The Society of the Catholic Commonwealth
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Frederic Hastings Smyth, founder and Father Superior of the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth, while living in England between the wars, had been a member of Conrad Noel's Order of the Church Militant. He saw himself as carrying on Conrad Noel's work in the United States. Father Smyth stressed that whereas Conrad Noel's thought was mainly biblical and historical, his was theological and creedal in emphasis. He was inclined to be impatient with what he saw as Noel's "romanticism", and fostered a more intellectual approach in attempting to forge a synthesis between Marxism and the Catholic Faith similar to what Saint Thomas Aquinas had achieved with regard to the then "subversive" philosophy of Aristotle. In truth, however, there was more than a little romanticism in his own makeup and in the life of the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth as it was actually lived. In the Society the doctrinal foundations and implications of Liturgical renewal were given serious attention -- particularly the theology of the Offertory of the Mass -- and the Liturgy was viewed and celebrated as having profound consequences for the life and organization of human society as a whole.
The S.C.C. was grouped around its "Members Regular" who lived a common life in the Society's principal Oratory, first located in Cambridge and later in Gloucester, Massachusetts, under a rule similar to that of the Oratorians of Saint Philip Neri. "Members Secular" lived in the world under a common rule of life and pursued their diverse secular occupations while working to further the Society's aims. The Secular Membership was international, including cells in England, Canada, the United States, Japan, and Korea.
Members Secular met regularly, eating and drinking together "usque ad hilaritatem," as Saint Thomas Aquinas put it, and thrashing out the theological and political issues of the moment. I recall one discussion concerning whether there were secular occupations that might be inappropriate for Christians, but no agreement was reached other than that being a priest was probably O.K. and being a prostitute was not. At least one, however, mischievously wondered if there were always a difference.
The Society was very much a product of the personality and intellect of its Founder, and it disbanded a few years after Father Smyth's death in 1960. Its influence continued, however, as many former members and friends remained active supporters of liturgical renewal and social action within the Anglican Communion. More than thirty-five years after its disbanding, the conservative Bishop of Saskatchewan is still fulminating against "the communist Society of the Catholic Commonwealth at Harvard" and its "fight to abolish the Book of Common Prayer." At Harvard, mind you! Father Smyth, with his delightful sense of humor, would have loved it.
Great advances have been made in liturgical understanding since the Society's formative years in the 1940's and 50's and the political changes have been profound. I doubt that any of us who were associated with Father Smyth would care today to defend all that we accepted then. But the questions were right and the answers, however over-confident later experience showed them to be, at least pointed us in the right direction. The integration of the Liturgical life of Christians with their economic and political lives - - with the Liturgy seen not as divorced from "social action", but as its source and normative end - - is a task which the churches continue to ignore, with predictable schizophrenic results. -- Ted M.
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The Society of the Catholic Commonwealth, founded in 1939, is a Society of priests and lay people within the Anglican Communion. Its primary purpose is to bear witness to the Incarnational and sacramental nature of the Christian religion.
In carrying out its purpose, the Society emphasizes an intellectual understanding of the Liturgy as the expression in action of the full life of the Church; and it stresses the application of the Liturgy to daily life.
It further believes that the Christian religion requires a positive attack upon the disorders of the fallen world; and that Christianity, honestly practised in the light of these insights, will revolutionize the fallen world to conform to God's will. In a word, the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth combines the Evangelical social gospel with full Catholic theology.
The central tragedy of our age is that most Christianity is today presented as a religious method of salvation by extricating, or 'fishing out', individual souls from the evil world and thus getting them into 'heaven'. This is an almost utter perversion of Christianity and, in so far as it prevails, it turns it into a religion with little to recommend it over Buddhism or Mohammedanism, which are also extrication religions.
The Society of the Catholic Commonwealth rejects Christianity in so far as it is presented as an extrication religion. It rejects the logical accompaniments of such religion: the individualistic pietism of much of Protestantism, Papalism and ivory-tower Anglo-Catholicism; sentimental and non-liturgical rituals which pander to subjective emotionalism; individualistic preoccupation with 'going to heaven'; a legalistic view of rewards for goodness and punishments for sin; withdrawal or aloofness from the natural world; the view that the natural world is a hindrance to salvation rather than potentially the substantial human foundation necessary to human salvation; indifference to the character of the political, social and economic patterns of human corporate life.
