Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Vacant Ghetto: Blunt Thoughts about Catholic Religious Life Today

Well, I have whiled away this day, and have little to say for myself. It’ll be one of those many days for which I’ll have to answer shamefaced to the Lord when I’m asked what I did with the precious time allotted me. I’ve never felt at ease with Walt Whitman's and Herman Melville’s ability to loaf—or Thoreau’s, for that matter, though I can identify with him in ways that I can’t with either Whitman or Melville. Too much Puritanism in my roots to be happy with idleness. And yet, when else does one really begin to settle towards one’s soul?

I did begin a posting earlier today, building on the final statement of yesterday’s posting, about how the Phelps crew acts out impulses and the inmost beliefs of mainstream churches in the U.S., at the same time that the churches of Main Street USA deplore the extremity of the Westboro Baptist bunch. I’m not quite sure why I am yet unable to finish this posting. I think that the barrier is somehow a lack of confidence in my voice, in all that I need to say in this posting: in my ability to say as much as I need to say, if I am to do justice to the subject and to be honest to my insights.

Meanwhile, I spent part of the day looking at websites for various Catholic religious communities, some of them in Arkansas. I don’t know what prompted that search, but once I was on the path, I found it fascinating.

There’s always the tug of the spiritual life—so strong—within my life, and at the same time, such a repulsion at the sickening sweetness of much of the piety underlying contemporary religious life in the Catholic church. The pretend spirituality.

I have thought for a very long time that Catholic religious communities, both female and male, don’t think enough about why people no longer want to enter the religious life. It has nothing to do with secularism or the loss of faith among post-Vatican II Catholics.

It has everything to do with the search for an authentic spirituality, an authentic religiosity, and the recognition that these are seldom to be found in religious life as it has come to be lived in the Catholic church today. I am not saying that religious have abandoned their ideals or betrayed their charisms.

What I am saying is that so much religious life is lived on the surface, and it is not hard for spiritual seekers to see this. There was a time in which religious life attracted genuine seekers, who wanted to fathom the depths of the spiritual (and intellectual) life. That time is past. Religious life in the Catholic church today has an appallingly anti-intellectual cast. To be brutally frank, it does not attract the best and brightest. It has become a ghetto existence, one willingly enmeshed in the clerical structures of power and domination (and, yes, women religious are so enmeshed, and willing to remain there, no matter how they chafe at the bit) that are so spectacularly impeding the church’s mission in the postmodern period.

I know many wonderful religious, both men and women. But they are wonderful because they live against the grain of their own communities’ life. And they are soundly punished for doing so.

It is too easy for religious today to live in perfect obedience, perfect tranquility, within the ghetto—while betraying the fundamental virtues of authentic religious life. It is too easy for religious today to collude in the churches’ ugly treatment of gay brothers and sisters, while talking an oily game about love, compassion, and inclusion.

And the gap between the message proclaimed and the message lived is not lost on those who might otherwise be attracted to religious life. Nor is the glaring hypocrisy of this gap, given the large numbers of nuns, brothers, and priests who are gay but willing to deny their gay brothers and sisters in order to continue claiming a comfortable place within a church that is increasingly anti-gospel, when it comes to its gay and lesbian members.


Nate Phelps said...

I'm compelled to comment on your post. Part of me is incredulous that you would cling to any notion of decency within religion or the religious in light of their dogmatic denial of the humanity of gays. Part of me is compelled to understand what that force is in you that draws you to the notion of a god.

I grew up with Fred Phelps. I spent over 40 years of my life searching desperately, both within and without, for that thing I think we call spirituality. In the end, I'm left with nothing but disdain for all things religious. I despise the rampant hypocrisy of organized religion. I rage within at the willful cruelty in the name of a god. Yet, there is an aspect of me that yearns for something better after all this.

In the end the only honest answer I can give is that I believe religion and god to be man made. Any notion of a "spirituality" in us is simply a hyper-sensitivity to those emotions and actions that show kindness toward others.

By that definition, we all can be spiritual without ever mentioning another passage out of any holy book.

This comment may be a bit off topic, it's just what occurred to me after reading your blog.

Best wishes,

Nate Phelps

William D. Lindsey said...

Nate, I value your response very much. I think you may have intended to reply to my 20 August post about Fred Phelps?

I assure you that I take your reflections very seriously, since you have been affected by the actions of Westboro far more directly than I have.

I share your struggle. Like you, I rage at and despise the cruelty of organized religion.

But like you, I find that "there is an aspect of me that yearns for something better after all this."

And I suppose that's the one thing that keeps me from chucking it all, even when I have accepted my place outside the church doors--the place in which the church itself puts me and my brothers and sisters.

I'm grateful to you for reading this blog, and for sharing your thoughts. I hope you'll continue to feel free to share.