Thursday, December 22, 2011

Advent, Hope, and the Current Situation of the Catholic Church

I like very much the gist of Maureen Fiedler's review of John Allen's book about U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference president Timothy Dolan (even if M. Fiedler did choose to censor a comment I made recently in response to her article about Hilary Clinton's defense of LGBT human rights--a comment supporting Fiedler's analysis).  Allen's book about Mr. Dolan is called A People of Hope.

And, as Fiedler notes, though Allen writes with a certain edge available only to those permitted into the shadowy interiors of closed and secret clubs (in this case, the Catholic hierarchical club), there's a fundamental problem with his analysis.  And that problem centers on the term "hope."

Where, precisely, is the hope that Mr. Dolan represents, she wonders (and I wonder along with her)?  What is the specific hope Mr. Allen encourages us to find in a man who is, after all, "cut from the standard hierarchical cloth, except with a smiley face"?  Fiedler writes, 

And for the life of me, I cannot figure out why Allen titled it A People of Hope. Yes, Allen says, “Dolan, at his best, incarnates the kind of upbeat, hopeful, affirming Catholicism that’s the untold story about the church today. ... Dolan is that rare senior figure who manages to put a warm human face on the church’s public image.” He paints him as the contemporary version of the old Irish pastor of the 1950s, before Vatican II. But is this the style the church needs in the 21st century when ex-Catholics -- if they were organized -- would comprise the second-largest denomination in the United States? Dolan might win back some of them, but not many, I suspect.

As Fiedler notes, Allen spares us no details, from his inside-the-club perch, about just where Mr. Dolan stands on issues like the role of women in the church, the place of gays, faith and politics, authority and dissent--though he's curiously vague about where Dolan stands on economic justice, the role of organized labor, poverty, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But in the end, she finds, knowing where Mr. Dolan stands on the hot-button issues really doesn't feed hope.  Even if Allen does choose to give Mr. Dolan's stance the jazzy spin-doctored tag of "affirmative orthodoxy."

It tends, in fact, to do the opposite: it pulls hope down by providing a misleading (my conclusion: dishonest) spin of clerical "sexism, homophobic theology and monarchical church structures" as hope-inducing factors of contemporary Catholicism.  When they're anything but hope-inducing to many Catholics and many outside the Catholic church.

Hope has been in the forefront of my thinking lately, with the death of the prophetic Czech leader Vaclav Havel.*  For some years now, I've carried around in my portmanteau of well-thumbed quotes (well-thumbed, because I keep returning to them to feed my spirit) something Havel said I know not where or when, but which I noted down at the time I first read the quote, and keep mulling over in my mind.  Havel observes,

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism.  It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

I find Havel's insight here spirit-building, because I know that what Havel writes about hope proceeds from his own hard-earned experience fighting for hope--for a more humane future for his country.  That fight led him to jail.  So Havel knows whereof he speaks when he distinguishes hope from optimism, I remind myself.

I also like Havel's recognition that hope functions according to a logic fundamentally different than that which sustains optimism.  We are optimistic when we see certain empirical results that tell us our optimism is well-founded.  When those results aren't there, optimism wanes.

Hope operates entirely differently.  It sustains itself in the face of no results at all which might suggest that what hope envisions is plausible, doable, sane and worthy of pursuit.  Hope simply keeps hoping, because what it envisions is clearly right and true, since the object for which we hope--a more humane world for all--is stamped inside our very being, even when we cannot see that object clearly anywhere in the world around us.  And this more humane world that we can so clearly envision in the depths of our being: we envision it in concert with other people of hope committed to the vision of a more humane society around the world, whose similar vision of the possibilities of the world in which we live confirms our own--even when everything in the world around us appears to collude in dashing our hopes.

I keep pondering Havel's insights about hope because hope is incredibly difficult for me.  To be honest, I don't find myself  at all in a very hopeful frame of heart or soul these days about my Catholic church and what the church does to feed hope in the world in which I live.  

I am approaching the end of this Advent season in which we're enjoined by the church's liturgy to keep hope alive with a heavier heart than I think I've had for many years as Christmas nears.  I can't think of a Christmas season in which my heart has been heavier, vis-a-vis what is taking place in the Catholic church--vis-a-vis the possibility of reform of the Catholic church.

There have been several straws to break the camel's back lately, but I think of all of these, the one that has weighed most heavily on my own heart (and a straw can weigh heavily, and can break a heart) is the latest editorial at Commonweal and, even more, the commentary following that editorial.  Predictably, the editorial calls on the Obama administration to cave in to the U.S. Catholic bishops and grant them special rights to discriminate in health care plans in Catholic institutions.

I say "predictably" because Commonweal editor Margaret O'Brien Steinfels is one of those leading Catholic centrist luminaries who wrote an open letter to HHS secretary Kathleen Sibelius when the guidelines calling for Catholic institutions to cover contraceptive coverage were first put on the table.  And as Daniel Maguire has noted, Steinfels's husband Peter Steinfels is "hard right on abortion," and these leading centrist Catholics are going to bat for the bishops vis-a-vis contraceptive coverage in Catholic institutions because they believe that holding the line about this issue is a preliminary to holding the line against possible intrusions down the road re: the issue of abortion.  They fear above all some non-existent pressure from the federal government to force Catholic institutions to relax their policies about abortion.

And so the upshot (and I've discussed this ad nauseam already, and will try to be brief here): we now have the spectacle of the leading Catholic intellectual opinion makers in the U.S. acting, along with the U.S. Catholic bishops, as though the vast majority of Catholics do not already practice contraception, as if the issue of contraception is a burning moral issue for American Catholics, as if the rights of the many non-Catholics working in Catholic institutions are non-existent, etc.  In the second decade of the 21st century, our leading Catholic intellectual luminaries are fighting a battle from the 1960s, as if nothing at all has happened in the Catholic church and the world around us from that time until today.  We have made ourselves Parochial with a capital P, and in the process, we've made ourselves simply beside the point, when it comes to the discussions making the world of the postmodern era.

And the end result is, as one contributor to the thread discussing the Commonweal editorial, Barbara, notes, "corrosive" in the extreme.  There's a great deal of immoral posturing going on with this manufactured controversy to defend the supposedly embattled "rights of conscience" and "religious freedom" of Catholic institutions.

And it's corrosive posturing, the price of which is pretending that Humane Vitae is alive and well and its teaching is salubrious and accepted by Catholics--and that the Catholic identity hangs on defending this and other magisterial teachings, even when we ourselves reject them in our own personal lives.  Corrosive.  Corrosive because based on lies which are all about keeping up side and maintaining image, despite clear evidence that our image-management games are ludicrously deceptive.

And, in the final analysis, most corrosive of all because this posturing and keeping up side willfully exclude so many fine and decent Catholics from the conversation that these centrist folks want to identify as the only Catholic game in town.  That, I think, is where my hope is dashed above all, as this Christmas approaches.

The ability of so many of my fellow Catholics--and, notably, the most educated among us--to pretend that their brothers and sisters who disagree with them, or who have been seriously injured by the positions and hierarchy they're defending: this does not feed hope.  It tears hope down.  

Since it's not compassionate, and it leads one to conclude that the official definition of Catholicism, as it's set forth by the current hierarchal leaders of the church and defended by the centrist media spokespersons for those leaders, has little or nothing to do with love at all, in the final analysis.  And I find it very difficult to believe in the authenticity of any version of Catholicism in which love has such a marginal place.

*Good commentary on Havel's legacy: Jayden Cameron at Gay Mystic and Alan McCornick at Hepzibah.

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