Jesus answered and said to him: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you but your Father who is in heaven. And I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail over it.
In the Roman Catholic apologetics on which many of us were raised, this passage from Matthew’s gospel was a “proof text” for the claim of the Divine institution of the church and the papacy. Over the course of centuries, its interpretation became increasingly concerned with “office” rather than with faith. Thus, it is a natural choice for the gospel for this Feast of the Chair of St. Peter.
As I read the gospel this morning, however, I must admit to feelings of resistance and even anger. Through the centuries many have been hurt and much harm has been done by a false assertion that a human institution could have divine and infallible claims. As Lord Acton said at the time of the First Vatican Council which promulgated papal infallibility: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
By chance I was directed this morning to read an essay from 2014 by the Irish novelist John Boynton. Boynton is most famous for his novel The Boy In The Striped Pajamas. His recent novels, however, are more autobiographical and deal with the painful effects on him and much of Irish culture of the absolute power that the Roman Church held in that country during his childhood. In the essay written in October of 2014, shortly after the publication of his novel A History of Loneliness, Boyne speaks of the complex reality of a church that was at once a source of repression, oppression and violence but that also was a home for many good and decent people, both the laity and clergy.
In writing this novel I hoped that those who blindly defend the church against all critics might recognise the crimes that the institution has committed, while those who condemn it ceaselessly might accept that there are many decent people who have lived good lives within it. It’s a story that Irish writers have for the most part ignored but it’s not written in defence of the church – indeed, by the end of it, the reader has to consider the narrator’s complicity in the events that were taking place before him – but nor is it an outright attack. It is simply a novel that asks people to examine the subject from a broader perspective and to reconsider the lives of all those who have suffered, both within and without one of the fundamental pillars of Irish society.
The Guardian, 3 October 2014
We human beings always long to resolve the complexities and contradictions of human existence. When we speak of the longed for afterlife, we speak of it as a place where there is no more struggle, or sorrow, or sinfulness; where harmony and peace reign; where God’s will exists without contradiction or tarnish. We then continually attempt to bring such a harmony down to earth. We attribute to kings and to religious leaders a Divine mandate with Divine authority. We come to see our own tribe, or nation, or people as “a city on a hill,” as exceptional among the inhabitants of earth. At the personal level, we create stories about ourselves in which our own struggles and hypocrisies are burnished and reinterpreted. it is really difficult for us to have faith in the very midst of our weakness, contradictions, and failures.
Perhaps the anger I felt as I read today’s gospel and was reminded of the illusory claims it has led to was about my own contradictions and hypocrisies. How can I claim that my faith and my desire to love God is real when so much of my life is governed rather by habit, selfishness, and laziness? How can I claim to truly love others, when my concern for and view of them is almost always filtered through my own self-reference? Tensions are so difficult to live with. So, our unconscious will move to dissolve the tension. It will either dismiss faith as romance and illusion, or else it will suppress and repress all the ways that we live that is counter to faith, hope, and love. Light and darkness are not external phenomena but run through the heart of each of us, believer and non-believer alike.
The tradition of our Church is a great and proud one. It has been, throughout its history, a tremendous force for learning, for love, for goodness. Yet, it has been far from infallible. It has often, unfortunately in the name of Jesus and God, brought suffering and submission to entire peoples; it has far too often put its own reputation and power ahead of the truth of its sinfulness; it continues to this day to arrogate to itself the definition of who is and who is not a beloved of God, a completely and fully and well-ordered human being.
We hear in Matthew’s gospel today that the church of Jesus is built on faith. Peter (whose new name or nickname may well describe his “rocky” dispositions) stands in for all of us sinners and declares, for all the ways he will fail to live up to it, that in Jesus he has come to recognize, to know, and to abandon his life to “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The foundation of the church, because it is an ecclesia of human beings, is faith, not certitude. It is the willingness to continue to ask, to seek, and to knock as we stumble along our way because we trust, not only despite but because of our sinfulness and weakness. To have faith in the face of our broken realities (individual and communal) is not hypocrisy. It is honesty and a willingness to live with the conflict and tension of human life.
When we abolish humility, remorse, and repentance from our lives, we deceive ourselves; we live in a fake perfection; we abandon holiness and integration because we leave out the awareness of the demonic, egotistic inclinations which are as much a part of our fallen nature as our more virtuous, godly tendencies. Our shadow is always with us. And our shadow is more clear and sharp-edged when we walk in the fullness of the sun. The person who grows in the light of grace sees more clearly the darkness of sin. The infinity of light makes that person more aware of the abyss of darkness. The saint is the one who walks constantly between two abysses. No one speaks so eloquently as that person of the love and grace of God, and no one laments so poignantly the power of the demonic in one’s life. Humility and repentance prevent the blind repressions of our awareness of those modes of existence which are incompatible with our life project. If we unfortunately repress the awareness of the growth of these modes of life, they will burst forth in dreams and neurotic symptoms; they will generate a conflict between themselves and our conscious plan of life.
Adrian van Kaam, Religion and Personality, pp. 26-7