Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas and the Empty Crib: Recent Catholic Commentary on the Broken Church

What am I doing as Christmas approaches, besides baking cookies, fruitcakes, and cheese straws, you ask? And keeping the house running and in decent order as Steve and his brother hammer and nail at their building project (you don't want to put a hammer or a nail in my little bumbling hands). Thank you for asking.

Lately, I've been thinking about the empty crib. A comment by Claire in this Commonweal thread got my mind rolling down that track. Claire writes, 

Right now the Mary and Joseph and other figurines are staring at an empty crib. Isn't that how it is in every Catholic household?

When I first read this remark, I mistakenly thought Claire was alluding to the many empty cribs (so to speak) that Catholic homes now find in their midst as Christmas time approaches, due to the decision of a huge percentage of Catholic young folks to walk away from the church these days. As I read more of the thread in which Claire makes her statement, I realized she's speaking of the custom of not putting the baby Jesus into his crib in crèches in Catholic households, until Christmas arrives. 

I think I was predisposed to hear Claire making a comment about young folks lost to the Catholic church these days because I read her remark around the same time I read Charles Reid's article about Pope Francis and the Catholic crisis at Huffington Post. Reid notes that the Catholic church in the U.S. faces a multifaceted crisis, which stems from people's profound loss of faith in the institutions of the Catholic church due to the revelations of the abuse crisis, bishops' cover-up of abuse cases, and the choice of the U.S. bishops to commit the energy and money of the institution to fighting dysfunctional culture wars.

Reid cites Pope Francis's recent interview with the Argentinian journal La Nación, about which I blogged recently. As he notes, Francis proposes that what is causing so many Catholics (of all generations) to distance themselves from the church at present is clericalism: clericalism is strangling true Catholic Christianity. Charles Reid understands Francis's critique of clericalism to be a call to lay Catholics to live their faith with an emphasis on "leadership, independence, and good judgment," and without undue deference to the clerical caste.

Soon after I read Reid's essay, I read Heidi Schlumpf's statement at National Catholic Reporter about how she has stopped pinning her hopes for the future of the church on prelates. She goes about her Catholic life of following Jesus in community with others without paying undue attention to the comings and goings of the clerical elite that imagines itself running the Catholic institution. She has given up hope for the reform of the institution, insofar as it emanates from that elite.

And then I read Tom Fox on the deep wounds the attack on religious women has inflicted on the American Catholic people. Fox notes that the media spin regarding the Vatican report issued several days ago won't heal those wounds, since it's all on the surface: it doesn't even advert to the ways in which the American Catholic people have been deeply hurt by the unmerited, out-of-the-blue attack on nuns. Nor does it expose the reasons for the attack; it doesn't tell the names of those who urged the Vatican to go on the attack or explain why they mounted their attack.

We are left now with unanswered questions about why all of this has taken place. And we're left with raw wounds that neither the Vatican report nor the media spin will heal.

Three frank statements of American Catholics who exercise leadership roles in the Catholic church today, via their statements in the Catholic and secular media . . . . Three American Catholics frankly stating that the church is, in key respects, broken . . . . It's hurting. It has been derailed by clericalism. 

And, at the institutional level, it doesn't seem to be fixing itself. It doesn't seem to be concerned to fix itself. At the institutional level, at the level of the clerical elite which imagines that the church revolves around the clerical minority in the church, it appears more concerned with consolidating power and flexing muscle than with pastoral leadership.

The rest of us, the Catholic laity, are left as sheep without a shepherd. Because our pastoral leaders really don't seem to care much at all that the crib is empty, and will remain empty for Christmases to come. 

Our pastoral leaders have willingly allowed many of us to walk away for some years now, and are continuing to stand by in complicit silence as an entire generation of us walks away. Because the price of fixing the problem implicates them as pastoral leaders of the church, and would require acts of self-abnegation on their part, of renunciation of clerical power exercised unilaterally and unjustly over the people of God.

And people without power do not willingly give up their power. Not without a fight. 

So what am I thinking of as I bake Christmas gifts, you ask? I'm thinking of all of this. I'm thinking of the many cribs that will remain empty in Catholic families this Christmas time. I'm thinking of my painful journey to the margins, Steve's painful journey to the margins, a journey prepared for us by the institutional leaders of our church, who have communicated to us in no uncertain terms that we're not needed, not wanted, as an openly gay Catholic couple who spent years of our lives training to be theologians.

When Christmas day arrives this year, I really don't expect a knock on the door from our local bishop, our parish priest, local Catholic leaders, asking us to return to the practice of our Catholic faith — assuring us that we're welcome and wanted, apologizing for the cruelty that has driven us away. Asking our forgiveness. Nor do I expect such knocks on the doors at all the Catholic homes throughout the land where the crib will remain empty this Christmas.

The decision to let millions of lay Catholics go has long since been made. The price of its reversal is too high for those who have chosen to hinge the future of the church on maintenance of clerical power and privilege. It is easier to write off millions of adherents, millions of human beings, than to face the dismantling of power and privilege in the leadership structures of the church. It is easier to blame those who have been shoved from the church than to blame the institution which, in its cruelty, is doing the shoving in order to protect leadership structures that developed over the course of time, are clearly changeable, and were not fixed in stone by the Christian scriptures or the practice of the primitive church.

And the cribs that are empty in Catholic households each Christmas will only continue to proliferate as a result of these decisions. Until those running the institution really choose to do something to reverse the process, that is to say . . . .

I find the graphic at a number of blog sites, with no indication of its origins. If any reader has that information, I'll be grateful for it.

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