Monday, October 4, 2010

Hot Off the Press: Two Views of Catholic Top Leadership, Michael Sean Winters and Richard McBrien

Two views of the top leadership of the Catholic church at present, in National Catholic Reporter.

First, there's Michael Sean Winters' "On Devotion to the Papacy."  Michael is a huge--make that HUGE--fan of the current pope.  His reflection is a plug for a newly published book edited by Sister Mary Ann Walsh, media director for the United States Catholic Bishops Conference.  The book, Pope Benedict: Essays and Reflections on His Papacy, is published by USCCB.

Here's Michael on Benedict:

I admit it. I am a huge, make that HUGE, fan of this Pope. I was among those progressive Catholics who worried what a Ratzinger papacy would look like when he was elected in 2005, but as Pope Benedict demonstrated recently in his trip to the United Kingdom, he has become an extraordinary pastor, gently guiding the flock, proposing a renewal of Christian faith to cultures that have lost their sense of the divine, presenting thoughtful dissertations on the role of the Church in society. He has not been the kind of “in your face” pastor some feared and for which others hoped. His encyclicals are masterpieces of thoughtful engagement not thunderbolts of condemnation. His appointments to the hierarchy, as Rocco Palmo demonstrated in these pages last week, have been outstanding, elevating pastors, not apparatchiks considered mostly for their presumed loyalty to an agenda, to the ranks of the hierarchy. He has encouraged the new ecclesial movements that bring together clergy and laity to preach the new evangelization. People may quibble with this decision or that, and the Vatican is still maddeningly slow in facing certain crises and in perceiving the way our hyper-ventilating media age works, but I think any fair-minded person must recognize that the papacy of Pope Benedict is proving to be a blessing to the Church. This new book will help all Catholics, from the most simple to the most sophisticated, appreciate the many faces of Pope Benedict’s papacy, but most of all, this book brings the human face of our faith, in the person of the Pope, closer to us.

In another NCR posting today, Richard McBrien talks about "Church Crisis Reflects Lack of Pastoral Leadership."  Fr. McBrien summarizes themes of the closing address of Fr. Charles Curran to the recent international gathering of Catholic moral theologians at Trent, about which I blogged some days ago.

As McBrien notes, the Catholic church is in crisis, and putting our heads in the sand is not going to bring the church through its current crisis.  As Pew Forum data released in March 2008 on the eve of Pope Benedict's visit to the U.S. demonstrate (and here), ten percent of adult Americans are former Catholics, and one in three American adults who were raised Catholic have left the Catholic church.  (That was 2008; I strongly suspect that these figures have grown in two years.)

As McBrien points out, these data translate into the following conclusion: "Indeed, the second largest religious denomination in the United States today consists of Catholics who are no longer active in the church."  That is, if you took those one in ten American adults who are former Catholics, the one in three adult Americans who were raised Catholic but have now left the church, and placed them all together in one church, you'd have the second largest denomination in the U.S.

And so Fr. McBrien's conclusion:

What Curran did not provide is a basic reason for this crisis. It is a crisis, after all, of pastoral leadership.

The facts are that John Paul I lived only thirty-three days as Pope and that John Paul II, elected at the relatively young age of 58, served as Bishop of Rome for 26 ½ years. During that time, John Paul II pursued a conscious plan to transform the hierarchy into a rigid, authoritarian body, utterly dependent on the Vatican for rewards and punishments of every kind.

With few exceptions, that plan has succeeded.

And here's what strikes me as I read Winters and McBrien side by side on the same day, in the same cyber-issue of the same Catholic newspaper: they can't both be right.   Winters asks us to believe that  there's no contradiction in asserting that the current pope is "an extraordinary pastor, gently guiding the flock, proposing a renewal of Christian faith to cultures that have lost their sense of the divine, presenting thoughtful dissertations on the role of the Church in society," and noting at the same time that he also happens to be presiding over the church at a moment at which massive numbers of Catholics are walking away.  The loss in membership I've discussed in American Catholicism is as acute if not more acute throughout most of Europe under the current papacy, as people resign in droves in Austria, Germany, Ireland, Belgium, and other nations.

