Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Fear-Based Church?

Over the past several years the Vatican has been very busy… suppressing “dissident” theologians, investigating American nuns, excommunicating women priests, using the Eucharist as a political weapon, shoring up mandatory celibacy while wooing married Anglican priests, closing parishes without recourse, proposing retro-English and Latin liturgies, demeaning homosexuals, etc.

While there has been a lot of grumbling (or quiet voting with their feet) about various actions in the Vatican, there haven’t been many loud vocal objections or significant protests. Jim Martin, the Jesuit editor of America magazine, suggests it’s because of a cloud of fear than hangs over the faithful. He should be wary considering “they” came down on his predecessor for supposed deviation from the party line.

A Fear-Based Church?: Why So Many Catholics Are Afraid to Speak Out
Rev. James Martin, S.J.

On June 1, Bishop Kevin Dowling, an outspoken Catholic bishop in South Africa, gave a surprisingly frank talk to a group of prominent Catholics in Cape Town. The other day a friend sent me a link to his address, posted on Independent Catholic News, parts of which I posted on our magazine's blog. Many read it, and other sites picked it up.

Then, somewhat mysteriously -- or so it seemed -- his candid talk was removed from ICN. Then it was posted again a few hours later. (This was due to a glitch involving some incorrectly deleted words, the website's editor explained in an email.) Subsequently, the National Catholic Reporter reported that the bishop had intended the talk to be off the record. "Given the fact that it would be a select group with no media present," he said, "I decided I would be open and honest in my views to initiate debate and discussion."

Now, I've done some off-the-record speaking myself. But after I read his superb talk I wondered: Why wouldn't a bishop want such a carefully crafted, well-thought-out address, which would clearly be of great help to so many, disseminated more widely? Why not be "open and honest" with everyone?

Bear with me. For I've been thinking about his talk not so much to unravel the twisted skein of the on-again, off-again posting saga, but to meditate on what it might say about the Catholic church.

Bishop Dowling's blunt address was not only about what he called the "dismantling" of the Second Vatican Council, which reformed the church in the 1960s, but something else: the overwhelming "pressure to conform." Here's an irony: the one speaking out about speaking out apparently did not feel that he could speak out, at least not broadly, or at least not to everyone, or at least not publicly. His desire not to speak more publicly on the topic may have proved his point.

None of this is meant to be a slight against Bishop Dowling, whom I've greatly admired for some time. He is a terrific leader, a wonderful teacher and, in many ways, a real prophet. What a bishop should and could be.

But neither is this surprising. Today in the Catholic Church almost any disagreement to almost any degree with almost any church leader on almost any topic is seen as dissent. And I'm not speaking about the essentials of the faith -- those elements contained in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed -- but about less essential topics. Even on those topics -- for example, the proper strategy for bishops to deal with Catholic politicians at odds with church teaching, the new translations of the Mass, the best way for priests to address complicated moral issues, and so on -- the slightest whiff of disagreement is confused with disloyalty.

Certainly disagreement with statements from Rome, even on non-dogmatic or non-doctrinal matters, is seen as close to heresy. As Bishop Dowling said:

What compounds this [frustration over the church's unwillingness to be critiqued], for me, is the mystique which has in increasing measure surrounded the person of the pope in the last 30 years, such that any hint of critique or questioning of his policies, his way of thinking, his exercise of authority etc. is equated with disloyalty. There is more than a perception, because of this mystique, that unquestioning obedience by the faithful to the pope is required and is a sign of the ethos and fidelity of a true Catholic. When the pope's authority is then intentionally extended to the Vatican curia, there exists a real possibility that unquestioning obedience to very human decisions about a whole range of issues by the curial departments and cardinals also becomes a mark of one's fidelity as a Catholic, and anything less is interpreted as being disloyal to the pope who is charged with steering the bark of Peter.

Even for bishops! Kevin Dowling is a bishop: Catholic theology considers him a successor to the apostles. For Christ's sake (and I mean that literally) he's not some lowly functionary. He's not simply a branch manager of the Vatican's main office. He is a teacher in his own right. And even he feels the "pressure to conform."

