This famous French proverb means something like “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. The theme of a smaller and purer Church is essentially one found in the writings of the present Pope from the time before his election.
What is happening now is a violent reaction against so-called liberalism and relativism that the idea of a smaller and purer church is quite frightening. If the mission of the Church is closed and no longer open to all, the Church is no longer Catholic. We often think the Vatican is out of touch, but it is said they know absolutely everything. They have their computer and internet specialists, and I am sure that every scrap of information is carefully recorded and archived. The Vatican is probably the finest intelligence service in the world.
The fundamental problem is the divide between “faithful to the magisterium” conservatives and zealots, on one hand, and the bureaucrats and “company men” on the other. How much credibility does either group have with naive spiritual seekers in the world? The reflections of John Milbank about the Anglican Church float in my mind when considering the Roman Catholic Church itself – the European and non-English version of “Whig” political correctness.
Would it be good to have a Church where only committed faithful are allowed into the churches to attend liturgies and prayer groups? We are brought to think about the Church under the persecutions of the early centuries, when security had to be tight and motivations of persons carefully examined. The sheep are separated from the goats in this world, and not as an eschatological sign! The idea is as attractive as it is repulsive.
Some bishops have been challenging the “weak” Catholics to leave the Church and embrace secularism, supposedly as a kind of goad to make them “good” Catholics. That might seem attractive to zealots, but is it pastoral in terms of pearls hanging on slender threads, as Newman put it? If you’re not for us you’re against us. Is that Christian or the mentality of gangs?
Seeking a “smaller, purer Church” carries with it an inherent risk, one of making the Church into a sect. I read this description of exclusion:
Those who are comfortable pursuing a “smaller, purer” Church don’t realize the dangers inherent in their quest. Exclusion, by its very nature, is all-consuming. It is an engine that keeps on chugging, a mill perpetually demanding new grist. If the reactionary fringe ever banished all liberal dissent, it would not suddenly dwell in the peace of Christ. It would, in the absence of other scapegoats, cannibalize itself.
It is human nature, like under the totalitarian regimes, whether Nazi, Fascist or Communist, to shave away the forms of dissidence from the party line from either side until you have no more than the edge of a razor blade. Orthodoxy becomes narrower and narrower. Such a regime indeed can only consume itself and implode.
Eventually, the result can only be a complete volte-face, a reaction akin to the French Revolution on the death of Benedict XVI or a gentle movement of glasnost and perestroika, a loosening of the screws and allowing the Church at parish and local community level to readjust itself. It might mean some really wild things, but it would also allow the cultivation of more traditional ways.
This is one reason why I consider the ordinariates to be a positive thing, but yet too short-sighted in their implementation, too dependent on a top-heavy authoritarian structure.
I see things going in the sense of the perfect being the enemy of the good. For example, a rule comes out saying that a parish has to pay its priest a living salary. So a small parish of, say, twenty people, cannot have a priest – not even a non-stipendiary volunteer. Of course there are two sides to everything, but it is an example of the saying.
I will leave this subject with an updating of Jesus’ analogy of the good wheat and the weeds. If you dig up the weeds too early, you will ravage the good crop. Nowadays, we seem to be getting genetically engineered crops in order for the weeds to be better eliminated – but will the crop do us any good?
I was once very excited about the election of Benedict XVI as in the misty days of John XXIII who wanted to open the windows and doors to let fresh air into the stuffy rooms. All we can do now is wait and in the meantime continue our own little ways as best we can. Unity with the Pope remains a fine ideal for the sake of the unity of the Church, but not under the present conditions for some of us as many others.