Therefore it also disavows a Church which can live corporately and organizationally at peace with an evil world, accepting money and power on that world's terms, provided only she herself is left undisturbed to fish out individual souls and to get them into heaven when individual bodies die. The Society asserts that Christian salvation includes the body with the soul, and that without a re-created natural humanity there can be no substantial foundation for a supernatural resurrection. And since man is by nature a social animal, individual perfection is impossible apart from an accompanying process of corporate social perfection.
The Society therefore also abjures 'going to church' as mere comfort, mere refuge from life's storms, mere edification, mere inspiration -- all of which things are symptoms of, and stages in, extricationism. In short, it rejects all 'purely spiritual' and non-sacramental idealism. Apart from functional sacramentalism, which involves operations in the material world, there is no practical connection between man's material state and his ideals. Idealistic religion connects its theory and practice only by tenuous mental and moral injunctions, ignoring that materially structural connection which resides in the Incarnation of the Word made flesh. 'Purely spiritual' religion can provide nothing but emotional inspiration for behavior in accordance with the 'practical implications' of the religious ideal. The Society denies both metaphysical and subjective Idealism as the most subtle and deadly enemy of the religion of the Incarnation.
Christianity is distinguished from all other religions by the fact that it is a religion of the redemption of the natural world. Our natural world remade, re-created according to God's will for it, is required as a basis of the promised ultimate redemption of that world within the spiritual sphere which transcends nature. This is shown by the fact that Our Lord clothed Himself with a perfected humanity, with body, mind, and spirit in our natural order, before He rose from the dead and ascended to His Father. It can be said, in fact, that God Incarnate required this perfected humanity before He could re-enter the supernatural level of His transcendent Being; for without that humanity, perfected within this world, there would have been, as it were, no unit of natural being to enter the events of the Resurrection and Ascension.
The Christian religion teaches that a corporate social humanity, binding human beings together in a new divinely informed social order, spreads abroad in the world from Our Lord's individually perfected unit of humanity as its centre. It also continues onward in history with His humanity as its source. This new creation in the midst of the surrounding and still unredeemed human society of our secular world is the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church.
The process of the incarnation of the human social world continues that identical process which begins in Our Lord's individual humanity. Just as He perfected an individual humanity as the first-fruit of this world's redemption, so in organic union with Him, His followers perfect a re-created corporate social humanity in the midst of the disorders of the fallen world. This social humanity is called the Kingdom of God forming within the natural world. Ultimately, this new social Kingdom in the natural order, according to Our Lord's revelation and promise, will be received into a supernatural order and will be consummated in eternity. But in the meantime the Kingdom-in-the-making bears the same relation to the Kingdom-in-heaven that Our Lord's individual humanity bears to his Risen and Ascended Humanity, A visible, newly created and perfected social order is required among men, to provide the natural substance for the eternal consummation of the Kingdom of God.
Thus the process of the redemption of the world in the Incarnation is twofold. The disordered elements of human individual and social life are first reperfected by Our Lord into His humanity within this world. Thereupon His sacramental Church emerges as the objective embodiment of this newly forming creation. Then, secondly, this new natural creation is ultimately received by Him into the level of his Risen and Ascended life. The natural world will be redeemed in so far as it is "swallowed up: by the social humanity of Our Lord encroaching upon it.
When the initial part of the process of redemption has been sufficiently fulfilled in the natural order, we may look for the consummation of the Kingdom through the Second Coming of Our Lord. This final consummation will be in a real sense the social Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord. It will move a redeemed world into His glorified social Body at the right hand of God.
All the elements of the redeeming Process of the Incarnation are objectively figured forth in the central Catholic sacrament, the Sacrament of the Altar, commonly called the Mass. Here the members of Our Lord's social humanity, corporately assimilated by Baptism into Him, present themselves, their continuing works and their accomplishments, periodically to Him. They present themselves under the forms of portions of natural bread and wine. These material offerings, on the occasion of every Offertory, sum up within their several histories portions of a fresh social creation which have been added to the content of Our Lord's humanity through the labors of the members of the Church.
These newly accrued portions of Our Lord's social Incarnation are then received by Him into His risen life. As it is usually put, the natural bread and the natural wine are transubstantiated into His Body and Blood. But a reperfection within the human world of at least a certain portion of natural bread and wine is a necessary prerequisite for the conveyance of these offerings into a supernatural order. Our Lord's risen Body was not possible without the prior preparation by Him of a natural human body. Our Lord's Body and Blood upon the Catholic Altar are not possible -- Mass cannot be offered -- without the prior offering of a natural bread and wine perfected by Him acting through His social humanity. The consummated King of God is not conceivable without the prior perfection within this world of a new social order which is fit to be consummated as its substantial natural foundation.
