Consecrating the World?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

In resisting the ‘clericalisation’ of the laity, Pope John Paul II has insisted in Christifideles Laici upon the quite separate and unique lay role of ‘consecrating the world to God’. In so doing he reiterated a central theme of Lumen Gentium. Dismissed by many as a mere stratagem for maintaining the clerical monopoly of power in the church, this verbal reinforcement of Vatican II needs to be taken far more seriously as an opportunity for freeing the Holy Spirit to enlighten and encourage both clergy and laity at a critical time.

But ‘the consecration of the world to God’ is a formula that needs teasing out. If we understand it simply as a ‘churching’ of the world, a matter of ‘ outdoor worship’ – of ostentatious religiosity in the form of mass processions and other grand liturgical events designed for media coverage – we are attempting something else, the recreation of that public power the clerical Catholic Church in Ireland and elsewhere sought to express in the pre-Vatican II era. Christendom and Christianity were never the same thing – and the distinction is critical if we are to communicate to lay people their own crucial and indispensable role in worldly consecration.

Nor can the consecration of the world be achieved by subterfuge, by inducting laity into clerically inspired and controlled pseudo-lay movements that seek to ‘infiltrate’ secular space. Conspiratorial Catholicism is one of the most powerful de-Christianising forces in history, because it proposes to seize by stealth what Christ aimed to transform by nothing more, or less, than unconditional and universal love. By now every Catholic – from Pope to first communicant – should know the fundamental equation proved by recent events: secrecy is – in itself – scandalous.

The fundamental values of the Gospel are not specifically Catholic, or in need of secret stratagems or movements, or alien to the secularised world, or out of place in any human relationship. They are the inalienable sacredness of every human person, and therefore also the sacredness of every human space – and the right of all persons to know and cherish their own dignity and freedom as dearly beloved of God. They have to do, centrally, with unconditional respect for one another, and for ourselves.

It follows that instead of lamenting the half-emptiness of the glass of secularisation, Catholicism should be celebrating its half-fullness – the fact that it emphasises some rights that are implicit in the Gospels, and provides a peaceful neutral space in which all can freely discuss their own spiritual journeys and dilemmas. Victimisation and oppression are also anathema to ideological secularism – and this is a victory for the cross as well, even though we must point to the obvious anomaly of abortion and the drift towards a degrading separation of sexuality from binding relationships.

We Catholics cherish our sacraments as signs of divine love – but we have also forcibly baptised conquered peoples, and therefore made baptism also – for some – a contradictory sign of oppression. Religious freedom was a goal of secularism before it was a principle of our Church – so secularism is for many a more convincing sign of their own liberation, and therefore, to that extent, in that respect – and for those people – more sacramental than the church.

It follows inexorably that there are secular sacraments as well as Catholic ones – sacraments that point nevertheless to the same truths. It follows that they too are worthy of Catholic respect. This discovery was fundamental to the work of Fr John Courtney Murray whose respect for separation of church and state in his own country guided the Vatican II affirmation of the principle of religious liberty.

Which means in turn that we must believe that whenever the Church fails in its assigned role of mediating liberation and salvation to the world, God will find other means. We must therefore learn to recognise them – rather than to condemn them because they are not Catholic. Karl Rahner’s ‘anonymous Christians’ are no mere theoretical possibility: they exist wherever human beings idealise human equality and freedom – even if they mis-recognise Christ as a God of oppression through our fault.

This perspective is very different to the one currently taught in our schools. Although we have abandoned the formula ‘no salvation outside the Church’ we have nevertheless supposed and taught that somehow sometime our Church will be vindicated as the central vehicle of human salvation, and that divine grace must sometime be mediated to all through its sacraments. We are also taught to fear secularism, rather than to celebrate the freedoms it provides.

The lives of people such as Nelson Mandela, Andrey Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and George Mitchell prove that our God is always greater than we are, and has other strings to his bow. And that he does not wait for our Church to get its act together.

What the Gospels centrally reveal is the existence of a divine force for good, concerned for the fulfilment of every human person. That does not mean that we must suppose God wants everyone to be like us.

In fact, to be truly Catholic, we must be ready to acknowledge that many are Godly who are very unlike us – and celebrate that difference. As Richard Rohr and Ronald Rohlheiser have emphasised, Jesus never told us to be right, to be sure of our own religious and intellectual superiority. Becoming wise is a matter of letting go the need to be right – and it is far more important for the Church to be wise than dominant.

