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Posted August 9, 2006

The Decline of Common Meaning in the Church

Bishop Edward Braxton
Origins, August 3, 2006. Vol.36. Number 10

An Excerpt from the Introduction:

Tensions in the church resulting from what he termed a “decline of common meaning” were examined in a pastoral letter Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Ill., issued June 4 for Pentecost.

This decline, which is not total, “leads to the danger of divisions, quarrels and fragmentation,” said Braxton. Such framentation, he said, “becomes evident when some lay people, religious sisters, brothers, deacons, priests and bishops feel as if they are living in different ‘worlds.’

He titled his letter “We are His Witnesses: Our Spirit-Filled Mission as the Church in Southern Illinois.”

Braxton said that “once the decline of common meaning and subsequent doubt gain influence in a community . . .people are labeled ‘liberals,’ ‘conservativess,’ ‘right-winged,’ ‘true Catholics,’ ‘even ‘heretics.’ . . .Spirituality all but vanishes as the focus turns to ‘power,’ ‘influence,’ ‘control,’ and ‘winning and losing battles.’”

Braxton was installed as Belleville’s bishop in June 2005, and his letter was an occasion to discuss current concerns for the local church’s mission. He concluded the letter with some steps “almost all of us can take on the road to the renewal of common meaning.” Such a return, he suggested, would be neither a return to pre-Vatican II church nor “the embrace of an imagined ‘future church,’” but “the integration and synthesis” of councils’ authentic teachings.

Excerpts from the Text:

“Most Catholics embrace the reforms of the liturgy brought about by the Vatican Council and the various Vatican documents published since the council. . .A smaller group of Catholics, however, finds the contemporary celebration of Mass very distressful. . . .Yet another group of Catholics does not believe the church’s reforms of the liturgy have been sufficient. . . .A growing number of Catholics feel no need to participate in the Sunday eucharist at all — with the possible exception of Christmas and Easter. Yet they unquestionably think of themselves as Catholic.”

“No matter how politically conservative or how politically liberal we may be, we know very well what we mean when we say, “We are Americans.” Common meaning gives rise to community at the deepest level. It is the radical source of every community’s cohesiveness.”

“Because of the decline of common meaning regarding church worship and liturgy, Sunday Mass, which is such a positive experience of communion for most Catholics, can become for some a painful experience of discord, conflict and anger.”

“It is evident that for the priests in these diverse groups the shared base of common experiences, understandings, judgments and commitments needed for common meaning is diminishing””

“In rare circumstances some may need to be reminded that it is love, not hatred that should animate the ecclesial community.”

“The fact that I am firmly at the side of each of you does not and cannot mean that I can agree with those who oppose or reject the teachings of the church.”

“The evidence at hand clearly indicates that in the Diocese of Belleville parishes will need to share the services of a smaller number of priests.”

“It sometimes happens that individuals who disagree with, or are confused, hurt or angered by events in the church conclude that the best way to express their unhappiness is to withdraw their financial support from there parish or diocese.”

“This is not a simple matter. Common meaning in the life of the Church developed over centuries; its decline came about over decades. There is no prepackaged six-week renewal program that can automatically revive what has declined.”

“Catholics must really know and understand what the church actually teaches and not confuse a personal devotion, a pious practice, a childhood memory or a particular theological theory with what the Catholic Church actually teaches and believes.”