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Voices Online Edition
Michaelmas 2001, Volume XVI No. 3
By Mary Ellen Bork
During a time of enforced rest this summer caused by pneumonia, I had time for reading and found several good books on our shelves about the Reformation. Reading about history is a freeing experience in the sense that we enter into the troubles and triumphs of another age, another time and then turn back to today's problems with at least a slightly more informed perspective.
One area that came into clearer focus is the extent of secularization in America -- and the loss of the common Christian culture that predominated five hundred years ago. We approach our culture with some sort of formation in Christian culture learned from family and church but that formation needs constant attention, updating, and deepening. When we compare the stories making news then and now we can appreciate that we have a very different cultural task and more cultural tools than Catholics had in the sixteenth century.
By 1535 one of the main topics of debate that dominated the rest of the century in major European capitals was how to accomplish the reform of the Church.
All of Europe was Catholic in practice but many were uneducated in the faith, including priests. Luther made some proposals that were electrifying at the time, such as eliminating taxation of local churches for projects in Rome, allowing Mass in the vernacular, giving priests freedom to marry, and providing Bibles (newly available since the invention of the printing press) to local parishes.
Today we are debating issues that many consider to be the very basis of culture and life in society. The results of that debate will decide how civilized we are.
This summer's discussion of government funding of embryonic stem cell research is another episode in the continuing debate in the public square about the value of the human person and when human life begins. The opinion of the Church does not decide the issue but is one of many voices in the struggle to decide how to handle the technology we have developed.
In the sixteenth century varying opinions about doctrine and practice were often resolved by civil wars. We resort to more civilized means such as legislatures and courts but often come up with uncivilized results, such as Roe v. Wade.
Another breaking story in the sixteenth century was kings and princes, who had traditionally been closely involved in the support of the Church the appointment of bishops, in some cases deciding to free themselves from what they considered excessive foreign taxation from Rome and assert their own territorial influence.
King Henry VIII, who had been well educated in the faith, refused allegiance to the pope initially because of a dispute over his desire for a divorce so he could marry Ann Bolyen. His decision resulted in the eventual establishment of a new church of which he was the head and which remained very Catholic in ritual. Today there are stories that Queen Elizabeth will no longer oppose her son and future heir's marriage to a divorced woman.
Many of the reformation churches today are struggling to maintain agreement on core beliefs rooted in the Bible so as to keep their membership. All churches are struggling with the power of secularism to distract people from a serious commitment to faith and remain indifferent to the full dignity of life oriented to the transcendent. Questions of religious affiliation are no longer decided by secular leaders but by individuals looking for firm moral teaching and leaders with religious charisma.
Perhaps no office has changed as much in five hundred years as that of the pope. In the sixteenth century the Church was a temporal power with an army, lands, and military alliances with kings. Eventually the Council of Trent dealt with the many questions raised by the reformers with the result that the Church gave much more attention to the education of clergy and the liturgy. Today with no temporal power and, at the moment, reduced numbers, the Church stands out as the only strong authoritative voice with a compelling moral and religious vision. The popes of the twentieth century and John Paul II have added greatly to the articulation of that vision at a time when the impulse to deny the existence of God and wallow in secularism is strong. John Paul sees the formation of culture as one of the most important humanistic works of our time.
We have no common Christian culture but enviable political freedom to practice our religion and be active in the public square and in the church.
Unlike the sixteenth century where that culture was a given, we have to use the innumerable communication opportunities at our disposal to participate in forming a "culture of life".
As lay Catholics we are free to use cultural tools, such as publishing a magazine like Voices, creating a forum for intellectual exchange and inspiration. It does not take much, just ingenuity, perseverance, intelligence, faith, networking, computer-literacy -- all, it turns out, requirements for intelligent Catholic life in twenty-first century.
We can draw inspiration from Catholics who have preceded us and completed their cultural task with fortitude and holiness.
A Catholic future depends on it.
Mary Ellen Bork, a member of the Editorial Board of Voices, frequently writes and lectures on issues affecting Catholic life. Her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, the Washington Times and other publications. She lives with her husband, Judge Robert Bork, in McLean, Virginia.
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