A conservative lesson for liberals

I have not been shy about criticizing those who criticize Pope Francis. But, it is always wise for those of us who more or less inhabit the pews on the left in the church to consult across the aisle with our friends who sit in the pews on the right. And, this week, at The Catholic Thing, Fr. Robert Imbelli, emeritus professor of theology at Boston College, had an essay on "the obedience of faith" that warrants special attention from Catholics no matter where they sit.

The phrase, of course, was in last Sunday's second reading, Paul's Epistle to the Romans. Paul is writing about the missionary work of the church, its foundation in grace and the virtually limitless call of apostleship:

Through him we have received the grace of apostleship, 

to bring about the obedience of faith,
for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles,
among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ;
to all the beloved of God in
Rome, called to be holy.

The reading is nicely paired with Isaiah's warning not to weary God with our deafness to His commands and His invitations to grace.

Imbelli has the ability to bring a sense of wonder to the Scriptures, an ability that was so central to the work of the ressourcement theologians whose work paved the way for the theological achievements of Vatican II and which continued after. They were tired of the stale, syllogistic reasoning of the Roman theology of the first half of the twentieth century, and they wanted to recapture the sense of awe and wonder before the divine mysteries that had so obviously animated the early Church Fathers. Imbelli writes, "But this belonging to Christ is no forensic fiction, nor a merely moral alignment of wills. It is a new reality: a union so deep and intimate that it can rightly be termed 'mystical.' It is grounded, of course, in the life-changing experience of baptism. Paul reminds the Romans: 'We were buried with Christ by baptism into his death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.' (Rom 6:4)" The phrase "merely moral alignment of wills" sadly characterizes so much of what passes for discussion within the church these days, on both the left and the right. 

In one section, Imbelli writes something that is clearly meant to challenge those of us who sit in the pews on the left:

The Apostle's call to transformation can be easily muffled by the dismal din of our contemporary therapeutic culture. And the widespread appeal to "my experience" risks canonizing an individual’s present condition and foreclosing authentic change. In this context, the increasingly rote rhetoric about "pastoral accompaniment" can reinforce, rather than counter, this cultural declension. Pastoral accompaniment needs clearly to incorporate and be governed by the challenge to conversion, an imperative that lies at the very heart of the Gospel: "metanoeite!;" i.e. repent. (Mk 1:15)

For the telos of pastoral accompaniment is not a gradual approximation to an "ideal," however sublime. It is the entrance into a new life, defined by a new, life-altering relationship with Jesus Christ.

He is undoubtedly correct about the difficulty in preaching conversion in a therapeutic culture, and even more on target in recognizing the often paralyzing effects of invocations to "my experience." Too often, experience is invoked as a kind of privileged hermeneutic, and has the effect of meaning "You can't question my arguments because I am a [fill in the blank]." Yet, it is also true that experience is, rightly, a point of departure for genuine dialogue: As Imbelli points out in the beginning of his essay, the Bible is no fairy tale littered with unspecified archetypes: We know the names of the players, the places they lived and visited, the people with whom they spoke. Salvation does not happen abstractly, but in experience.

Imbelli's comments on pastoral accompaniment serve as a useful caution as well: This can never be construed as a mere rote capitulation to the culture. But, introducing "the telos" so quickly is troubling. Yes, Christ has promised to reconcile all things in Himself, so we know how the story ends, but Christ is not only the telos. He has also given us the method and continues to provide the means through the gift of the Spirit. Christ is not only the Truth, but the Way and the Life too. I fear that clerics too focused on the telos will miss the fact that God is already active in the life of the person being accompanied, and that the path for each will be, as it is for the characters in the Bible, unique, in a particular place and time, with specific experiences and hopes and fears that condition what conversion will look like for that person. And missing that fact turns evangelization into proselytizing or even manipulation.

I do not level this charge at Imbelli, who seeks to inoculate against the danger, writing, "But the apostle of pastoral accompaniment does not set himself apart from the community of believers. He freely confesses that he is their companion on the journey of transformation in Christ. Indeed, he has not yet been fully transformed, is not yet perfected (teleios). But 'I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.' (Phil 3:12)" Still, I am not sure humility is a sufficient vaccine. Pastoral accompaniment must recognize, as Imbelli's writings do, that before God, and also before His creatures, especially the human person, there must be wonderment and love first, not an agenda, even a holy agenda.

Not all of us receive the grace to be thrown from our horse on the road to Damascus. Sometimes, grace breaks through in small ways. The point of pastoral accompaniment is to help people discern the action of grace in their lives, and help them to follow their own path to a deeper relationship with the source of that grace, Jesus Christ. If done in the spirit and manner of the Master, which was equal parts demanding and comforting, we need have no fear of it becoming rote or ruinous. The "obedience of faith" will always be demanding so long as humankind is so given to self-will, and in our culture that celebrates the protean self, obedience is downright countercultural. Pastoral accompaniment does not lead away from self-surrender, but it has to do more than lead to syllogisms unconnected to the often harsh realities of human life. It leads to a person, not a program, and so it is best, indeed only, undertaken by a person, not a catechism. The conversion Imbelli rightly notes is at the heart of the Gospel is always articulated by Jesus to real flesh and blood persons whom, like the woman at the well, He knows already. Sometimes grace arrives, as at Christmas, when a door is opened from the outside, but sometimes the door is already present in the life of the pilgrim believer, and behind that door is the mustard seed waiting to grow. Pastoral accompaniment helps the person find that seed.  

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]​

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