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Entries from September 2019

Voting with Their Pocketbooks

My mother recently told me, “This is the first year I didn’t donate to our bishop’s annual appeal. I donate to the parish, of course, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.” Like many Catholics, she is upset about everything going on in the church around the sexual abuse scandal fallout: the drip, drip, drip of new revelations of old and new crimes, and the lack of decisive action by the bishops to hold themselves accountable. Despite the charitable works that bishops’ annual appeals support, Catholics can’t help but feel that their donations to dioceses are abetting the bishops in paying out for lawsuits that really should fall on their shoulders, not ours.

My mom reflects a national trend. In March of this year, Washington Post columnist Mark Thiessen made a splash by advising fellow Catholics “don’t give them a dime” for these reasons. “A Pew Research Center survey released this past summer indicated that 26 percent of U.S. Catholics reported giving less money as a result of the recent reports of sexual abuse and misconduct by priests and bishops,” according to America magazine. This article quotes Father Jay Mello, a pastor of two parishes in Massachusetts, about his parishioners “vocal” reluctance to donate to diocesan collections. “They don’t trust the bishops and feel this is the only way they can send the message.”

While the immediate and specifically Catholic trend occurs within a longer downward slide in religious giving, which has to do with fewer Americans attending churches of all types, I am intrigued by the people who stay but give less, as well as those who fall away from regular attendance and active engagement in their parish out a sense of discontent. This latter phenomenon is another way that Catholics are sending a message the only way they can.

When someone you know who is member of an organization is frustrated about its direction, you usually advise them to first stay and try work for change from within. We tell our kids to try to improve a club, team or friend group that is frustrating them. Sure, sometimes one needs to drop out and find a new group, but that should be a last resort.

The sad thing is that the structures of the church offer them very few avenues for effecting positive change. The reason as many stay is that there is a difference between their local parish—where they have friends, where they can be involved, where they can feel listened to, where the rituals are meaningful to them—compared to the larger structures of the church, over which they have no meaningful say. The decline in donations and the things that Catholics are saying about the bishops and the institutional church are troubling signs. Are the bishops and the pastors listening? They want to and think they are trying, but I am not confident they know how to or know what to do next.

Consider when parishes hold open forums or when parishioners organize their own meetings to discuss crisis moments, such as proposed parish closures. Finally, a large group of Catholics is talking about their hopes and fears for the church, about their frustrations and willingness to see changes! But we Catholics don’t seem to know how to have dialogues in which everyone gets engaged except when a financial crisis is upon us. How much better it would have be if honest, passionate and messy conversations had been happening in parishes over many years.

Both the leaders and the laity lack ingrained habits of association, to use an image from that great observer of American civil society, Alexis de Tocqueville. This deficit is virtually baked into Catholicism, because of the hierarchical structure and the primary emphasis on attaining the sacraments. As we have often heard, “the church is not a democracy.” But we have sold ourselves way short, because we tend to assume that making the leaders accountable to its people and involving the laity in the pastoral planning of the church would mean shifting the paternalistic model of Catholicism all the way to the other side, to a low-church Protestant model.

But there exist dynamic options in between those poles, and they exist within Catholic history and the scope of its practices and laws. For instance, if the priests in the United States voted for their first archbishop, John Carroll, cannot some version of such practices occur today? Why can’t parishioners play a role in the selection of their new pastor? There’s much the institutional church can and should do.

But parishes need not wait on the bishops. There are two promising activities to explore. First, some form of parish renewal action along the lines of small-church groups and faith-sharing groups are valuable for engaging and reengaging Catholics. Catholics need ways to get reintroduced to the joy of the risen Christ, which sustains their hope for making change. Happily, my sense is that many U.S. parishes are participating in such programs. Second, the revitalization and full use of the existing model of pastoral (parish) councils is strongly needed. This will be the topic of my next column.

All signs point to this conclusion by scholars who study what it takes for a Catholic parish to be excellent: “A parish is successful or excels to the extent that it is energized by and thrives on the dynamism of dialogue” (Bradford Hinze, Practices of Dialogue in the Roman Catholic Church, 2006, p. 20). If Catholics are holding back their money, their attendance and their full engagement in their local church, the church must invite them to talk about it and must be ready to do something about it.

Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.

