is validly confected as long as the celebrant is an ordained priest. This takes away the guess work. Otherwise, if we find out that Fr. Smeagol has been keeping the collection for himself and spending it on a luxurious retirement cottage in Switzerland, we don't have to wonder if the Eucharist has been valid. Christ's promise to be weith us always trumps bad behavior by the clergy. The clergy do better to avoid scandalizing people, of course, but the idea is that we stick together as a Church, even if we have to put up with louts in the clergy (or elsewhere).

The present situation regarding niceness has an analogous ring to it. Whereas the Donatists would only give consent to belong to a Church where the clergy were untainted by apostasy, our temptation is to give consent only to communities where everyone is nice. What we need to relearn is the promise of the Lord to be with us to the end of the world. Where is He to be found? In the Church. Reading that theology text book helped me to recognize that I should simply 'bloom where planted'--make the effort to be a good parishioner and not threaten to leave if people did things that I thought were 'heretical' (some friends urged me to abandon my parish for just that reason). Similarly, it occurred to me that one could live a good religious life in many different communities. In every case, the trick is to learn to recognize Christ's presence, even among the wounded, the irritable, the mean.

I close with a favorite paraphrase from a master of community life, Thomas a Kempis:

"Anyone can live at peace with a group of men to whom he is well disposed.
The true disciple lives at peace even with those whom he finds unpleasant and who dislike him."

1 comment:

Joe Torchedlo said...

Okay. I never blog, but this topic of niceness has become extremely relevant during the last 24 hours or so of my life.

Last night I was the recipient of some very subtle, but sufficiently disheartening, anti-Catholic sentiment from a group of non-Catholic friends of mine (an agnostic Hindu, and two Methodists). The topic of discussion was the new Catholic chapel recently built in the student center at DePaul U, where heretofore there stood a multipurpose worship room. One of the friends participates in an irregularly-scheduled (meaning, several times a week) charismatic group of young Protestants who sing popish worship songs together. They are accustomed to using the former multipurpose room for their events, and were of course irked to hear of the chapel's erection. Their reasoning seems to go as follows: "I just think don't see why 'you guys' should get your own chapel when we use that space more." I'm continually dumbfounded that the construction of a chapel on the campus of a nominally Catholic school can be construed as an "encroachment" on non-Cathlics' rights - especially considering a new multipurpose room was built to replace the old one - only slightly smaller in size. Though tempted to turn on my friend, I continue to remain silent on the subject. Thus, the prospect of approaching this conflict "nicely" to me seems ridiculous. At the same time, there is a hint of pseudo-Christian niceness in her position that implies, "we're nicer than you Catholics, so we should be allowed..."

Interestingly, while I found myself passively supporting the Vincentians on that particular topic, tonight I was infuriated by a quite different but all-too-familiar subject - the infamous Professor F - which seems to relate well to your point about commitment and learning to make due.

Unfortunately, after student mass, my spiritual advisor, and great confidant in whom I have great respect, just had to pull me aside and say something about Professor's recent departure from the University. He made a poignant comment about Professor's dishonesty and full intention of misleading students at his public address on Wednesday. This information was not particularly unsettling to me - I have heard the whole gammut (sp?) about this guy and the administration from every which way. But, to be perfectly frank, it broke my heart that he would be so insistent, as he knows my desire not to talk about this case ANY LONGER. The fact that he (though probably unconsciously) provoked my composure on the issue had two effects: it makes me question his commitment to our mutual fraternity (as well as his broader faith), and it makes me want to release a tempest of criticism on the whole of academia. To be brief: the whole experience has shown me that, regardless of someone's qualifications and abilities as an instructor, he or she is only in the position they are in because they submit to an educational system that effectively (and, as I'm beginning to believe more and more, is intended to from the beginning) mediocratize intellectuality and human expression. It is ultimately a threat to the "integrity" of higher education to 1) actually say something in your work, and 2) to express your true self (in the form of not necessarily being a "nice" person to your colleagues. So, it lowers my view on all my professors, including Father.

But what is so much more painful, is that Father would fail to: simply have some compassion and mercy on the guy - not necessarily grant him tenure, but at least let it pass without having to have the last word; stop playing an apologetic role, for the sake of defending a party in a dispute in which both sides are certainly imperfect; be sensitive to my wishes to transcend the issue through fraternity in Christ. His demeanor seems to indicate, rather than an expression of free will and Christly compassion, sycophantism to the C.M. or broader Church, adherence to the false fraternity of academia, and general animosity towards someone "different."

I have heard of something like a ceremony of atonement in the Catholic Church whereby a group of worshipers line up and, one by one, tell the celebrant about a specific sin that the Church has committed against him/her - be it an abuse of power, a wrongful ostracizement, a bigoted remark, etc. The priest takes all the sins of the Church upon himself and the congregation then efficaciously absolves him/it/us. This catharsis seems to me a much more appropriate way to handle such conflicts, rather than a perpetual unspoken animosity.

I find myself thus, in true Catholic form, calmly defending my brethren on one issue, and broken-heartedly removing my support from them on another issue. All the while, I can still shake hands with the Vincentions and share the communion wafer with them, and accept them for who they are (the full package, that is). It is a non-normative Love that I express in my continual Fraternity in Christ. It doesn't mean being "nice" any of the time.

I will bring these thoughts before God in prayer.


This blog is published with ecclesiastical approval.

If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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