Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Beyond Papalism

Earlier this year I attended with several friends from both CPCSM and Catholic Rainbow Parents, an insightful presentation by Sister Jeannine Gramick (pictured below, back row center).

Sponsored by the Homophobia and Heterosexism Working Group of the Justice Commission of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Sister Jeannine’s talk was entitled “Transforming Hierarchical Structures,” and offered a number of “guiding principles” for such transformation within the Catholic Church, along with some concrete strategies by which this much needed transformation can and is being achieved.

Three such strategies, as outlined by Jeannine, are as follows:

1. Active compliance: when we work actively with those within the hierarchical system and abide by whatever decision comes about. We make our position known but nevertheless comply. In this way the hierarchy at least knows of an alternative position and seeds of change may well have been planted.

2. Creative circumvention: when we follow the letter of the hierarchical law but not its spirit. An example: Lay people, forbidden to preach during Mass, give a “talk” before or after Mass.

3. Prophetic obedience: when one follows in the tradition of Jesus and the prophets and publicly name and confront structures that are oppressive to people. Obviously, much prayer, fasting, and reflection is required to discern if an act of prophetic obedience is appropriate.

All of this was very interesting, and I could certainly relate each of these strategies to various activities I’ve experienced and/or facilitated through my work with CPCSM. Yet the most instructive moment of the evening came when I witnessed Jeannine’s interaction with a man who had come to challenge and rebuke her contention that the hierarchy of the Church required transforming.

“The hierarchical structure of the Church and, specifically, the Vatican is ordained by God,” this man insisted. “Who are we to question? The pope is in a direct line of succession from Peter – upon whose authority Christ built the Church, one against which the gates of hell will not prevail. How dare we think we can change this structure, usurp this authority . . .”

And so on (and on) he went, basically defending a certain understanding of the papacy which equates it with “the Church.”

Those in attendance were in table group discussions when this particular individual challenged Jeannine. As a result, I couldn’t hear how exactly she responded to the points he raised. Yet what I could discern was the incredibly gentle and patient manner in which she listened to and engaged with this clearly agitated individual. What was also clear was that she simply did not agree with this man’s reducing of the Church to his understanding of the papacy, or to any understanding of a changeless tradition.

I’m sure their conversation was similar to one between a biblical fundamentalist and someone who has moved beyond a literal interpretation of the Bible. It many ways such conversations reflect the speaking of two very different languages, and there comes a point when you have to agree to disagree, wish the other person well, and get back to doing what you feel is important, meaningful, and an expression of God’s love in the world. My sense is that that’s how this man and Jeannine concluded their conversation.

In the months since witnessing this encounter, and in light of some very public denouncements of both myself and CPCSM as not being sufficiently Catholic (basically because we question “the rules” when it comes to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality), I’ve come to realize that perhaps more than simply “the hierarchy,” what specifically needs to be transformed within the Catholic Church is the papacy itself.

A stumbling block

Indeed, I’ve come to agree with Australian theologian Paul Collins when, in his book Papal Power: A Proposal for Change in Catholicism’s Third Millennium, he writes: “The papacy has emerged as the Catholic Church’s major internal structural problem. It has become a stumbling block to many, both inside and outside the Church.”

Collins reminds us that the pope is often called “Pontiff,” which “is derived from pontifex which, in turn, comes from pons facere – to build a bridge.”

“But the modern papacy,” he maintains, “has become the mouthpiece of an increasingly narrow orthodoxy.”

For as Collins observes: “Instead of drawing its teaching on faith and morality from the deep and broad Catholic tradition, the papacy has increasingly espoused a parochial moralism and a historically superficial scholastic theology that draws little from the contemporary world and has scarcely anything to say to it. Recent papal and curial utterances sound increasingly sectarian and apocalyptic, couched in language and rhetoric that is simply meaningless to most people. Instead of being the institution that crosses cultural divides, the papacy has lost the sense of being a bridge builder.”

Ironically, Sister Jeannine Gramick, along with Father Robert Nugent, co-founded, in 1977, New Ways Ministry, an organization which, to this day, continues to build bridges of understanding, dialogue, and pastoral sensitivity between the hierarchical Church and gay and lesbian Catholics.* Indeed, perhaps the pair’s most well-known book is entitled, Building Bridges: Gay and Lesbian Reality and the Catholic Church.

It seems that with regards to the issue of homosexuality, New Ways Ministry is serving more as a Pontiff than the actual Pontiff!


It needs to be made very clear that neither theologians like Paul Collins or “bridge builders” like Jeannine Gramick (or even local ministry organizations like CPCSM) are suggesting that there is no role for the papacy. It may be, in the words of Collins, a “structural problem,” but what’s really at the root of this “problem,” and thus the cause of the current “ecclesiastical malaise” is not the concept of the papacy but “papalism.”

For Collins and others, papalism describes “the constant movement toward centralization, bureaucratic control, and a narrow orthodoxy that has characterized the activities of the papacy and the Roman curia over the last two centuries, especially since the definition of papal infallibility and primacy at the First Vatican Council in 1870.”**

“Following this Council,” notes Collins, “there has been an ever-escalating tendency to conflate what Vatican I called ‘ordinary magisterium’ – the day-to-day teaching and advice of the pope on belief and morals – with infallibility. In fact, the Italian historian Giuseppe Alberigo argues that the papacy unconsciously compensated itself for the final loss of the Papal States to a unified Italy in 1870 by transferring its energy into the business of the daily moral and religious government of the lives of Catholics. . . . In the process of doing this the papacy gradually attempted to muzzle all other magisterial (or teaching) sources in the Church and to subsume the entire theological function to itself.”

