Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Letter to Pope Benedict, After World Youth Day (#2)

Dear Brother Benedict,

Me again.

As I said yesterday, I am one small voice among millions to which you are obliged to listen as shepherd of a worldwide flock. I should also note that I am a failed theologian—one whose voice has been deliberately excluded by structures that you helped set into place in the church following Vatican II.

For that reason, you may simply choose not to listen to me. Those sitting in places of power do often choose to ignore the powerless. What can we do to change things, after all, given our lack of power?: this is what dispossession is—the relegation of people to social locations in which they become objects, rather than subjects, of those who seek to control the unfolding of history.

Even so, I choose to continue speak out, doing so from where I have been placed, while knowing full well how unlikely it is that my voice will reach the halls of power in which you and your brother bishops move. I am emboldened to speak because there are many others in the shadows with me, who, I have become convinced, deserve to be heard.

I know many of these shadow people. They are good people. They have not merited the place of nothingness to which they have been relegated. They have good gifts, abundant ones, to offer church and society—to the communities that exclude them.

If I have been given any gift at all, it is perhaps the gift to listen and record what I hear. If my letter reaches you, please keep in mind that I speak not only for myself—I truly do not count—but for many good people I encounter in the shadow world to which the church has consigned me.

And perhaps in the final analysis, since we believe that rocks can shout the praises of God, even the voices of those in the shadows have something of importance to say to the leaders of the church today. After all, decisions that you and others who wield tremendous power make daily affect us—even more than you may realize. It seems only just that the voices of those affected by decisions made by the powermakers of the world have a hearing, an opportunity to articulate how the decisions of the powerful affect our lives.

Yesterday, I noted that, from where I have been placed, it seems more and more apparent that the future of the church is being mortgaged to the system of clericalism. I do not know how to state this more plainly: the leaders of our church (and of other churches) are staking the very future of the church on the maintenance of a system of governance that is not essential to the constitution of the church. And that system incorporates a sexist bias, such that the decision to keep it alive is also a decision to hinge the future of the church on the domination of persons of one gender by those of another gender.

In the process, from where I have been placed, it seems increasingly obvious that the future of the church—including its ability to negotiate the difficult passage of postmodernity as the 21st century begins—is being placed in peril, and that it is being placed in peril precisely to maintain an ecclesial polity that has developed over time, has changed in the past, and can be changed now, if this system no longer serves the needs of the church well.

In today’s letter, I would like to reflect further on this theme.

You were at the second Vatican council. I do not need to tell you what happened there. It would be presumptuous for me to do so. You played a leading role, in fact, in convincing the fathers gathered in that ecumenical council to revive the ancient biblical and patristic ecclesiology of the people of God.

As you well know, the central thrust of Vatican II was to recover an ecclesiology that predates that of the reactionary post-Reformation church, with its heavy emphasis on those who rule and those who are ruled—the church as perfect society, to use Cardinal Bellarmine’s phrase, which is perfect precisely because it comprises a monarch and those the monarch rules.

Vatican II sought to retrieve a more ancient ecclesiology, the biblical and patristic ecclesiology of the church as the pilgrim people of God. I am confident that you yourself value this ecclesiology, since you love the theology of St. Augustine, as I do, and Augustine’s view of the church is deeply imbued with the image of the pilgrim people of God seeking the reign of God at the end of history.

I wonder, Brother Benedict, if you shared the hope so many of us in the church had, when Vatican II reframed our understanding of the church in a way that emphasized how the Spirit dwells in all of us, from top to bottom of the church. I imagine that you felt the same Spirit-inspired excitement many of us felt when Vatican II reminded us that the church is a sacramental sign of God’s salvific presence in a world in which God is active always and everywhere to call the entire cosmos to salvation.

This ecclesiology allowed us to break out of the defensive, world-combating ghetto in which we had placed ourselves following the Reformation and in the difficult period in which modernity seemed to be a concerted attack on religious belief. By retrieving the image of the church as the pilgrim people of God, we were able to realign the church in its relationship to the world, so that the church could once again participate fruitfully in discussions in the public square, offering its gifts without trying to coerce society to adopt one particular religious position. We were able to realign the church to permit it to benefit from the movement of the Spirit in the culture at large.

