Living Out Freedom and Responsibility in the Midst of Complexity

Father Chet, March 1974

If there ever was a “simple way” of doing things, we can likely agree that it is gone forever. We must restructure our institutions to recognize, and embrace, the complexity of life without losing our foundation of Truth. We need institutions – and individuals – flexible enough to adjust to changed situations. Only then will we be capable of making positive contributions to society.

Those who remain inflexible and cling stubbornly to the old, will either disappear or be relegated as archaic showpieces to some non-influential corner of society. We can study the past and learn from mistakes and successes, but as Jesus says, “Fresh skins for new wine.”

People of all religious persuasions, including Catholics, must be willing to take our rightful place in modern society. We must assume responsibilities as citizens of today’s world and be willing to pay the price for the liberty and freedom we all cherish so much.

The Complexity of Today’s Church

None of us enjoy the difficulties and struggles of trying to live a religious life in today’s secularistic environment. By running away from the challenges facing us, we may postpone the final day of reckoning. But the longer we delay facing the problems of adjustment of our faith to science, technology, and modern progress, the greater the price we will pay.

Complexity of church could bring its ruin
Photo by Kristijan Arsov on Unsplash

The optimism which filled the Catholic and non-Catholic world alike after the Second Vatican Council has dissipated, if not nearly evaporated. While many old problems were settled, we find ourselves burdened by a new set of problems. These, in their own way, seem as bad as or worse than the old ones.

In fact, there is more doubt today than any time in the recent past on the ability of the institutional church to survive the present crisis of falling membership, disillusionment, discontent, polarization, uncertainty and so on. Neither for our church, nor for the country, have things turned out as we might have imagined in the days of the two Johns – John F. Kennedy and John XXIII.

Facing the future with courage

Nevertheless, we must believe in the presence of God in the Church. And we must broaden our horizon and change our perspective. 

Rather than minimize our own capabilities and expect all the answers to come through religious leaders – whether the Pope, bishops, priests, ministers, rabbis, etc. – we need to appreciate our own dignity as God’s People.

As members of the Church, we have the freedom and the grace to discover the will of God for ourselves and the world. The insights of the secular world concerning the dignity of humankind, our freedom and our responsibility, are operative in the Church. This responsible way of acting is harder than the old. It can also be more satisfying and productive if we are willing to contribute our fair share. This means more than giving money, as in the old days – it means our time, energy, intelligence, hard work, and sacrifice.

The Danger From Within (The Problem is Us)

Rather than being overwhelmingly concerned about the dangers of secularism from without, we should direct our attention to the greater dangers from within. Naiveté frequently blinds us to the depth of self-interest and self-righteousness that motivate conservatives and liberals alike.

Liberals often fail to appreciate the long and tedious efforts required to transform present clusters of self-interest into communities of unselfish concern.

Many conservatives are either expecting a return to the way things were in the past or imagining that some sort of terrible judgment of God is poised and ready to descend, destroy the evil ones, and preserve themselves.

Selfishness, short-sightedness, and self-righteousness are a part of all of us to a greater or lesser degree.

Filling the empty spaces

The real future is in the hands of those who take seriously the problems of the present day. And, beginning with themselves, do something positive to bring about the needed changes.

Rather than imagining that we are right and everyone who disagrees with us is wrong, we must try to dialogue with those who have different points of view.

Most of all, we must become well informed about the changes that are taking place in both the Church and the world at large. According to Saint Thomas, evil is a privation, or absence, of a good which should be present, a vacuum, and an empty space where something good should be placed.

Instead of ranting against the empty spaces, we should do something positive to instill good wherever we find it lacking. Rather than wasting time indulging ourselves in the vain expression of our innocence, and in the condemnation of the evil in others, we would do better to acknowledge honestly the real inner fears eating away at many of us.

Complexity of the fears we face

Perhaps the most important fear in all of us (and frequently unacknowledged) is the possibility of a loss of faith and hope in God. Consciously or unconsciously, we are aware of the weakness and insecurity of our faith. We are at least dimly aware that if our faith and trust in God should be tested too severely, we could abandon the Church, and even abandon God.

Knowing this, we are afraid, and rightly so. But from such fears, honestly faced, come new life.  Both faith and trust are gifts of God, which will be given if we ask God for them. And the first step to every effective prayer is the humble acknowledgement of our deficiencies. 

“Lord, I do believe. Help, Thou, my unbelief.”

Editor’s Note: This is the second of three installments of Fathers Chet’s writings on this topic. The first was published in June and the next will be in October.

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