Monday, February 14, 2011

Report to Pope Benedict about Irish Catholic Church: On Edge of Collapse

As I've noted in some of my previous postings about the petition for reform that theologians in Germany recently sent to the Vatican, the petition explicitly states that it is addressing the situation in the Catholic church in Germany at present.  As the petition notes, this national church is in "deep crisis" following a series of revelations about the hierarchy's cover-up of sexual abuse of minors by priests last year.  People have been leaving the Catholic church in Germany in unprecedented numbers, and the German theologians note that they are appealing to Rome to address this situation pastorally and through dialogue with lay Catholics and theologians, since 2011 may be the last chance for the Catholic church in Germany--a last chance for a departure from paralysis and resignation to inevitable decline.

Today, John Cooney states in the Irish Independent that a report soon to be submitted to Pope Benedict about the situation in the Irish Catholic church will make similar points: that church is on the edge of collapse, and has only 5 to 10 years to address the situation before the situation becomes irremediable.  And, as with the German theologians' petition, this report will tell the pope that lay folks have to have a voice in decision-making in the Catholic church, if  its current crisis is to be addressed effectively.

What is happening in country after country is clear handwriting on the wall for the Catholic church, if its pastoral leaders are willing to read and respond to the message being sent to them.  The last two papacies have invested heavily in a restorationist program that proclaims itself a "reform of the reform"--a "reform" of Vatican II, the last ecumenical gathering of bishops from around the world held in the Catholic church, which is really all about stopping the reforms of Vatican II in their tracks.  About turning back the clock.

Vatican II stressed the need for the Catholic church to retrieve very traditional and strongly biblical images of the church such as the people of God, which accentuate the role that all baptized Christians play as members of the body of Christ.  This ecclesiology corrects the heavily top-down, cleric-centered theology that dominated Catholic thinking and Catholic church life in the period from the Reformation through the arrival of modernity.  

In that period of history, the Catholic church was in constant reaction first to the Reformation and then to modern ideas such as democracy, and its response was to highlight the role of the clerical elite in the church and to downplay the role of the laity.  The last two papacies have reacted to Vatican II's call for reform--for returning to the traditional understanding of the church as the people of God, with its stress on lay involvement in church decision-making--by trying at all cost to shore up the reactionary clericalist mentality of the post-Trent period of Catholic history.  And by seeking at all cost to preserve the power and privilege of the clerical elite of the church, at the expense of the rest of the people of God.

And the result has been disastrous.  Though right-wing Catholics continue to speak of the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict as a "springtime" of the Catholic church, the Catholic church finds itself now in a moment of crisis more severe than any it has experienced since the Reformation.  Statistics of those turning their backs on the Catholic church in nation after nation are grim: in the United States, for instance, by early 2008, one in three adults raised Catholics had left the church, and one in ten American adults was a former Catholic.  And we have every reason to suspect I think that in all likelihood this exodus has only increased in the period from 2008 to the present.
As I've noted before, American Catholic theologians are, on the whole, pretending that this exodus is not taking place, or that it has anything to do with how they do theology or what they say about core themes of Catholic faith, including salvation, the nature of God as love, communion, justice, and so forth.  It is to the credit of German theologians and of the Irish church that, in those national churches, many lay Catholics, theologians, and priests are intently concerned about what is happening to their church, as people leave in droves.  

We Americans, and we American Catholic theologians, in particular, have much to learn about what it means to be a theologian and about the pastoral responsibility embedded in our vocation to serve the people of God as theologians, from Catholics in places like Germany and Ireland.

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