Monday, July 16, 2007
"Uncle Vince" is at it Again
I was with a group of fellow Catholics last Friday night and at one point we discussed the Vatican’s recent reiteration of the belief that the Roman Catholic Church is “the one true Church of Christ” and that the “fullness of Truth” subsists within it and it alone.
Various media reports have noted how some non-Roman Catholics have expressed disappointment in the Vatican’s insistence of the supremacy of the Roman Catholic faith. Yet it’s not just non-Roman Catholics who find this claim embarrassing and erroneous.* Many Catholics do as well.
I compare this particular teaching of the Vatican to a deeply ingrained attitude of racism within a family. As is often the case, such attitudes are expressed by an elderly relative – one considered eccentric and irrelevant by the rest of the family. “Oh, Uncle Vince is at it again,” they might say. “Ignore him and he might pipe down.” (Another analogy: those racist or homophobic laws that are still “on the books” in some U.S. states yet which are rarely enacted – accept occasionally by some redneck judge or lawmaker before he is forced to back down because of public outrage.)
The Catholics with whom I spoke last Friday expressed embarrassment, impatience, and even anger at the Vatican’s latest statements. Oh sure, they know that such statements comprise the “official” teaching of the Church, but who really believes this stuff? Who would really want to believe it?
I mean, what does such a teaching say about God? What inadequacy about ourselves and/or our faith are we attempting to cover-up in our insistence that we’re better than everyone else? And in embracing such a supremacist ideology, how are we any different from those zealots, fanatics, and fundamentalists of other religious traditions whom we rightly recognize as misguided and dangerous.
As Floyd Keller of Bayport, MN notes in a recent letter-to-the-editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “At a time when sectarianism continues to rip at the fabric of human societies, the head of the Catholic Church claims that it is the one true faith. Isn’t this what the radical Muslims are also claiming?”
Another interesting letter – this one from Bloomington resident Shawn Gilbert – observes: “How this pope and his followers can possibly believe in a God who would create a beautiful world, populate it with intelligent people, then allow only a kernel of truth to flourish, is beyond any belief system I am capable of accepting.”
I heard this sentiment echoed at one point during Friday’s discussion, when my friend Pat, a “cradle Catholic,” noted that the arrogant and ill-informed “teachings” of the Vatican (be they concerned with sexuality or the “doctrine of the Church”) ensure that it is becoming increasingly difficult for him to reconcile being a Catholic and a follower of Jesus.
I was amazed at Pat’s comment, but, on reflection, he definitely has a point. The Vatican’s triumphant declarations, its pomp and ceremony, and its opulent trappings of imperial glory and power are indeed in complete opposition to the gentle and humble life and example of Jesus.
The teaching authority of the Vatican - a relevant “marker of Catholic identity”?
How on earth did we get to this point? Of course, not all of us Catholics are at “this point,” and throughout our long and diverse history there have always been Catholics who have challenged and questioned the errors and excesses of Rome.
The Uncle Vinces of the Catholic family, however, are certainly at “this point,” and are currently reveling in it with encouragement from those in positions of authority who should know better. Yet as we all know, being in a position of authority can be quite different from being an actual authority. I also believe that the majority of Catholics have either moved completely beyond the dysfunction of the Catholic family or have found ways to build and sustain communities within it that nourish them - primarily by serving as deeper and truer embodiments of the life-giving message and example of Jesus. They’ve learned to simply tune “Uncle Vince” out.
For instance, according to Catholic sociologist Dean Hoge, who analyzed the results of a number of surveys conducted by The National Catholic Reporter, only 42% of American Catholics said the teaching authority of the Vatican was important. This once traditional marker of identity has clearly been sidelined. In its place, American Catholics define themselves in terms of belief in the resurrection of Jesus, the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and helping the poor. And, of course, elsewhere - in Europe and many other parts of the world (for example, Latin America) - the Vatican has little if any credibility when it comes to its teaching on important matters such as human sexuality.
A political ploy?
Given such realities about what Catholics experience as important with regards their identity, the question has to be asked: Why is the Vatican so out of touch with the presence and guidance of the Spirit in the Church, i.e., the people of God?
Related to this question is another: What, if not the Spirit, has motivated the Vatican to release this latest document about the “doctrine of the Church”?
Many believe that both this document and Pope Benedict XVI’s recent Motu Proprio allowing for the wider use of the Tridentine Mass (also known as the Latin Mass), are attempts to appease and attract so-called traditionalist Catholics. They’re politically-motivated moves, in other words.
For instance, the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen has observed that on numerous occasions the pope has stated that “the church of the future may have to be smaller to remain faithful.” The pope has also employed the image of the “mustard seed,” suggesting, says Allen, “a smaller presence that nevertheless carries the capacity for future growth as long as it remains true to itself.”
In light of this, it’s possible that the Vatican’s attempts to appease and attract Catholic “traditionalists” – known for their unquestioning obedience to the hierarchy – are also attempts to drive out those of us prepared to question, critique, and challenge; those of us prepared to think, in other words!
Yet as Catholic columnist and editor Rebecca Nappi reminds us: “Those of us who question might just be the mustard in the mustard seed. In other words, we’re not going anywhere. It’s our church, too. Reviving Latin Masses or dissing the Protestants – once again – isn’t enough to scare us out of this sometimes scary church.”
Our Catholic family, in short, is so much more than the embarrassing rantings and divisive ploys of “Uncle Vince.”
* This claim of supremacy is based, in part, on the idea that Jesus founded the Roman Catholic Church! Yet as Catholic theologian and historian Hans Küng reminds us in The Catholic Church: A Short History: “[Jesus] did not seek to found a separate community, distinct from Israel, with its own creed and cult, or to call to life an organization with its own constitution and offices, let alone a great religious edifice. No, according to all evidence Jesus did not found a church in his lifetime.” Nevertheless, writes Küng, “a church [i.e., 'a community gathering at a particular place at a particular time for a particular action'] . . .came into being immediately after Jesus’ death. This happened under the impact of the experience of the resurrection and the Spirit. . . . [Thus] although the church was not founded by Jesus, for its origins it made an appeal to him, the one who was crucified yet lived, in whom for believers the kingdom of God had already dawned . . .” (For more excerpts from Küng’s The Catholic Church: A Short History that are relevant to this topic, click here).
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism
The Two-Sided Catholic Crisis
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
Comprehending the “Fullness of Truth”
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
The New Motu Proprio: “Nothing But Headaches for Bishops, Priests, and Laity”?
Joan Chittister on the Restoration of the Tridentine Latin Rite
Chris McGillion Responds to the “Exacerbating” Actions of Cardinal Pell
Coadjutor Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory
Who Gets to Be Called “Catholic” – and Why?
Casanova-inspired Reflections on Papal Power – at 30,000 Ft.
A Catholic’s Prayer for His Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
Beyond a PC Pope
Paul Collins and Marilyn Hatton
A Not So “New” Catholic University
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
What the Vatican Can Learn from the X-Men