This is part four of a ten-part series on the recent pastoral letter of Bishop R. Walker Nickless for the diocese of Sioux City, Iowa. I will be providing the full text of this letter (slightly edited for formatting) with emphasis and commentary.
Remember that Bishop Nickless is fundamentally focusing on two aspects of the Church: her inward identity and her outward mission. Concerning her inward identity, utmost importance must be given to the pursuit of holiness, of the divine life. Concerning her outward mission, utmost importance must be given to engaging the world by sharing the Catholic faith and serving as a herald or minister of Christ's call to holiness to each and every human being.
With that in mind, let us turn our attention to Section III, The Current Context:
There was a great excitement immediately after the Council: excitement for innovation, change, freedom, renewed dynamism. There was a great desire to implement the Council immediately, with the best of intentions. In doing so, the Church after the Council achieved many things. The Council’s aggiornamento brought about a great breath of fresh air, a new freedom and excitement about being Catholic. However, this era of change and freedom took place during a most tumultuous time. The 1960’s and 1970’s brought about a wholesale change within our culture and society, so that it seemed that everything was “up for grabs.” The Church seemed to be going the same way as society, suggesting that nothing was certain or solid. If the Church could change some things, it could change anything and everything. Sometimes we set out to convert the world, but were instead converted by it. We have sometimes lost sight of who we are and what we believe, and therefore have little to offer the world that so desperately needs the Gospel. A pendulum effect began in the Church and has not yet stopped swinging. In the effort to correct exaggerations or one-sidedness in various areas, the reform often times swung to the exact opposite pole.It can be argued that the Second Vatican Council could not have happened at a worse time. Just as the world is undergoing multiple revolutions — sexual, political, racial, etc. — the Catholic Church convenes a Council seeking to update her methods of reaching modern man. The door was opened for change, and it appears that some used that open door to usher in change of anything and everything! There was a widespread loss of identity (manifested in a drop in the number of priests and consecrated religious, not to mention lay faithful leaving the Church) leading to confusion as to our mission as the Church (misguided attempts at ecumenism, "kumbaya" liturgies, focusing on the body and neglecting the soul). The pendulum swung so wildly to the left that some who sought to compensate went too far right.
This pendulum swing can be seen in the areas of liturgy, popular piety, family life, catechesis, ecumenism, morals, and political involvement, to name just a few. It seems to me that in many areas of the Church’s life the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” has triumphed. It has manifested itself in a sort of dualism, an either/or mentality and insistence in various areas of the Church’s life: either fidelity to doctrine or social justice work, either Latin or English, either our personal conscience or the authority of the Church, either chant or contemporary music, either tradition or progress, either liturgy or popular piety, either conservative or liberal, either Mass or Adoration, either the Magisterium or theologians, either ecumenism or evangelization, either rubrics or personalization, either the Baltimore Catechism or “experience”; and the list goes on and on! We have always been a “both/and” people: intrinsically traditional and conservative in what pertains to the faith, and creative in pastoral ministry and engaging the world.The last sentence of this paragraph is addresses yet another false dichotomy, that the Church cannot look both inwardly (identity) and outwardly (mission). It is presumed that if she tends to herself, she will neglect the poor, the hungry, the marginalized; but if she concentrates on ministering to others, she'll overlook the flaws of her own members. To this, Bishop Nickless clearly says no: the Church can and does look inward and outward. It would seem that the lens between those two gazes is none other than Christ Himself: it is Christ by Whom we know ourselves as Catholics and as the Church, and it is Christ who impels us to go out to the whole world and make disciples.
My brothers and sisters, let me say this clearly: The “hermeneutic of discontinuity” is a false interpretation and implementation of the Council and the Catholic Faith. It emphasizes the “engagement with the world” to the exclusion of the deposit of faith. This has wreaked havoc on the Church, systematically dismantling the Catholic Faith to please the world, watering down what is distinctively Catholic, and ironically becoming completely irrelevant and impotent for the mission of the Church in the world. The Church that seeks simply what works or is “useful” in the end becomes useless.Remember, this section is about the "current context" of the implementation (and interpretation) of the Second Vatican Council. His Excellency makes it clear that the wrong interpretation is one which emphasizes discontinuity with and rupture from the past. It fails to retain the "both/and" approach regarding identity and mission and instead discards the identity (the Catholic faith) in favor of engaging the world at any cost, at the world's terms. If we forget who we are, what we believe, and how we are called to live, our message to the world can be as changing and ephemeral as the current trends and fads: in other words, the world itself can dictate our message! While it is reasonable that the present condition of the world should influence our approach and emphasis, it is irresponsible and unfaithful to let the world dictate what we will and will not say.
Regarding "usefulness" leading to uselessness, Cardinal Ratzinger had the following to say: "A Church which only makes use of 'utility' music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless." (Feast of Faith, p. 126) This quote will be used again in the next section of the letter.
Our urgent need at this time is to reclaim and strengthen our understanding of the deposit of faith. We must have a distinctive identity and culture as Catholics, if we would effectively communicate the Gospel to the people of this day and Diocese. This is our mission. Notice that this mission is two-fold, like the Second Vatican Council’s purpose. It is toward ourselves within the Church (ad intra), and it is to the world (ad extra). The first is primary and necessary for the second; the second flows from the first. This is why we have not been as successful as we should be in bringing the world to Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ to the world. We cannot give what we do not have; we cannot fulfill our mission to evangelize, if we ourselves are not evangelized.The repeated theme of these first three sections has been this healthy tension between the inward gaze and the outward gaze. Here the two gazes are necessarily prioritized, and the Bishop notes their urgency: the members of the diocese of Sioux City (and truly all Catholics, but especially American Catholics) must rediscover their identity and culture as Catholics (and this will certainly come with growing — and fasting — pains) in order to be to the world who God is calling us to be. The axiom about not being able to give what one does not have will be brought up again later in this letter.
Our mission in the world is more than just humanitarian aid, more than just social justice. To reduce the Gospel, the good news, to a mere temporal release for captives and liberty for the oppressed, we are forgetting that Jesus came to earth ultimately to save us from our sins, which have not only temporal ramifications but eternal ones as well. To evangelize without paying attention to the spiritual end of man is not the true Gospel.
With all this in mind, how do we, the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa, reclaim and strengthen our faith, identity and culture as Catholics so as to engage more effectively in our mission?The first end (identity) is ordered towards the second end (mission). I cannot make it any more clear than Bishop Nickless has, and I have a feeling the reason he repeats this so many times is because he wants to avoid any Catholic soul under his care from forgetting one or the other. While the Church has cloistered communities in her membership, that is not the calling of every Catholic. The Church is a city on a hill which cannot be hidden; she is a light to be set on a lampstand, not covered by a basket. For her members to seek the divine life, a life of holiness, and sequester themselves away from other sinners who are just as in need of the same saving knowledge of Christ is a terrible failure to obey our Lord's great commission.
The next post will deal with the first of the five priorities for the diocese of Sioux City: to renew an authentic Eucharistic spirituality.