When Silence Becomes A Betrayal

Hate, ignorance and intolerance know no boundaries, be they geographic, emotional, physical or spiritual. We are challenged daily, individually and communally to make choices about our words, behaviors, beliefs and actions. Although the decisions we make today may have predictable or unanticipated short-term consequences, they doubtlessly will have a profound impact on the world in which we live tomorrow. As Martin Luther King once said: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

This is one of those times and, unfortunately, it is because a church leader believes the Eucharist can be weaponized. When our nation is at a poignant crossroad, and the public square has become infected with bias, hate and intolerance, silence is indeed a betrayal. We have our faith, we have our doctrine, and we have our beliefs. We also have a voice and the right to express our opinions, whether in support or in protest of actions we find contradictory, hateful and hypocritical within the Catholic church.

Here is a case in point:  Two private Catholic high schools in Indianapolis—Cathedral High School and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School—are embroiled in a controversy with their local archdiocese and Archbishop Charles Thompson over the firing of a gay faculty member at Cathedral. More to the point, under pressure from the diocese, Brebeuf Prep refused to terminate one of its own teachers, the husband of the man fired at Cathedral.

In response to this decision, the archbishop told Brebeuf’s administration that if they wanted to remain part of the Catholic Church, they had to abide by his decisions. I wonder if the archbishop also told his priests suspended for abuses they were no longer Catholic? Or if he ceased compensating those suspended priests with Archdiocesan monies? I wonder if the archbishop called out his episcopal colleagues for their cover-ups of abuses?

Thompson ordered Catholic teachers and counselors to sign a contract agreeing that they would be “witnesses of Catholic principles and deed.” That request is certainly his prerogative, albeit one of a small mind. As retribution, Brebeuf Prep was also told it could not open its 2019/2020 school year with an all-school Mass. How draconian and immature first to use the Eucharist as a weapon and then to punish the students. Such myopia just further isolates young people from the church.

The self-righteous, insecure power measures continued. Brebeuf Jesuit Prep administrators are forbidden to attend archdiocesan discussions about school issues. At the same time, the archdiocese is putting pressure on other schools in the diocese to exclude Brebeuf athletic teams from local Catholic school sports competitions.

To its credit, Brebeuf Prep announced it would be unjust and a violation of conscience to terminate its teacher. The Cathedral teacher has filed a lawsuit claiming unlawful discrimination, and Jesuit Fr. Brian Paulson, provincial of the Jesuit’s Midwest Province, is directing an appeal to the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome to fight the decree removing Catholic identification from Brebeuf—a 57-year-old school with 800 co-ed students.

I am astounded by the hypocrisy evident in the archdiocese’s actions. As the Catholic church continues to reel internationally, from thousands of cases of child abuse, sexual molestation, abuse of power and improper behavior on the part of thousands of priests, church laypeople and episcopal leaders––to see current archdiocesan church leadership engage in such vindictive actions against a high school trying to live by Jesus’s words is shameful.

Last year, we were privileged to have Father James Martin, SJ, return to our campus to speak at an open forum at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit. Martin is a well-known but controversial figure known for his writing, talks and outspoken opinions regarding the importance of listening to and welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics into our churches, our communities and our hearts. He also speaks passionately about protecting the unborn, as well as refugees, migrants and the environment.

In his presentation, Martin spoke to the importance of treating LGBTQ people with the virtues that the Catechism recommends: “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” pointing out that the Catechism says, “Every sign of unjust discrimination must be avoided.”

In his most recent book, Building a Bridge, Martin says, “This is part of what it means to be a Christian: standing up for the marginalized, the persecuted, the beaten down. Be prophetic. Be courageous. Be like Jesus,” he adds, “because if we’re not trying to be like Jesus, what’s the point? And remember that in his public ministry, Jesus continually reached out to people who felt like they were on the margins. He was bringing people who felt on the outside closer into the community. Because for Jesus, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There is only us.”

Cardinal-elect Matteo Zuppi, archbishop of Bologna and a supporter of LGBTQ issues, wrote the preface for the European version of Martin’s book. Obviously, the cardinal-elect understands the mission to reach out to the margins as Jesus did numerous time in the gospels. It seems obvious that others in the episcopal ministry need to be more pastoral and less self-righteous in their care.

It might be helpful if Church clerical and lay leaders recall Jesus’saying: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” It is saddening when certain church leaders behave no better than the deteriorating public-square dialogue.

