Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cardinal George and the Spiritual Homelessness of Many Faithful Catholics: "The Bishops Speak, All the Rest Is Opinion"

I’ve just begun reading André Brink’s novel An Instant in the Wind, and am struck by its epigraph from Eldridge Cleaver.  Cleaver writes,

We live in a disoriented, disarranged social structure, and we have transcended its barriers in our own ways and have stepped psychologically outside its madness and repressions.  It is lonely out here.  We recognize each other.  And, having recognized each other, is it any wonder that our souls cling together even while our minds equivocate, hesitate, vacillate, and tremble?

I’m struck, in particular, by Cleaver’s description of what it means to live on the margins of “disoriented, disarranged social structure[s]” as I read reports of what the outgoing president of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference, Cardinal Francis George, told his brother bishops yesterday at the USCCB’s yearly meeting.  As he defended the bishops’ opposition to the Obama health care reform bill, in the face of strong statements of support from both Catholic women religious and Catholic lay groups, Cardinal George stated (and here), 

The bishops . . . speak for the church in matters of faith and in moral issues and the laws surrounding them.  All the rest is opinion, often well-considered opinion and important opinion that deserves a careful and respectful hearing, but still opinion.

Here’s what occurs to me as I think about this claim:

1.    We live at a moment in the history of the Catholic church in which it appears to be of supreme, of overriding, importance to the ruling elite in the church to assert its right to make the rules, to determine who belongs and who doesn’t, even to the extent of denying the right of individual believers to fathom the significance of their Catholic faith and speak on behalf of the church, and even to the extent of driving away an increasing number of faithful Catholics.

2.    This claim by the bishops to unilateral ownership of what it means to be Catholic flies in the face of strong aspects of Catholic tradition—including Vatican II itself—that emphasize the need for all Catholics to participate in the shared task of defining what it means to be Catholic, and of speaking for the church.

3.    This insight—that there is an imperative need for the entire church to participate in the shared task of defining what it means to be Catholic and of speaking for the church—is at the heart of the theology of John Henry Newman, who was just canonized by the current pope.

4.    It is perhaps not new to claim that the bishops speak for the church in matters of faith and morals.  But it is, indeed, new to claim that “all the rest is opinion”—in a way that obliterates the significant aspects of Catholic tradition (e.g., Vatican II and Newman, not to mention the New Testament notion of the people of God as a priestly people) that emphasize that the definition of Catholicity belongs to the whole church.

5.    In a tradition as long, rich, multifaceted, and multivalent as the Catholic tradition is, no one sector of the church can adequately fathom or represent the entire Catholic tradition.  The notion that the church’s clerical elite somehow sums up all Catholic tradition—and this is what Cardinal George’s remark suggests—is fatuous on the face of it.  It arrogates to one tiny sector of the church the entire definition of Catholicism in a way that rides roughshod over the graced experience and graced insights of the whole people of God—whose graced experience and graced insights are dismissed as mere “opinion.”

6.    The hubris underlying such clericalist claims about the role of the clerical elite in the church radically diminishes the ability of the bishops of the church today to be compelling spiritual leaders of the people of God.

And so we live at a moment in the history of the Catholic church in which increasing numbers of thoughtful, faithful Catholics (like Valerie Schultz, with her powerful meditation today at America’s “In All Things” blog), are seriously considering stepping “outside its madness and repressions”  in order to find salvation.  To save their souls.  Schultz has chosen to stay.  But an increasing number of Catholics are now wandering in the wilderness that Cleaver masterfully describes in the lives of those who have no choice except to repudiate “a disoriented, disarranged social structure” whose leaders are failing in the most fundamental way possible to provide authentic spiritual leadership.  

Cardinal George maintains that those faithful Catholics, including many religious women and many lay groups, who viewed health care reform differently than did the American Catholic bishops, and who dared to voice their Catholic understanding of health care reform, have wounded the unity of the church.   The truth is, however, that he and his brother bishops, the clerical elite who gather to themselves all power and privilege to speak on behalf of Catholicism, and who reduce the graced insights of their brother and sister Catholics to the level of mere opinion, are wounding the unity of the church they lead far more tragically than any other members of the church could ever possibly do.

The bishops now leading the church have wounded it to its very core through their protracted and repeated betrayal of pastoral leadership in the crisis of sexual abuse of minors.  They continue to wound the church profoundly by consolidating their alliance with political and corporate leaders whose core values in no way coincide with those of the Catholic tradition at its best.  And as a result, increasing numbers of Catholics and of the public at large see almost all Catholic bishops not primarily as men of God, imbued with the virtues of disciples of Christ, but as cynical, compromised men of power and privilege for whom the values of the corporate world count more than those of the gospel.

And as a result, many faithful Catholics are now choosing to walk in the wilderness, despite its loneliness and its ability to make those who wander there “equivocate, hesitate, vacillate, and tremble,” because they/we have no other choice, as the bishops claim to represent Catholicism unilaterally and exclusively, but betray its core values.  Though Valerie Schultz has chosen to stay after painful soul-searching, this trend of spiritual homelessness in the lives of many faithful Catholics will quite clearly continue for the foreseeable future, and will only grow more pronounced the more loudly and arrogantly Cardinal George and his brother bishops insist that they alone define the meaning of Catholicism today.

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