Le Mieux est l’Ennemi du Bien

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.

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17 Responses to Le Mieux est l’Ennemi du Bien

  1. Simone says:

    It’s really impressive what happened and is happening, in a parallel path, to Anglicans headed to Ordinariates and the FSSPX. If you take a look at Rorate, it’s a total chaotic confusion, who is in communion with whom, who is in partial communion, who is inside and who is outside? There’s no clear answer. We have the perpetuating paradox of a community that (quite fanatically) bases its existence on the total obedience to a Pope to which they practically disobey, and on the other side the Vatican hierarchy that cannot get rid of a community that is the carbon copy of what the church was until 1962. This is a full set of paradoxes stemming out of 1870’s infallibility, that works fine until arrives a Pope that starts changing something in liturgy and/or doctrine. I’d like to hear some further reflections of fr. Chadwick about this, also given his insight in the whole matter.

    • I read a book by someone who had been a seminarian in the SSPX. In the 1980’s they were shaving away the sedevacantists on one side and those who wanted union with Rome on the other. Now Rome does the same with them as with the “dissidents not faithful to the magisterium”. Shave away the right and shave away the left, and the razor edge becomes very narrow. I think the SSPX will implode in time or find a more moderate position. Life could become more difficult for Rome – depends who the next Pope will be and the one after. I wish Benedict XVI a long life, but we have to be realistic!

  2. Stephen K says:

    I was watching “Fiddler on the Roof” the other day: Topol struggles with three successive challenges to his Tradition, that his eldest daughter should marry someone of her own choice rather than a good financial match; that his second daughter should marry a revolutionary intellectual rather than a solid bourgeois; and that his third daughter should marry a Gentile. He digs his heels in at the third and right till the eleventh hour we think he will cast off his daughter forever.

    This process of purification in movements and in the Church(es) is akin to closing the door on one’s own flesh-and-blood. I am sure I do not need to spell out to any sensitive reader how truly hard and self-focused and unforgiving one must be to do that. We all need forgiveness for something. Hopefully it dawns on us that love has to be unconditional otherwise it is not love. When we forget that our children are like we once were, or have to make their way as we each have to, and when we think we are the standard by which all else is judged, the game is over: love for them cannot exist there.

    Similarly, when a Church says “Go away” from the house of God, it is forgetting that it itself is but a resident of that house. It may define itself as the “body of Christ” – in other words, as “God” – but this is uncomfortably too close to idolatry. The house of God is a metaphor, surely, for a journey of pilgrims who start at different times, from different places, and stop at different inns and shrines along the way. Closing the road to all but a favoured few (and favoured for how long?) is an undertaking so time- and energy-consuming, so vast and so impossible, that no time or energy is left to continue on the journey towards the goal.

    • You reflect my own thoughts exactly. I have the impression that the institutional Church has learned nothing from 20th century politics and the tragedy of two world wars, the second of them being all about “purifying” the human race and narrowing the criteria of those who can be allowed to live. Every single regime that has operated according to these principles has either been defeated in war by liberal countries that found such ideas unacceptable, or the regime itself imploded.

      Now, many of us Christians are going to have to learn to live the Christian ideal without the comfort of a church to affirm us. Do we not arrive at Bonhoeffer’s conclusion? That man and his writings haunt me.

      • Stephen says:

        As you know, the sex abuse scandals in the RCC, and the fact that I knew, trusted and revered two priests who turned out to be vile abusers almost drove me to atheism. I have found the means to work out my salvation (I hope, anyway) within the Orthodox Church.

        My poor prayers that you may find something similar.

    • Dale says:

      Stephen, I do not know if the scandal of sex abusing clergy is enough to leave the Roman Catholic Church. Personally, I know of two clerical sex abusers, both Byzantine Orthodox bishops. One, whom I will mention because he has now been publicly condemned as such, is one of the “English born Greek Orthodox prelates” (no not the one who writes books, but the other one). I first met him when I was an Orthodox seminarian and he had been placed in charge of the Russian orphanage! It was obvious from the very beginning that there was something not quite right between him and the male children under his charge, but nothing was done about it. So, if you think you can escape from this mess by joining the Byzantines, you are very much mistaken.

      • Stephen says:

        You are not me. I am not seeking to escape from anything. I am seeking my salvation. Would you prefer that I simply abandon Christ altogether as a sham and a fabrication? That’s the situation I was in, and that is what the Orthodox Church saved me from.

      • I think that arguing about this subject is pointless. Perhaps a church in which one may find happiness may be more a parish than an entire Communion, and Orthodox parishes differ from each other as Roman Catholic and Anglican ones do too. I am happy for Stephen that he has found his spiritual home. Dale – Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien! It is better for a man to find his home in an imperfect Church, but with which a relationship is possible all the same. I don’t think that Stephen is under any illusion about this imperfection of all Churches.

        I think most of us can tolerate imperfection and try to edify by example. But, one thing that is difficult to tolerate in churches is wanton evil beyond a certain threshold.

