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Entries from July 2019

The role of spiritual resistance.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the idea of spiritual resistance. Essentially it means that as believers, our responsibility is to the gospel, not to any particular ideology or worldview. And in our day and age, this notion has resonance for Catholic Christians both centripetally and centrifugally. Catholics act and think centripetally when their attention is to the community of faith. All the ideas we may have and the actions we take that have as their focus the health of the Church are centripetal. They seek to move towards the center. When we talk the language of “rebuilding the house,” we are in the first instance looking to change and restore the place we call our spiritual home. Now, of course, we also think and act centrifugally when we turn our attention as Catholic Christians to the need to heal the world. Every action taken by church members or by the institutional church itself upon the world beyond the community of faith is a centrifugal action. It looks outward from the center to the wider world beyond. Our faith motivates us to action.

If we look more closely at the convictions of Catholic Christians today about both their church and the place of the church in the wider world, it rapidly becomes apparent that there is no consensus among us—either about ecclesial reform or political initiatives. What we do all seem to have in common is a stance of resistance. Whether we are troubled by what we see as the openly racist agenda of the Trump administration, or by the apparent conviction of the Democratic party that one cannot adopt a prolife stance on abortion and be a true blue believer; whether we are scandalized by the effort to undermine the papacy or embarrassed by the obvious inadequacy of Pope Francis’s grasp of the meaning of “gender,” in each case our stance is one of resistance to what we perceive as evil, sinful or just plain wrong. And in each case we can easily find those Catholics who hold the opposite views to ours with sincerity, if not what we think of as cogency. There seems to be no agreement among Catholics about either their church or their political principles. We are polarized, and since we all recite the same creed and publicly profess the same faith, there is a puzzle here, if not an actual scandal.

The polarization problem is caused by inattention to the centrality of the gospel message and the intrusion of the less than laudable instincts that reflect the fallen condition of our human nature. This is obviously not to say that all our perspectives on change in the church are wrong, still less that the liberal perspective is morally and spiritually superior in every respect to a more conservative view. Liberal views are not right or wrong because they are liberal, any more than conservative views are right or wrong because they are conservative. On the contrary, rightness and wrongness do not pertain to any political or ideological perspective, but only for Christians in the first and last instance because they emerge out of the gospel imperatives. The good news of the gospel is that we are made whole in the love of God present in history in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the word salvation suggests, we are saved by being healed, healed from captivity to our baser instincts, healed from egocentrism.

The good news of the gospel suggests raising the dialectic of the centripetal and the centrifugal to new heights. No longer is it about concern for the church and the church’s value to the world. Now it is revealed to be concern for the wholeness and health of the whole of creation, a form of attention that both unites and cancels the dialectic of inner and outer. Whether we are concerned for the state of the church or the fate of the world, the only question is this: how can we best further the gospel imperative to promote the health and wholeness of creation? What course of action promotes a healthy planet and a fulfilled human community, and through them the only kind of happiness that each individual should seek—the contentment that comes with being a part of a movement towards the health of the whole. This is what Jesus meant when he advised his followers not to fret about little things, but rather, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and everything else you need will follow.

The path of spiritual resistance is then the gospel-motivated struggle against all that is enemy to the full blooming of creation—human and non-human alike. We may find ourselves resisting the lack of compassion of a church that has hidden the abuse of children in its past, and that dismisses same-sex marriage partners from church employment, refuses to educate its children or condemns children to continued loneliness because two women or two men would constitute “unnatural” parents. (There is indeed a wealth of room for reflection on the frequent ecclesial preference for what is natural over what is loving.) Similarly, we may have to find ourselves on the uncomfortable front lines of the struggle against hatred, utterly insistent that we oppose racism and white supremacy not because we are liberals or Democrats, but because we are disciples of Jesus Christ.

“Spiritual resistance” was the term used by anti-Nazi church-people, many of them Catholic priests, in the struggles in occupied France during the Second World War. The Jesuits produced a clandestine journal intended to challenge and encourage their fellow citizens of France, and the headline of the first issue makes so clear what is at stake when we are not courageous, when we take the easy way out or we tell ourselves that there is nothing we can do. “France,” the headline blazes out, “be on guard for your soul.” The journal and its editors hated Nazism and were suspicious of Marxism, but they proclaimed the need to save the soul of France. Their act of spiritual resistance, like any we might undertake, was not politically motivated, but it was full of profound political consequences. Our attention to the ways in which our world and our church can be deaf to the gospel message of wholeness and health is not politically motivated, but it is overflowing with obvious political consequences.

Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.

We Have Seen the Lord

The slower summer pace on a university campus leaves plenty of time for reflection. My first summer in my current job, I spent many afternoons pondering an exquisite painting hanging on the wall outside my office. I knew neither the title of the work nor its subject, but the image captivated me.

A diptych, the left panel of the work was all but empty, just capturing the back of a cloak. In the right panel was the cloak’s owner—a young woman barely past adolescence. Her expression was at once unsettled yet determined, her cloak purposely gathered around her and her hair flowing about her head, reflective of the winds blowing her forward.

MagdaleneBefore the summer was over, I learned the painting was titled Apostola Apostolorum and was created by student Emmaus O’Herlily, OSB, and I suddenly understood why it had so resonated. My mother had died on the feast of Mary Magdalene, and, like the subject of the painting, for me she was a powerful witness to the risen Christ.

Like Mary Magdalene, my mother was called to a new role in the Church. I can still see her—convent-educated, deeply faithful, a rule follower to the max—taking her first timid steps toward the ambo as a lector at some point in the early 1970s, her face mirroring the subject outside my office—tentative but called to serve.

I was proud that my mother was the first woman to head our parish council and proud of her invitation to serve as a lay member of a men’s religious community, but I recognized that she did all these things with a modicum of discomfort, that there was always a silent “Yes, Father!” behind anything she took on. She grew up in a different church and was being called into a new form of Church she couldn’t yet define but knew she wanted to be part of, even if she’d been trained to feel somehow unworthy.

In those heady post-Vatican II days, I was enrolled in the same convent school my mother had attended. But instead of classroom conversations on topics like proximate occasion of sin or lists of things young ladies shouldn’t do, we debated subjects such as the need for inclusive language, and we joined the nuns who taught us by picketing local grocery stores selling boycotted grapes. While the school’s motto—The love of Christ has gathered us together— remained the same, it was blowing us in new and empowering directions.

My own church experience built on my mother’s, giving me a confidence that had been rare in her era, and it took me to places she hadn’t been. I was mindful of her, for example, the first time I found myself in the sanctuary serving as a Eucharistic minister, remembering my father’s injunctions when I was a child that a girl could never pass the first step toward the altar.

All of these moments seemed like steps—albeit tiny—in the right direction. I was pretty smug that my church was changing. The pace might seem glacial, but I knew you couldn’t change a 2,000-year-old institution overnight.

Then came the election of Benedict XVI in 2005. As we kept CNN on low in the background, my nine-year-old daughter looked at the sea of men in red entering the consistory and asked where the women were. I assumed she was joking until her 14-year-old sister joined in and asked why only men would weigh in on a decision so vital to the life of the church.

I confess to a sense of guilty amusement that, as the Catholic parent in our family, I must have been offering my children a sense of my understanding what Church might be instead of what it was. I also saw that my own acceptance and acquiescence were as old-fashioned to them as my mother’s was to me.

While I could offer weak cultural arguments, I couldn’t offer anything hard-wired in dogma to answer their questions, and my daughters were not happy with my answers. Ongoing conversations with them saw me recommit to an active Catholic life to help create a church where my daughters could feel welcome, a church where they were confident that those around them recognized that, yes, they too, were made in the image and likeness of God, worthy of an equal place at the table. While their mother might critique the church, I also wanted them to see that I loved the immutable beauty just below the politics.

The intervening 14 years have made that commitment very hard. The ongoing abuse scandals dishearten and sadden, as does the institutional unwillingness to ponder change. And if I realize anything, it’s that women continue to be too polite, too taciturn, even as we are relied upon to serve.

While we applaud ongoing small steps, such as Pope Francis’s appointment of women to the panel that oversees religious communities, that we feel a need to express gratitude for a logical move is counterintuitive, and we await any real movement on larger questions, such as whether women can serve as deacons.  We’re told there’s a report on the Pope’s desk from the panel struck in 2016 but we don’t even know when—or if—we will hear the results.

Meanwhile, the church continues to sag under the weight of scandal and clericalism and spiritual exhaustion. In this troubled church, women run many—if not all—the programming in parishes, from sacramental preparation to RCIA. In many theologates, women make up the majority of students. And if you survey the pews most Sunday morning, it’s women who remain in faithful attendance.

