It was gratifying that the Post on Advent Reading and Evangelization provoked a few–and varied–comments. Gratifying because the state of Catholic practice means enough to provoke discussion. The Posts do not seek to provoke controversy–one possible stratagem to promote readership–but I do welcome varying points of view. The reactions made clear to me that several of us perceive the problem of a kind of Catholicism that is only “skin-deep” and, particularly, a perspective that forgets about the role of the Holy Spirit in our growth in faith and discipleship.
Before the original post had been composed, I had produced a draft for my homily for the feast of the Immaculate Conception. While meditating on the scriptural texts for that Solemnity I was aware, of course, that we have no direct scriptural reference to Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Clearly, the Catholic interpretation of Scripture goes beyond the literal (and often contradictory) biblical texts. For example, “and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was actually a Jewish improvement over Babylonian laws of retribution; but Jesus–and other rabbis of his day–superseded that narrow interpretation by imitating God’s broad mercy. We believe that Scripture is the living Word of God. As a living Word, John Henry Newman proposed the reality of the evolution of Christian theology as the faith community deepens its understanding of that revelation over time. Thus, Mary’s Immaculate Conception is not a necessarily a distortion of Revelation; Newman wasn’t addressing that doctrine, defined in his own lifetime, but his thought is still applicable. Rightly understood, such a doctrine can recognize the essential work of the Holy Spirit in Mary as in ourselves. Mary’s conception is contingent upon the redemptive work of her Son, which is not an exterior resolution of a problem, masking our existential, human mess, but, through the Holy Spirit, is actualized from what we are, what we were created to be. It was St. Ambrose, the Fourth Century Bishop of Milan, who taught us that Mary is the exemplar of Christian discipleship, not some inhuman demi-goddess, fascinating but untouched by our experience. The challenge is mainting the balance, of recognizing our psychological needs (e.g., for a mother-figure in a patriarchal tradition) and not letting them dominate unconsciously and autonomously.
We live in times of deep cultural change. patriarchal structures and institutions no longer hold up because they no longer seem speak to our current needs or level of development. In and of itself, that change is neither good nor bad. The transition will be painful and experienced as destructive as the transition from matriarchal organization, envisioned by some historians and anthropologists, to the patriarchal was thousands of years ago. It is destructive and painful because our erstwhile orientation is threatened and we do not yet have anything to replace it. We’re talking about the fall and rise of civilizations. Such changes do not occur over night but over centuries. The good news is that Revelation, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is a living Word and not a static one, is not identified with a particular culture. As a living Word, it can be incarnated again and again in the changing human situation without being changed Itself. Not that we can afford to be complacent about our future. The future does depend on our response. But we can hope that through God’s Spirit, that Word can be active in us and in our decisions.