Friday, April 22, 2011

More Responses to Elizabeth Johnson Condemnation: Fr. Anthony Ruff at Pray Tell

Finding a moment to blog, though without sufficient time to reflect as I do so--which may make for a volatile posting!  Please be forewarned.  These are top-of-the-head thoughts as I finish reading Fr. Anthony Ruff's recent reflections about the Elizabeth Johnson debacle at his Pray Tell blog (about which I learned through a posting of Kevin Clarke at the America blog yesterday).

Ruff, readers may recall, is the doughty liturgist who wrote an open letter to the U.S. Catholic bishops as the new, revised liturgy comes down the pike, telling the bishops he has had enough.  As an insider and liturgical expert who worked closely with church officials in the process of liturgical revision, he decries the secretive, authoritarian process by which top Catholic leaders have imposed the new liturgical forms on the church at large, when neither lay Catholics nor priests had asked for the liturgical revisions.  Ruff writes,

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.

And now, as he surveys the U.S. bishops' condemnation of Elizabeth Johnson's 2007 book Quest for the Living God, Ruff concludes that the bishops' argument as they condemn Johnson's work is akin to the argument church officials used to justify their imposition of a revised liturgy on a church that had not asked for or wanted such revision: it's all about authority.  About who has the right to do what to do whom.

And about who has the right to obey.

Ruff notes that Cardinal Donald Wuerl, chair of the U.S. bishops' committee on doctrine, which issued the condemnation of Johnson's book, has written a document entitled "Bishops as Teachers" for the U.S. bishops following the Johnson condemnation.  The gist of Wuerl's argument to justify the action the bishops have taken against Johnson?:

It's all about authority.  As the Catholic Theological Society of America and now the College Theology Society have both noted in response to the bishops' statement about Johnson's book, the bishops appear hardly to understand or touch on the substance of Johnson's theology, as they tell us her theology is erroneous.  Instead, their fundamental argument vs. Elizabeth Johnson is that they alone have the right, as the authoritative teachers of what is or is not Catholic, to define truth and Catholic tradition.

Ruff notes,
Theologians vs. Bishops: this is depressing. It’s starting to look like a case of compelling arguments on one side, appeal to authority on the other. This is bad, very bad, for the future of theological inquiry in the Church, at the service of the faithful and their leaders. It certainly won’t help the Bishops’ credibility as authoritative teachers.  . . .   I hope the Cardinal doesn’t mean to say, “Since we don’t have the arguments, let’s insist on our authority,” but it sort of looks like it.

Ruff also points out that Fr. Raymond Brown's magisterial work Priest and Bishop (which carries an imprimatur) told us as far back as 1970 that the historical basis on which bishops claim to be the sole, unilateral, univocal representatives of the apostles in the church is more complex--and, indeed, more shaky--than the bishops would prefer us to know.  The claim of bishops to be teachers in the church in a way that nullifies the vocation of theologians as teachers flies in the face of the biblical evidence that the body of Christ is made complete, and is best served, when the Spirit's gifts are distributed within the community at large--not held exclusively by those who claim all rights to define Catholic identity as successors of the apostles.  Teachers, within the context of the formative period of Christianity, were not merely apostles, but others within the body of Christ also called by the Spirit to engage in teaching ministry within the Christian community.

For the bishops to set themselves up as the sole, solitary teachers in the Catholic community both ignores the complexity of the historical evidence about how apostolic succession has actually occurred, and suppresses the Spirit's activity within the entire body of Christ.  This is a dismal, dangerous, harmful way of "doing" apostolic ministry in the Christian community--this top-down, authoritarian, we-are-boss way of "teaching."

Ruff notes that Wuerl is writing about the role of bishops as teachers as if some fifty years of biblical and theological scholarship have not taken place.  The end result of his approach to the teaching role of bishops (and of the relationship of bishops to theologians) is radically to undermine the credibility of bishops as teachers in the church today--since many lay Catholics are informed enough to know about the scholarship of the past 50 years that significantly reframes the way the bishops want to present their teaching authority at this point in the history of the church.