But then something happened. The hope vanished. Things have become very sour in recent decades. In fact, they became sour quickly, as it became apparent to those ruling the church that the realignment implied by Vatican II’s ecclesiology would inevitably touch on what many clerics wished to see as untouchable: the clerical system itself.

From where I stand, it seems as if the entire enterprise of Vatican II was simply shut down. And—please forgive me for noting this—it also seems as if you yourself played a key role in the process of shutting that process down. In fact, in key respects, Brother Benedict, in the office you occupied before your election to the papacy, you worked very hard to “restore” a church that had presumably been eroded and fragmented by the very ecumenical council you had previously supported!

I am certainly not wise enough to understand all the reasons for the retrenchment that has gone on from the pontificate of your predecessor up to your own pontificate. What I can see clearly, however—again, from the shadows to which I have been relegated—is that the neuralgic issue in this retrenchment is the clerical system. As long as the ecclesiology of Vatican II represented a frothy new approach to church and world that changed nothing in any essential way within the governing structures of the church, the council was tolerated.

The moment that the new ecclesiology pointed to a renegotiation of the clerical system itself—of the power and privilege attendant on clerical status—the project of Vatican II ground immediately to a halt. Then, we were told that Vatican II had been a utopian dream, a moment of awkward fantasy in which people suddenly went wild with bizarre experiments designed to reshape the church. We were told that the pendulum had swung so wildly in the direction of change that we had lost all contact with “the” tradition—and that we needed a reassertion of the magisterium, even a theology of creeping infallibilism that sought to make almost any utterance of the Holy Father sacrosanct.

We are now being told by Vatican spokespersons that to ask if you wear Prada slippers, Brother Benedict, is blasphemous. As if the pope has now become divine.

As a theologian, this must strike you as very anti-traditional, this divinization of the pope. As a theologian, you must wonder about the use of the term “blasphemy”—a term applied exclusively to slighting statements about God—to refer to valid critiques of the papacy. As a theologian, I am sure you are alarmed, as I am, at the idolatry implicit in this spurious use of the term “blasphemy” to deflect questions about the pope’s attire, in an age in which you yourself have made constant changing of liturgical and ecclesiastical garb a central preoccupation of the church’s rulers.

And, if I may be so bold, does it not seem significant to you, Brother Benedict, that the rituals and symbols—including clerical fashions—being retrieved today all just happen to center on the clerical role? Does it not seem strangely significant that all the fashions we are retrieving—the higher and higher miter, the longer and longer cappa magna train—are all, in some ways, assertions of clerical power and privilege? Whose miter stands higher than anyone else’s? Who has the bigger cappa magna train?

In the retrieval of “the” tradition going on in recent years, it seems to many of us in the shadows that what is being retrieved is rather strangely centered on the traditional claim of the cleric to have higher status in the church, the right to rule others, the prerogative to mediate salvation to the rest of us. Those of us in the shadows find ourselves perplexed as we watch enervating battles around issues of power and control in which those fighting the battles claim that they are preserving the tradition, when it seems that what they are really preserving is the power and privilege of the clerical state. To many of us watching from the shadows, it seems that so many of the skirmishes mounted from the center of the church in recent years have been about phallic power—whose is bigger, taller, better, and who is therefore entitled to rule. It seems to many of us that these battles are being fought for a sole purpose: to enable clerics to continue equatting the church with themselves.

The purported battle over Catholic identity in American Catholic universities, for instance, has seemed to many of us to be far more about questions of who owns theology (and moral theology, in particular), than about Catholic identity. The claim that Catholic identity is waning goes hand in hand with the sociological phenomenon of waning clerical (and religious) presence in the faculties and governing sectors of Catholic universities.

It is clearly not Catholic identity that has waned after Vatican II. It is the controlling clerical presence in Catholic institutions that is waning. And the future of the church is being sacrificed to the myth that the church will stand only if the clerical system is preserved and reasserted at all cost—even, it seems, at the cost of extinguishing the Spirit among the faithful called to serve the church in manifold ways through the gifts the Spirit chooses to give them.

The upshot is dismal. Those attacking Vatican II have talked long and hard about the decline in Catholic identity and catechetical knowledge among Catholics in the global North. But have you read, Brother Benedict, any of the insipid, banal, ultimately inaccurate catechetical treatises that are now being permitted to represent themselves as authentic presentations of the Catholic faith? If you do so, as a theologian or even an educated believer, I submit to you that you may be shocked: these presentations, which are circulated everywhere, in my country, at least, in no way represent the authentic Catholic tradition in all its complexity and vibrancy. They debase our faith, make it a matter of questions and answers that do not engage mind and heart in any profound way at all.

