I’m not sure why, but as I was thinking about a title for this commentary, one of my childhood nursery rhymes Humpty Dumpty popped into my head. It was almost as if I were having a mystical experience. But why Humpty Dumpty I thought? What does he have to do with despair or hopelessness for reform in the Church? Then I remembered as kindergartener I could never figure out why Humpty fell off the wall in the first place. Did someone push him or was it his own fault that he fell, and why couldn’t they ever put him together again?
Then in my adult mind it dawned on me, perhaps Humpty Dumpty is an analogy for the situation the Catholic Church is in. There are many who believe the church is at a breaking point or already has “had a great fall” and can’t be put together again. An increasing number of us no longer have the energy to “fight the good fight”, and are ready to admit defeat, and move on. The question is, can Humpty Dumpty be put together again? This commentary will consider whether the hopefulness for renewal in the Church that I covered in my last commentary, makes me a Cockeyed Optimist, like the song in the Broadway musical, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, South Pacific. Or is it time to join the increasing numbers of what Tom Roberts calls ‘had it’ Catholics? [LINK].
SOURCES OF HOPELESSNESS
I believe that many of the reasons for our hopelessness for reform can be traced to actions or inactions of the hierarchy. Since there are so many examples of our leaders stonewalling adult dialogue, and examples of their own misbehaviors, I decided to limit the sources of hopelessness to a few fairly recent sources.
I’ve been reading Brian Lennon S.J.’s book published in 2012; Can I Stay in the Catholic Church?, with the hope that it would provide new information for how we decide our standing in the Catholic Church. Here’s a website, Building a Church without Walls, [LINK] with information about his book and links to other articles that he’s written, as well as links to articles by the website’s editor. Lennon clearly identifies the most logical reasons for leaving the church, and seems to be incensed by the behaviors of our church leaders. He asks the question, “So why do I choose to remain in the church?” I don’t mean to spoil the suspense but, his final decision is to remain in the church. I respect his decision, but I was surprised in the way he arrived at it. Lennon replays all the scandals over the centuries, from slavery which was “…imposed in the Third Lateran Council of 1179 on those helping the Saracens.” [LINK] to the crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries, to the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, up to the scandals of present time. When you come right down to it, I believe that he uses all the past scandals to confirm his thesis that eventually, the Holy Spirit will intervene and the church will bounces back magically from the current discontent, as it has in the past, but that change might take decades or more.
To me, it reminds me of playing baseball in grammar school, before we came up to bat we’d pray, “Hail Mary full of grace, let me get to second base” and expected divine intervention. I don’t mean to dismiss the Holy Spirit or prayer, but Lennon is basically making the argument, that because other incidents of malfeasance by our leaders have eventually been resolved, or faded from our memories, that’s the way the Holy Spirit works. It just doesn’t fit with my understanding of outside intervention by the Holy Spirit.
Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote an essay recently that I believe is an example of why the majority of the catholic laity doesn’t buy the church’s position on same sex marriage. The title of the essay is, You Are Profoundly Wrong: A Response to the Archbishop of Newark and Others.[LINK] Bishop Spong answers a lengthy article by Archbishop John J. Meyers, When Two Become One: A Pastoral Teaching on the Definition, Purpose and Sanctity of Marriage. [LINK]
He starts his essay in a very civil fashion by acknowledging that he has no reason to believe that Meyers is not a good and sincere person but, he advises the Archbishop that “…one has a responsibility to be well-informed on the issues about which one speaks.” He suggests that it is not acceptable to just quote the authority of the magisterium of one’s church to support ideas or “…to quote traditional religious conclusions, as if they are viable or still acceptable in academic and intellectual circles.”
If you look at the references at the end of Meyers’ article you’ll see that most of them are quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church or what popes or early fathers of the church had to say. It’s like me quoting something from an article I wrote years ago, to prove a point on a current issue. This doesn’t make any sense, unless you’re in the type of denial [LINK] that can make an otherwise intelligent individual behave in an unintelligent manner, because they are too threatened by the Truth, and are unable to process what is perfectly apparent to most people. Spong goes on to “…try to unravel this maze of incoherent conclusions.” The article is well worth reading if for no other reason, to see how a contemporary scholar responds to a clergyman stuck in the past, whose mission is to impose the teaching of the church on the consciences of others, in this case sane sex marriages. Thus, denying us the primacy of our conscience.
