Monday, March 18, 2013

Pope Francis as Reformer and Catholics on the Ground: Distinguishing False Hope from Real

In any theology that makes much sense to me, hope begins with the ground. It begins with the earth. It builds from where we are and who we are--"earth lifted up a little while," in Wendell Berry's masterful phrase--and moves skyward from that humble (humble: rooted in humus) grounding place.

Hope must be grounded.  
Hope must be rooted in the earth, to be real. It must be rooted in reality, in truthful words and meaningful deeds, to be effective.

As I listen, watch, and pray in these days following the resignation of one pope and the election of a new one, I find myself having to issue myself reminders about who I am in the vast scheme of things--and, quite specifically, in the vast Catholic scheme of things. I have to issue these reminders to myself if I want to find grounded hope in the election of a new pope. 

Those reminders begin with the reminder to myself that I'm not much, to be perfectly honest.

And from my not-much vantage point down near the ground, even as I long for hopeful change in my church, I'm already hearing--right in the signs many of my fellow Catholics proclaim to be hopeful signs--strong messages that I should expect to remain where I am for the nonce, even as hope pours through Catholic hearts around the world.

I'm hearing messages that I should expect to remain down near the ground . . . . 

There are many ways to talk about this reality. One of them is to note that, when all is said and done, the Catholic church is (as with other institutions) all about institutional ownership. Some people own. Others do not. Some claim and exercise ownership; others are dispossessed of ownership and have no vested interest in the institution--as the abbot of Belmont Abbey informed Steve and me when we were both booted from his Catholic college in the early 1990s, with no credible explanation for why our theological careers were decisively ended.

"You have no vested interest in this Catholic college," he said, as if stating this fact justified any immoral or draconian action he or other church officials might choose to take to destroy our career as lay Catholic theologians. What he was saying, loudly and clearly, was this: "This church belongs to me and not to you. And I will do with it whatever I want.  
You do not count. And therefore it does not matter what I do to you."

I am hearing echoes of the abbot's fateful words to Steve and me--words announcing the end of our career as Catholic theologians, with no explanation at all for why this was being done to us except "You have no vested interest"--as I hear Catholic centrists rake Eduardo Peñalver over the coals at Commonweal for daring to open his mouth and talk about the story of the dirty war, Argentinian Catholicism, and Bergoglio.

How dare you venture here? one Commonweal regular who persistently represents himself as a reformer of the church asks Peñalver. You keep persisting in wanting to talk he adds--when we've told you not to talk, not to venture here. 

My church. Not yours. I tell you what you may or may not talk about. If you persist in talking about the untalkable, I will simply write you out of my church--while claiming to defend a pope who represents a sign of hope for those of us struggling to retrieve what is best and most authentic about our Catholic traditions!

About our Catholic church which means, in the most fundamental sense at all, Here comes everybody.

And it might well be added, if Joyce's phrase has any real meaning at all in the real world, Here comes everybody talking. Because talking is part of what it means to be human, and telling people not to talk is essentially telling them not to be human.

It's telling them that their own, real-life humanity is not welcome in my church.

So that's one thing that quite seriously doesn't give me hope in the days following the election of Pope Francis: the none-too-subtle and decidedly uncatholic attempt of leading American centrists who welcome Francis's election to shut down all conversation about his former life in Argentina. And the none-too-subtle message that you dare not venture there without being told you simply don't belong to my church--which is the reformed church of Vatican II!

There's not much new in this response. I'm pointing to it because it underscores for me that the very people who have been saying most loudly that they understand and represent the reformed church of Vatican II for years now--the powerful centrist establishment of Catholic journalism and the Catholic academy--continue not to have a clue, even as they battle to present Francis as a sign of reformed hope for their church, while they try to silence those asking questions about what that hope means in the real world.

And so how can the reform they imagine the new pope represents have any real meaning at all, if it has no clue about what catholicism itself means at the most fundamental level possible? If it continues to write out and shut up those who don't make me comfortable in my church? If it's all about reasserting rigid lines of ownership that inform some of us we have no ownership in your church at all? Nothing vested in your church, and how dare we imagine we can venture there?

And then there's this: I notice--how can I not notice this?--that those issuing one defensive response after another as the issue of the dirty war and Pope Francis is discussed is a priest or a religious. The media responses that claim authoritative status and insider knowledge and purport to end all conversation about these matters are coming from people who have a vested interest in their church--which is not my church, by definition, if it's exclusively their church.

And, again, if the hope we all have in Pope Francis is that he's eradicating precisely those walls that separate priests and religious from the people of God in general, how does it represent any hope at all that those who immediately go to bat in the media, suggesting that Francis is being ill used by the conversation re: the dirty war, are priests? And religious? 

At the very least, why aren't these gentlemen of the cloth asking some lay Catholics what they think or know about the dirty war story, as these gentlemen go to bat for Francis?  Why are they so eager to reinforce the very stereotypes about insiders and outsiders that have proven toxic for Catholicism in the post-Vatican II period, in which lay Catholics understood that we were told by Vatican II that the church is ours, too, but in which we've repeatedly been informed by the real insiders who own the church that we were deluded in imagining the church beings to us?

And so, in conclusion, I agree with  Brian Coyne when he writes at the Catholica site, 

The challenge facing our new pope is whether he is going to continue treating the flock in the Western world as "simple people" and "little people" who are incapable of thinking for themselves or if he is going to confer some dignity on them as people capable of developing a Catholic moral conscience and being guided by it independently of any hierarchy sitting on their proverbial shoulders like some guardian angels. It will not be enough simply to run around "dressing down" as some humble carpenter. He needs, we suggest, to become far, far more humble in his "attitude of mind" compared to his immediate predecessors — towards those whom he has been elected to serve.

Wearing new clothes isn't going to change the deep dysfunction in our church. Modeling new behavior may do that. If the new behavior begins with the humility of the ownership class of our church to listen carefully to those they keep dispossessing. The ownership class, as in its clerical and religious elite, and as in the powerful centrist lay commentariat that this elite has vested with a kind of ownership denied to other lay Catholics . . . . 

And I also can't ignore what Robert Parry says about how the same old practice is playing out in the days after the election of Pope Francis, no matter how loudly we're told that hope has arrived and reform is occurring: a practice in which the Vatican tries to bully the people of God and the media into shutting our mouths, while centrist cheerleaders in the academy and Catholic commentariat go right along with the Vatican bullying:

Whenever allegations do arise about the Catholic Church’s hierarchy winking and nodding at the kinds of human rights atrocities that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s, the Vatican PR department lashes out with sternly worded denials. 
That practice is playing out again in the days after the election of Pope Francis I. Rather than a serious and reflective assessment of the actions (and inactions) of Cardinal Bergoglio, Cardinal Obando, Pope John Paul II and other Church leaders during those dark days of torture and murder, the Vatican simply denounces all allegations as “slander,” “calumny” and politically motivated lies.

Hope doesn't deny the ground. Hope is rooted in the earth. Hope builds from the place of humility that never forgets its connections to the dirt from which we're all molded.

Hope that's real has to be grounded in reality.

And the reality I can't escape, it seems, even as I try to listen carefully to the reasons many of my fellow Catholics give me to keep hope alive as a new pope arrives on the scene is this: my Catholic church belongs to some people more than to others.

And I'm among those to whom it decidedly does not belong.

Will Pope Francis change this in any way? If not, then I don't see how the hope his new style of dressing, preaching, and leading the church represents will change my life or the lives of many other dispossessed Catholics very much at all. Not in the place in which we find ourselves down near the ground.

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