The Fortress and the Street Fair

The Catholic Church is a hard thing to figure out. What exactly is it, exactly? An organization, an institution, a religious establishment? It’s a mystery. We like mysteries that get solved. Mysteries that remain mysterious are harder. They can be unbearable, in the sense that we can’t bear to let them just be what they are. We want to get a handle on them. We want to put them into one of the classes of things that we’ve come to recognize. 

That temptation is running wild in our world. It’s a form of reductionism, the impulse to take something down from its uniqueness and put it into a box—usually a small, dingy box. The institution of marriage is just an economic association for mutual self-interest. Patriotism is just transferred tribal loyalty. Religion is just an anodyne relieving the fear of death.

We need to fight that impulse, but it isn’t easy. I struggle with it all the time. When I look at the Church, I find two competing visions of this mysterious association of people. 

One vision is the street fair. You know what those look like: a colorful and crazy collection of interesting booths, offering T-shirts, pottery, mixed nuts, you name it. I’ve never had a booth at a street fair, so I don’t know what it takes to get one. My sense is, not much. If what you’re offering is generally compatible with what everyone else is offering, then you’re in. 

I think there are people whose sense of the Catholic Church is that it ought to be something like a street fair. Street fairs are accessible; you can come in from any direction. Street fairs have something for everyone. There’s a relaxed feeling about them, because everyone is equally welcome, everyone is equally appropriate, everyone is just equal. 

Another vision of the Church is quite different: a fortress. In this view, the Church is guarding a treasury, from … well, we all know what is happening in the Western world: Extravagant prosperity, extravagant decadence, smug ignorance of the fact that culture is fragile and must be preserved. There’s nothing inevitable about civilization. Toss it aside, and it seems only a matter of time before the violent, demon-worshipping barbarians show up and start burning everything down—unless they’re already here. 

What did faithful people do in the declining years of the Roman Empire? Some fled to the desert. The rest built walls, around monasteries, around little towns huddled together against the vast and dangerous darkness. Thank God for them, because they preserved the treasury for us.

What did faithful people do in the 13th Century with the rediscovery of classical culture (the real Renaissance) and the blossoming of the Dominican and Franciscan orders for the rebuilding of the Church (the real Reformation)? They taught, and preached, and built up the great universities that welcomed all and spread the faith.

Which model of Church better reflects the will of God? That depends on who’s talking. “Suffer not the little children to come unto me,” Our Lord said. Mt. 19:14. And the children around him probably were not from the upper echelons of Jewish society. Most likely they were street urchins. They were welcome anyway. You can’t generalize a rule of conduct, of course, from every incident in the Bible. But there is a universality about Jesus’ comment. All are welcome, in His presence. 

Does that mean the Church is more like a street fair? It seems not, because there is a battle raging. “Whoever has no sword is to sell his cloak and buy one.” Lk 22:36. Perhaps that is just a metaphor for arming oneself mentally and spiritually—maybe not—but in any case, the warning is clear. You are in for a fight. I’d rather fight from a stronghold. 

So which is it? Some might say the Church is meant to be a balance between the two. But I don’t like that solution. It seems you end up with a frustrating uncertainty: everyone is allowed in, but everyone seems to disapprove of someone else. 

I think the greatest danger is not that we might end up running a street fair when we should be retreating behind strong walls, or building a fortress when we should be setting up booths. To me the greatest danger is in choosing sides. We can have a pretty good discussion about whether, and when, we need one approach or the other. But heaven help us if we become partisans, and forget that we are pilgrims.

The Church is not a fortress. The Church is not a street fair. The Church is a mystery. May we be embraced by this mystery, carried along by it, come what may, trusting in the Holy Spirit always.