Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Church Turns East . . . And Back: Bishop Slattery of Tulsa Reorients Christendom

Lately, several Catholic blog sites have been discussing an issue of burning concern to American Catholics. And it’s not the health care debate or new revelations about torture under the previous administration or leaks about the forthcoming report of heinous sexual abuse of minors by Irish clergy in the Dublin diocese.

It’s which way to turn when we worship. America and Commonweal recently had lively blog discussions of a decision of the bishop of Tulsa, Edward Slattery, to face east as he celebrates Mass at his cathedral. This means turning his back on the congregation, who are also expected to face east along with the celebrant.

I’m fascinated by the theological reasons Slattery advances to justify this decision. But I’m even more intrigued by the intense fascination of many American Catholics with this topic of praying ad orientem. If these two blog discussions are any indicator, nothing quite excites the American Catholic imagination these days like a decision to face east when we pray.

In a nutshell, Slattery’s argument is that it has always been done this way, and it has been done this way everywhere. And the decision following Vatican II to have the priest facing the congregation during liturgy was a mistake, because that decision contravenes always-everywhere norms.

Slattery adds to this fundamental principle an argument about how the Eucharist is a sacrifice that the priest offers on behalf of the people of God, so that it makes sense for priest and people to be facing God all together as the priest offers up the sacrifice. And so Slattery chooses to move against the Vatican II practice of emphasizing that the Eucharist is a shared meal in which the priest and people of God commune around a common table, with the priest facing the people from that table.

Slattery’s theological arguments are problematic from a number of angles. First—and conspicuously—the argument that an ad orientem style of worship has prevailed everywhere in the church from the beginnings of Christianity completely overlooks the evidence of the New Testament communities. On which the theology of Eucharist is based and has to be based, if it’s to be connected to that formative moment of revelation from which the church itself springs. And which are all about connecting the memorial meals commemorating Jesus to his life and to the meal he celebrated with his followers before his death.

Second, there are conspicuous examples that completely contravene Slattery’s always-everywhere insistence. The most glaring of these is St. Peter’s in Rome. There, in order to face east, the priest has to face the congregation—unless, that is, the congregation turns its back on the priest in order to face east along with him, in line with Slattery’s all-together-now rubric for worship.

Third, there’s the almost total obliteration of the Eucharist-as-meal aspect of liturgy, in favor of a Eucharist-as-sacrifice understanding of divine worship. That theological move wipes away several centuries of theological agreement between the Catholic church and other church traditions that rightly want to hold those understandings in tension, and/or to emphasize the centrality of the meal aspect of the Eucharist, in line with the dominant witness of New Testament texts.

I understand, of course, why Slattery is making the move he is making—and why many Catholics also want to make this move. It’s all about priesthood. It’s about maintaining the clear, unambiguous notion of the priest as mediator between God and the people of God, which has become fuzzy and has even been challenged in post-Vatican II Catholicism.

To the extent that Catholicism hinges its future on that notion of priesthood, and on maintaining a system of governance and distribution of power centered on clerical privilege, it has to reassert this understanding of priesthood against all and sundry, in every way possible. As Rome did recently when it denied the decision of the Maryknoll community to have a brother rather than a priest lead that religious community . . . .

As I say, though, what fascinates me even more than the not very persuasive theological foundation on which Bishop Slattery bases his turn to the east (and backwards) is the way in which this decision is being welcomed—even celebrated—by large numbers of American Catholics. That is, it’s being welcomed and celebrated by American Catholics if the America and Commonweal blogs about this issue are any indicator.

Before I comment on this popular consensus, I should issue a disclaimer. As I’ve noted previously on this blog, I’m a Catholic who is alienated from the church, primarily because my life partner and I have found ourselves pushed away from the church, from communion and worship. When a college owned by a community of monks (which has, interestingly enough, now become closely connected to the controversial Legionaries of Christ) peremptorily ended our employment as theologians while offering prevaricating reasons for this in Steve’s case and no reason at all in mine, we found ourselves on the outside looking in.

On the outside looking in at the worshiping church: when the monks who shoved us away from the table of daily bread and of health coverage stood at the table of the Lord and preached about respect for human rights and the need for bread and health coverage for all, the discrepancy between what they were proclaiming and what they had done to us became too great to bear. Our very belief in the Eucharist as the bread of life was threatened by that discrepancy. It is hard to believe that those proclaiming that the Eucharist is the bread of life can seriously mean what they say, when they remove daily bread from the mouths of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

The monks who had taken away our daily bread and health care coverage did not have to live with the worry of finding new jobs or of receiving medical treatment if they were ill. All of that was assured to them, even as they took these necessities from us. It became impossible for us to hear the Eucharistic words proclaimed, to hear words welcoming us to the table of the Lord with any belief in their sincerity, when those mouthing the words seemed to belie everything that this table stands for in everyday life.

So I approach this discussion knowing very little, at a practical level, about what has been happening in Catholic parishes and Catholic worship for almost two decades now. We do not go to liturgy any longer, because we cannot do so. We can no longer bear the huge gap between what the church proclaims and what it actually does. Since no official representative of the church has sought to reach across that gap and to offer healing or even an apology for the injustice done to us, we remain where we've been placed, outside looking in.

Here is what strikes me, as an alienated Catholic eavesdropping on discussions of my co-religionists now regarding revision of the liturgy: first, it’s astonishing how quickly those leading the church in the post-Vatican II period have succeeded in shutting down important theological conversations that, when they began, promised significantly to enrich the church’s life in manifold ways.

These conversations included conversations about exegesis, about the New Testament church, and about christology, which might as well simply never have taken place for many of those talking about liturgical reform today. In the blog discussions to which I link above, some posters try to make the point that the New Testament evidence in support of Slattery’s ad orientem thesis is ambiguous at best.

