Or on a more specific, personal level, let me ask this question: is the Cross, the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the axis of your world? Or are you and your desires?
This is a crucial question. Pun intended. And it is a question all of us Christians should be asking ourselves constantly.
Though I have to constantly repent of the natural sinful propensity to be selfish, I keep coming back to the Cross and to God’s mercy that flows from Christ’s atonement for our sin. And with that mercy is the opportunity to die with Christ so I can rise with Him, in a new identity He has given me totally by grace.
In my work as a journalist, I have the opportunity to visit and communicate with Catholics from a wide range of liturgical preferences, and varying stresses on aspects of doctrine and moral theology. In all of these communities, there are those who seem to make the Cross the axis of their world and those who seem to make themselves the axis.
Thus I look at a recent statement by the head of the Society of St. Pius X that the Rorate-Caeli blog said is to be “read between the lines” as provocative.
Bishop Fellay writes, via Rorate Caeli (with my emphases):
When Saint Pius X condemned modernism, he traced the whole argument of the encyclical Pascendi back to one initial principle: independence. Now the world makes all its efforts to change the axis around which it must turn. And it is obvious to Catholics, as it is to those who are not, that the Cross is no longer that axis. Paul VI said it very well: man is (See Closing Speech of Vatican II, December 7, 1965).
Today the world turns around this, according to him, definitively established axis: human dignity, man’s conscience and freedom. Modern man exists for his own sake. Man is the king of the universe. He has dethroned Christ. Man exalts his autonomous, independent conscience, to the point of dissolving even the very foundations of the family and marriage.
To me, it is a no brainer. The Cross is the axis of the world; not man. I would have said that when I was an evangelical Protestant. I say that as a Catholic. And many Catholics I know who are not liturgically traditional, who prefer contemporary praise and worship, would say the Cross is their axis, too. And I believe them. Ever since the Fall, though, man has the propensity to want the world to revolve around him. This is nothing new.
The parable of the wheat and the tares comes to mind. And most of us are a mixed bag, with areas of tares that need to be weeded out to find complete freedom in Christ to live according to our new nature.
Still fresh in our memory are the words uttered in this basilica by our venerated predecessor, John XXIII, whom we may in truth call the originator of this great synod. In his opening address to the council he had this to say: “The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught more effectively…. The Lord has said: ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and His justice.’ The word ‘first’ expresses the direction in which our thoughts and energies must move” (Discorsi, 1962, p. 583).
His great purpose has now been achieved. To appreciate it properly it is necessary to remember the time in which it was realized: a time which everyone admits is orientated toward the conquest of the kingdom of earth rather than of that of heaven; a time in which forgetfulness of God has become habitual, and seems, quite wrongly, to be prompted by the progress of science; a time in which the fundamental act of the human person, more conscious now of himself and of his liberty, tends to pronounce in favor of his own absolute autonomy, in emancipation from every transcendent law; a time in which secularism seems the legitimate consequence of modern thought and the highest wisdom in the temporal ordering of society; a time, moreover, in which the soul of man has plumbed the depths of irrationality and desolation; a time, finally, which is characterized by upheavals and a hitherto unknown decline even in the great world religions. [Clearly, Pope Paul VI is talking about the man-centred world as a reality to be addressed by the Church, not a doctrine the Church should adopt!]
It was at such a time as this that our council was held to the honor of God, in the name of Christ and under the impulse of the Spirit: who “searcheth all things,” “making us understand God’s gifts to us” (cf. 1 Cor. 2:10-12), and who is now quickening the Church, giving her a vision at once profound and all-embracing of the life of the world. The theocentric and theological concept of man and the universe, almost in defiance of the charge of anachronism and irrelevance, has been given a new prominence by the council, through claims which the world will at first judge to be foolish, but which, we hope, it will later come to recognize as being truly human, wise and salutary: namely, God is—and more, He is real, He lives, a personal, provident God, infinitely good; and not only good in Himself, but also immeasurably good to us. He will be recognized as Our Creator, our truth, our happiness; so much so that the effort to look on Him, and to center our heart in Him which we call contemplation, is the highest, the most perfect act of the spirit, the act which even today can and must be at the apex of all human activity. [I wish Pope Paul VI also mentioned the foolishness of the Cross in this! But I would imagine for the Pope and the majority of the Council Fathers, the Cross is implicit. Whether it was wise to assume that in 50 years of bad catechesis and the erosion of Catholic education that implicit understanding would remain intact is the subject of another debate.]
Men will realize that the council devoted its attention not so much to divine truths, but rather, and principally, to the Church—her nature and composition, her ecumenical vocation, her apostolic and missionary activity. This secular religious society, which is the Church, has endeavored to carry out an act of reflection about herself, to know herself better, to define herself better and, in consequence, to set aright what she feels and what she commands. So much is true. But this introspection has not been an end in itself, has not been simply an exercise of human understanding or of a merely worldly culture. The Church has gathered herself together in deep spiritual awareness, not to produce a learned analysis of religious psychology, or an account of her own experiences, not even to devote herself to reaffirming her rights and explaining her laws. Rather, it was to find in herself, active and alive, the Holy Spirit, the word of Christ; and to probe more deeply still the mystery, the plan and the presence of God above and within herself; to revitalize in herself that faith which is the secret of her confidence and of her wisdom, and that love which impels her to sing without ceasing the praises of God. “Cantare amantis est” (Song is the expression of a lover), says St. Augustine (Serm. 336; P. L. 38, 1472).
The council documents—especially the ones on divine revelation, the liturgy, the Church, priests, Religious and the laity—leave wide open to view this primary and focal religious intention, and show how clear and fresh and rich is the spiritual stream which contact with the living God causes to well up in the heart of the Church, and flow out from it over the dry wastes of our world.
Bishop Fellay’s text will be interpreted as a rebuke to the Second Vatican Council and the present papacy. It will be interpreted as a criticism of anyone who is not with them as against the Cross. It will be seen as divisive, as “we’re the only ones who are fully Catholic.”
Many who read it will dismiss Fellay’s statement as unwarranted criticism because they say, no, we are focused on the Cross, but we are merely trying to speak to modern man as he is.
It was interesting to read this text of Pope Paul VI and think of how similar he sounds to Pope Francis.
The context the Church is facing in today’s world is completely different from that of 50 years ago. Is it time for a change of strategy?
Is making the Church more and more welcoming wise especially when so few seem to know what that deposit is? Maybe 50 years ago, one could assume people knew the faith as they had it inculcated into them. Not true, today, unfortunately, and the pull of the world on the beliefs of Catholics is, sadly, stronger than the teachings of the Church.
I benefited greatly from a seeker-friendly Baptist Church in my faith journey, but the leadership of the Church were deeply devout, mature Christians. A gentle, non-confrontational approach worked with me, so I understand why Pope Francis and other prelates are advocating this kind of appeal.
However, if the leadership of that Baptist Church had been mushy and lacking in faith themselves, then what? I think it would have become like any liberal, progressive denomination that is hemorrhaging members, because if going to church devolves to being a nice meeting of a social club, people can find better things to do on Sunday mornings.