What does this engender? It engenders a fear-based church. It creates clergy and members of religious orders frightened of speaking out, terrified of reflecting on complicated questions, and nervous about proposing creative solutions to new problems. It leads to the laity, with boundless experience on almost every topic but who have a hard enough time getting their voice heard, giving up. It causes the diminution of a thoughtful theological community in Catholic colleges and universities. It muzzles what should be a vibrant, flourishing, provocative, innovative, challenging Catholic press. It empowers minuscule cadres of self-appointed watchdogs, whose malign voices are magnified by the blogosphere, and who, with little to no theological background, freely declare any sort of disagreement as tantamount to inciting schism -- and are listened to by those in authority. It creates fear.

Does this seem like what Jesus wanted to establish on earth? It doesn't to me. I thought he said "Fear not!" And I thought St. John said, "There is no fear in love." And "Perfect love casts out fear." But perfect fear casts out love.

Sometimes when I'm writing or speaking, even to small groups, I find myself thinking not "What would God want me to say?" but "Will this get me in trouble?" Again it's not surprising.
Occasionally, during talks I'll spy an unsmiling man or woman furiously taking notes. The other night it happened during a talk on a particularly controversial topic: joy. Ironically, I am probably one of the most theologically conservative Catholics you'll ever meet. Every Sunday, when I say the Creed during Mass, I believe every single word of it.

Bishop Dowling is right. There is a "pressure to conform." And it is intense, particularly within official church circles. Sadly, this is the last thing that the church needs right now. In the midst of perhaps one of the worst crises ever to face the Catholic Church -- the sexual abuse scandals -- what we need is not fear-bred silence, but a hope-filled willingness to listen to any and all voices. Because the Holy Spirit works through everyone.

What's the alternative? Well, for an answer I'd like to turn to Pope Benedict XVI. In preparation for some of my own writing, I've been rereading his book Jesus of Nazareth, which I'm enjoying very much. At the beginning of his book the pope says something quite surprising. Benedict writes that the book is "absolutely not" a work of doctrine, but the "expression of my own personal research." "Consequently," he writes, "everyone is free to contradict me. I only ask the readers that they read with sympathy, without which there will be no comprehension."
That seemed eminently sensible, completely humble and absolutely right. How much easier it is to listen to someone who invites, rather than commands.

How wonderful if everyone in the Catholic Church could be afforded that "sympathy." Then we could listen to the voices of all sorts of people who have much to offer the church, by way of their own "expressions" of their "personal research" -- that is, the experience of their lives as faith-filled Christians. The pope's approach in his book -- about Jesus, hardly an insignificant topic! -- is the way forward.

What is needed is sympathy to the experiences and voices of all in the church. Without this there will truly be, to quote the pope, "no comprehension."

James Martin, SJ, is culture editor of America magazine and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. This essay is adapted from a post on "In All Things."


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Does the Church Really Need More Monsignors?

Just in time for Christmas... new "retro" , monsignor cassocks. Today's post comes from a reflection by Fr. Pat Brennan, a Chicago priest and the director of The National Center for Evangelization and Parish Renewal....

A reflection on the readings for August 29, 2010
Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29, Heb 12:18-19, 22-24a, Luke 14:1, 7-14

Does the Church Really Need More Monsignors?

The word on the street is that the Archdiocese of Chicago is about to announce a number of new monsignors among the priests of Chicago. The term monsignor is an honorary title that traditionally was given to priests because of some accomplishment in the Church or as a reward in the hierarchical system of the priesthood. Traditionally, there were two kinds of monsignors: Right Reverend Monsignors and Very Reverend Monsignors. I never quite understood the distinction, but it was apparent that the Very Reverend perhaps were not as reverend as the Right Reverend. Right Reverend wore red trim on their cassocks and were monsignors for a lifetime. Very Reverend wore purple trim on their cassocks and the title could be taken away at the end of a pontificate. Right Reverend Monsignors had roles like that of rectors of seminaries. The Very Reverend were involved in Archdiocesan offices or were pastors of cathedrals or basilicas. The custom of naming some priests monsignors fell to the wayside after the Second Vatican Council, but now it is making a comeback. The meaning of the word monsignor is "my lord".