Institutionally, we seem to be a church intent on perpetuating the old instead of growing into the new, and one of the ways we perpetuate the old is to throw up roadblocks to even greater participation by women. But the old ways aren’t working. Rather than hunker down, it’s time to try something new.

We’ve been loyal. We’ve been faithful. And from our place on the sidelines we’re tired of watching the endless crisis and turmoil, especially when we are ready and able to help. We’ve been patient and polite, and that simply hasn’t helped.

It was only three years ago that Mary Magdalene’s memorial (July 22) was elevated to a full feast day. In making the shift, a spokesman for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith described the day as a moment for Christians to “reflect more deeply on the dignity of women, the new evangelization and the greatness of the mystery of divine mercy.”

Any Scripture scholar will tell you that every word matters. There is a reason Mary Magdalene is the first to declare, “I have seen the Lord.” One of the best ways for the church to acknowledge the dignity of women is to recognize that we, too, have seen the Lord—and we want to show you what that means to us.

Catherine Mulroney is programs coordinator at the faculty of theology at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.

Renew the Church according to the Spirit of the Gospel

As we near the one-year anniversary of the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, which catalogued the crimes of clergy sex abuse over 70 years and reawakened the sense of betrayal by those Church leaders who covered up those crimes, is it now possible to begin drawing distinctions and clarifying facts? In the immediate aftermath of listening to the disgusting accounts of serial child rape, distinctions are impossible, and the only clarity available is emotional clarity. But, distinctions and factual clarity remain necessary.

The first distinction is one that I mentioned in my last submission to this series: What happened in 2018 was not really a revival of the clergy sex abuse crisis. There was no new surge in incidences of sex abuse by clergy. Instead, 2018 represented an ecclesiological crisis, because it became obvious there had been no real accounting for the crimes that had happened in the past, no real transparency. Most U.S. bishops had failed to publish the names of those credibly accused, even though such publication almost always results in helping other victims to come forward and, consequently, to receive some measure of compensation for what was done to them. The wrong-headed idea that publishing the names would cause scandal continued to dominate the decisions made in many chanceries, even though the real scandal was always the cover-up.

This distinction is important because it gets to the heart of diagnosing what went wrong and, therefore, how to cure the ailment. There is no doubt that the spike in actual cases of abuse began in the 1960s and declined rapidly in the 1980s. Surely, that priests trained for one era and its mores found themselves in a different era and different mores was part of the problem. Seminary education was beginning to change in the 1970s and 1980s, with an emphasis on psycho-sexual maturity that had never even been discussed before the Second Vatican Council.

But, the cover-up had nothing to do with the sexual revolution. It was a symptom of a clerical and hierarchic culture that was deeply ill. And, in Pope John Paul II, the Church had a leader who did not want to hear about it, who dismissed allegations even when they were credible and whose acolytes said the problem of sex abuse was no more than a lack of fidelity. Well, in a sense, that is true, but not very helpful. All sin is a lack of fidelity. Not until the scandal exploded in the media was his hand forced and, even then, there was no effort to hold bishops accountable for covering up the crimes. Only a frontal assault on the sickness of clericalism will rid the Church of what made the problem of sex abuse a systemic betrayal of ecclesial leadership and the sacramental bonds that should characterize it.  

Secondly, it is a fact that the sexual abuse of children continues to be an enormous problem in our country, but it is very, very rarely perpetrated by Catholic priests or ministers. Data from the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services indicate that on average, there are some 7,500 annual allegations of child sex abuse, and about 2,000 of them are substantiated. According to the Chicago Tribune, police in Chicago investigated more than 500 cases in the Chicago Public Schools between 2008 and 2017, and the public has been told next to nothing about those cases. Conversely, since 2002 in the Archdiocese of Chicago, there have been only a handful of substantiated cases. Yet, the Attorney General of the State of Illinois is investigating the Catholic Church.

The bishops are in no position to point the finger elsewhere, but the rest of us need to ask why our public officials are so intent on rehashing decades-old cases of clergy sex abuse while remaining so indifferent to cases happening right now in other settings. Nor are bishops in a position to pat themselves on the back for enacting the reforms of 2002 that mandated prevention training for all personnel, background checks and other measures, but the fact remains that those measures have prevented any systemic return of sex abuse from occurring. 

