Thursday, May 14, 2020

Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols Calls for Catholic Churches to Be Allowed to Reopen Before Others: My Reflections

Harriet Sherwood reports in the London paper The Guardian today that the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, is calling on the British government to open Catholic churches before other worship places re-open, because Catholics have special needs that other religious communities do not have. Sherwood's report is entitled "Catholic churches 'should be allowed to reopen before others.'"

She states that Nichols is advocating for Catholic churches to re-open for private prayer and is advancing the argument that Catholics do religion differently than other Christians do, or than non-Christian religious groups do, and this should be taken into consideration as plans are made to re-open places of worship. She quotes the cardinal:

A personal, individual prayer in a Catholic church is not something that is much done in Pentecostal churches which tend to concentrate on big gatherings. It's not what's done in mosques, where people pray side by side. So we need a bit of differentiated thinking.

Nichols also states that Catholic churches could (and should) re-open to permit people to go into them and pray privately, practicing social distance, and with someone assuring that churches are kept clean and sanitized after the faithful use them for such religious purposes. 

Nichols grants that many Catholics have been resorting to televised Masses during the time of social isolation, but he thinks that for Catholics, the inability to receive communion has been a "fast." Sherwood quotes Nichols to say, 

But every single one of them wants to receive holy communion. It's a fast for us, quite a painful fast – and that's true for other faith. There's a great deal of deep spiritual sacrifice being made.

My reflections on this proposal as reported by Sherwood:

1. It's not quite accurate to say that this period of social distancing has been a fast "for us" Catholics, is it? To the best of my knowledge, all ordained members of the church have definitely not been fasting from the eucharist during these days.

Only lay Catholics have been doing so. They get to watch priests consume the eucharist (presumably on their behalf: Hungry? Let me eat for you. Watch me eat) as they sit and passively "participate" in televised Masses.

If we're not honest about these basic facts, then any argument we create built on these facts is a weak one.

2. What about having Catholic churches physically open for people to visit and pray is absolutely essential for the practice of Catholic faith — when rich spiritual resources in the Catholic tradition reassure all Catholics that they can encounter the presence of God everywhere in the world, and can pray in the intimate context of their own households and families? 

I surely recognize that there's a longstanding Catholic tradition of visiting churches to pray in the presence of the consecrated hosts reserved in the tabernacle (hosts consecrated, it goes without saying, only by ordained clergy). At the same time, I wonder why Catholic leaders are choosing to bear down on that one aspect of the tradition right now as the defining mark of authentic Catholic faith, when there are also rich, longstanding traditions encouraging the faithful to practice finding the presence of God everywhere in the world and everywhere in their lives.

Why are Catholic leaders — that is, the clerics who tell us that we "all" have been fasting from the eucharist — bearing down so hard on only one discrete aspect of the tradition while totally ignoring all those other aspects, which you'd think a well-grounded response to this critically important historical moment would require?

What has made the Catholic imagination so stunted following Vatican II, which emphasized that the Spirit indwells all people of God (and non-Catholic Christian churches and the religions of the world)? How have we reached such a dead-end point, at which it seems always essential for the clerical leaders of the church to keep pointing to themselves as the glue that holds the entire church together, as the most essential thing the Catholic tradition has to offer the world?

3. Isn't a proposal to shove ourselves to the front of the line in a period in which everyone is suffering more than a little embarrassing — more than a little downright tacky? We Catholics have special needs; let us go first.

How will that proposal sound to other non-Catholic Christian ears, one wonders? How will it sound to the religious ears of adherents of other non-Christian religions?

When it's imperative that we see that we are all in this together, why is such a significant part of the Catholic world today — and notably its clerical ruling class — pushing in precisely the opposite direction, giving such shockingly shoddy witness to the world of the Catholic value of helping to lift up and safeguard everyone?

I think it's unavoidable for us — and I surely do mean all of us — to think about how the deep clericalism on which Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and, yes, Francis doubled down following Vatican II results in a deeply impoverished Catholic imagination, in which it's not about all of us, but only about a few of us.

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