November 1, 2012

Today is hallowmas or All Saints Day in the Catholic tradition.  It celebrates the Community of Saints, those who have attained paradise and tomorrow the 2nd is the Day of the Dead, a celebration of those in Purgatory.  Both the Church triumphant and the Church suffering are (according to doctrine) united with the Church militant (those of us still living).  Purgatory has always been, for me at least, an interesting idea.  It shifts away from a crude dichotomy at the point of death between the extremes of Heaven and Hell.  With it you also have the idea that the living can, through the mediation of the Saints ease the suffering of those in Purgatory and ease their transition.  With that we also have the idea of Justification by works, not by faith alone.

Now at the time of the Reformation all of that had resulted in a level of corruption that produced legitimate revulsion with the sale of indulgences and a cynical exploitation of what we would now consider primitives beliefs.   Doctrine in the Catholic Church as always allowed for the development of teaching through tradition so it is not strictly a revealed religion in the sense of Protestantism or Islam which rely solely on a book.  I always felt Catholicism had more in common with Judaism than Protestantism for that reason, and also the emphasis on the community rather than the individual.  Salvation is achieved through the religious community of which you are a part in contrast with the idea of a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus.  What you do is as important as what you believe and your actions in the world and after determine your future.  At the other extreme we have the evil of extreme Calvinish ideas of pre-destination.  I'm sorry if anyone is offended by this, but I think predestination is an evil idea and the modern there is no such thing as free will  nonsense is in the same ball park.  Purgatory also provided a second chance which always seemed to me a better and more ethical approach than being confined to the hell fires for failing to appreciate the elegance of the ontological argument.

Of course in the 60s and 70s the things which were seen by the Reformers as examples of institutional corruption became in their turn the theoretical base for a new revolution.  Liberation Theology emphasised justification through works not by faith alone and the need to shift from social atomism and the consequence deification of the individual and the cult of the preacher.  Community and the role of the community was front and centre which may well have been why the post John XXIII church in the person of the current Pope in a previous role moved to suppress it (my one meeting with said individual).  A Polish Pope and an East German Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (it used to be called the Inquisition but it was rebranded) would only ever associate such ideas with Stalinism so I can see why, but it still hurts decades later.  It may have been a mistake to adopt a Marxist clenched fist grasping a Crown or Thorns dripping blood as our badge.  I always loved Rahner's writing, the jesuit philosopher who was the intellectual powerhouse behind Vatican II.  His subtle legitimisation of other religions opening up possibilities for discourse which had previously been closed down.  He created the space to think beyond boundaries, to engage with a wider world.

Now I never really bought into the whole Heaven/Hell thing but adding in Purgatory made it a useful metaphor.  The important thing for me when I shifted from Protestant to Catholic was the idea that religion could evolve, was community based and founded in moral action. To all intents a lapsed but occasionally and sentimentally re-engaged Catholic, that stays with me to this day.  The critical pre-eminence of community, and identity as an emergent property of social interaction remain important to this day whether you are religious or not.  The savage and primitive pursuit of selfishness and individual self-interest is one of the things that some religions at least held back to a degree.  We need some moral imperative to do the same in this age of reduced resources coupled with increasing demand.  If we don't then the living will become the suffering and we all all belong to the community of damed.


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