And as formal structures of church life appear to be dying in many places around the world, while spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst remain keen among those for whom churches no longer seem capable of feeding that hunger and slaking that thirst, Diana Butler Bass points to tender blades of new life springing up in the cracks of tottering and collapsing church institutions:
Bass notes that these tender blades of new life seldom spring up at the center of churches, in their top governing structures, in the power centers of media and culture where the official interpreters of religious life prefer to live and hold court. They happen on the fringes, in the kind of place in which Jesus grew up, and the kind of lonely, barren place to which he was marched outside the bustling city to die:
Around the edges of organized religion, the exile Christians have heard the questions and are trying to reform, reimagine, and reformulate their churches and traditions. They are birthing a heart-centered Christianity that is both spiritual and religious. They meet in homes, at coffeehouses, in bars--even in some congregations. They are lay and clergy, wise elders and idealistic hipsters. Some teach in colleges and seminaries. They even hold denominational positions. Not a few have been elected as bishops. The questions are rising from the grassroots up--and, in some cases, the questions are reaching a transformational tipping point.
Within the powerful, wealthy Roman Catholic church, with its privileged clerical sector, theologian Leonard Swidler notes the desperation with which Pope Benedict and the privileged hierarchical sector of the church react to calls for reform, a desperation that seems to grow more intense precisely as churches empty out and Catholics go elsewhere to find spiritual sustenance. Swidler tells Pope Benedict, whom he knew personally in the 1970s when both taught together on some occasions at the University of Tübingen,
Now you are publicly rebuking loyal Catholic priests for doing precisely what you earlier had so nobly advocated. They, and many, many others across the universal Catholic Church, are following your youthful example, trying desperately to move our beloved Mother Church further into Modernity. I deliberately use the word “desperately,” for in your own homeland, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, the churches are empty, and also are so many Catholic hearts when they hear the chilling words coming from Rome and the “radically obedient” (read: “yes-men”) bishops. In my own homeland, America, the birthplace of modern freedom, human rights, and democracy, we have lost — in this generation alone! — one third of our Catholic population, 30,000,000, because the Vatican II promises of its five-fold Copernican Turn (the turn toward 1. freedom, 2. this world, 3. a sense of history, 4. internal reform, and above all, 5. dialogue) have all been so deliberately dashed by your predecessor, and now increasingly by you.
At the Iglesia Descalza website, Rebel Girl also notes the stepped-up intensity of the pope's recent attacks on groups of priests calling for reform of the Catholic church. She notes that in his Chrism Mass homily in Holy Week, Benedict took the unusual step of singling out Austrian priests who have called for open dialogue about matters like women's ordination, and that the Vatican has also just silenced Fr. Tony Flannery, founder of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests.
As Rebel Girl notes, the message Benedict has for groups of priests who dare to call for dialogue about matters like women's ordination, pastoral treatment of gay and lesbian Catholics, the role of divorced and remarried Catholics in the church, the celibacy requirement, is this: it's my way or no way at all. You either obey my papal will or you relinquish the right to call yourself an official representative of the Catholic church, and you will endure consequences if you continue to ask questions:
Taking a defensive posture, His Holiness then proceeded to raise and try to theologically shoot down every possible objection to his position, an exercise which may or may not have been persuasive depending on whether one views the current Roman Catholic hierarchy as being more like the apostles or more like the Temple leaders whom Jesus opposed because they had distorted His Father's message, sinking it under a slew of man-made rules.
One could perhaps argue that the desperation, the increasingly draconian reaction to priests and bishops who are merely asking that Vatican II's dialogic understanding of pastoral leadership be honored: one could perhaps argue that these attest to the spiritual power rising up within the questions that priests' conferences in Austria and Ireland and elsewhere are asking. There would be no need for such fierce, punitive reaction, and such a rigid distortion of the gospel, which substitutes obedience for love as the central virtue of the Christian life, if the questions these priests' conferences are asking are not valid ones.
And so the desperation and rigidity and hyped-up demand for obedience all confirm that the Spirit is at work effecting resurrection within and beyond the boundaries of a moribund institution . . . . So it seems to me this Easter Sunday.