Friday, December 11, 2009

A Reader Writes: No Contemplative Depth, No Questioning the Status Quo, No Eschatological Vision--Taking the Pastoral Pulse of the Church Today

In response to my two postings earlier this week about the canonization of John Paul II, an astute reader, Evagrius, has posted a comment that strikes me as extremely significant. Evagrius writes,

This might upset some people and perhaps it should, but I think the late pope and his successor are victims, ( willing or not), to an insidious nihilism. By nihilism, I don't mean atheism or the Nietzchean variety, ( that would be honest and forthright- even if a little strange coming from a high cleric), I mean denial that God, ( or the Ultimate Mystery for non-Christians), has anything to do with humanity other than requiring it to submit to a peculiar morality.

The problem, as I see it, is that there does not seem to be any call for transformation of the human person into anything but an automaton for obedience to authority as defined by those "in authority". There was, is, no call for transformation for people of faith to become saints, to be holy bearers of light, as it were, for the world, other than obeying the pope.

There is no contemplative depth, no questioning of the status quo, no eschatological vision, no insight into the actual daily life of any struggling to survive from day to day, only the call to obey, an obedience to an institution that is powerless despite its ability to silence questions.

The last pope, as does the present, had the opportunity and the privilege to call humanity to question its destiny, its destiny as it sees it or its destiny as it could conceive it. It seems that all that can be possible is to acquiesce to the demands of a peculiar morality rather than to be transformed.

I’m struck by the theological profundity of these remarks. For me, they cast light on a very fundamental failure of the church today to reach people where they live and move and have their being—to reach real-life human beings in their real human places. For me, Evagrius describes very effectively what happens when the rubric of conformity to the institution—of “obedience”—subsumes everything else in the Christian life: no contemplative depth, no discomfort with the status quo, no eschatological vision, no insight into what it means in daily life to struggle to survive from day to day.

Only obedience. Or, to use some of the buzz-phrases that bishops and the Vatican have used like magic talismans to try to cover over their abysmal inhumanity to survivors of clerical sexual abuse: putting the common good first and foremost; safeguarding the church’s public image because the media and public sentiment are anti-Catholic, etc.

Bishops have been able to turn a blind eye to clerical sexual abuse—and to cover it over—because they have convinced themselves that in putting the institution first and doing everything possible to maintain its good image, they are serving a higher good. They are serving God.

As I tell Evagrius, as I have thought about these institutional dynamics in recent years, I’ve come—God help me—to the conclusion that many church leaders are, in practical terms, atheists. They are practical atheists in that they seem truly incapable, many of them, of recognizing the obvious disconnect between their inhumane treatment of many brothers and sisters, who are Christ to the bishops, and their “obedience” to the church and service to its good name.

A disconnect so obvious to millions of believers and people of good will everywhere that the reputation of the Catholic church as a teacher of moral values has been decisively ruptured in much of the world for the foreseeable future . . . .

As I also tell Evagrius, I ended up at this point—at this recognition of the practical atheism that seems almost to be a prerequisite for elevation to the episcopal ranks in the church of JPII and Benedict—after I thought about an insightful comment a friend of mine made about a new bishop we both knew, around a decade ago. Here’s my reply to Evagrius:

I find what you say here extremely important, Evagrius. Powerful statement: There is no contemplative depth, no questioning of the status quo, no eschatological vision, no insight into the actual daily life of any struggling to survive from day to day, only the call to obey an obediance to an institution that is powerless despite its ability to silence questions.

Yes. And the outcome of that lack of contemplative depth, discomfort with the status quo, eschatological vision, sensitivity to the gospel's import here and now is, indeed, a kind of practical atheism.

A few years ago, I was discussing a bishop who has now become a rising star in the U.S. Catholic church. I was discussing him with an elderly African-American friend who has known said bishop since he was a boy.

Her sister and brother-in-law—important people in the black Catholic church in the U.S.—were among those whom Rome asked to vet this bishop before he was made bishop. (He has recently been made an archbishop.)

She was furious that, knowing this priest as they did, her sister and brother-in-law would encourage his elevation to the episcopacy. As she and I talked over some of the really destructive things he had done as a seminary rector—things we had both witnessed close-up—I said to her, “I don't see how someone who believes in God can behave this way.”

My friend responded, “Oh, he doesn't believe in God. That's the problem.

I was shocked at first. And then I began to understand her point. There's a kind of practical atheism at work in the lives of many folks elevated to important positions in the church. And the church suffers tremendously as a result.

And this practical atheism—this blindness to the presence of God where God is most patently, most critically revealed to all believers—in the least of our brothers and sisters—is surely responsible for the continued silence of Benedict, the most powerful voice in the Christian world, about the legislation now under consideration in Uganda. Even Rick Warren has found it in his soul to speak out . . . .

And Benedict keeps silent, as Christmas nears.