Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Droppings from the Catholic Birdcage: "These Heavy-Handed Decisions Touch Hundreds, Even Thousands of the Faithful"

In a just-published essay, Robert McClory notes how much things have changed in a half year, in the way in which many American Catholics respond to Pope Francis. A half year ago, people were cheering. 

Now, well, there's the renewed attack of the Vatican on American nuns, the punishing of elderly Franciscan priest Fr. Jerry Zawada for celebrating liturgy with a woman priest, the removal of Fr. James Radloff from ministry in Oregon with no explanation given, the punishment of 81-year-old deacon Norman Carroll in Florida for telling someone that he thinks ordination of women is possible, the firing of Catholic school vice-principal Mark Zmuda in Seattle for marrying his partner, and now the punishment of ecumenical theologian Fr. Michael Amadloss.

As does Rebel Girl at the Iglesia Descalza blog in a posting I highlighted yesterday, McClory thinks that the entire church plays a high price for what he calls a "sudden outburst of hierarchical moves to parade power and retake the high ground." He writes,

These heavy-handed decisions touch hundreds, even thousands of the faithful. The 2,000 Catholic school teachers in Cincinnati will soon be required to sign a new, detailed contract that requires, among other things, that they will not marry outside the church or support those who do, that they will not practice or support a homosexual lifestyle, that they will not use or support in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination, and that they will not hold public membership in organizations whose "mission and message are incompatible with Catholic doctrine." Among the many affected teachers who have spoken out, Molly Shumate challenged the restrictions on her private life, especially her freedom to publicly support her 22-year-old gay son. A similar restrictive contract is being imposed in Oakland, Calif., where 18 percent of the Catholic school teachers are not Catholic.

McClory concludes that if Francis's intent is really to have the whole church move steadily towards real collegiality and dialogue, he had better quickly address the . . . confusion . . . many Catholics feel as they listen to the wonderful words about collegiality and dialogue, and then look with their own eyes at what's actually playing out in front of them in their church.

Michael Sean Winters disagrees. For him, when the pope speaks, the pope speaks, and unity! Winters writes,

I actually do believe we Catholics are bound to "submit" to a proposition that is taught on the authority of the Church, even when it forces us to change our minds, and can give a recent example. I had grave reservations about the canonizations of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. But, my reservations were overcome by the decision of the Church.


I know too that without authority, the unity of the Church would collapse in a matter of years, perhaps months. (And, lest we forget, the Master called us to unity explicitly.)  

All of which makes perfect sense if the unity that is supposed to be a hallmark of the Spirit's presence in the Christian community is about authoritative men hurling authoritative words down from the top of a pyramid, and binding all of the rest of us through those words. But that jejune, lifeless understanding of what the church is all about is contradicted by Jesus's own words in the gospels, which clearly indicate that the unity that is supposed to mark the Christian community and signal the Spirit's presence there is to be found in love, in the love of Christians one for another.

And far from setting up a pyramidal structure in which a powerful man at the top hurls authoritative words down at the rest of us, Jesus speaks of pastoral ministry as service, as self-emptying, as seeking out the least among us. And he models for us that way of being a shepherd of the sheep as he takes a basin of water and a towel and washes our feet.

Winters says that his formulation of what it means to be a good Catholic is "not to say that we should simply become unquestioning sheep." But that's precisely what his formulation of Catholic identity does mean, with those martial verbs "submit" and "force" hammering away at us the prerogatives of "authority," and with its conflation of authority with "the decision of the Church." 

The church? Really? This formula of what it means to be Catholic is little different from any formula of what it means to be a good citizen of the Reich offered to citizens of Germany during the Nazi period.

I fail to see how any kind of effective renewal of a dying church can come from such intellectually and morally impoverished understandings of what it means to be a faithful and good Catholic — and from any kind of pastoral leadership that shores up such formulations.

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