We are a country proudly founded on the principles of civil disobedience, and here, on our campus, we believe strongly in giving voice to differing opinions and philosophies, even if they make us personally uncomfortable or force us to address our own moral, ethical and spiritual standards. We stand firmly against intolerance and bias and will not ignore efforts to malign, discriminate or persecute others.

Through dialogue, debate and controversy, the students at Brebeuf and their peers in Indianapolis, here in Fairfield, Connecticut, and across the country are learning what it means to be Americans, and to be Catholic: We embrace one another regardless of our differences, protect those who cannot protect themselves and speak up when we see injustice and hypocrisy. We cannot and will not betray them, because we cannot and will not be silent.

John J. Petillo is the president of Sacred Heart University

The Next Steps (Towards Church Reform)

In his December 20, 2018, blog here, Robert Mickens drew our attention to the radical reform message contained in  Evangelii Gaudium (2013)—in particular its call to a more synodal church. He wondered that “this revolutionary text remains largely unstudied and unimplemented at almost every level of the Catholic Church.” How stands the situation now?

Well, there are some encouraging signs. The two universal synods in Rome (on the family and then on young people) were occasions of real debate. Elsewhere, the Catholic Church in Germany, under Cardinal Rheinhard Marx, has undertaken to move in a synodal direction, in particular by setting up binding and inclusive  conversations around  the neuralgic issues of power and accountability (including the role of women), sexual morality and clerical life-style (including celibacy). There will be a plenary council of the Australian church in 2020 and already in the preparatory, consultative phase, there has been enormous participation. There have been several synods in French dioceses, and the Conference of Bishops is researching the issue more deeply. In October this year, the synod on the Amazonian area will take place in Rome, with issues like ecology, married priests and the role of women on the agenda. The diocese of Liverpool is already well into a three-year preparation period for a synod to be held in 2020. Arguably, there has already been a vibrant tradition of this kind of ecclesial model in Latin America since the 60s, evident not least in the Aparaceida document, a kind of template for The Joy of the Gospel.

There are some similar signs over here in Ireland too. There was a fruitful synod of Limerick in 2016, and assemblies have been held in many other dioceses over the past 10 years or so. More recently, several new bishops have expressed the need to move in a similar direction.

But progress is slow, both in Ireland and elsewhere, and one gets a sense of a lack of momentum and energy around the project. Why is this?

Well, Francis himself knew that when he asked for “an entirely snyodal church,” convinced that this was what God expects from the church in the third millennium, it was a big ask, an epoch-changing transition from the long-established model of church called “hierarchological” by Congar. He noted that synodality “is an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice.” It requires keeping in touch with the base, with the people and their problems. The deep listening, the means, that are required at every level—parish, diocese, nation, region and universal—can be wearisome, and yet it is only through this concrete translation that a synodal church begins to take shape.

I recall being a delegate at the 34th General Congregation of the Jesuits in 1995. More than 220 of us lived in Rome for the best part of three months, sharing faith, arguing, gossiping, forging alliances, not without political intrigue, feelings of alienation and even paranoia (I speak only of myself!), and yet we succeeded through God’s grace in our exercise of communal discernment. However in general as a Church—unlike the Protestants and Orthodox—we have lost our habit of inclusive communal discernment, an example of McIntyre’s collective practices. In seeking to regain it, we will have to become familiar with “methodologies of synodality” (Osheim) that include facing and resolving conflict. Without the ability to face conflict with equanimity, we risk that disagreements devolve into simple polemics that weary all but the most passionately engaged.

There is of course an appropriate prudence to be exercised in choosing means, times and topics for discernment. Just as in personal therapy, within a family, in a society there comes a moment (Heaney’s “hope and history rhyme”) when to talk is good. However, we have erred for far too long within our church in shutting down inclusive listening and speaking. We need now to err on the side of being bold in seeking to implement the project of Francis, in taking some risks. Why not a National Synod in Ireland, why not the laying down of foundations for the same in North America? Were there not “culture wars” at stake when the Council of Jerusalem met in the first century to adjudicate on the issue of Gentiles that so divided the early Judaeo-Christian community?

The well-known legend of St Denys, Parisian martyr, records how he was decapitated, picked up his head and, continuing to preach, walked several miles to where he is now buried. In such matters, it has been said, “it is the first step that is most important.”  Synodality means walking together: we are at the beginning of a journey, and need to take the next first steps. Might the American Catholic Council’s Peoples Synod in Baltimore from September 27-29 be one such step?

Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.