Regrettably, emotional reactions in 2018 were not the only reason that getting at the heart of the matter has been so difficult. Wealthy conservative Catholics have sought to hijack the crisis to advance their attacks on Pope Francis and further their already extensive influence over the Church in this country. Liberal Catholics have proposed their 1970s agenda items—married clergy, women priests, dismantling the hierarchic structure of the Church—as solutions, even though none of them have the least bearing on the prevention of child sex abuse.

Distinctions matter. Facts matter. Emotional disgust at events that happened in the 1970s cannot obscure the fact that most of these incidents happened long ago. Ideological objectives can only distort efforts to protect children and renew the Church.

The good news? Ever since 2013, we have had a pope who has been urging us to renew the Church according to the spirit of the Gospel. That, and that alone, is the solution to the crisis the Church is experiencing.

Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.

It’s Time to Imagine a New Model

It would appear that the Catholic church is entering into a period of acute contraction at the same time as the current Bishop of Rome is calling for expansion. Why the rupture or wide disjunction?

Pope Francis’s radical—and it is radical, hence the aggressive resistance—call for a church of the peripheries, a church of the poor, is a significant departure from earlier ecclesiologies that privileged, or at least prioritized, pastoral and doctrinal issues differently.

Francis is fearless; many of his bishops, North American specifically, are fearful. Francis welcomes dispossession; most of his NA hierarchy resist any form of disempowerment. Francis exudes joy even amidst his tendency to remonstrate and his episcopal colleagues this side Atlantic recoil anxiously.

Part of the problem—the major part in my view—is the quality of our spiritual leadership and the appalling dearth of visionary thinking around our understanding of priestly ministry. If the priesthood is in turmoil, and only the most intractable of obscurantists could think otherwise, then we need to collectively think of new ways of resuscitating a credible and meaningful presbyterate. Relying on a nostalgic recovery of an older and now much discredited model shaped more by Bing Crosby than by reality will do us no favors, and yet that is precisely what appears afoot in too many dioceses.

In diocese after diocese in Canada and in the United States, I am told that the local hierarchy is hellbent on restoring some clear distinctions in liturgical behavior that underscore the special dignity of the priesthood, curtails behavior by the laity that is judged an encroachment on clerical prerogatives and reasserts the unique caste that is the priestly calling.  Eucharistic ministers must have their responsibilities more clearly delineated; permanent deacons must be publicly differentiated from priests and transitional deacons in dress and function; the laity must know its place and the priesthood’s ontological status must be vigorously reinstated.

This is all a form of madness. The way forward is not the way backward. Unlike Canute, we cannot instruct the waves to behavior untowardly. What we need to do is imagine a new model predicated not on recovery but discovery, a model that allows us to conceive a way out of the quagmire in which we find ourselves. And a quagmire we are in.

Everyone from Pope Francis to the most conservative of Curial prelates agrees that clericalism is a curse—a toxin that we must evacuate from our system. But different definitions of clericalism abound, and efforts to dilute its specific meaning by extending its compass to broadly encompass everyone trivializes the problem and prevents us from addressing the crisis at hand.

Be sure: clericalism is about clerics. The priesthood is in disarray  because of priests. We are caught in an ecclesiastical earthquake because of priestly misdeeds. They, not the laity, are the problem and once so identified we can begin a strategy of redress and reformation. We need our priests and our spiritual leaders, and either eliminating them or restoring the ancien regime are not options.

Why not revisit the suppressed Priest Worker Movement of 1940s France? Why not incorporate the non-stipendary arrangement of Anglican priests?  Why not distinguish between career and vocation?  Why not imagine priestly ministry outside decaying parochial structures?  Why not envision the abolition of seminaries—the seed ground of clericalism—and their replacement with schools of divinity?

When we have begun the process of reforming an atrophying system, introducing a more humane formation program and taking seriously the papal call for a revitalized priesthood, then and only then, should we think of expanded ministries, the ordination of women to the diaconate and presbyterate and creative but organically conservative—not traditionalist—iterations of a vital and credible priesthood. 

Clericalism is in its death throes. Its revival is a marker of enervating fear in a time that calls for evangelizing urgency. We must begin by rooting out the things that restrict the life of the Spirit.

Time for expansion. Contraction is a knee-jerk response unworthy of the People of God.

Michael W. Higgins is the distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University.