THE BISHOPS’ POLITICAL CAMPAIGN
This reference is hot off the press. It’s a response from Americans United for the Separation of Church and Stateto President Obama’s re-election on November 6, 2012. The title of the article, Election Outcome is Bitter Defeat for Catholic Bishops and Religious Right [LINK] is essentially a response to the Catholic Bishops and their religious fundamentalist allies’ attempt
to control the outcome of the election. Many of us believed that the bishops’ casuistic strategies in their campaign to defeat the Obama administration, was an abuse of the power of the political pulpit. Attacks by some bishops and other clerics were blatant assaults on the President (like comparing him and his administration to the Nazis and worse). When the bishops were criticized publically, they tempered their rhetoric. They prefaced their statement by assuring their readers that they weren’t telling the faithful whom to vote for, but if you vote for a politian who supports legislation in favor of contraception or abortion etc., you are putting your immortal soul in jeopardy of eternal damnation. I questioned their approach in several commentaries on the Catholica website, one was entitled Obama vs. Dolan, [LINK] challenges the way the bishops abused the church’s tax exempt status to surreptitiously promote the election of political candidates who didn’t agree with their positions.
HANS KUNG HAS HAD IT!
Since the day that Hans Kung spent a pleasant four hours at Castel Gandolfo in 2005 with his former colleague, and newly minted Pope Benedict XVI, Kung has reassessed his optimism for Benedict’s papacy several times. I remember when Kung came to Phoenix for a lecture about two weeks after his meeting with the pope, and I had the pleasure of having an “intimate dinner” with him along with a group of 30 or 40 members of the Jesuit Alumni Association of Arizona. He told us “privately” that he had decided to talk about things that both he and the pope agreed on to avoid any awkwardness. His immediate response after their meeting was that they had a cordial reunion talking about old times and issues they agreed on, and he was “cautiously optimistic”.
Fast forward to 2009 when Kung called for a Third Vatican Council, and listed a number of issues that had not even been discussed at Vatican II. [LINK] At the same time he recognized that “…another global council would not happen because the Vatican was afraid…and was trying to restore the pre-Vatican II church…”
Kung’s next major announcement was a five page, single spaced letter addressed to all the Venerable Bishops. [LINK] He first apologized for the open letter format, and adds that “…unfortunately I have no other way of reaching you.” After expressing how his hopes for the pope’s papacy along with “… so many engaged catholic men and women have been unfulfilled…”, he spends over a page pointing out the missed opportunities for rapprochement with every religious group that Benedict has estranged. He particularly highlights the Jews, when he “… reintroduced into the liturgy a pre-conciliar prayer for the enlightenment of the Jews…and the Muslins in his 2006 Regensburg lecture…(when he) caricatured Islam as a religion of violence and inhumanity…”
Kung gives his assessment of what he thinks were serious faux pas on the pope’s part, like promoting the medieval Tridentine Mass, and reinforcing the anti-conciliar forces in the church by his curial appointments. He goes on to discuss some major crises that were poorly handled by the pope. At the top of his list “…comes a scandal crying out to heaven-the revelation of the clerical abuse of thousands of children and adolescents …and to make matters worse, the handling of these cases given rise to an unprecedented collapse of trust in church leadership.” He concluded the letter with six proposals for the bishops to consider.
I’m not sure if any of the Venerable Bishops personally responded to Kung’s letter but the Vatican responded on the front page of its official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, under the headline, Dear Hans, followed by a bit of tactless sarcasm from the author, Pier Giordano Cabra. [LINK] He told Kung that “…perhaps if your letter had breathed a bit more of the hymn to charity, it would have turned out to be a more elegantly evangelical gesture of congratulations” for Benedict’s 83rd birthday and fifth anniversary as pope, as well as “a more fruitful contribution to the church that is suffering for the weakness of her sons.” The weakness of her sons, indeed!
“Comes the revolution!” On October 5, 2012 an article appeared in The Guardian entitled, Catholic Theologian Preaches Revolution to end Church’s ‘Authoritarian Rule’. [LINK] Guess who the theologian was? You got that right! Apparently Fr. Kung’s letter to the bishops and all his previous strategies of reform, revival, or renewal didn’t have the effect on the Vatican that he hoped for, and he proposes a new strategy, revolution. He’s following an old social change dictum “If the strategy you’re using is working do more of it, if it’s not working, do something different.” This was not the first time Kung mentioned a more aggressive approach for change in the church, for example, the comprehensive transcript of an interview by Anthony Padovano presented at the meeting in Detroit of the American Catholic Council [LINK], and an article in Der Spiegel [LINK] entitled the Putinization of the Catholic Church, both in 2011. It’s apparent in reading these articles that Kung was getting more and more impatient with the hierarchy, not only for their digging their heals in, but if push comes to shove, they would take a laissez faire position and settle for a much smaller church.
THE SYNOD AND THE ‘NEW EVANGELIZIATION’, MORE DISAPPOINTMENTS!
