The Working Catholic: Heavenly Institutions

by Bill Droel

Once upon a time there was an elderly monk “who wove a basket one day; the next day he unwove it,” Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ (1904-1967) relates. “The basket itself did not matter; but the weaving and unweaving of it served as a means of spending an interval.” Only the soul was of value, the monk believed. For everything else, “what did it matter” whether a person wove baskets or constructed skyscrapers or composed symphonies?
This story, found in Murray’s classic We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Sheed & Ward, 1960), illustrates one tendency among Christians. To greater or lesser degree some Christians think that the earthly city is not their home and that everything we build will suddenly vanish. Heaven for them “is radically discontinuous with history, the arena of human effort and achievement,” Murray writes.

The other tendency, Murray details, is premised on the belief that “grace perfects nature,” that grace builds upon nature but does not destroy it. The dogma of Incarnation means that God’s kingdom begins on earth as it is in heaven. The earth is not “destined for an eternal dust-heap… Human effort remains real and really valuable.”
Of course, this world-affirming tendency can be taken too far. In the United States it is indeed taken too far. Some Christians, through a misinterpretation of Protestant theology, think that individual economic achievement is a sign of God’s favor. And even more mistakenly, many people who might call themselves Christian act as if grace is irrelevant; that material achievement is all that there is.

What is heaven like? The close friends of Jesus do not immediately recognize him in the post-resurrection appearances. That is because they are startled and because they have no prior experience through which to process resurrection. But something else is confusing. Jesus does not have his usual countenance. He is not identical to how he formerly was. This resurrection is decidedly not resuscitation. Yet, the New Testament insists on a bodily resurrection. Over and over, the early church fought against Gnostic heresies that said resurrection involves only the spirit, not the corruptible body.
Our own resurrection means a new body in Christ. There might be an initial moment of shock, but our resurrected body will be recognizable. That is, heaven is different from earthly life but is in continuity with it. Granted, the specifics about heaven are unknown. Those specifics do not need to be known. However, God has revealed something about creation, starting in Genesis, and has revealed something about redemption, including the Bethlehem event and Jesus’ carpentry job and many more earthly comings and goings. It is solid thinking then to conclude that our workaday efforts matter in God’s plan. The divine process is inextricable to our job, our care for family and home, our attention to the neighborhood and to our civic involvements.

I speculate that our institutions are heaven-bound. This is not heresy and in fact it is fully compatible with Catholic theology. I don’t expect to visit the motor vehicle department in heaven or to deal with the Internal Revenue Service. But in some sense the best aspirations contained in what we have created will be in heaven. Why would there be no sociability in heaven? No social peace or safety? No cooperation? No symphonies? No families? Our institutions here and now should, in my opinion, reflect as best as possible, the divine intention implanted in all of creation. Our institutions, though in need of daily reform, are heaven-infused and heaven-destined… in some sense.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter on faith and work.