The Society accepts the Catholic Faith in its wholeness as the basis of its life and work. It stands within the theological tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas. It holds that Catholic Orthodoxy when rightly understood, and not Protestant or humanist heterodoxy, carries within it the power of that revolution of the fallen world which is fully in accord with the will of God. It believes that Catholic understanding of the Faith, while remaining entirely continuous with the central tradition of the Church in all ages, lives and develops in every age. It therefore believes that comprehensive formulations of great theologians like St. Thomas are not closed systems to be rigidly re-presented as if in return to a former age, but that they are well laid intellectual foundations for genuine advance.
Genuine theological advance, however, cannot involve in any sense the introduction of 'new truths' or the negation of already known and formulated truths. It will consist in developing elucidations and applications of truths which have from the beginning been fully implicit in the Faith. The Society believes that a development of the theology of the Liturgical Offertory wider and deeper than anything hitherto attempted in the Church is destined to be the chief mark of theological advance in the present age.
Therefore the Society's principal intellectual task is that of making contributions to the theology of liturgical analysis. So clearly defined is this intellectual emphasis that the Society might not inappropriately be called the 'Society of the Offertory', were it not for the fact that its chosen name includes this emphasis and gives it a wider context.
Whenever possible the Society sets itself to work in practical affairs with such secular groups and organizations as it deems to be moving in accordance with the demands of the Kingdom of God toward the reorganization or revolution of our present social structure. Hence, for example, the Society may cooperate on indicated occasions with certain socialist groups simply because it realizes that within the Marxian analysis of dialectic development may be found elements of guidance to the understanding of the processes of secular (that is, fallen) world history. The Society, however, being Christian, is in implacable and unyielding opposition to the ontological materialism of what may be called the 'Kingdom of Marx.'
In this connection it must be borne in mind that to cooperate in limited ways with any given secular groups, or indeed with heretical Christian sects, is not necessarily to espouse their ultimate objectives or to embrace uncritically their immediate means of action. Yet certain kinds of 'holy risks' must be taken. Penetration of Christianity into the Marxian world is a present job for the Catholic Church; but Christians must balk at becoming tools in the hands of Marxists for un-Christian ends.
In spite of all divergences, however, the natural foundation if the Kingdom of God, no less than the 'Kingdom of Marx', requires an economic system which makes possible a genuine commonwealth. It requires a common possession of the riches and resources of God's creation in such ways that they may benefit all men in proportion to their relative needs. With these principles in minds, no doubt, the late Archbishop William Temple called Marxism 'a Christian heresy.'
The Kingdom of God demands a rationally free and democratic participation by all men and women everywhere in planning and guiding their common affairs, according to the fullness of their several abilities. It demands a socially co-operative structure to replace the inhumanly competitive and irrationally undemocratic structure of our present economic order. Therefore it also demands that the so-called rights of private property may never again include, as do our present such rights, either the power or the means of exploitation of one set of human beings by another set of their fellow men.
It follows that at this moment of history those groups, in whatever country, which seek to change individualistic, competitive systems of production to more democratic and cooperative systems are undoubtedly those which hold out to Catholic Christians the greatest promise of that more nearly perfected bread and wine required for the Catholic Sacrifice of the Altar. Private production for profit on an individualistic basis is un-Christian. Social production for common use can provide both a just distribution of things produced and a chance to exercise a Christian motive for productive effort.
At the same time we must guard against the false notion that any alteration in a presently non-Christian economic or political structure, however radical or however desirable from a Christian (or even a humanist) point of view, will of itself alone induce Christian motivations of social behavior. these can be induced only as, and in so far as, people become converted to the Religion of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ and participate in the Sacramental Life of the Catholic Church.
In our present world scarcely anyone turns to a Catholic Sacramental group either expecting or hoping to find there an organ of positive social action. This fact must me realistically faced. Therefore groups like the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth must be prepared to remain for the present relatively small. Furthermore, since conventional organized Christianity is largely indifferent or even hostile both to its purposes and to its fundamental sacramental method of achieving them, it may remain in its specifically Christian character and function almost bereft of significant economic, political and social power.
Members are likely to find outlets for political and other social action, for the time being, within the framework of secular (possibly even anti-religious) organizations. As a religious group, and on a Christian basis, the Society can make valuable intellectual contributions to the social processes of the times, and to the theological and philosophical guidance of other Christians. But above all the Society carries on in the midst of its surrounding world as a highly prophetic sacramental organism, realizing, in a deep microcosmic outline of corporate and liturgical living, a foretaste of the cultural pattern of the substantial human foundation of the Kingdom of God.