In my first assignment as a deacon, I lived with two monsignors, the retired pastor and the pastor at the time. Sometimes the two monsignors would have too much to drink before dinner. The dinner could be an anxiety producing event for a twenty-five year old learning the ropes. The pastor of that parish liked being called monsignor. I, for one, called him monsignor; he was the boss. But there was an associate pastor there, a middle-aged priest, who one day said to the pastor, "Look, the title monsignor means 'my lord'. You are not my Lord. Jesus is my Lord. You are Don; and I will continue to call you Don." The priest calling monsignor "Don" made for some more nervous moments at dinner.

The Catholic hierarchical system is a curious entity. When Jesus preached the Reign of God, he called people to gentleness, mercy, service, self-sacrifice, justice, but early on in the church (especially when Constantine not only liberated the Christians from persecution, but made Christianity the state religion), the Church began to take on more and more trappings of Roman hierarchical power. The papacy, the role of bishops, monsignors, and in some cases priests, began to take on monarchical imagery. In fact, in terms of cardinals and archbishops, we actually began to speak of princes of the church. At liturgy, fine expensive vestments were worn that resembled the clothes of monarchs. "Shepherds", as bishops should be, walked around with staffs made of gold or which were gold-plated. They began to wear headgear that resembled crowns. The leaders of the Church began to dress and act in ways diametrically opposed to the lifestyle Jesus calls us to.

For full reflection, go to http://ncepr.com/2010/08/does-the-church-really-need-more-monsignors/

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


In the Bible, one of the most ancient names for God is El Shaddai. It occurs five times in Genesis, and once each in Exodus and Ezekiel. The most likely translation is “God of the mountain.” Apparently, when one’s home valley encompassed the entirety of life, the looming mountain seemed to be the dwelling place of divinity.

Over the centuries, the realm of God has expanded together with our human experience. We grew from the God of our nation, our civilization, our planet, our solar system, our galaxy to the God of this immense, complicated universe. Today, we even talk of a possible multi-verse, a collection of universes. We are increasingly aware that we live in three realms. The macrocosm of stars, galaxies, black holes, dark matter, with dimensions and powers that boggle our minds. If creation is so vast, how vast is our creator, the ground of all being. We also live in the microcosm of the infinitely small, of molecules, sub-atomic particles, quarks, quanta, neutrinos, bosons and the like. We may tend to dismiss them as too esoteric, but these intricate forces power our computers, lasers and nanotechnology. And finally we live in the realm of human interaction. Relationships, family, ethnicity, race, politics, religion. It is here that we discover the wonderful reality that the God of the galaxies, and the God of the molecules, is also the God who is Love. Wherever we encounter authentic love, we find a pathway to God.

That leads us back to El Shaddai, the God of the mountain.

Some mystics have compared the spiritual life to climbing the mountain of God. Like those seeking to ascend Everest, we may start from base camps located in totally different nations many miles apart, but as we climb we draw closer not only to God, but to other climbers who may have started on different faces of the mountain. Our commonality gradually trumps our diversity. However, some of our colleagues remain focused on their base camps far below: Muslim clerics preaching a Jihad of violence; Hindu extremists enmeshed in xenophobia; Protestant fundamentalists fixated on culture wars; Jewish rabbis fighting about who is or is not authentically Jewish; and Catholic hierarchs trapped in morass of pedophilia pettiness and partisan politics. Religion can lead us away from God as well as closer to God. Our base camp can imprison us at the bottom of the mountain, or fortify us with qualities of magnanimity, compassion, humility, generosity and a thirst for justice, all of which open us to El Shaddai, the ancient and ever new God who dwells not only on the heights, or in the vastness of space, but also deep within our hearts and in those of all other seekers.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Excommunicate me, please

The following is a Chicago Tribune editorial piece by Sheila O'Brien on August 4, 2010. She pours out her frustrations as contemporary conscientious Catholic…

Would someone in Rome formally excommunicate me, please? I want to be excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church because walking away will break my heart.

