Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Wandering in the Wilderness: American Catholic Leadership and the Presidential Election

I talked Saturday about the decision of the Church of the Two Kevins to shove from its table many Catholics whose consciences impel them to judgments different from those the Two Kevins define as the only thinkable Catholic political positions. Today, I’d like to explore the theme of pastoral leadership in the Catholic church in the moment of significant cultural transition through which we’re living.

In particular, I want to explain why I told the U.S. bishops in my open letter last week, “If you will permit my saying so, your pastoral strategies in recent decades seem to me to have failed.” And I’d like to talk about what I meant when I said, re: the overtly political joint pastoral letter the bishops of Dallas-Ft. Worth released last week, “Ultimately, I am repulsed most of all because they are willingly informing a large number of good, conscientious Catholic voters that we are not welcome in the Church of the Two Kevins.”

I don’t know how to put my fundamental point more plainly than this: for several decades now, the pastoral leaders of the American Catholic church have been leading their flock down a path of no return. In doing so, they have failed miserably as pastoral leaders.

In saying this, I do not want to pass blanket judgment on all bishops. There have been some conspicuous exceptions among the bishops, though these good shepherds have stood out precisely because they have cried out in a wilderness created by the failed leadership of the majority of their brothers. And they have often incurred severe penalties for doing so.

When I say that the pastoral strategy of the American Catholic bishops over several decades has been a miserable failure, I am speaking of the bishops as a collective body, as a group of leaders to whom Catholics and the public at large look for guidance about moral issues and political judgments. As a collective group, as a national bishops’ conference to which people turn to hear the official voice of Catholicism, the U.S. bishops have failed to provide good pastoral leadership to Catholics. And not only Catholics, but the nation as a whole, is paying a high price for that failure.

Ultimately, the bishops’ failure to be good shepherds is most evident in their heartless willingness, as a body, to drive from their midst so many good, faithful Catholics whose conscience leads them in directions the bishops have declared anathema. Good shepherds guard the flock. They do not drive sheep into the wilderness.

For a number of decades now, the U.S. bishops have willingly—and, one cannot fail to conclude, callously—forced many of their flock into the desert and left them there to fend for themselves. This is a failure of pastoral leadership at the most fundamental level possible.

Shepherds exist to safeguard sheep. Good shepherds tend to the needs of the flock. A good shepherd laments the loss of even one member of the flock. Faithful shepherds find the loss of multitudes of sheep unthinkable. Shepherds who are committed to their charge would do anything possible to retrieve those sheep, to bind up their wounds, to enclose them in the protection of the sheepfold.

The glaring, fundamental failure of the American Catholic bishops—as a body of bishops—to be faithful shepherds at this point in history has been made more critically apparent than ever in the political campaign now underway in the U.S. The current U.S. elections are a watershed moment for the Catholic church, as well as for the pastoral leaders of the church. Even if Barack Obama does not win the presidency, what has happened in this election cycle—in particular, the response of the bishops to the political choices now facing the nation—points to systemic problems in the leadership of the Catholic church so deep, and unmet needs for pastoral leadership so glaring, that the church has no choice except to face the questions this election season has raised, if it hopes to have a viable future in this new millennium.

Here is the unenviable position in which the failed leadership of the U.S. bishops has placed the American Catholic church: we are known now as a people who stand against. We are not known as a people with a compelling vision of the common good, with a commitment to collaborating in building a pluralistic society undergirded by a vision of the common good shared by people of good will from many philosophical and religious backgrounds.

To the American public as well as to most Catholics, the Catholic vision of American culture and American political life is increasingly defined by what we oppose, rather than what we value. Catholics are against: Catholics stand against abortion, stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage. And “good” Catholics vote on the basis of these stand-against issues—the “non-negotiable” issues that trump all others in which Catholic values are at stake.

We have not arrived at this point by accident. It has taken time to get us here. As pastoral leaders, as a collective body articulating the core values of American Catholics, the American bishops have had everything to do with getting us here. The U.S. bishops have worked hard to define us as a stand-against people, as a people whose core values run counter to those of mainstream culture.

We no longer even speak of our non-Catholic fellow citizens as people of good will. That Vatican II phrase now appears so quaint, in light of the intransigent countercultural stance of contemporary American Catholicism centered on a handful of “non-negotiable” issues, that it seems to have fallen from another world. We have retreated, closed ranks, shut down dialogue—and with a vengeance, all under the deliberate leadership of our bishops. In the process, we have come to view many our fellow citizens not as fellow collaborators in building a society energized by a shared vision of the common good, but as people living in darkness who do not have the light we ourselves have.

In becoming what we now like to call countercultural (but we surely are not countercultural in key respects, are we—economically, for instance?), we have deliberately placed ourselves on the stand-against margins, on the sidelines looking on. We have flirted (and more than flirted) with the idea of becoming a cult, a small body of purists bound together by adamant doctrine, hidebound moral positions, and the draconian discipline any cult needs to hold itself together in the face of a mainstream society it wants to send to hell. And, as this movement towards self-chosen cultish status has taken place, the bishops—as a collective body—not only appear unperturbed, but have actually worked to move the U.S. church to this unenviable position with its anti-catholic theological implication that God saves only the few.

