National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 28, 2003

Prophecy and the Catholic imagination


Hilaire Belloc once described a Catholic approach to life this way: “Where’re the Catholic sun does shine/There’s music and laughter and good red wine/At least I’ve found it so/ Benedicamus Domino.

Many of the events of the past several years might make such a cheerful vision of reality a little difficult for many to stomach. From Boston Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley’s report to the lawyers of abuse victims that “our credit cards are maxed out,” to Gov. Frank Keating’s reminder in his letter of resignation that “our church ... is not a criminal enterprise,” there has been a widespread sense that there is little to laugh or sing about in the lives of many church members today. Some might feel more at home with Herman Melville’s dramatic, “Say no with thunder, for all who say yes, lie.” Catholics face the challenge of discerning a truly prophetic stance in these perilous times when, as Peter Steinfels remarks, “the Roman Catholic church in the United States is on the verge of either an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation.”

The need for a prophetic stance is clear. The difficulty of identifying what that stance might be is highlighted for Catholics who are deeply rooted in a Catholic imagination. The sources of that discomfort and the possibilities that a prophetic vision offers demand our attention at this critical moment. Thomas Merton, whose reflections on the Catholic church in the last century stand as a landmark in the history of Catholic spirituality, offers some encouragement and direction to the prophets of the next century. Writing to Dorothy Day in 1962, Merton remarked that the church is “a community in which truth is shared, not a monopoly that disperses it from the top down. Light travels on a two-way street in the church, or I hope it does.”

For better or for worse, Catholics seem to imagine differently. Sociologist Andrew Greeley discussed this as he tried to understand the characteristic stories of the Catholic and Protestant traditions. Drawing on the work of theologian David Tracy, Greeley argued that Catholics tend to stress God’s presence in the world. Therefore, for them, the material universe is somewhat like God. Protestants, on the other hand, tend to stress God’s absence from the world. God is known in rare moments of self-revelation, such as the unique event of the person of Jesus. These two imaginative worlds are tendencies and do not ordinarily exist anywhere in their pure forms.

It follows from this that Catholics are more comfortable viewing God as active in the world, community as sacred because of God’s presence in the here and now, and doctrinal conformity as supporting community. This emphasis on communal conformity has helped to label the Catholic imagination as conservative and even authoritarian on many religious issues.

Reflecting on this approach, Tracy has quite rightly remarked, “It’s harder for us Catholics to be countercultural because our whole tradition ordinarily leads us to adopt a positive attitude toward the surrounding cultural reality and tries to find its positive elements before making judgments, especially prophetic, evangelical judgments.” He goes on to argue, “I think we need to be stronger on [prophetic critiques and countercultural stances]. American culture can overwhelm us. It has strengths and weaknesses, and some of those weaknesses demand countercultural moves from any committed Christian.”

Thomas Merton, approaching the Catholic tradition from a different stance, brings a fresh set of eyes to the relationship between Catholicism and the prophetic tradition. Rooted in the covenant intimacy of Israel, Merton sees the task of the prophet as less about foretelling the future than it is about preaching a return to fidelity, charity and union. It involves a destruction of the inequalities and oppressions dividing people. Ultimately it is a call to reintegration and wholeness, calling for a renewal of unity with God, others, and all creation.

Prophets stand as “signs of contradiction” reminding others of the freedom they have forfeited. In this sense prophecy is an intrinsic element in the life of discipleship. We become prophetic when we live in such a way that our lives are an experience of the fidelity of God. According to Merton, “The real challenge to Christianity today is ... above all a recovery of a creative and prophetic iconoclasm over against the idols of power, mystification and super-control.”

The prophet, Merton suggests, recognizes and reveals the acceptable time, the time of the breaking in of God’s reign. This is not the exclusive task of any individual. Rather, he argues, “The community itself should be prophetic. That’s an ideal, of course. But that’s our task: not to produce prophetic individuals who could simply end up a headache, but to be a prophetic community.” He concludes, “It remains the prophetic task of the church to interpret events of our own time in this same kind of way.”

Catholics are positively inclined by their rich imaginative world to be supportive of individual and institutional power. They are extremely hesitant to denounce the failure and sinfulness of those in power. Greeley argues that Catholics like being Catholic “because ... Catholic images of God as present and the world as good and society as sacrament” are benign and appealing. This makes the reaction of Frank Keating and the members of Voice of the Faithful even more remarkable. Their petitions echo the call of Israel’s prophets for a return to wholeness and the reconciliation of the faithful. Their call, like those of the prophets, is a challenge to the hierarchy to a return to fidelity, to protect the weak and the innocent, to speak truthfully and to act justly. They offer the rest of the Catholic community a vision “in a marrow bone” of the prophetic call of all the baptized.

Those shaped by the rich Catholic imaginative tradition, looking carefully and critically at the current situation, may recognize that our credit cards are indeed maxed out. We need to act creatively and decisively with a clear mandate to denounce the evil that has embraced us and announce the good news of God’s presence in our midst. Hesitant but impelled to abolish or reshape structures that have become good slaves but wicked masters, we might do well to recall a conversation that writer John Mortimer had with an old sailor while looking at some stormy seas. The sailor remarked that navigating in such difficult seas was “not dangerous at all, provided you don’t learn to swim. I made up my mind, when I bought my first boat, never to learn to swim.” When asked why, he responded, “When you’re in a spot of trouble, if you can swim you try to strike for shore. You invariably drown. As I can’t swim, I cling to the wreckage and they send a helicopter out for me. That’s my tip, if you ever find yourself in trouble, cling to the wreckage.”

Catholics, clinging to the wreckage in difficult times, have been given hope by the results of Archbishop O’Malley’s negotiations and especially by the process through which they came about. The future demands that our trust has to be in God. Ultimately the Catholic imagination reminds us that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” and challenges us to a gratitude that recalls the lines of e.e. cummings: “i thank you God for most this amazing/day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything/which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”

Fred Herron is chairperson of the Religious Studies Department at Fontbonne Hall Academy and a member of the Department of Theology of St. John’s University, Staten Island, N.Y. His most recent book is Wood, Waterfalls and Stars: Catholic Schools and the Catholic Imagination.

National Catholic Reporter, November 28, 2003

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