Lost in Translation? Rebuilding a Comprehensive Christian Theology of Priesthood

“Lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the People of God. The minority – ordained ministers – are at their service.” In these lines, drawn from his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, On the Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis – at the risk of stating the obvious – recalls a fundamental insight into the nature of the ordained priesthood. Rebuilding the church in the present crisis will require a serious effort to retrieve and integrate it more fully into a balanced theology of the priesthood – that of the ordained and that of the baptized faithful.

Francis has frequently insisted that the roots of the present crisis in the church lie in the culture of clericalism. The features of this culture, ingrained in the habits of many clergy and lay people alike, include a pretense of superiority by priests that is often met by an excessive attitude of deference or passive acquiescence on the part of the laity. In a world of “father knows best,” priests often infantilize, fail to listen or to respect laypersons, excluding them systematically from processes of decision-making. Perhaps the most pernicious feature, the most difficult to root out, is the way in which it conveys a false and distorted sense of holiness, supported by an ostensibly traditional theology of priesthood. More than a generation of men have been schooled in Catholic seminary training into thinking that they belong to a sacred caste, defined by an “ontological” difference – a different kind of being – as if floating in some rarified world of grace unattainable to the remaining community of the baptized.

This portrait of the ordained priesthood is rooted in a highly selective reading of Vatican II’s teaching and ignores at least a millennium of tradition. It is most often grounded in a line in the council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church affirms: “The common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood, though they differ in essence and not only in degree, are nevertheless interrelated [ …] the ministerial priest, through the sacred power he enjoys, forms and governs the priestly people; in the person of Christ he brings about the eucharistic sacrifice and offers this to God in the name of the whole people” (LG 10). These lines appear in the chapter of the Constitution devoted to the vocation of the entire people of God, all of whom participate in the priestly, prophetic and royal offices of Christ through baptism, a participation that grounds their “common dignity” and equality (LG 32). Where conciliar teaching underlines the interdependence of the priesthood of the laity and that of the ordained, and points to their participation in Christ, more recent interpretations of this text insist on their fundamental difference and on the ordained minister’s role as “another Christ” (alter Christus), having lost sight of his call to serve the priestly people, all of whom also share in the one priesthood of Christ, in whose image they have been conformed through baptism (Rom 6:1-14; 8:29-30;  2 Cor 3:18; 1 Jn 3:2; Col 3:10).

When we step back and consider the whole of the council’s teaching, we find, if not a fully developed or systematic theology of the ordained priesthood, elements of a more biblical and traditional understanding of ministry. In the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, we discover that the prayer of the church is “the enacting of the priestly role of Jesus Christ” (LG 7). It is primarily the action of Christ, our one high priest. Citing Augustine, the Constitution insists that it is Christ who baptizes, who speaks to us through the word, who offers himself in the bread and wine with and through the praise of the gathered people. Augustine was deeply aware that no minister of the church is referred to as “priest” in the New Testament. This term was reserved for Christ, our great “high priest,” in the Letter to the Hebrews, who through his total gift of self offered once and for all the perfect sacrifice to God (Heb 9:11-28). Our prayer adds nothing to his gift but draws us into the pattern of his self-giving love. The term “priest” is then applied to the whole people of God who form “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9). The prayer of the church is thus understood as the action of the “whole Christ,” head and members of his ecclesial body. The progression of the council’s theology begins from the one priesthood of Christ, and proceeds to consider the vocation of the priestly people. Only then does it consider how the priesthood of the ordained serves the unfolding of the call of the whole people, to which they still belong. The catechism sums it up by saying, “the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians” (CCC 1547).

The council fathers opted to follow the pattern of the scriptures and the early Christian tradition in the language of the council documents by reserving the term “priest” (sacerdos) most often for the actions of Christ and of the whole people of God, while the ordained minister is referred to as “presbyter” (presbyteros), the elder or minister. This distinction, and hence the priority and agency of the priestly people of God, has been lost in translation. Thus, the “Decree on the Life and Ministry of Presbyters,” a reflection on the order of presbyters, is most frequently translated as a decree “on the Life and Ministry of Priests.” This may appear on the surface as a small point, a minor distinction. I would suggest that much more has been lost in translation that we might have realized. Restoring a sound theology of both the common priesthood of the baptized – with all the agency that it implies, and the priesthood of the ordained, will require the corrective a more careful and comprehensive study of these elements of the biblical and early Christian traditions.

Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.