        There is another difference. Stephen is a layman and Dale is a priest. A layman can attend services and pray, and “keep out of the engine room” as Monsignor Knox put it. A priest has to be completely involved with all the intrigues and politics of that Church’s Patriarch, Metropolitan, Synod, Eparchy or whatever. A layman can often find happiness by limiting his involvement and keeping his innocence!!!

      • Stephen says:

        Thank you Fr Anthony. You put into words exactly what I was trying to express! I certainly don’t wish to argue.

        St Seraphim of Sarov (a saint I discovered a LONG time ago) said “achieve inner stillness, and a thousand around you will be saved”. I’m still working on the “inner stillness”. I have a long way to go.

      • “Inner stillness”? Did you ever think of taking up sailing? 😉 You interact with the waves and the wind, and all life’s problems are left on the beach. There you find God.

    • Dale says:

      Then it would perhaps had been better not to have mentioned the R.C. sex scandals in the first place. Having opened such a box as a reason to leave the Roman Catholic Church, one should then be prepared for an answer. Has the scandal perhaps permanently ruined the reputation of the Roman Church, mostly by the egregious manner in which it was hidden by the bishops? Yes, of course it has. But the exact same methods have been employed by the Byzantine Orthodox as well; only with less media attention.

      I am personally tired of hearing the Byzantines attacking Rome over this issue. One simply needs to see the Russian web site that is attempting to proselytize Anglicans in England, it begins by attacking the Holy Father and launches into the pedophile scandal, not mentioning that this Russian group is infamous in the United States for the hairy monks of Blanco, Texas. Which was a den of pedophilia, albeit in a very exotic setting. if one is going to use the pedophile scandal as a way to convert people to Byzantium, then one should expect a response.

      I am very happy that Stephen has found peace in Byzantium, but was it necessary to attack Rome for the same sins of Byzantium?
      the exact same thing is happening over the fence?

      • Yes, it might have been indelicate. There is goodness and evil in all churches, and sometimes in a person’s own life, the threshold of evil is exceeded. Two reactions are possible: give up religion, but evil is also found among non-religious people and atheists, or find another church but not get too committed (if you’re a layman).

        I suppose there are Orthodox and Orthodox, Byzantines and Pre-Chalcedonians and all sorts. I would say to anyone that what to look for is not the “truth” claims of any church, but the local community: whether one finds God and a sense of Christian fellowship. That local community can be Orthodox, RC, Old Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, etc. – it doesn’t matter at the stage where we’re at…

      • Stephen says:

        I didn’t “attack” Rome. I said that I was on the brink of atheism after my experience of the sex scandals in the RCC, and that I was saved from that by Orthodoxy. I did not suggest that Rome was solely at fault, or that Orthodoxy is blameless, or that everyone should follow my lead. Had I been Orthodox and discovered that my spiritual father was a paedophile, then who knows? I may very well have gone in the opposite direction. It was a personal reflection of my journey of faith, and a hope that Fr Anthony would be able to find similar peace on his journey.

        If that is interpreted as an “attack” on Rome, then I think it says more about the interpreter than that which is interpreted. I don’t see any point in responding further to this, so feel free to have the last word.

      • I don’t think anyone should have a “last word” about any of these things. The more I go on in life, the more I approach a “universalist” position and live and let live. That would be condemned as indifferentism or heresy – but it beats the hell out of warfare and hatred! The more people argue about religion and refuse to seek a deeper understanding than what inadequate words can convey, the more the atheists will have a good argument when they say that religion is a disease that inhibits human growth and thought – and should be eradicated.

        In the end, let us be little people and not worry about what churches have against each other, and just get on with life and whatever solace we can find in a church not too far from our homes.

        Stephen, I believe you made the right choice, but we do have to be careful about the temptation to swipe back at what you left. It is best just to leave it alone and stay away.

        Dale, I agree that there is a distinction to be made between what a person may do and what everybody should do. I too find that Russian proselytising site distasteful, indeed all proselytising, whoever does it.

        In omnibus caritas!

      • Stephen says:

        You are, as often the case, Fr Anthony, eminently reasonable. “Last word” in this instance simply meant that I didn’t think that it was a topic that would benefit from me making any further comment. I only brought up the topic of sexual abuse because I had mentioned it before, on your former blog, as the reason that I was no longer Catholic (and I think I added that I wasn’t sure I was still Christian – it was some time ago and I was very upset). In other circumstances, I would not have made reference to it at all. It was an expression of solidarity, rather than an opener for a debate.

        (By the way, I used to go sailing with friends who owned a small yacht, but a serious inner-ear infection in 1995 left me with occasional vertigo, that gets much, much worse when I’m on water.)

  3. Rubricarius says:

    The problem of wanting a ‘purer, smaller’ Church is that it may end up with no one pure enough to qualify for inclusion. IIRC there was someone mentioned in the Gospels who expressed His revulsion at some of the institutional practices of the time and went out of His way to minister to those excluded from institutional structures.

  4. ed pacht says:

    I recall something about motes and beams in eyes. And there was the person that said, “If you find a perfect church, don’t join it. You’ll spoil it.”

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