In theory, I think institutions are very important things. Human communities that do real good are more than simply spontaneous gatherings of (currently) like-minded folks, human communities that do real good are organized for a purpose that transcends the immediate moment. Such institutions sustain individuals and groups because they are not transitory, they do not simply reflect the consensus of the present, they create the conditions for human goods, they form in the first place the individuals and groups they sustain. In other words, human communities have meaning over time because they are structured, they take the process of 'tradition-ing' seriously.
So, certainly, I think the institutional Church is important. (Can you can hear me talking myself into this?)
Two pieces in the National Catholic Reporter hit me from both sides of this issue this morning. Jamie L. Manson issues "A Challenge to Old Progressives." She observes that many 20-and-30-something Catholics hold the institutional Church very lightly, among the theologically educated, the search for a home parish generally leaves them "frustrated or bored." So they gather outside the walls, creating communities that will honor their lives and engage their hopes. Manson finds this a great source of energy:
By being free of the trappings of the institutionalized church, younger generations have a real and unprecedented potential to realize the kind of church that Jesus’ earliest disciples brought to life.This statement leaves a lot to be desired; we might wish to observe that the communities so formed owe quite a bit to the institutionalized church and its "trappings," and to question the idea that Jesus' earliest disciples formed a "church." But the basic insight is right: the movement away from the institution generates a sense of the Christian life as a life of both freedom and responsibility, a sense sorely lacking in the parish context.
But I'm not so sure about the rest. If I'm reading this correctly, Manson means to challenge the old progressives to abandon their fruitless task (has there been any fruit, one might fairly ask) of inviting the Church to institutional reform, and to join their younger Catholic brothers and sisters in a move away from the institution. While I share her frustration with both the institution and the "old progressives" that hang on, I don't share the answer of leaving, as a structural approach -- do I think the world would be better off without the Roman Catholic Church? No. Am I occasionally in need of a time out? Sure.
On the other hand. Tom Fox reports that, even with three years advance notice, Benedict XVI couldn't clear his schedule for even a photo-op with the heads of numerous women's religious orders, who are gathered for a meeting in Rome. What's the real story here? Is he afraid of "feedback" about the visitation? Were they asked to veil and refused? Or does Benedict (or the intervening layers of clerics) just not get it? 800 leaders of women's religious orders are meeting in Rome and he's busy with the diocesan administrator from Belgium?
This reminds me of a situation that happened several years ago. I'm on a planning committee, drawn from Jesuit institutions from across the U.S. It's near the end of our meeting. I note that, once again, we really don't have any contributions by women, out of the seven or ten relevant slots. The older Jesuit running the meeting rolls his eyes and says we just don't have time for that issue again. I shut up.
Minutes later, the same Jesuit realizes that we have too many Jesuits on the program from the east coast, and none from the west. The meeting immediately shifted tone, and went into overtime so that we could deal with this outrageous program "imbalance." This was a committee that was generally welcoming and inclusive in spirit, but simply blind to its own parochialism. No one observed the irony of what we were doing.
I don't agree with Jamie Manson's strategy. But I understand. And, this morning at least, I'm not sure she's wrong.