Sunday, January 5, 2014

Another Prediction for 2014: Talk of the Dying of Catholicism Even as Lay-Led Catholic Movements Flourish

Another prediction I'd be willing to go out onto a limb and make as the new year begins: we will be hearing more in this year about the death of the Catholic church in this culture and that culture--though counter-indicators in many of these cultures will indicate that Catholicism is alive and well within the culture. But the Catholicism that is flourishing in these cultures is often a new (and simultaneously old) expression of the Catholic tradition.

What is dying in many Catholic cultures is the clericalized notion of Catholicism that dominated the Catholic imagination from the Counter-Reformation period up to Vatican II. 

I've been thinking a lot about these themes since news broke of the meeting of Pope Francis with the Dutch bishops this last December. One of the themes of that meeting is that perhaps two-thirds of Catholic parishes in the Netherlands will soon have to be closed, because churches are empty. "The Catholic church is dying in the Netherlands," many news outlets stated following Francis's meeting with the Dutch bishops.

And yet this comment at a recent National Catholic Reporter thread by a Dutch lay Catholic, as well as many articles I've read in the past decade or so, suggest to me that Catholicism remains alive and well in the Netherlands even as parishes close. It remains alive and well as a lay phenomenon with lay leadership.

What has begun to die--what is rapidly dying or now all but dead--in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Catholic Europe (and parts of the U.S.) is a clericalized understanding of the Catholic faith that hinges everything on the presence of an ordained man as the leader of each local Catholic community of faith, dispensing sacraments available only at the hands of that man, and indispensable for the salvation of the members of the community of faith. 

With Vatican II, this clericalized notion of the Catholic faith began to be questioned, with very good reason--in large part, because Vatican II pointed Catholics back to the primary sources from which the Catholic tradition flowed, to the gospel and the early Christian movements that were organized in the New Testament period to respond to the challenge of living the gospels in community. The earliest sources for the history of the Christian movement--the canonical writings of the Christian scriptures, as well as non-canonical writings from the same period--show a wide diversity in how Christian communities of faith were originally organized and governed, a diversity impossible to shrink into the single model represented by the later clerical notion of Catholicism that dominated the Catholic imagination from the Counter-Reformation up to Vatican II.

It was because Vatican II pointed Catholics back to these earliest Ur-traditions from which all authentic Catholic tradition flows, that lay-led movements of Catholic communal practice of the faith grew up in places like Latin America (and the Netherlands, and elsewhere) following Vatican II. For many theologians and others who have followed closely what happened to these vibrant lay movements in Latin America, which were often associated with liberation theology, the great scandal of the papacies of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI is that both popes appeared intent on stamping out these flourishing lay-inspired movements, in the name of asserting Catholic orthodoxy. Both popes appeared intent to stamp out what appeared to many of us to be a manifestation of the Holy Spirit in many local Catholic communities, at a time when old models of Catholic practice were faltering, falling apart, and dying.

One of the reasons that the Dominican priest-theologian Matthew Fox (who is now an Anglican priest) maintains that John Paul II and Benedict were schismatic popes (and Fox says that Dutch priest-theologian Edward Schillebeeckx told him that he and many other European Catholic theologians thought the same) is precisely that John Paul and Benedict did everything in their power to trample down the new lay movements that began to thrive in places like Latin America following Vatican II. It appeared to many of us who followed these developments closely that John Paul and Benedict were willing to mortgage the future of the whole church to the maintenance of an historically developed and historically conditioned clerical system, even at the expense of suppressing the Holy Spirit at work in the church following the last ecumenical council.

And so the question that now faces the Catholic church: what will Francis's response be to these movements? He has given many indicators that he understands their necessity, since he spent his formative years in a cultural context in which they arose and showed great power. But at the same time, he also sends signals to the church that he intends to maintain the clerical notion of Catholicism, which in many ways conflicts at a very fundamental level with many of the new lay movements in places like Latin America or the Netherlands. 

It seems to me that this will be the most important thing of all to watch in Francis's exercise of Petrine ministry in the new year: will he continue the disastrous decision of his two predecessors to hinge the future of the Catholic church on the maintenance of the clerical system at all costs? Or will he depart from that disastrous decision and loosen the chokehold that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has placed on these movements--including the chokehold that the CDF wants to continue to place on religious women in the U.S.?

Time will tell. For a lot of us, our ability to find any continuing sense of pertinence in the Catholic tradition will hinge on how Francis chooses to deal with these questions in 2014 and throughout the time allotted to him as pope.

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