But for the majority of those posting to the two blog discussions, that point falls on deaf ears. There appears to be no awareness at all of the considerable, powerful biblical scholarship both within the Catholic tradition and in other Christian traditions throughout the 20th century, which shows that the Eucharist grew out of a communal meal celebrated by the early Christian communities to remember Jesus and to keep his memory alive in a communal context.

It’s as if biblical scholarship and theological development since the Council of Trent have suddenly vanished. We are now back at questions about whether Jesus lifted his eyes to heaven at the last supper, and whether the Eucharistic sacrifice can be meaningful when it is offered around a common table by a priest facing his (yes, always “his” in these stifling Catholic intra-ghetto discussions) brothers and sisters sharing the meal with him.

We are back at a sacrificial notion of the Eucharist that could well have just been proclaimed by the Council of Trent, as if Vatican II never happened. The pastoral leaders of the church who have worked very hard to return us to this situation—to obliterate Vatican II in order to preserve clericalism at all cost—have succeeded, to a great extent.

They have succeeded to an astonishing degree in dumbing down our theological conversations, our understanding of church, our theology of worship, our strategies for relating the Catholic tradition both to the public square and to other religious traditions. They have failed lamentably in one of their most important pastoral charges: catechizing the people of God. And this failure has been deliberate, and that makes it all the more heinous.

And the predictable upshot of this failure is that we find ourselves more and more irrelevant, as other churches and the public arena discuss political and ethical issues of great importance in the postmodern period. We have nothing to offer, except for a handful of slogans that are in no meaningful sense a reasoned, persuasive contribution to important political and ethical discussions, but the antithesis of reasoned and persuasive moral discourse.

As I listen to many Catholic contributions to the health care debate (and this is relevant; it is clearly related to the liturgical issue, since it’s in the worship context that people’s theological imaginations are largely informed), I become more and more convinced that all many Catholics have to offer anymore to any debate is the slogan, But what about abortion!?

Mrs. X: Isn’t the weather nice today? Mr. Y: Yes, but what about abortion?
Mr. A: Aren’t these revelations about torture dreadful? Mrs. B: But what about abortion?
Ms. L: Catholic teaching insists that everyone needs access to health care. Mr. M: And what about abortion!?

Or, as Steve's mother said several years ago after we took her and Steve's father to a play about the Holocaust, followed by a first-hand testimony about life in a German concentration camp by a Holocaust survivor, “Yes, it was terrible, wasn't it? But what about abortion? We're butchering babies off like chickens nowadays.” Because both of his parents had grandmothers born in the Sudetenland areas that so ardently supported Hitler, and because Steve's mother's family maintained ties with some of these relatives who were Nazi soldiers, Steve had hoped for a probing ethical discussion about the Holocaust.

That discussion became, But what about abortion!?

That’s where we’ve gone. That’s it, in a nutshell. That’s what we have to offer now: But what about abortion!? Nothing more, nothing less. That’s our moral analysis, our moral argument, our overweening moral stance.

It’s totally unconvincing, and it’s not designed to be convincing. Because we don’t want or intend to talk. We intend to draw lines and face, all in one direction, all in a unified body, against anything and everything that we can conceivably connect to abortion, if that anything and everything gives the slightest impression of being in favor of baby-killing. We intend to shout and overcome. Not to convince.

And certainly not to witness. And that’s my third observation about recent liturgical discussions among American Catholics. Perhaps the most lamentable result of the suppression of theological discourse, the deliberate refusal to catechize, and the molding of the Catholic community into a slogan-shouting political machine in recent years is the way in which our theology—and our liturgy—have taken leave of what always has to be foundational for any Christian church, if it is convincingly to claim a vital connection to Jesus and his memory.

This is the story of Jesus, the heart of the gospel message—the story we remember and proclaim (and share as bread) over and over in our liturgical gatherings. The Jesus we re-ghettoized Catholics have come to see to the exclusion of all other representations is the Jesus who is a high priest, the Jesus offering himself as sacrifice for the sins of the world.

There may well be a place in theological traditions for that image of Jesus, and it certainly has New Testament validity. But no christological tradition and no image of Jesus can ever be adequately Christian unless it also finds ways to link, fruitfully and with practical implications, to the story of Jesus’s life in the gospels.

Book after book after book has been written on this topic within the Catholic tradition in recent years—by Schillebeeckx, Crossan, Kasper, Haight, Segundo, Metz, GutiĆ©rrez—and by powerful writers in other Christian traditions, including Marcus Borg. But for those intent on turning the church back to its true and final orientation—to the east—it seems as if none of those books has ever been written.

The attempt to relate what Christians do when they worship and when they witness to the New Testament documents, and above all to the gospels, is simply gone from much of the discussion of liturgy I’ve been hearing as I follow the ad orientem discussion. The attempt to relate what Christians do to how Jesus lived, insofar as we can glimpse the path he walked from the gospels, is entirely absent from these discussions.

And so the necessary theological step of grounding the Eucharist first and foremost in the gospel witness regarding the last supper, and in the New Testament documents which suggest how the first Christian communities incorporated that memory into their developing Eucharistic worship, is nowhere to be found in the discussions of those enthused at the thought of facing east all together now—if the discussions I’ve been following are a good indicator of the tenor of thought of those promoting this move.

It’s all about sacrifice, an intermediary priest, facing the east, standing together before a God whom we need to appease. And shouting together in every way possible at every moment possible, And what about abortion!?

How on earth did we get so quickly into this sad, constricting little ghetto after the springtime of promise Vatican II seemed to represent?