My grandparents left Ireland with nothing but their vibrant faith. They and my parents brought my siblings and me to a baptismal font and promised to guide us to Christ. And, they did that by word and deed. They taught us to love the Gospel and challenged us to live that Gospel at all costs. I love the Mass, Catholic social teaching, the scores of nuns who built the church around the world, the dedicated priests and people who love God with all their hearts and bring that love to the world. It is my life, the center of every experience, the filter for reality.

But, the headlines continue — more pedophilia, more stonewalling by the bishops, more "norms" from Rome protecting perpetrators. Now, it is a "crime" of the church to attempt to ordain people like Mother Teresa or St. Teresa of Avila — women. And, the hierarchy, who have arguably hidden crimes and criminals, who will not open the books so we can see where our money has gone and who always claim the moral high ground, have grouped ordaining women with pedophilia.

Our heads swirl. How can we stay in a church whose leaders protect pedophiles? Yet, how can we leave and relinquish our church to those very leaders?

We have a financial remedy — write "one time bequest" on your parish contribution check and all the money will stay in your parish; none will go downtown. Do it. That will stop the spigot of money to the hierarchy and may get their attention. But, it doesn't salve our consciences about how to live the Gospel in an institution off the rails.

We watch the bishops ignore recommendations from fellow Catholics who served on an abuse panel. We have waited for the civil authorities to empanel grand juries and bring indictments, but that has not happened. And, our long wait for a bishop or priest of courage, of conscience, to speak up and say "enough" has proven fruitless. The priests are scared of retribution from the bishops; they tell us so.

So, each person must decide: Stay and fight (cutting off the money but with little hope for change) or leave. Both options are spiritually and emotionally exhausting.

That's why, silly as it sounds, formal excommunication by the hierarchy would be a welcome relief. If they would just make the decision for me, give me a piece of paper that says, "you're out," it would free my conscience of all of this. Then someday, when I see the faces of my grandparents, I can assure them that I fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith that they gave me at that baptismal font long ago.

I just wish they were here to tell me what that means right now.

Come Holy Spirit.

Sheila O'Brien is a wife, mother, daughter, sister, a product of 22 years of Catholic education and active in her parish. She is a justice of the Illinois Appellate Court, Chicago.

Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Conversation at the backyard barbeque ranged from family stories, to politics, to sports and weather. Then came a spirited discussion of the Catholic hierarchy who, in recent weeks, had expelled two kindergarteners whose parents were lesbians, refused burial to a woman priest, raged at nuns who had publicly disagreed with the bishops about health care legislation, been held under house arrest in Belgium while authorities investigated an alleged cover-up of pedophilia, declared that the results of their investigation of American nuns would be kept secret, excommunicated a nun in Phoenix who had allowed the termination of a pregnancy which would have killed both mother and baby, and finally published guidelines, not regulations, for handling of child abuse cases throughout the church. For some unknown reason the Vatican also coupled the crime of pedophilia with the apparently equally heinous crime of women’s ordination, declaring automatic excommunication for any and all involved.

As the litany of cases continued, the temperature of the group soared, until humor took over. One person suggested that we develop bumper stickers declaring, “Honk if you’re into Excommunication.” Another suggested a companion piece, “Honk twice if you prefer burning people at the stake.” Another proposed t-shirts proclaiming, “If women priests can be excommunicated…” on the front and, on the back, “…shouldn’t some clueless Catholic prelates be Ex-term-inated?” This launched, to escalating peals of laughter, a rapid- fire series of alternative mottos and strategies. The threat of excommunication used to be a really big deal, but at the corner of our lives where hierarchical ineptitude has intersected with a crescendo of episcopal arrogance, something profound has happened. Our hierarchy has become an object of ridicule.

Something similar happened in South Africa shortly before the end of Apartheid. And it also preceded the destruction of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. There comes a moment when the governed withdraw their consent. That’s what seems to be happening, chuckle by chuckle, in thousands of Catholic backyards today.

Humor has power.