The title of an article in the Catholic News Service on October 26, was Faith in Jesus Means Being Optimistic about the Future, Synod Message Says. [LINK] I’m sorry, I have faith in Jesus, but I don’t have the same faith in the 260 cardinals, bishops, and priests who attended the synod. Unlike the optimism that the documents of Vatican II inspired in many of us fifty years ago, I found the end results of the synod disappointing. Although the New Evangelization at times seems like talking points prepared by a Madison Ave. PR agency, there are some encouraging words. For example, an article entitled, Message of the Synod: Look with ‘Serene Courage’ to the Future of Evangelization, [LINK] is mostly positive. They point out issues of families, poverty, the importance of parishes, need for dialogue and how they “…want our communities to harness and not suppress, the power of their enthusiasm.” They talk about dialogue, dialogue, dialogue! [LINK] But given their recent history dialogues is not their best suit. We need actions not just words. The bishops know how to “talk the talk, but not how to walk the walk” as they say in the twelve step programs. I’d be more hopeful if they had added a sentence with a touch of humility, something like, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, we realize we haven’t always been open to dialogue, nor have we been consistent in being transparent, but we promise to be more transparent and committed to dialogue in the future.”
They reflect on Vatican II as, “the great Council of the Church”, which proclaimed the need for the faith to be communicated anew to the modern world.” This doesn’t match their recent rhetoric and actions. They acknowledge Lumen Gentium, for setting “…the groundwork…by laying out the Church’s mission; Gaudium et Spes, in which the Church dedicated herself to “dialogue,…changes in the social order and shifts in attitudes to morality and religion….”; Ad Gentes tell us the how of evangelization…” etc.
Much of text in The New Evangelization’s document reminds me of a song that Frank Sinatra sang in the early 1940ies, I’ve Heard that Song Before. Some of you might remember, the first line: “It seems to me I’ve heard that song before, It’s from an old familiar score, I know it well, that melody.”Now don’t get me wrong, I love nostalgia and I believethat some of the content of the New Evangelization can be helpful, but not as it’s presented in the synod documents, where they don’t mention the faithful having any role in the governance of the church. They are clear that our role is to evangelize, to spread the faith, “not that there’s anything wrong with that”, but they apparently plan to continue to dictate to the faithful what they must believe, without listening to what the sensus fidelium has to contribute to their decisions.
DECISIONS, DECISIONS, DECISIONS
In the space available for this commentary and my last one in Catholica, Hope Springs Eternal …, [LINK] I’ve provided examples to help balance the pros and cons for whether to remain, leave, or take a sabbatical from the Roman Catholic Church. But, I don’t think it’s enough for us to just add up the pluses and minuses to make a decision. I wish it were as simple as it is for someone like Bill Donahue, “…the chronically peeved president of the Catholic League…” as Bill Keller referred to him in an article in the New York Times, The Rottweiler’s Rottweiler. [LINK] In Donohue’s new book Why Catholicism Matters, his characteristic response to someone who disagrees with the church’s teaching, on say gay marriages, would be, Shut up or go! Would that it were so unequivocal!
I think the major reason why it so difficult for many of us to buy into Donohue’s shut up or go philosophy, is that the decision to leave the church is not just a black and white cognitive decision. It involves emotions that we might have struggled with for years. Looking back on my life, there have been a number of occasions when I had to make a decision to stay or leave. I remember how I agonized about leaving the active ministry. It took me at least five years before I wrote Pope Paul VI a letter requesting a dispensation (It took him two years to answer me). Then there was the dilemma of my divorce. In some ways leaving the church is similar to getting a divorce. My personal experience of getting divorced, and my professional experience as a therapist, where I counseled couples and families through their divorces, and gave workshops on divorce recovery, supplied me with ample anecdotal and empirical information of just how heartrending it can be. Leaving the church, despite its many moral weaknesses, is not an event as much as it is a process. No matter how much reflection, how much support, how much praying we do, when push comes to shove, only the individual can make that decision, we are the deciders; not the pope, not our bishop, not our confessor, not our parents, only we can make that decision. But that’s a whole other commentary.
As I’ve said a number of times, I believe change in the institution of the church has to come from the bottom up. I don’t belong to the same Roman Catholic Church of my youth. I don’t kowtow to Rome or its minions. I follow the mantra of “Keep the Faith, but question the beliefs”, and have eliminated those beliefs that no longer make any sense to me. I intend to continue to be part of those lay movements that are working from inside the church for change, as I have for years. Will all the changes I’d like to see, happen in my lifetime? I doubt it! In the meantime unless they kick me out of the Catholic community, I don’t plan to change religions. Living in a retirement community, where the good Holy Cross fathers preside at the liturgy every Sunday, meets my need for a sense of being part of a spiritual community. But I am open to the sharing social change responsibilities for the disenfranchised with other spiritual and religious communities.
So, as a former professor of mine used to say, “We shall see what we shall see!”