And so we end up with the following situation when the bishops tell us that they and they alone teach, when it comes to issues of human sexuality and artificial contraception.  They have the truth and we receive the truth from their apostolic hands:

The Bishops teach that every use of artificial conception [sic] is morally wrong. But as we learned this week, some 98% of US Catholic women disagree. Is the Bishops’ long-range plan to keep asserting the teaching on contraception until the laity come around? “It’s not gonna happen,” I hear some of you saying. I hope, O how I hope, that we’re not heading into a situation where the Bishops condemn books representative of the work of about 98% of theologians, and keep doing so until the theologians come around.

We’re at an impasse. Frankly, I don’t see a way forward. What needs to happen to move us toward a better future, where our Bishops are our leaders and guides and even heroes? I certainly want that. I want our Bishops to teach authoritatively and credibly.

Ruff is absolutely correct, of course.  As he himself says, however, none of this is particularly new: we've known for some fifty years now that the kinds of absolutist, top-down, authoritarian claims the bishops want to push in their "arguments" against Elizabeth Johnson have a shaky historical and biblical foundation.  Vatican II has also taken place, and it has reminded us that the bishops and pope are not the whole church.  The church is the people of God in pilgrimage towards a truth to be found at the end of history which transcends anything the church is, does, and teaches here and now.  And we seek that eschatological truth together, in community.

And so why are the bishops now trying to revive and reassert long outmoded arguments about what it means to be a bishop, an apostle, a teacher in the Catholic church?  Why are they trying now to reassert long-since exploded arguments about their exclusive right to define Catholicity?  

Why are we speaking now of the finding that 98% of lay Catholics reject the teaching on artificial contraception as if this is some new finding--when these figures have been known since the late 1960s?  What is it about the current state of the Catholic church that elicits this sudden muscular reaction on the part of the bishops, and the sudden spirited defense by a small handful of restorationist Catholics of the muscular episcopal Catholicism of the U.S. bishops and the Vatican?

It's clear to me that the bishops' (and the Vatican's) backs are up against the wall right now, and instead of talking with the faithful about the crisis in which the Catholic church now finds itself, they intend to become even more authoritarian, more repressive, more evasive--evasive when it comes to facing the plain truth of, say, what ordinary Catholics think and do re: contraception, for instance.

Evasive when it comes to facing and admitting the plain truth of their astonishing malfeasance as pastoral leaders, vis-a-vis the abuse crisis.  Evasive when it comes to acknowledging that a huge number of Catholics in the developing parts of the world are simply walking away.  That they're tired of the nonsense.  That they've grown weary of the diversions and scapegoating of nuns and feminist theologians and gays and lesbians.

And of the empty authoritarian gestures masquerading as genuine pastoral leadership and credible theological or moral teaching.  The Catholic church is in serious crisis today, because its leadership structures are in crisis, and its leaders intend to keep stonewalling--and to ratchet up the stonewalling.  The crisis within contemporary Catholicism stems quite specifically from the inability or refusal of those who call themselves the successors of the apostles to provide pastoral, theological, and moral leadership that is anywhere near the mark of authentic apostolic witness--witness to the crucified and risen Christ.

Instead of acting like real apostles, like the women who remained with Jesus through his crucifixion and found him risen, and who challenged Peter and John to find their faith again, the bishops are acting more and more like bad parents who know that their cover has been blown and their lack of parental authority exposed.  But who intend to respond to the exposure of their parental ineptitude by issuing ever more imperious (and ever sillier) dictates about how things are or are not to be.

And this lack of any adequate pastoral response to the crisis in which the Catholic church now finds itself--this refusal to talk with and listen to the faithful, and to admit the source of the problems within our church: this only deepens the crisis, and will only hasten the exodus from the church.  Leaving in place the tiny remnant content to collude with the bishops in the empty show that the bishops want to call apostolic authority and authentic Catholicity--while increasing numbers of Catholics will find meaningful catholicity, instead, anyplace but within the church they once embraced.

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