All Christians, I am sure, have favourite passages from the psalms which they recite to themselves
from time to time. For many years one of mine has been from psalm 30: "I thank you Lord for showing me the
wonders of your love in a fortified city."
It tends to spring to mind whenever I think how marvellous it is to have received the gift of faith and membership
of the Church, and how different life would be without them.
But how far is it legitimate these days to think of the Church as 'a fortified city'? It is true the Church continues
to have those of her children who say the Divine Office recite psalm 30 every week, and likewise during Advent
the following antiphon. "We have a strong city. The Saviour will set up wall and rampart to guard it. Open
the gates, for God is with us." (Morning prayer, Sunday, Week 2)
But doesn't the image of the Church as a 'fortified city', taken from the Old Testament, conflict with the spirit
of Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II dogmatic constitution on the Church, and Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution
the Church in the Modern World?
The apparent dichotomy led me to reflect on the fact that there seems to be a similar dichotomy in God's way of
dealing with his people over the course of history. He seems to have had one strategy for Old Testament times,
another for New and post-New Testament times. How is this to be explained ?
The simplest answer seems to me as follows.
In Old Testament times God was preparing his people for the eventual coming of the Saviour. For this it was first
of all necessary to wean them from polytheism and idolatry. He had to teach them that there was only one God, a
spiritual being who did not resemble human beings, and this could only be done by keeping them as far apart as
possible from other peoples and cultures. One could call it a strategy of separatism. Any influence on other peoples
was to be achieved not by letting his people mingle with them but by their good example. Their good example would
show their neighbours how paltry their own deities were by comparison.
"I teach you the laws and customs you are to observe in the land you are to enter and make your own,"
he tells them on their way to the promised land. "Keep them and observe them and they will demonstrate to
the peoples your wisdom and understanding. When they come to know of all these laws they will exclaim 'No other
people is as wise and prudent as this great nation.' But inter-mingling was to be taboo.
So God said. But, as we all know, getting his way was to be a long and tough struggle. His people were 'stiff-necked'
--- though probably no more so than we are. However by the end of the Babylonian captivity the goal had at last
been achieved. Except for a brief period under the Maccabees, we hear no more about polytheism and idolatry. From
now on, God's people are strict monotheists. Any lapses are of a moral and spiritual kind.
Then the Saviour comes, the redemption is accomplished, and the emphasis changes.
Separatism can be abandoned. The new people of God, rather than being 'a people set apart,' are to be missionaries.
They are to go out, carrying the Good News to the Gentiles and mingle with them. They are not of course a mob of
leaderless individualists. They are the new People of God, members of the Ecclesia Dei, with and under their authorised
pastors, the successors of the Apostles. And they are to avoid adopting any customs or practices of the pagans
which conflict with Christian faith or morals. But this apart they are to show active love and friendliness towards
This change of tactics on God's part is not to be interpreted in terms of what Pope Benedict has called a 'hermenutics
of discontinuity' i.e. God had a change of mind.
He decided that his tactics for the Old Testament times, separatism, had been a mistake.
In using this expression our pope emeritus was describing the approach of those who present Vatican II as marking
a radical break on the part of the Church with much of her pre-conciliar teaching. No,says Pope Benedict, no break,
only developments in understanding and ways of applying some aspects of it. In other words a 'hermenutics of continuity',
Similarly with God's handling of his people before and after the coming of Our Lord. It represents two stages of
a single overall plan.
Where then does all this leave us in regard the image of the Church as a 'fortified city'? The Church of course
uses a number of different images or analogies to describe herself or different aspects of herself; a mother, a
bride or spouse, a home, a human body and so on. But is there still room for the 'fortified city'?
I believe there is. But before I try to show how and where, I want to dispose of a wrong way of applying the analogy
which was characteristic of certain French Catholics before the Council which their French Catholic opponents described
as 'l'emigration de l'interieur'.
Dating from the assumptiom of power by the French Third Republic in 1870, it meant having as little as possible
to do with the rest of French society in so far as it seemed to be an expression of republicanism and anti-Catholicism.
Good Catholics should, as far as possible, hold it at bay, rather the way certain Scotch Protestant sects isolated
themselves from main stream Presbyterianism. Both saw themselves as living under siege. And if you are under siege
you live in a fortress.
It was this kind of 'fortress mentality' which Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes were designed, among other things,
to bring to an end. It was not confined to France. It could be found to some degree wherever Catholics were in
In what sense, then, following the author of psalm 30, can we still legitimately see the Church as in some respects
a 'fortified city' and thank God for having put us in it?
Where does the resemblance lie?
Above all I would say in her de fide teaching and canon law. Together they are like a curtain wall with towers
at intervals surrounding and protecting what could be called the fullness of Catholic belief and practice. Within
this fortified enclosure the Catholic mind and spirit can take refuge from the winds and tornadoes of moral and
intellectual chaos blowing about outside and refresh itself at a fountain of certainty before plunging back into
the turmoil so as to bring that blessed certainty to as many of their fellow men and women as possible.