Simone Weil’s Refusal to Enter the Church

Light of truth

Question: Joe Mathew

“What frightens me is the Church as a social structure… There were some saints who approved of the Crusades or the Inquisition. I cannot help thinking that they were in the wrong. I cannot go against the light of conscience.” Simone Weil, a young Jewish saintly woman, wanted to be a Catholic but wrote this and refused to enter the Church, what will be your response?

Answer: Jacob Parappally MSFS

Simone Weil’s refusal to enter the Church and be a member of the Church even though she was attracted to it, is understandable. Even today, for many people who are not members of the Church and some people who profess themselves as Catholics, the Catholic Church appears to be an institution with its structures almost exactly as any other social organization and some would even say that it is like a multinational company with its branches all over the world. Nobody can blame them for this understanding of the Church because in its visibility most of the time it appears to be so. When the outsiders of the visible Church and some insiders feel that they see the Church like any other social structure, it is a warning, a challenge or a wake-up call to the members of the Church to be self-critical about its being and its ministry in the world.

It is said that in human relationships even when the intentions of a person to be and to act may be good and noble but the impression they evoke in others may not be good and even reprehensible. Those who are diplomatic in their behaviour may create a good impression but their intentions may not be good. It is important both for persons and for institutions that both the intentions they have and the impressions they create must correspond to each other. While the Church is also a social reality with its social structures, it is more than what is defined by the boundaries it sets for itself. True, it is defined by its dogmas and doctrines, forms of cult and worship, rules and regulations for life and its hierarchical structures to lead the community of believers. However, the Church is more than a social structure. It is a divine mystery offered to humans for their authentic communion among themselves and with God through Jesus Christ and effected through the power of the Holy Spirit. When we lose sight of the mystery dimension of the Church, it comes across to us only as a social structure which has many blemishes as Simone Weil sees it. It must be admitted that some blemishes of the Church like Inquisition, Crusades, scandalous life of some Church authorities, gender and class discriminations, abuse of power, misappropriation of money and property, the tendency to cover up criminal activities of the Church leaders and so on make the Church appear to some like any other social organization. Can such instances of evil or blemishes take away from the Church the mystery of God’s presence and action as well as the communion of belongingness and meaning for life experienced and witnessed by millions of men and women for twenty centuries?

The Mystical Church and the Real Church
The observation of Simone Weil (1909-1943) who was a French philosopher, political activist and a mystic of Jewish origin, about the Church is a part of a letter to her friend and confessor, Fr Perrin who wished that she would get baptized and become a member of the Catholic Church. She was trying to make him understand that she would not be able to become a member of the Church which appeared to be a social structure that would limit her being as a free spirit. She claimed to have mystical experiences of encountering the crucified Jesus who fascinated her so much and believed that Christ entered into her inmost being. Her spiritual insights are very inspiring that she is considered, ‘a spiritual exemplar for our times.’ It must be admitted that she was a deeply religious person but would not let herself be controlled by the social structural dimensions of the Church. According to her even the canonized saints had approved Crusades and Inquisitions and it was wrong for them to do so. These saints were a part of a social structure that determined what they should think and believe. When we read the entire letter of Simone Weil we find that perhaps she herself would have done so like these saints if she were to be a part of the system or structure of the Church. She admitted that her longing for belonging or communion was such that she would have even sung a song praising Nazis if she were to be near a group singing it. It was not because she approved the Nazi ideology. In fact, she fought against it. What she wanted to communicate was that she had the weakness to be drawn into a structure for belongingness which she knew for certain would curtail her freedom to break all boundaries. Perhaps, she would have been delighted to be a part of the mystical Church and not the real Church!