If, as Michael Sean Winters concludes, "the papacy of Pope Benedict is proving to be a blessing to the Church," then it would appear that the pastoral price for this blessing is ENORMOUS.  And painful.  The only way I can imagine that anyone would see the current pastoral situation of the church as a "blessing" is if one imagines that all those brothers and sisters who have walked away deserve to be forgotten.

Out of sight, out of mind.  And good riddance to bad cess.

"Extraordinary," "gentle" pastors who write encyclicals that are "masterpieces" of "thoughtful dissertations" on the role of the church in society, and who preside over the mass exodus of HUGE portions of their flock are, well, perhaps not admirably extraordinary or admirably thoughtful.  And perhaps not so gentle after all, since good, gentle shepherds care deeply about the fate of the sheep who stray.  And seek out the lost sheep.

Don't they?

Once again, as I read Michael Sean Winters' centrist American Catholic analysis of what's happening to the Catholic church today, I'm simply baffled.  I'm baffled at the suggestion that it's admirable, good, gentle, loving, and thoughtful to drive millions of brothers and sisters from the table, or, if not actively to drive those folks away, to talk about what a blessing it is that the church is being led by a firm hand when those millions are no longer at the table.

And to praise a pastoral leader--I'm a HUGE fan of Benedict--who laid the theological groundwork for this massive exodus of millions of Catholics during the previous papacy, and who, during his own turn at the papal helm, has remained absolutely true to the restorationist vision of the smaller, purer church that he began to create with John Paul II.

Benedict has not, after all, repudiated a single iota of the restorationist Catholic agenda, now that he has become pope.  And the exodus has not merely increased, it has accelerated under Benedict, as new revelations about the abysmal lack of pastoral leadership demonstrated by our church leaders during the abuse crisis break.

I wonder if Michael Sean Winters and other centrist Catholic commentators who are HUGE fans of the current pope, and for whom "devotion" to the papacy (any pope, no matter who that pope is or what that pope does) ever think about just what they're saying to the millions of their brothers and sisters who have walked away in recent years, when they tell us how blessed the Catholic church is to have such wonderful leaders now.

I wonder if they ever think about the message they're giving to, say, their brother and sister Catholics around the U.S. who look at the cruel behavior of a John Paul II-Benedict generation of "gentle" and "thoughtful" bishops soliciting money from unnamed donors, to produce hugely expensive videos to attack gay and lesbian citizens of Minnesota, or to remove the right of marriage from gay citizens of California and to deny rights to the gay citizens of Maine.

Gentle and thoughtful are not the first words that leap to my mind when I watch such activity, which takes its cue directly from the pope of whom Mr. Winters is a HUGE fan.  Blessing is not the first word that springs to my lips as I watch the activities of the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church vis-a-vis gay and lesbian human beings right now.

Or vis-a-vis women in church and society, at a point in the history of the church when the Vatican can "thoughtfully" include women's ordination along with priestly pedophilia in a church document outlining penalties for infractions of ecclesiastical order.  Or vis-a-vis survivors of childhood clerical sexual abuse, who, one after another, report shameful, ugly treatment at the hands of current pastoral officials of the church, when they sought healing and justice from the church.

Winters and McBrien can't both be right.  And unless McBrien is lying about the data he cites to demonstrate that the church is in crisis now, and about how this crisis stems from a lack of pastoral leadership (and he's definitely not lying), then I can't help moving to the conclusion that Winters is direly wrong.  Because McBrien is right. 

And it's somehow gross and unseemly to talk about the current leadership of the Catholic church as a gentle, thoughtful blessing at a time in church history when millions of brothers and sisters have walked away in pain, and are no longer at the table. While we who are left to celebrate are celebrating the gentle, thoughtful, extraordinary pastoral leaders of the church today. 

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