The Society therefore sets itself the task of forming one or more social seeds or cells of that new social order required by Our Lord's extending humanity. These units are normally composed of a central nucleus of men, Priests or Laymen or both together, living under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. These are called Members Regular. They live together in community, ordering themselves corporately according to the generally received traditional canons of Catholic Religious Life. They form the basis of the Regular Cells of the Society.
A Religious House of the Society is called an Oratory. The primary focus of all life in an Oratory is the daily celebration of the Liturgy of the Altar. Choir Offices are said daily in Chapel by all Members resident in a house.
Provision is made for Members Secular in union with every nucleus of Members Regular. These may be both men and women, men in Holy Orders and lay people, married and single. They are people of the local environment who are not able to enter the nucleus of Members Regular for whole-time work, but who remain at their secular tasks in the surrounding community.
They work there to leaven their respective communities, to change and reorganize the secular social structure in ways which shall bring it more nearly into the pattern of Our Lord's humanity than is the structure of our present acquisitive society. They labor to "prepare the way of the Lord." It is a work analogous to that of Saint John Baptist.
From their various secular callings, together with Members Regular. day by day and week by week, they bring in their accrued accomplishments to Our Lord under the forms of the bread and wine of the Liturgical Offertory. They thus continually fill up the corporate content of Our Lord's Incarnate humanity.
In the corporate life of the Society no distinctions in value of membership are drawn between Members Regular and Members Secular. All participate democratically in determining the affairs of their local cells. However, Members Secular may not vote on questions substantially and exclusively related to the ordering of the life of Members Regular.
Members Secular take no religious vows. They do however assume the obligation of keeping their Rule and of consulting with the Superior of the Society in carrying through whatever projects may be recommended by the majority of all Members in General Chapter assembled.
The Father Superior resides in the Society's principal Oratory. Other Regular Cells may be established when it is possible to have at least one Member Regular in permanent residence. One such Member Regular will hold the office of Prior of his Cell. No lay Member may serve as Prior.
However, a Secular Cell may be organized by Members Secular only, provided one of their number in Priest's Orders shall be appointed as Director and Chaplain.
The Prior or Director (as the case may be) of every Cell has representative authority in its local affairs. In matters which concern the Society as a whole, local Cells act in consultation with the Father Superior.
Every Cell of the Society should if possible possess its own Oratory building where Members may assemble regularly to celebrate the Anamnesis -- the Liturgy, or Mass, according to the Use of the Society. As a temporary minimum every Cell must at least have access to an Altar available for its own Liturgical life.
It is desirable, too, that there shall be facilities where Members may gather socially on various occasions, especially after Mass for common meals and consultation. A collection of books and other literature for the use of Members and enquirers should also be assembled.
Local Cells may determine the times and occasions of their own meetings and regional Chapters. An annual Chapter of the whole Society is held at the principal Oratory on the Feast of Corpus Christi, or at some other time and place determinedl by the Father Superior in consultation with the Members. At least one Member of every local Cell should be present at this General Chapter. All Members may attend, and when present they are entitled to vote. It is desirable that every Regular Cell of the Society should obtain, in consultation with the local Diocesan authority, the appointment of an ecclesiastical Visitor; but the Father Superior is the Ordinary of the Society as a whole.
Every Cell of the Society seeks to show forth in social microcosm that organic order which will be proper to the social macrocosm of the Kingdom of God. Every such unit must seek, by Our Lord's grace (and it is only by His grace that this is possible even to the slightest degree) to be a social unit of such order that conceivably it might grow to incorporate the whole world within its own organism, much as the seen of a vine might grow to incorporate into its ordered structure the random elements of its material environment. (Our Lord said, "I am the Vine.") This enterprise potentially embraces every aspect of organized social life and culture, yet Our Lord has promised that even two or three gathered together in His Name may suffice for its beginning.
Each Cell therefore accepts the probability of carrying a potential revolutionary threat to its environing unredeemed world. It carries a similar threat to the present human organization of the "Christian" Church, in so far as that organization serves as a vehicle and defense for a perverted "extrication Christianity." Fortunately in this case a clear distinction can be made between the Church as that human juridical organization which enshrines extricationism and the Church as the redemptive social organism of Our Lord's humanity. It is possible that the former must be shattered in order that the latter may emerge anew.