I did not renew my subscription to The Economist some years ago when they endorsed a presidential candidate with the observation that while the editors had no idea what he would do, he could not be worse than the incumbent. People who say ‘Things can’t get worse’ are usually wrong. More recently I have let three magazine subscriptions lapse. One of the three was a magazine I have read for over 30 years. Perhaps as I get older I become testier and harder to please. I certainly would also like to cancel my Banner-Herald subscription, as it is a source of regular annoyance, but I think the obituaries and police blotter are professionally necessary. In any case I find myself now reading more books and fewer periodicals. I am probably better off. I also have dropped Internet access and e-mail at home – though I still have them at the church office – and find that my time is better spent without them. Both e-mail and the Internet are very useful, but they easily become sources of tremendous time wastage. They tend to distort priorities by making ephemeral communication both very easy and also apparently urgent. Or so they did for me. People with more self-discipline probably don’t have that problem.
The one magazine that I do enjoy more and more these days is Richard John Neuhaus’s FIRST THINGS. This monthly is devoted to religion and public affairs, particularly as the two intersect. Its articles, reviews, and Father Neuhaus’s long pieces are consistently informative and thoughtful.
A year or so ago I read an article in FIRST THINGS that developed an idea from John Paul II in a rather striking way. I did not keep the article and, unfortunately, do not remember the author’s name. [Later note: the article, in the December 2000 number, was by Daniel P. Moloney: ‘Evangelicals in the Church of Mary’.] In any case, the author developed a distinction between the ‘Church of Peter’ and the ‘Church of Mary’. The Church of Peter is the institutional Church. It is the Church with fairly clear boundaries, a visible structure, and external laws and rules and discipline to govern its life. For Roman Catholics the Church of Peter is the visible, Holy Roman Church of bishops in communion with the Pope and of baptized and confirmed members in an outwardly clear relationship of communion with these Roman bishops. This is the Church whose membership figures can be tabulated. John may be a very worldly man who goes to church from habit and who really lowers the spiritual tone of his parish. He may never pray privately, and the idea that he should attempt to discern and obey the will of God may seldom occur to him. But John does go to Mass and he puts a check in the plate and he does nothing that would get himself excommunicated. John is a member of the Church of Peter.
The Church of Mary is the Church of devotion to God, love of God, longing for sanctity, and sincerity of commitment. There is nothing nominal or merely external and juridical about membership in this body. It is of course impossible to tabulate membership figures for this ‘company of all faithful people’. This Church we might, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, call ‘the deep Church’. This is the Church where the nominal ideas of the Church of Peter are taken to heart and are pursued in sincerity and truth. Nevertheless, the Church of Peter is important. Without discipline and an external structure the Church of Mary could dissolve into a vague, New Age mush. Furthermore, the depths of the Church of Mary are supported and sustained by the more shallow but also more extensive membership of the Church of Peter. Sometime people with a nominal membership are more deeply converted.
Naturally there is much overlap between these bodies. The author, however, noted that there also are people in both ‘Churches’ who are members of one body and not the other. There are nominal Roman Catholics such as John who seem distant from the Church of Mary. Likewise there are devout Christians who are not in visible communion with the Pope, but who hold far more of the substance of the faith taught by the present Pope than, say, our hypothetical John, or many of the evil Renaissance Popes, or our average ‘personally opposed but…’ pro-abortion politician. A deeply serious Protestant, the author suggested, might be a member of the Church of Mary, though not that of Peter. One wishes that the two bodies might be exactly coterminous. In our imperfect world they never will be.
The distinction is helpful, I think. While the author wrote from a Roman Catholic perspective, the ideas can be applied to any Church which has both an external structure and nominal membership and also a deeper core of more committed folk who seek to go beyond the bare minimum of religious duty.