We are now paying the price of those who choose cultish status. When a group defines itself by what it stands against rather than for, it forfeits its claim to be an agent of effective social change in a society that values pluralism. In a society marked by rapid change of all sorts, the viability of any social group depends to a great extent on the ability of that group to negotiate change—to formulate a sense of mission that addresses change forthrightly, in a way that communicates the core values of the group to other groups also coping with change. Mission holds a group together, allows it to clarify its key values both for itself and others, and enables it to deal effectively with change in an interactive process that keeps the group alive and cohesive under conditions of change, while permitting the group to participate in shaping the process of change through recourse to its core values.

To a great extent, the stand-against mentality the U.S. bishops have inculcated in the American Catholic church abrogates the mission of the church. It foreshortens the church’s mission, turns it into something childishly simple. Rather than communicating the authentically catholic vision of church and culture, in which church and culture interact in a complex dialogic process, we now communicate that the Catholic way is simply to say no. And to keep saying no. To draw a line in the sand and shout no as long and as loudly as possible, in the hope that someone from the mainstream will eventually take notice of the fuss we’ve been making and will do something about what concerns us.

This is not an effective way of being in the world, in a pluralistic society. It is not a catholic way of doing business. It is a way of being in the world that represents a monumental failure of imagination about what it means to live one’s faith in mainstream culture. For decades now, our bishops would have been better advised to stop listening to those shrill apocalyptic visionaries who have played a shockingly decisive role in shaping the contemporary American Catholic religious imagination, and to read instead that brilliant 19th-century theologian John Henry Newman.

Newman knew that responding to cultural change thoughtfully, proactively, with confidence in the ability of one’s core values to carry the day, is far wiser (and more productive) than drawing a line in the stand and shouting no. If our bishops had been listening to Newman when he notes that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often,” they would not have worked long and hard to transform us into a petulant, cultish, apocalypse-fevered people who are increasingly known among our fellow citizens for what we stand against, and not for what we believe, value, and endorse.

And therein lies the tremendous irony of the place in which we now find ourselves, the path of no return down which the bishops have led us: they brought us here while proclaiming that they were doing so on the basis of a key Catholic value that needs to be apparent to American society at large. They have told us to stand against because we stand for life.

In American Catholic thought today, and in how the American public has come to view us, “pro-life” is a mantra, an increasingly meaningless one, as well as an increasingly dangerous one. It is a rhetorical battle cry rather than a values-centered perspective by which we evaluate moral and political positions. It merely defines our over-against position. It does not energize our standing-for position, the position that enables us to offer something productive and transformative to our fellow citizens.

This is the case because, hand in hand with the movement to turn us into a people who stand against, the bishops—as a collective group—have done everything in their power to dumb us down, to thwart the kind of careful, thoughtful catechesis that is imperative if we are to live our faith effectively in the postmodern context. While we have needed moral theology that helps us grapple with applying our core values in the complex cultural context in which we now live (and helps us identify those core values), we have been given “answers.” Platitudes. Formulas.

We have been told to be pro-life. We have not been encouraged to think about what being pro-life means. We have been told to vote pro-life. We have not been instructed to think carefully about the gamut of life issues that confront us, which are much wider than the handful of “non-negotiable” issues on which the bishops (as a collective body) are fixated.

Catechesis is food, for the Christian people. Without it, we starve. Good shepherds make the provision of food essential to their pastoral charge. Good pastoral leaders do all in their power to assure that good catechesis is available throughout the church for which they have pastoral responsibility, catechesis fitted to the cultural and age-specific needs of each group within the Christian community.

The bishops have not wanted good catechesis, frankly—not as a collective group. Because they have chosen to regard those gifted with the charism of teaching within the church as competitors in power struggles of the bishops’ fabrication, they have silenced, marginalized, and driven away outstanding theologians. They have allowed Catholics to assume that if we can memorize the catechism and repeat a few of its “answers”—above all, if we can repeat the pro-life mantra—we are well-catechized.

As a result, many Catholics today equate blind obedience with living the life of faith, just as many Catholics today speak of “the Truth” as the end-all and be-all of Christian life, as if truth rather than love is the hallmark of authentic faith. The childish, simplistic, religiously impoverished obediential notion of faith with which far too many of us are now comfortable not only provides us no solid foundation as we make political decisions: it also betrays core gospel values.

Where the scriptures view faith as a giving of ourselves into the hands of One who leads us on a journey full of uncertainty, in which we learn always to trust and to give ourselves more and more fully, many American Catholics today have the illusion that all that is expected of us in the life of faith is receiving “the Truth” handed down from above, from the pastors of the church, and obeying what we have heard. This understanding of religious truth reduces the salvific Truth Who is God interacting with human beings to an object, something controllable (and dismissible)—ian idol.

