Saturday, February 5, 2011

Fissures Developing in Catholic Restorationist Project: Survey of Recent Stories

Lots of interesting analysis in recent days that indicates the growing fractures in the project of restorationist Catholicism dear to the hearts of the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict.  Restorationist Catholicism wants to "reform the reform" of Vatican II, to turn the clock back in key respects to a pre-Vatican II mentality and pre-Vatican II practice.  In short, it wants to stop in their tracks the reforms implemented by all the bishops of the Catholic church at its last ecumenical council, Vatican II.  

Above all, it wants to shore up the deeply faltering system of clerical power and privilege, and to redefine Catholicism in such a way that this mutable and historically conditioned system becomes, in some sense, an untouchable element of divine revelation on which the church is founded.  But, as the news items I'll list below suggest, there's a growing concern among rank-and-file Catholics with this attempt to divinize a faltering human system whose maintenance at all costs is causing the church to lose thousands and thousands of adherents in many places in the world, and to lose considerable influence in the public square, as people increasingly shrug their shoulders at pronouncements of bishops and the pope about various ethical and sociopolitical challenges of our period of history.

In National Catholic Reporter, Phyllis Zagano argues that the bishops have lost control.  To make her case, she points to what has happened in Arizona, where Bishop Thomas Olmsted removed the designation of Catholic from St. Joseph's hospital, after that hospital has ministered to the public for 116 years as a Catholic hospital. 

As my postings about the St. Joseph's story have indicated (and here), at stake has been Bishop Olmsted's claim that he and his brother bishops uniquely own the voice of Catholicism, when it comes to situations of moral complexity in which the informed Catholic consciences of others--in this case, a St. Joseph's hospital ethics committee--reach a value judgment about a difficult situation with which Bishop Olmsted disagrees.

The upshot, in Zagano's view: "A lot of folks could care less what any bishop thinks, and it’s happening all over." The bishops' refusal to listen to any voice except their own, and their hubristic insistence on their unilateral ownership of "the" Catholic voice, has made them "unconvincing and increasingly ignored in matters of faith and morals."

And when the liturgists begin to rebel, you know things are getting bad.  Historically, theologians specializing in liturgy have often been the staunchest defenders of ecclesial authority, though liturgical renewal sparked by the retrieval of sound Eucharistic theology has, in many cases, driven theological reform in the Catholic tradition.

This week, Benedictine liturgist Fr. Anthony Ruff has written an open letter to the U.S. bishops stating that he has had enough.  This is an important snapshot of the state of contemporary Catholicism because Fr. Ruff held a significant post in the process by which the new English translation of the liturgy has been prepared: he chaired the music committee of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) that prepared all the chants for the new missal.

Out of that experience, which required him to work closely with top church officials, Fr. Ruff says, his eyes have gradually been opened "to the deep problems in the structures of authority of our church."  To be specific:

The forthcoming missal is but a part of a larger pattern of top-down impositions by a central authority that does not consider itself accountable to the larger church. When I think of how secretive the translation process was, how little consultation was done with priests or laity, how the Holy See allowed a small group to hijack the translation at the final stage, how unsatisfactory the final text is, how this text was imposed on national conferences of bishops in violation of their legitimate episcopal authority, how much deception and mischief have marked this process—and then when I think of Our Lord’s teachings on service and love and unity…I weep.

Again, this is a statement coming from a liturgist, one deeply embedded in the structures of the church, a member of a guild on whose unwavering loyalty church officials have long been able to count.  When monks of such standing begin to weep at the abuse of pastoral authority causing thousands upon thousands of Catholics to leave the church today, things are reaching a grave point, indeed.

And, finally, there's this: recently, 144 German theologians (along with a number of Austrian and Swiss theologians) signed a petition asking Rome to implement reforms including ordaining women, making celibacy optional for priests, demonstrating welcome and respect for gay couples and those who have divorced and remarried, opening dialogue between bishops and the laity, and permitting lay Catholics a voice in the selection of bishops.  The signatories of this letter represent a third of Catholic theologians who hold positions in theological academies throughout Germany.

American theologians won't, of course, be making any statements of this sort anytime soon.  They're too busy discussing how the ressourcement Thomism of Henri de Lubac's Catholicism (1938) is a  brilliant road map for the church of the 21st century.  Even so, it's remarkable that a significant proportion of Catholic theologians in the country from which the current pope hails would sign a petition of this sort, which effectively calls for the dismantling of the restorationist project on which Benedict has worked for many years--and which is serving the church so appallingly badly at this point in its history.

As I say, things are getting bad out there--fractures opening up all over the place, and people continuing to walk away in droves (latest count of Catholics defections in the tiny Netherlands: 23,000 exited in 2010).  And one can only hope that, out of the fissures and amidst the rubble, new shoots of life are springing.

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