Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Great Collapse and Absent Shepherds

Two good articles online today that complement points I’ve made in recent postings. So I want to draw readers’ attention to them.

The first is theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill’s “U.S. Bishops Damaging Rich Catholic Faith Tradition” (

Just as I’ve been noting, Cahill argues that the U.S. Catholic church has a problem on its hands. And, as I do, she identifies that problem as a failure of pastoral leadership on the part of some bishops and prelates, as we approach our national election. To be specific, she notes that the brazen partisanship of some leading bishops (she names Burke, formerly of St. Louis, O’Malley in Boston, and Martino in Scranton) impoverishes the rich tradition of careful theological and ethical reflection that Catholicism at its best brings to the public square. When our pastoral leaders depart from that rich tradition and reduce their moral guidance to a single issue and to dumbed-down slogans derived from that single issue, we end up as “cheerleaders for one political party” and “a rich faith tradition is badly damaged and loses its prophetic voice.”

Cahill begins her argument with the following incisive paragraph:

The Catholic Church has a problem on its hands. Just weeks before the presidential election, a few bishops and prelates have come dangerously close to making implicit political endorsements by telling Catholics that abortion trumps all other moral issues and lashing out against the Democratic Party.

As Cahill notes, the Catholic tradition at its best offers citizens a wide range of values to apply in public life, with full recognition that real-life decisions often involve a clash of values and the need to weigh conflicting values in difficult moral decision-making processes. Cahill situates the importance of religious leaders in their ability to help guide us in those complex moral decision-making processes: “Religious leaders offer an important contribution when they address the values at stake in our political decisions and play a critical role in challenging the narrow ideologies of both parties.”

As Cahill also notes, brazen partisanship deprives us of our ability to critique all parties, all ideologies, all political standpoints. One of the most precious contributions a rich and nuanced theological and ethical tradition brings to public life is its ability to provide critical perspectives on every political platform—not just the platform of the “enemy” party.

Cahill concludes with a call to bona fide pastoral leadership: “Catholic clergy should reaffirm their essential role as moral leaders, and leave partisanship behind.”

I wholeheartedly agree. I also think that the horse is now long out of the barn, and that it is well-nigh impossible for the bishops—as a body of leaders—to retrieve their reputation as trustworthy shepherds. What we are seeing play out in this election is the terminus of a long process of dissolution that has included shocking revelations about the abdication of good pastoral leadership by the large majority of American bishops in the crisis of clerical sexual abuse.

The fact that the bishops still don’t get it, that they still believe their voice should count when it comes to bullying Catholic voters, and, above all, that many of them—and, as a collective body, the entire pastoral leadership structure of the U.S. Catholic church—still want to give the impression that only one party has their blessing, means that, in a cultural shift of epic proportions, the bishops have forfeited their right to offer moral guidance.

And that should never happen to shepherds—not if they want to claim the right to be called good shepherds.

On that cultural shift of epic proportions, I recommend Steven C. Brant’s “When It All Falls Down” (

Brant proposes, “I believe we are living through the Great Collapse.”

To be specific, Brant believes that the Great Collapse involves three major cultural shifts that mark the end of the road for the worldview that has dominated American culture and American political life for some decades now:

The collapse of free market capitalism. The collapse of the doctrine of warfare between nations as an acceptable foreign policy tool. And the collapse of "every man for himself" /" having power over others is the way to live" political values.

Brant notes (and I believe he’s utterly correct in this analysis) that much of the sound and fury we witness now at political rallies has everything to do with the sense of citizens that a monumental cultural change is underway—and that we don’t want that change, those of us who have been heavily invested in the worldview now falling into the abyss.

Whereas some of us see great promise in what we believe one of the candidates stands for, others see the ascendancy of the same candidate in apocalyptic terms as the end of the days:

You see, if Barack Obama ushers in a "new American Century" based on such great American principles as "All people are created equal" and that we are really the "United States" not the divided states... coupled with such religious beliefs as "Love thy neighbor," this will -- literally -- be the "end of days" for people who believe in hate, divisiveness, and domination.

Brant concludes that we really have no choice except to try a new path, since we’ve entered into economic difficulties that absolutely demand a new vision of our cultural and political life, and our collaborative best efforts: “Given that we may be about to enter the Great Depression of the 21st Century, we're really going to need to all pull together... otherwise our nation (and the world) may really all fall down.”