The reduction of the life of faith to obedience to the magisterium (and the magisterium is construed in the narrowest possible terms in this way of thinking), along with the impoverishment of catechesis in American Catholicism, has withered the hearts and souls of American Catholics. We are now content to draw lines that make some of us insiders, and others outsiders. In fact, we positively relish those lines.

We have come to a shameful point in our history as a Catholic people (a people whose very name speaks of inclusivity) at which we hunger, many of us, to exclude others from the Bread of Life. We have done all we can to turn the Eucharist—the body and blood of the Savior—into a weapon to be used in defining those we target as outsiders. In some sectors of American Catholicism today, not only has the outmoded practice of formal excommunication been rehabilitated, but it has been retrieved with a vengeance. And there is a hue and cry for the bishops to wield the whip even wider.

A church defined by its desire to punish, to discipline, to close ranks and deprive enemies of nourishment, is hardly attractive. It is hardly catholic in the best sense of that word. To a world hungry for spiritual nourishment, to a political process eager to discuss the values that underlie political issues, to a culture seeking moorings in times of rapid cultural change, a church that can only say no, can only crack the whip, can only shout hateful slogans, has little to offer.

In the final analysis, a church that can only stand against and can only shout meaningless slogans that long ago took flight from careful reflection, is in danger of losing its soul. A church that goes down this path is a church that too easily finds common cause with the basest and most hate-filled movements of the society in which it lives. Churches that persistently stand against often end up in bed with movements energized by hate, because the energies feeding both those churches and the hate-filled movements are the same: the impulse to stand against, to condemn, to override, control, and even destroy those who disagree with the only option one has defined as thinkable.

To see the process I’m describing here in concrete detail, one only has to look at what is happening at some recent political rallies in the U.S. I wrote about these rallies in my open letter to the U.S. bishops. Unfortunately, even today, there are reports that further shouts calling for Mr. Obama to be killed have rung out at rallies of his opponents—with no word of censure from the pro-life politicians holding these rallies.

As reports have also noted, cries to kill or behead one of the presidential candidates are not, unfortunately, the only hate slurs being bandied about at these rallies. At a number of rallies, news reports state that supporters of the candidates many bishops identify as “the” pro-life candidates in the coming election have shouted “Baby killers!” at those carrying signs for Mr. Obama. The same reports indicate that those shouting “baby killers!” are also shouting “faggots!” at their opponents.

Baby killers: faggots: kill him: off with his head.

Catholics are the people who stand against: against abortion; against stem-cell research; against gay marriage. Clearly, the perception of what Catholics stand against helps to energize those who shout “baby killers” and “faggots.”

But Catholics are also pro-life. It is the pro-life position that leads them to stand against abortion and gay marriage, isn’t it?

So how does it happen that shouts about baby killers and faggots come from the very same mouths that are shouting, "Kill him!" and "Off with his head!"? Something is wrong here, isn't it? And radically so. Something has failed, at a very fundamental level, when the core values pastoral leaders of a church claim to be defending are so easily wrapped up in slogans that are outright contradictions of those values.

Something has not worked in the catechesis of a religious people, when many of those catechized cannot see the painful contradiction between the political goals they are endorsing, and the core values they claim to be pursuing in endorsing those goals. To my mind, this conclusion is inescapable, in light of what is now happening in the political life of our nation.

And it’s an utterly damning indictment of the failure of pastoral leadership on the part of the U.S. Catholic bishops for several decades now, an indictment underscored by the bishops’ silence about what their “pro-life” politics has actually come to mean in the minds of many Americans—the bishops' silence about the transvaluation of the pro-life slogan so that it actually comes to mean, in practice (and thus, where it counts in real life) hatred and calls for murder.

History inevitably moves in cycles, with ebb and flow. Wise pastoral leaders teach their flocks to deal judiciously with the ebb and flow, to remember that no political option or no political party perfectly embodies the vision of the reign of God that is the ultimate guide for Christian political action. Wise pastoral leaders never permit their theological imaginations—and certainly not their voice—to be captured by any given political party. If nothing else, they refuse to allow this to happen because they know that the cyclic nature of history will one day result in the dominance of some other party.

In recent decades, as a body, the U.S. Catholic bishops have been decidedly unwise, in appearing to endorse a single political party, and in allowing the adherents of that party—even those whose passions seem most engaged by values far from core Catholic values—to present themselves as the party of good Catholics. Wise pastoral leaders prepare their flocks to live within history without being overtaken by the inevitable cycles of history.

In the current election, we find ourselves in a decisive move towards a cycle radically different from that for which the U.S. Catholic bishops have been preparing their flocks. As a result, many Catholics are singularly ill-equipped to understand or respond productively to the significant cyclic swing now underway in our political and cultural life.

And as a result, Catholics also find themselves with little to offer the culture, at a moment when our contributions are most needed. More’s the pity, especially when we do not find ourselves in this place by accident, and when those we've trusted to lead us have decisively brought us to this place.

Getting out will take all of our skill and creativity. And in that process, we would be fools to depend on the bishops. It is we who must help them out of the wilderness they have chosen for us. That is, if they are willing to imagine that God might speak within the flock as well as among the shepherds.