For those of us watching from the shadows, it seems that the more the church proclaims its return to the authentic tradition—the longer the cappa magna trains grow, the higher the miters become—the more the church becomes irrelevant. We see a church gradually folding in on itself and resuming the defensive posture of the post-Reformation period, acting as if the world is evil and dark and to be combated—as if the Spirit is not active in all of creation, in other world religions and other Christian churches.

It would be wrong of me to place the blame for this abdication of the project of Vatican II entirely at the feet of church leaders. Theologians—my brothers and sisters in the academy—also bear a strong responsibility for all that has taken place in recent years. We, too, have allowed this to happen, curbing our tongues and preferring our own job security rather than speaking forthrightly. Far too few of us have been willing to pay the price our vocation demands of us—a vocation that by its very nature calls on us to reflect critically on scripture and tradition in light of the contemporary moment, and to say what must be said, no matter how inconvenient the truth may be for us to tell it.

Above all, too few of us who are called to serve the church as theologians have been willing to make active solidarity with those who we can plainly see are the victims, the human fallout, of the restoration process. As the church bashes women and seeks to return them to their premodern roles, as it denies women the right to share in clerical power and privilege, as it cruelly turns its back on its gay and lesbian children, many of us who are called to serve the church as theologians are simply silent. We have facilitated the injustices of the false restorationist moment, even when we knew better. And we deserve to be judged harshly by future historians for doing so.

To make my point as clear as possible, Brother Benedict: is the return to the cappa magna and all that the long train entails symbolically really the future of the church? Is it the best future we can imagine? Is it the best future God is capable of setting before us? Is what the restorationist movement has now become—longer cappa magnas, higher miters, absurd "Catholic Answers" facilitating psychological, spiritual, and religious infantilism among the people of God—really what will enable us to bring the gospel message to the culture of postmodernity?

The distinguished gentleman pictured above with a fabulously long cappa magna (he's facing the altar with his back to the people of God; it would be impossible to display the long red cape otherwise) is Archbishop Burke.

You have just given the distinguished gentleman in the long scarlet cape a distinguished position in Rome. Since I live in a diocese geographically close to the one over which he formerly presided, I have watched this cleric in action for some time.

In all humility, but with plain honesty, I must say that I am troubled by your decision to reward this particular distinguished gentleman of the long cape, Brother Benedict. As the pastoral leader of St. Louis, Archbishop Burke seemed to many of us who live in the shadows to have anything but pastoral concern for his flock foremost in mind.

As a pastor, Archbishop Burke has often seemed, in fact, like a trigger-happy deputy sheriff with a gun, shooting wildly at every target that seemed the least bit threatening in his saloon.

When a pastoral leader behaves that way, is it wise to reward him by elevating him to the position of high sheriff and giving him a long rifle (to match his long train,) so that he can shoot even more wildly?

If the future of our church depends on rewarding such behavior, and on pretending that the person wearing the ever more imposing outfit is admirable simply because the outfit is stunning, will that future be bright, I wonder?


colkoch said...

Bill, these last two pieces of yours are some of your best. It's interesting that once again we have taken on the same topic from two different perspectives.

By the way, the photo of Burke is a perfect illustration for the new clerical boys and their toys.

Maybe Mattel can market a Papal Ken doll. Imagine the line of clothes they can come up with for that doll. Endless and endlessly expensive.

Poor Barbie, the line of clerical robes for her would be somewhat limited and far less expensive, and certainly there would be no more corvette. Maybe an old VW. Nah, Matell would never do the Barbie version---no money in it.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, a day spent catching up after travel, so I'm only now seeing this. You make me smile! I fear that Fr. Ken's clothes might cost a bundle, given the sartorial trend in the church today.

And, sadly, you're right about Fr. Barb and the lack of interest in clothes for her. After all, it's genitalia that ultimately determine whether a person can be an image of Christ to the Christian community, isn't it?

If the church has its way, Matell should stick with aprons and house dresses for Barbie....

Fortunately, the church doesn't always have its way, not when that way is a way of trying to shut down the winds of the Spirit.

Am eager to see your blog for the past several days.