This is what I was getting at two days ago when I spoke of the cultural shift for which the U.S. bishops have failed to prepare American Catholics. In my view, though this election—and Mr. Obama in particular—have come to represent a kind of shorthand of that process, it’s a much larger process than any political party or person encapsulates. And it will be there even if Obama loses the election.

It’s a cultural process that is about the definitive demise of a way of doing business as a culture, because that way of doing business has brought us to a dead end. And it has brought us to a dead end even as key Christian leaders have told us that we should not only trust those who have brought us here, but that those who led us to the dead end were anointed by God to lead us! (So the process has brought those Christian pastoral leaders and any of us who trusted their pastoral leadership to a similar dead end: things have to change, if we expect to continue doing religious business).

We cannot continue doing business as usual and live on this planet any longer. It’s that simple, and that stark. Our greed, our deification of brutal individualism, our glorification of the valueless strong man (or the valueless strong woman who emulates him), have upset the ecological balance of the planet. And we are paying a high price, and will pay an even higher price in coming years. The cycles of unprecedented storms, both hurricanes and tornadoes, that have now become routine in our global weather patterns, the undeniable warming of our climate, the melting of the ice caps, the demise of entire species: there is no turning back now.

There is an ahead, though. At least, there has to be an ahead, if we want to continue on in some way, in any way at all. And that future will open to us only if we decisively turn from those key “values” (free market individualism, warfare as an acceptable solution to human problems, a philosophy that makes domination of others acceptable and even admirable) that have gotten us here, and find some other ways to do business.

Note that I’m not saying there is only one way to do business in the future. Nor am I suggesting that the only way to do business is Mr. Obama’s way. I agree with Lisa Sowle Cahill’s analysis: I think that placing our entire faith in any one party and any one leader to get us out of our current mess is fatuous, not to mention unfair to whoever is elected to lead us.

If the Catholic tradition of theology and ethical analysis is anything (when it functions at its best) it is anti-utopian. People who have lived long—a tradition that has been around for millennia—have seen it all. When these people or traditions take advantage of their long perspective backwards, they recognize that viable paths into a good future are seldom bright utopian paths. They take hard work, collaboration, careful reflection. They take a willingness for people of good will to try to solve problems that beleaguer us all, beyond faith barriers, political or national dividing lines, or distinctions of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation.

I have learned not to be utopian the hard way. I have worked for leaders that seemed in my view to have every bit as much promise as Mr. Obama seems to have. They were bright, articulate, and what is more (or what meant more to me), they knew how to use words like “empowerment” and “inclusion” in a way that warmed my heart.

And, ultimately, they broke my heart. When push came to shove, they turned out not to be about empowerment and inclusion at all, but about me-first individualism and power over others and greed to claim the highest salary possible while keeping the salaries of underlings frozen. One of these leaders went in a very short period of time from rhetorical endorsement of empowerment and inclusion to presenting those she led with a chart of the structure of her organization, in which she was at the top of a pyramid and the rest of us formed its base. She informed us that we were not a democracy—just as the Catholic bishops like to do when what they really mean is that they want to keep the church monarchial, because that configuration allows them privileges denied to everyone else.

My argument is, then, that we are undergoing a cultural shift of epic significance regardless of who is running for president or who will be elected. We are there, and we cannot jnow do anything other than choose some new path into the wilderness that lies ahead.

And I am also arguing that the American Catholic bishops have been singularly unwise—indeed, they have been dreadfully bad shepherds of their flock—in not preparing us for this juncture. Placing all of our hopes on one political party, on one pastoral strategy, on our ability to manage (and manipulate) a single moral issue, has been unwise in the extreme. Teaching us to sloganize and not to think has left us totally unprepared to deal with a world in which simplistic slogans (e.g., "Life begins at conception") just don't provide the answers we need.

These pastoral strategies have not prepared us to recognize that a day would come when we would have to make new choices. They have left us unequipped even to talk to a culture in change, since we have not been educated to engage in dialogue. We’ve been encouraged to shout—insults, slogans, threats: baby killer! Commie faggot!

At this critical moment when we have most reason to look to the shepherds to guide the flock, they have nothing left to say to us. And that is a strange and ironic tragedy, when those who are now left speechless as we most need to hear their voices purport to speak on behalf of a rich, complex, multivalent, nuanced tradition full of words and full of ideas. Not to mention, full of wise and hopeful voices.