If this seems to be a capitulation to ‘ relativism’, the mistake is in supposing that our God is confined to revealing himself through us. We write and speak of a hierarchy of truth, and so oblige ourselves to identify what lies at the summit of that hierarchy. We need to be very sure that we do not place ourselves there, by deifying our Church.

For me the summit of that hierarchy is the inalienable dignity of every person – including those who differ from me. Their right to differ is therefore in itself sacred – so that I cannot claim the last word. This seems to me to be at the centre of the Word I worship.

And that is very close to the Enlightenment principle of intellectual freedom – one of the keystones of secular modernism.

It follows inexorably that Catholicism needs to re-evaluate its performance vis-a-vis the Enlightenment and Christendom – and this amounts to a revolution in Catholic thought. To consecrate the world to God we are called to co-operate with – rather than to convert – all who centre themselves upon principles of equality, freedom, community and inclusion.

Just as the domination of the secular world today cannot be considered the manifest destiny of any secular superpower, neither can the spiritual domination of the world be considered the manifest destiny of Catholicism. To be truly a great sacrament of human spiritual liberation it must let go of the need to be recognised by all as right, while maintaining its own right to adhere to its own faith. If its mandate is to liberate the world – the central meaning of salvation – it must unequivocally affirm that its own core values include the right of others to remain forever outside.

It follows from all of this that the role of laity in consecrating the world to God must not be seen as one of simply following the instructions of the clerical church, or of reversing secularisation. Clerical paternalism has already placed faithful Catholic laity in the obnoxious position of appearing to be simply forelock-tugging ‘yes’ people with no intellectual autonomy, a kind of ‘Catholic Mafia’ still wedded to the cause of re-clericalising secular space.

We Catholics must all become far more aware of the degree to which fundamental Christian and Catholic values are already out there in the world, informing the best of secular culture. Previous articles on the Harry Potter and Star Wars phenomena have pointed to the central Christian ideas of self-sacrifice for the good of others, and there are many more examples of the same. The very real example that now dominates the imagination of the west was that of the policemen and firemen who raced into terrifying danger, with no violent intent, on September 11th 2001.

What made the priesthood of Christ quite unique was that it had both a secular and a religious significance. Traditional priestly animal sacrifice was essentially the deflection onto a non-human creature of violence that must otherwise fall upon the sacrificing community, or upon at least one of its members. There was, on the part of the priest, an inevitable element of substitution and evasion. Sacred violence in the ancient world was therefore inevitably morally compromised – the fundamental reason for the obsession with ritual cleanliness. Furthermore, the spheres of the sacred and the profane were inevitably divorced and almost antagonistic to one another, as the priest had to be apart from the rest of men.

This evasion and separation was obliterated by the cross. Jesus sacrificed himself alone for the cause of a forgiving and peaceful world. As Paul noted in Ephesians, every Christian can emulate this sacrifice of Christ in his own body, to some degree, for the benefit of others. This real self-sacrifice incarnates the mercy of God, and the sacrifice of Christ, in a manner that is in no way inferior to the liturgical sacrifice of the Mass. Indeed, to the degree that sacrifice remains a merely liturgical phenomenon, Catholicism has failed.

Which means in turn that there should not be any difference in dignity between the lay Catholic and the Catholic priest in the church’s own internal structures. I have remarked here before on the fact that lay Catholics recently wronged by their clergy have found in secular structures a personal dignity and a vindication they could not discover in their Church. This is a scandal that must be righted urgently if the Church superstructure is to recover any of the prestige it once had in secular Ireland, and among its own laity.

Autonomy is an essential sign of dignity, and the lack of autonomy that lay people suffer in the church is the essential cause of the spiritual diffidence, resentment and intellectual immaturity that characterise so many of us. The ‘consecration of the world to God’ requires therefore the creation of autonomous lay structures within which lay men and women can develop their own special and irreplaceable vocations.

These structures are needed not for radical theological innovation, but for the empowering of laity to incarnate the values of the gospel that belong especially to lay people – the values of sacrifice and service that presently lie largely dormant because the Church remains an essentially clerical apparatus. For centuries that apparatus has called laity to worship without freeing laity to serve – for fear of losing clerical control. It still hangs fearfully unready to free the Holy Spirit that now calls so many lay people. It is that fear above all that now retards the development of the whole church as an instrument of worldly consecration.

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