Identity and Change

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On December 15, 2017, Fr Philip Cleevely made the following chapter address to the community.

Although in one sense, writes Fr Faber, the Church remains always the same, because her divine life is continuous, in another sense she differs from her own past appearances very materially. And this must necessarily be so, he continues, from the very fact that her mission is to interfere with the world, to mould it or to thwart it. 

Now we might think that the sequence of thought here is hardly irresistible. Surely the mission of the Church to interfere, to mould or to thwart, suggests the opposite of what Fr Faber affirms: it suggests precisely a manifestly and self-consciously unchanging Church, a Church which because she is unchanging is able to confront the mutability of the world without compromise or confusion. 

But Faber is not ignoring this way of thinking; on the contrary, his purpose is to challenge it. He wants us to understand that the unbroken identity of the Church is neither in conflict with the manifold changes she undergoes, nor even serenely unrelated to them. Instead, his argument is that the changes are a necessary expression of her identity. 

His thought is that the Church could not be what she always is, unless, as he puts it, her lineaments, and her outward physiognomy, change most strikingly. In fact he goes further: not only ‘lineaments’ and ‘outward physiognomy’, but more – he says – her interior life as well must necessarily change, if the Church is to remain what she is. 

According to Fr Faber, then, the ‘continuity’ of the Church’s ‘divine life’ positively requires of her both exterior and interior mutability; and this mutability, he tells us, because it is a necessary expression of her continuity, unfolds according to nothing less than the dispositions of God.

Faber’s analysis perhaps configures things rather differently from the way in which any of us might instinctively position them. Nor does he hesitate to derive the practical consequences. The spirit of the past, he tells us, and so its beauty, are lost in the stupid servility of a dull and unimaginative copy. Hence it is, he continues, that all mere revivalisms, as contrary to the nature of a living and immaculate Church, are either…the…life of a heresy or a schism, or, when imbecility, or good though mistaken intention accompany them, an innocuous ineptitude and blunder. Instead, a cheerful, reverent, submissive, admiring loyalty to the present epoch of the Church and to the Rome of today, he concludes, this is the health, and sinew, and heat of the real Catholic life. 

Well – easy for him to say, we might think. 

Faber, after all, was writing in 1850, when the contemporary Church, to which he urges such absolute loyalty, could perhaps still be thought of as the Tridentine Church, as indeed he explicitly calls it. Nothing is easier than to point out that things are very different in the Church of today, liturgically and devotionally, philosophically and theologically. 

Of course – but what kind of resistance to Faber’s argument is involved in pointing this out? 

It seems to me that we ought to avoid framing our hesitation by claiming, in effect, that if he were alive today then he, like all good Catholics, would prove to be a revivalist after all. The problem with his argument, I think, is rather different. 

The problem lies in his assumption that, in any given age, the ‘lineaments’, ‘outward physiognomy’ and ‘interiority’ of the Church will always manifestly cohere, according to a single and intelligible form. Because of this assumption, he perhaps overestimates the manifest intelligibility even of the Medieval and Tridentine Churches. But whether or not he does so, what seems undeniable is that the contemporary Church resists interpretation in this way. It is marked, instead, by a coexistent diversity of interiorities, lineaments and physiognomies.    

But if it is true that Faber does not seem to have foreseen such a situation, nonetheless, I suggest, his fundamental analysis is not undermined. 

Against every temptation to what he calls ‘idolatry of the past’ and its ‘antiquarian edification’, we must continue to try to understand the Church of today in its apparently insoluble complexity. We are not dealing merely with a fateful recession from former clarities, which must be retrieved and insisted upon as the condition of our perseverance. Instead, we must continue trying to locate and enter into a perspective – and there may be more than one – from which we can take seriously Faber’s insight that the Church always concretely expresses, although perhaps in unprecedented ways, the continuity of the divine life which inhabits her. 

And the search for such a perspective, as Faber also insists, must continue to be the form of our loyalty to the Church, which can only mean loyalty to the Church as she is: the health, and sinew, and heat of the real Catholic life.