Is There Any Hope For the Church?

(This is Neil)

Let’s say that someone tells you, with both finality and unmistakable sadness, “There is no hope for the church.” You, hoping that she has used “hope” in a somewhat indefinite way, say, “Look, there might be no reason for optimism, since that’s based on our estimation of human capacities. And that might be pretty low right now. But hope is based on faith in God and God’s promises.” She responds sharply, indignant after reading the reports of clerical abuse in Philadelphia and Kansas City, saying that you are still idealizing the church. The church is what the church will be, and, so, we can just happily disregard all of the empirical evidence before us, content that the ever-increasing distance between present reality and future promise will be magically bridged. At least, that’s what it seems you are saying.

Does hope lead to complacency? In the present issue of Theological Studies, there are a couple of articles about hope. One of them is by Dominic Doyle. A short part of it addresses this question, arguing that hope actually destabilizes any such complacency.

First, Doyle says that we have to define the relationship between faith and hope. Following Aquinas, he says that faith is the mind’s assent to a “divine reality that exceeds the capacity of the human intellect.” There is an “obscurity” in faith because of our intellectual limitations. And this cognitio aenigmatica leaves us unsatisfied. As Aquinas tells us, “the knowledge of faith, far from appeasing desire, rather excites it, since every one desires to see that which he believes” (my emphasis).

If we are to have any chance to “see what we believe,” we need another virtue besides faith. This virtue cannot be cognitive, subject to the same limitations of the human intellect. And, so, it is hope – located in the will – that moves us closer to God. In his commentary on 1 Timothy, Aquinas says that “faith shows us the end” but “hope moves us to the end.” (It is charity that finally “unites us” to God.)

If we have hope, then, we realize that faith is still inadequate, incomplete, enigmatic. We can have faith and still need, Doyle says, to “face difficulties and own up to its own personal and collective imperfections.” As we move in hope to the end, we discover that we are not possessors, but pilgrims and wayfarers, and our journey must involve purification. The way is cruciform.

The real danger is the temptation to believe that hope is not necessary – that faith is already sufficient. When it becomes quite clear that very bad problems still exist in the church, sometimes even in the midst of self-proclaimed orthodoxy, we imagine that faith just has to be imposed more strictly or defended more harshly. We become more and more anxious when we discover that theological faith can strangely coexist with self-deception, which leads to more and more desperate forms of rigidity. Or, perhaps, we just throw up our hands and wait for the magic solution that will suddenly change present reality to future promise. This is what the Jesuit Michael Buckley has called “bad faith.”

Doyle says that hope does not change the content of faith, much less suggest that it is unimportant. Hope presupposes faith. Still –

By registering the imperfections and internal tensions within faith, the virtue of hope moves the believer to expect more. It prepares her to imagine new forms of church, to see God at work in change, not only in continuity. Most importantly in the context of the abuse crisis, it generates a mindset in which the Church can be open to the difficult changes required to prevent such widespread abuse and failure in leadership from happening again.

So, then, it can be said that hope for the church should never lead to complacency. In fact, the very opposite is true.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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