Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Movement to Occupy Faith Communities: A Postscript

This is a postscript to my posting yesterday about how the Occupy Wall Street movement is beginning to raise interesting critical questions among various religious groups.  The most important question I hear some religious folks asking now in light of Occupy Wall Street is whether communities of faith need to be occupied by their adherents--particularly when the leaders of those communities appear to be missing the point about what is central to their religious traditions.  Or suppressing the central threads of the tradition in favor of threads that would loom far less large in the warp and woof of religious proclamations to the world at large, if we paid attention to what is primary in our traditions . . . .

Tom Beaudoin has now cross-posted his statement about occupying the Catholic church from America's "In All Things" blog (my piece yesterday focused on this statement) to Marc Bousquet's "Brainstorm" column at the Chronicle of Higher Education website.  To my mind, it's significant that this important discussion of the need for believers to occupy the sacred space of their religious communities is now spreading to secular venues like Chronicle.

If nothing else, the growing interest in this topic suggests to me that there's a real hunger on the part of many people of faith to place their religious traditions in constructive dialogue with (and not disdainful attack on, as is too often the case with the Catholic church these days) contemporary culture--and to do so at a time of widespread social discontent and suffering due to economic injustice.  As my posting yesterday noted, I sense that for many believers, the frustration has much to do with the way in which leaders of religious communities have become something of a managerial class in contemporary faith communities: an elite divorced from the real lives and real concerns of the communities they serve, an elite far too attuned to the expectations and demands of the economic elite that is producing the widespread economic suffering in the world today.

To many of us in many different faith traditions, it often appears that our religious leaders have actively betrayed our religious traditions, in their core significance.  They offer mild, watered-down prescriptions for social and economic justice and social and economic healing that are tangential to the real problems they will not engage--and, in particular, to the very real problem of the tremendous disparities of poverty and wealth that have brought us to the situation in which we find ourselves now.  And they focus obsessively on issues that appear peripheral to the most pressing moral problems of our period of history, while they ignore those pressing problems--as the American Catholic bishops continue to do, in the perception of many American Catholics, with their unrelenting attention to issues of sexual morality, while they remain almost totally silent about matters of economic and social justice.

Hence the desire to occupy religious traditions, to wrest control of our traditions from the hands of managerial elites that are, effectively, doing the work of and serving the interests of the economic elites that have placed us in our present situation.  This is a drive to retrieve what is good and right in our traditions, to rediscover the powerful, prophetic things they have to say to us at the moment of crisis through which global culture is now passing.

And so I could not disagree more with Michael Sean Winters' critique of the democratic underpinnings of the people of God ecclesiology in his latest blog posting at National Catholic Reporter.  Winters writes, "Democracy inculcates values that are antithetical to those the Church proclaims."  He fears democracy as mob rule, and sees bishops and the papacy as bastions standing for immutable truth in the face of the pressures of the mob.

I've written previously about Winters' attempt to equate the church tout court with bishops and their teaching--bishops who, in his ecclesiology, own the church and are the church.  Readers seeking links back to these discussions can find them by clicking on Winters' name in the labels below this posting.

Here's why (among other reasons) I think this approach to the relationship between the laity and the hierarchy is flat wrong: what it fails to take into account is the strong perception among many Catholics that our pastoral leaders have not safeguarded, but have betrayed, the most significant and most authentic Catholic traditions in which we root our faith as Catholics.  The outrage many of us feel at what has occurred in the abuse crisis has nothing to do with trying to overturn or attack the teaching of the church in its core affirmations.

It is outrage fueled by our discovery that central moral teachings which the hierarchy have insisted on for us--e.g., tell the truth, do not lie--do not appear to apply to the hierarchy themselves, when it is convenient for church leaders to ignore those moral teachings. Many of us find ourselves appalled that what obviously ought to count first and foremost in the response to children abused by clerics--compassion for those who are suffering abuse, the intent to protect them from abuse--seems persistently to have been far, far down the scale of values the hierarchy has applied, as it has dealt with the abuse crisis.  The obvious core values of compassion, healing, and justice have been set aside for pseudo-values like protecting the image and assets of the church, and protecting members of the clerical elite at the expense of children endangered by clerics. 

Our perception of what should be central in the response to the abuse crisis--compassion, healing, justice--stems from our fidelity to Catholic tradition, to the moral values that have been proclaimed to us by our magisterium.  This perception does not represent a mob's attempt to tear down the walls of traditional teaching, as Winters would have it.

And so the situation in which many Catholics now find ourselves (and I suspect this situation is mirrored in other faith communities is this): there is a growing gap between what we know, from our religious and moral training, to be central in our faith tradition, and the teachings and behavior of our religious leaders.  Hence the keen interest in the possibility of occupying our own religious communities, as the Occupy Wall Street movement spreads  . . . .

The graphic is a photo from the Occupy Saint Paul's protest this past weekend in London.  I'm not sure of the original source of the photo; a copy is now on the Facebook page of  my e-friend and fellow blogger Michael Iafrate of catholicanarchy.org.

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