Friday, May 1, 2009

On Being Catholic Today: Living Amidst Tumbling Walls

And, as a counterpoint to what I just posted about grim data that for two years now have noted that one in ten American adults is now a former Catholic and those who have left the Catholic church in the U.S. outnumber those joining it by four to one: I’d like to offer readers an exchange I recently had by email with a friend of mine.

My friend is a pastor—Catholic. He writes me (!) to ask for pastoral advice, for advice to him as a pastor trying to offer guidance, hope—something; anything—to his parishioners at a time of increasing apocalyptic hysteria among some American Catholics, while the things that concern him as a pastor, truly apocalyptic things, go unnoticed by many of his hysterical brothers and sisters.

My friend writes:

I'm at a loss as to how to "live as responsible Catholic planetary citizens" and how to frame a spirituality for this age of anger and unrest, as our planet is deteriorating, jobs are vanishing, our economic situation is becoming more and more dire, as our kids turn to gangs and drugs as schools fail them, while fear is rising and nuclear capability is expanding. I don't know how to "think in depth" about the issues, or even to pray about them. Yet, it seems to me that religious leadership should be helping people orient their thinking toward this larger context...and not only "in this larger context", but also with the "urgency" that current world circumstances seem to press on us.

I don't know if I'm just being an "alarmist," but it seems that world issues are deteriorating rapidly. As fast as Obama tries to hold out hands of friendship, the fabric that could hold those gestures and give them substantive meaning seems to unravel . . . . And I watch the hysteria in our own nation over a simple handshake! I've never been one to think in "apocalyptic terms," and I'm still not...but, I am concerned in ways I haven't been before.

Am I making sense? And do you have advice for me? I have an interesting congregation, a collection of amazing competence and awareness, but I think we are all "stuck," not knowing how to read, think pray and live toward spiritual depth that can enrich a planet. To say we are woefully lacking in leadership is to be charitable!!! This Pope is doing nothing to help us frame our consciousness and our spirituality, nor, certainly are the American bishops, who seem to be mentally deficient and spiritually empty. What say you? Do you have advice for me in working with a congregation?

And I respond:

I share very much your feelings and your analysis of where we are--and as a result, I'm not sure I have a lot to offer by way of practical advice. I feel the same sense of being stuck and of seeing no leadership at all from the top of the church.

I blogged this week on my Bilgrimage blog about the growing strength of an absolutely crazy apocalypticism in American Catholicism. This was recently articulated (in my view) by Bishop Robert W. Finn in his call for war with our "enemies"--and they seem to be just about the entire world, except for the religious right. His call for war is chock-full of talk about Satan. I suspect he represents a large group of right-wing Catholics who have gone off the deep end with Obama's election, and who are now rumbling about war, Satan, and the blood of Jesus.

And that's truly scary to me. As you say, we live in a world that already has apocalpytic overtones, and one would expect some message from the church other than an even crazier form of apocalypticism than the kind we meet in our everyday lives. But that message is just not there. In my opinion, Benedict is and always has been a polarizer, even back to his years in the Holy Office.

I do take tiny hope in the fact that he has so alarmed many European bishops--especially in Germany and Austria--by his off-the-wall statements that some of them, and some Vatican officials, appear to be distancing themselves from Benedict and his program. Two days ago, L'Osservatore Romano posted an editorial that actually sort of praises Obama, and is causing hot angry feelings among American right-wing Catholics, who want Obama to be depicted as the devil.

My guess is that some of those Vatican folks are seeing now the end results of these years of courting the Catholic right, as the American Catholic right goes off the deep end with rhetoric like Finn's about Satan and war and blood, and they're justly afraid of what they've effected over the years. Maybe we'll finally see a bit of movement from the top in a saner direction.

But meanwhile, there are millions of Catholics just lost in the wilderness. Richard McBrien wrote about this in a column at NCR this week. He speaks of the grief through which many of us are living, as we see Vatican II and its vision of church completely dismantled. And he also talks about where that leaves ordinary Catholics who are not especially ideological, but who want a church home that's not some kind of frightening sanctuary for a premodern world.

I don't know if any of this helps. I suspect I'm just echoing back to you your own concerns. Lord knows, Steve and I seem to have lost our way in the church--or, to be accurate, we feel the church has offered no way at all to us. So we're in the wilderness as a more or less permanent condition.

And so it goes, Anno Domini 2009, 1 May: as I wrote another friend today by email, "Of course, as we've seen for some time now, the walls of the institutional church are crumbling and they need to crumble. But seeing that doesn't really tell folks how to live in the meantime--except to avoid having the walls fall on your head!"

And that’s perhaps the best advice I can give to anyone seeking some sane or graceful way to live in connection to the Catholic church today: be prepared to walk in the wilderness, and as you walk there, avoid the walls that are crashing down. Don’t let them fall on your head.

They sorely need to fall. And if God has not totally abandoned the church, fall they will. Sadly, as they do fall, don’t expect much pastoral help, wisdom, or even compassion from the shepherds of the church. That’s not what brought most of them to the top—compassion, wisdom, or pastoral intent.

And the walls wouldn’t be tumbling or need to tumble had they been doing their job.

And sometimes the best way to build what is really significant and will endure is to let what is rotting and irrecoverable fall down, so that what is new can arise out of the ravaged foundations.