To see the Church only as a mystical reality or only as a social structure is a polarisation of the two dimensions of the Church. Renowned theologian at the time of the Council of Trent, Robert Bellarmine who was canonized in the 19th century and later declared as a doctor of the Church observed that the Church is like the Kingdom of France or the Republic of Venice. In the controversy between the Pope and the Catholic Kings and other secular rulers Bellarmine was attempting to show that the Kings did not have absolute power and the spiritual and secular power of the Pope’s control over them was right. But in the process he tried to project the Church as also a secular institution. This kind of separating and polarizing the spiritual and secular dimension of the Church is called, “Ecclesiastical Nestorianism” reminding that Nestorianism was alleged to have separated divinity and humanity of Christ. So the separation between the visible and the invisible dimension of the Church cannot be accepted as a true doctrine of the Church. On the other hand to see the Church only as a spiritual or mystical reality is called, “Ecclesiastical Monophysitism” similar to the extreme position of the Alexandrian theologians claiming that Jesus Christ has only one nature (Monopysis) that is, divine. So it is not correct to conceive that the Church is only a mystical or spiritual reality. Both positions in Christology as well as in Ecclesiology have dangerous consequences. Unfortunately, many people and even some of the Church officials see the Church as a social organization or a social structure. Some of them have no scruples to manipulate it for acquiring power, positions, money and control over the people. The worst damage is done to the credibility of the Church and to its mission to be a light to the nations when the organizational dimension of the Church is sacralised to justify the wrong doings of those who wield so called spiritual power. The spiritual or the mystical dimension of the Church needs sacramental visibility. However, when the sacramental visibility or the sign dimension of the Church overtakes what is to be signified, then it becomes like any other secular structures or multi national companies. Such a negative image of the Church keeps those seekers of the truth who have an intense experience of Christ and seek the communion within the Church away from the Church as in the case of Simone Weil.

Being in the Church and beyond the Church
Any seeker of Truth like Simone Weil with a deep experience of God through Jesus Christ who sees the Church only as a social structure may not enter it. Many who wish to see the Church only in spiritual or mystical way may not find the Church as such an ideal reality they want to belong to. One can remain outside the Church and dream about an ideal reality of the Church which they would never find in their historical existence. They can, of course, belong to it in an intentional way! Or they could belong to the Church as its members and live a life worthy of it, challenging it to be self-critical, constantly supporting its constant reformation and renewal and transcend its social and structural dimension entering into communion with everyone and everything. One can prophetically challenge all those who manipulate it for their private interests preventing the manifestation of its real spiritual or mystical dimension through which all believers can encounter God through Jesus Christ.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers left their life of seclusion even though they had deep spiritual experiences after struggling with their weaknesses because they realized that such a life could lead them to sinful individualism and self-righteousness. They realized that they were not challenged by the life situations in which ordinary mortals struggled with the sufferings and pains of existence and contradictions in life especially in relation to other humans. Therefore, living in a community with persons of different characters and temperaments, ideologies and visions different from one’s own is more demanding than living in seclusion. In such a community one has to be more self-emptying and patient, generous and forgiving, loving, caring and respecting the otherness of the other and so on. It is certainly living martyrdom more demanding and painful than struggling with oneself and seeking God-experience without any relationship with others. Therefore, searching for only mystical experiences alone would not make one a true disciple of Christ. One has to live the mysticism of the market-place and slums, stone-quarries and corn-fields, participating in the struggles of people for their rights to live as humans. Being in a community of believers can challenge the authenticity of one’s God-experience if it is not manifested through a life in accordance with that experience of God.

Simone Weil’s mystical experience of Christ and her intimacy with God can be seen as authentic because of her commitment to social causes and her solidarity with those who were opposed to and were victims of fascism as well as her concerted actions to help the victims of such tyranny. Her refusal to be a member of the Church through baptism too can be understood when the Church appeared to her as a mighty social structure with its rules and regulations, systems and positions of power which might have been thought of as an organization which curtailed her freedom. She argued that her decision not to join the Church was correct by showing the wrong actions of some saintly people because of the structure they were in. She did not want to be a part of such a structure. Certainly, one can choose to remain free from any structures that seem to curtail her or his freedom. It is absurd to think that one can live and exercise one’s freedom without the limitations of any system of structures. An enlightened person like Simone Weil would have known it for certain. However she would not have thought of another possible way of belonging to a visible communion of the church with all its structures. It is by belonging to the Church and yet by transcending it to a deeper and wider communion of everyone at all times and beyond times in Christ and by challenging and transforming it with prophetic courage when it fails to be the sacrament of Christ that one reflects the light of Christ and the conscience of the world.

There are countries in Europe where some Catholics leave the Church because they have to pay Church tax. Others leave the Church because of the scandals in the Church especially related to some in the hierarchy concerning power, sex and money. A very few leave the Church because of its doctrines and laws. Unfortunately, most of them think that the Church is a social structure and for some historical reasons the Church itself has given such an impression to them. Even fifty years after Vatican II which proclaimed that the Church is a divine mystery of communion of the people of God, the real transformation of many important structures of the Church are not changed or reformed to contain this truth. It is like new wine in old wine skins! The skin has to burst in order that the wine of communion can be drunk by all humans of good will!

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