A Fortified City?
All Christians, I am sure, have favourite passages from the psalms which they recite to themselves from time to time. For many years one of mine has been from psalm 30: “I thank you Lord for showing me the wonders of your love in a fortified city.”
It tends to spring to mind whenever I think how marvellous it is to have received the gift of faith and membership of the Church, and how different life would be without them.
But how far is it legitimate these days to think of the Church as ‘a fortified city’? It is true the Church continues to have those of her children who say the Divine Office recite psalm 30 every week, and during Advent the following antiphon. “We have a strong city. The Saviour will set up wall and rampart to guard it. Open the gates, for God is with us”. (Morning prayer, Sunday, Week 2).
But doesn’t the image of the Church as a ‘fortified city’, taken from the Old Testament, conflict with the spirit of Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II dogmatic constitution on the Church, and Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution the Church in the Modern World?
The apparent dichotomy led me to reflect on the fact that there seems to be a similar dichotomy in God’s way of dealing with his people over the course of history. He seems to have had one strategy for Old Testament times, another for New and post-New Testament times. How is this to be explained?
The simplest answer seems to me as follows.
In Old Testament times God was preparing his people for the eventual coming of the Saviour. For this it was first of all necessary to wean them from polytheism and idolatry. He had to teach them that there was only one God, a spiritual being who did not resemble human beings, and this could only be done by keeping them as far apart as possible from other peoples and cultures. One could call it a strategy of separatism. Any influence on other peoples was to be achieved not by letting his people mingle with them but by their good example. Their good example would show their neighbours how paltry their own deities were by comparison.
“I teach you the laws and customs you are to observe in the land you are to enter and make your own,” he tells them on their way to the promised land. “Keep them and observe them and they will demonstrate to the peoples your wisdom and understanding. When they come to know of all these laws they will exclaim ‘No other people is as wise and prudent as this great nation.’ ” But inter-mingling was to be taboo.
So God said. But, as we all know, getting his way was to be a long and tough struggle. His people were ‘stiff-necked’ – though probably no more so than we are. However by the end of the Babylonian captivity the goal had at last been achieved. Except for a brief period under the Maccabees, we hear no more about polytheism and idolatry. From now on, God’s people are strict monotheists. Any lapses are of a moral and spiritual kind.
Then the Saviour comes, the redemption is accomplished, and the emphasis changes.
Separatism can be abandoned. The new people of God, rather than being ‘a people set apart,’ are to be missionaries. They are to go out, carrying the Good News to the Gentiles and mingle with them. They are not of course a mob of leaderless individualists. They are the new People of God, members of the Ecclesia Dei, with and under their authorised pastors, the successors of the Apostles. And they are to avoid adopting any customs or practices of the pagans which conflict with Christian faith or morals. But this apart they are to show active love and friendliness towards all men.
This change of tactics on God’s part is not to be interpreted in terms of what Pope Benedict has called a ‘hermenutics of discontinuity’ i.e. God had a change of mind. He decided that his tactics for the Old Testament times, separatism, had been a mistake.
In using this expression our pope emeritus was describing the approach of those who present Vatican II as marking a radical break on the part of the Church with much of her pre-conciliar teaching. No, says Pope Benedict, no break, only developments in understanding and ways of applying some aspects of it. In other words a ‘hermenutics of continuity’, not ‘discontinuity’.
Similarly with God’s handling of his people before and after the coming of Our Lord. It represents two stages of a single overall plan.
Where then does all this leave us in regard the image of the Church as a ‘fortified city’? The Church of course uses a number of different images or analogies to describe herself or different aspects of herself; a mother, a bride or spouse, a home, a human body and so on. But is there still room for the ‘fortified city’?
I believe there is. But before I try to show how and where, I want to dispose of a wrong way of applying the analogy which was characteristic of certain French Catholics before the Council which their French Catholic opponents described as ‘l’emigration de l’interieur’.
Dating from the assumption of power by the French Third Republic in 1870, it meant having as little as possible to do with the rest of French society in so far as it seemed to be an expression of republicanism and anti-Catholicism. Good Catholics should, as far as possible, hold it at bay, rather the way certain Scotch Protestant sects isolated themselves from main stream Presbyterianism. Both saw themselves as living under siege. And if you are under siege you live in a fortress.
It was this kind of ‘fortress mentality’ which Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes were designed, among other things, to bring to an end. It was not confined to France. It could be found to some degree wherever Catholics were in a minority
In what sense, then, following the author of psalm 30, can we still legitimately see the Church as in some respects a ‘fortified city’ and thank God for having put us in it? Where does the resemblance lie?
Above all I would say in her de fide teaching and canon law. Together they are like a curtain wall with towers at intervals surrounding and protecting what could be called the fullness of Catholic belief and practice. Within this fortified enclosure the Catholic mind and spirit can take refuge from the winds and tornadoes of moral and intellectual chaos blowing about outside and refresh itself at a fountain of certainty before plunging back into the turmoil so as to bring that blessed certainty to as many of their fellow men and women as possible.
Philip Trower is the author of several books including Turmoil and Truth: The historical roots of the the modern crisis in the Catholic Church.