Monday, September 21, 2009

Time for a Church for Grown-Ups

I once had a dream in which I was in one of the many rooms of a large building. This particular room was decorated as a nursery, but I was determined to remodel it in a style that better matched my adult tastes and sensibilities. Yet as I began taking down and moving out the childish things that cluttered this space, I became aware of the shrill and angry cries of the many babies that were sitting all around me on the floor. They didn’t want things changed. They were happy with the way things were. Perhaps I should leave this room for the babies, I thought to myself, and go find myself another room, one that was more suitable for adults.

The Roman Catholic Church: A Nursery?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about this dream as I continue working with others to bring about reform within the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if an adult faith is even possible in today’s Church. It certainly doesn’t appear to be encouraged. Rather, the expression of Roman Catholicism that currently dominates is reactionary; it is one that demands unquestioning obedience and is intolerant of diversity, development and change. It doesn’t sound very adult-like, does it? Nor does it sound like what the Catholic Church should be all about. I mean, the Church shouldn’t be envisioned primarily as a nursery, should it?

Sometimes I think that those who uncritically support this reactionary way of being Catholic are like those crying babies in my dream, whereas those of us seeking reform and the flourishing of adult faith want to redecorate the nursery; want to makeover the Church so that adults can be comfortable in it. And like in my dream, we sometimes wonder if it mightn’t be easier to simply go find another room in the house, i.e., another denomination – one that is more welcoming of us as adults.

A Church for Adults

But then I think of the rich, living tradition of Catholicism, of the role of
conscience and faithful dissent. I think of mustard seeds and of God’s generous invitation to “come as you are.” And I remind myself not only of the reality that the Church is so much more than the Vatican, but of the many and varied efforts – “underground” and at the periphery – that are taking place all around the world and challenging that narrow, rigid, and reactionary way of being Catholic. Together, these efforts embody what’s often called the “emerging church” – a church that is participatory, collaborative, valuing of dialogue and diversity, and open to development and change. A church for adults, in other words.

The pressing need in our Church is not for adults to be forced out by crying babies – who, let’s face it, aren’t really babies. No, the need is for these “babies” to grow up.

Childlike vs. Childish

Ah, but Michael, I can well hear some saying, didn’t Jesus tell us that if we are to enter the “Kingdom of Heaven” we must “become as little children”? Well, yes, as a matter of fact he did. But scripture also tells us that there comes a time for “putting away childish things.” I do indeed believe that our loving Creator God invites us to be
childlike - to be, in other words, adults who are ever open to and trusting of God’s loving presence within and around us; adults who are ever willing to be surprised. That’s very different, of course, to being childishly dependent on other people and institutions. And by childish I mean unquestioning and uncritical.

Now, you may be wondering what prompted me to recollect this dream? Well, I was reminded of it after reading a very thoughtful and powerful letter by Jane Anderson, published in the July 25 issue of the British Catholic journal The Tablet. This letter is reprinted in its entirety below.


[The Tablet reports] that Pope Benedict reprimanded progressive Catholics and repudiated “dissent as not being the mark of grown-up faith.” We progressives are wholeheartedly engaged in the process of reform that has its foundations in the Second Vatican Council. We consider the Church to be much more dynamic and complex than those who promote restorative policies.

While we generally accept core Catholic ideals, we want and need our Church to adapt to allow for beliefs, values, and practices that are relevant to our search for a contemporary faith, which, in contrast to what has been claimed, can be differentiated from “the pattern of today’s world.”

In the meantime, the institutional system reduces Catholics to immature children who are to obey “Father” or, in this case, “the Holy Father.” We are to give unquestioning loyalty to and rely on the Church’s teachings and laws in every circumstance.

We are to accept that we have neither right nor privilege to differ from the current orthodoxy and, equally, have no access to formal avenues to contest the charges made against us.

Paradoxically, Pope Benedict is loath to admit to difficulties arising from theological and canonical constraints, which today are many and increasing. That reluctance has the potential to limit individual Catholics from making mature decisions to self-regulate, negotiate complexities, or respond creatively to life’s challenges. These qualities symbolize adulthood in most cultures, but are not recognized as such in the Catholic Church.

So, when Pope Benedict suggests that progressives do not have a “grown-up” faith, he implies that we should acquiesce to clerical advice, which for us would mean a return to an immature faith.

It is therefore better to remain misunderstood or misrepresented and risk being wrong in what the Pope might refer to as “dissent.” Because, for us progressives, such sincere attempts to have our concerns heard are integrated to discerning an authentic, mature, and Catholic faith.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What It Means to Be Catholic
Pan’s Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
Genuine Authority
A Church That Can and Cannot Change
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 1)
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 2)
Many Voices, One Church
“Something Exciting and Joyful”
A Declaration of Reform and Renewal
Rome Falling
Clearing Away the Debris
James Carroll and Catholic Understands of Truth (Part 1)
James Carroll and Catholic Understands of Truth (Part 2)
James Carroll and Catholic Understands of Truth (Part 3)
James Carroll and Catholic Understands of Truth (Part 4)


Terence Weldon said...

It is a most peculiar conception of "grown-up" that places uncritical assent and acquiescence to church structures riddled with abuse ahead of considered and conscientious disagreement.

In the secular world, the church has often encouraged and supported "dissent" from abusive and unjust power structures - in the Philippines, in Poland, in South Africa, in East Timor and elsewhere. By what standard is dissent "grown-up" when applied to governments, but not when applied to the church?

kevin57 said...

I think that there is a clerical culture--much of which resides in the hierarchy--that longs for a "pray, pay, and obey" Catholic Church, but I do not see many of those who defend the Magisterium's role as part of the cry-baby scenario you describe. Don't delude yourselves for a moment: if the hierarchy were to allow women priests or change its stance on homosexuality, many, many would be the first to become sede vacantes. I say that because they'll tell posters here, for instance, that we should "leave the Church" and try to place us on the defensive, but to those who overtly reject the legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council they are sympathetic and suddenly believe in dialogue and reconciliation.

Rick DeLano said...

Have you ever considered the Episcopal Church?

They are very grown up about things........

Unfortunately for you, we Catholics hold fast to a Faith once delivered, and there just isn't a whole lot you can do about that over the long run.

PS: I was at an Extraordinary Form Mass in, of all places, West Hollywood last evening.

Place was packed.

Evidently the parishioners want a weekly Latin Mass in the Extraordinary Form because....well.

I guess they just find it to be a more mature expression of the Faith.


Mareczku said...

Good comments here. I think that it is important to stay in the Church. There should be a place at the table for all. When people join independent Catholic churches or Pius X or Pius V groups, they separate themselves from the rest of the Catholics. We need to try to remember that it is important to remain one, holy, Catholic and apostolic. I tend to the conservative side but I also value the progressives who add so much to our faith. We are all called to oneness in the Lord.