“As a result,” observes Collins, “the papacy since 1870 has come to act as a kind of ecclesiastical oracle, the assumed source of all wisdom and truth in the Church. This is a distortion of the true Catholic tradition.”

So what can be done to rectify this distortion? Well, to achieve any genuine reform in the papacy, says Collins, “the papacy itself will have to rediscover the notion of servant leadership that is so strong in the New Testament.”

Lifting up the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, Collins states that: “The papacy needs to rediscover that its leadership is one of service, not of domination.”

But surely, the Catholic Church’s historical development attests to the legitimacy of contemporary papal power. Not so, argues Collins. Indeed, “the position of the contemporary papacy,” he writes, “is not only unique in Christian history, it also distorts the traditionally understood structure of the Church.”

How so?, you may well ask.

The realities of papal history

Well, according to Collins, “a historical study of the evolution of the papal office does not reveal a smooth development from primitive beginnings to high papalism. It actually shows a very uneven evolution in which the papal office is sometimes powerful in the Church and at other times has only the most limited influence. But until now there has always been a check on papalism: synods, councils, the college of cardinals, theologians, emperors, kings, and Catholic governments have all provided some balance to centralized papal power. The collegial nature of authority in the Church has provided some form of balance to the monopoly of power in the hands of one person.”

“Absolutism,” insists Collins, “is not the norm in the Church. And always there has been the sensus fidelium, the acceptance or rejection, by the Catholic people, of Church teaching.” (An obvious example of a relatively recent “rejection” would be the non-reception of Humanae Vitae (1968) by an overwhelming number of “the Catholic people.”)

“Papalist ideology,” writes Collins, “tries to keep us fixated in the realm of doctrine, for it is there that the theoreticians of papal power can try to insulate us from the realities of papal history.”

Indeed, “the ideology that at present underpins contemporary papalism is profoundly suspicious of history,” says Collins. This is ironic as this same ideology “pretends to be traditional.”

Yet as Collins reminds us: “Tradition is the living expression of history; it makes sense only within a historical context. But papalism has no sense of history. It holds the view that there are permanent and never-changing absolutes, and such a mindset stymies its ability to comprehend the evolution and development not just of the Church’s belief, but also of its structure and experience.”

Contrary to what some may want us to believe, the papacy has related to the Church in several different ways in its long history.

Accordingly, “there is no reason why [the papacy] cannot discover a new role in the [new] century,” says Collins. “Development is an ongoing process . . . In order to move we need firstly to draw on the long tradition of Catholicism, and secondly to feel free to use our imaginations.”

After all, writes Collins, if Saint Robert Bellarmine in the seventeenth century “felt free to apply the contemporary idea of absolute monarchy to his model of the papacy, so present-day theologians should not be afraid to use models from our time – such as a synodal or democratic approach. Historically, no model is exhaustive or absolutely normative.”

One possible alternative model

One contemporary Catholic theologian who has offered a refreshingly new model for the papacy is Mary Hunt.

Speaking on Pacific Radio’s Democracy Now! program shortly after the selection of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, Hunt said, “I still favor and put out to your listeners, a possibility: the notion of an international team for the papacy. If the papacy is supposed to be a symbol of unity and not a person with authority, then it makes much more sense in a post-modern time to think not about one person . . . but in fact to think about an intergenerational, international team of men and women who could in fact meet and lead a billion people using technology and travel as a way to bring many voices into the discussion. So we’re really pushing for a horizontal model of church, not the vertical one that Cardinal Ratzinger represents.”

Is such a model possible? Is any alternative model of the papacy possible?

Clearly, there are Catholics who say it is not only possible but essential.

* In 1999 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith prohibited both Jeannine Gramick and Robert Nugent from pastoral ministry with lesbian or gay persons because their approach allegedly contained errors and ambiguities. Father Nugent is now doing parish work and adult education work. Sister Jeannine Gramick transferred to the Sisters of Loretto and continues her ministry of “bridge-building for an inclusive Church.”

** As has been noted in a previous post, during the late nineteenth century many in the Vatican were fearing and denouncing the democratic spirit sweeping across Europe and threatening their own imperial power and influence. The declaration of papal infallibility was one way of countering this spirit. Yet as with a number of issues, the Vatican was on the wrong side of history at this particular time. As a result, it’s now, for all intents and purposes, the last remaining absolute monarchy in Europe and, as such, an often irrelevant and embarrassing bastion of reactionary thought and activism.

Recommended Off-site Links:
“Shut Up, Father!” - A Review by Terry Dosh of Paul Collins’ Papal Power: A Proposal for Change in Catholicism’s Third Millennium.
“Collins’ Views on Papacy Face Heresy Investigation”
- National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 1998.
Paul Collins’ Response to the Vatican

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Casanova-inspired Reflections on Papal Power – at 30,000 Ft.
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
The Many Forms of Courage (Part III)
Beyond a PC Pope
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
Chris McGillion Responds to the “Exacerbating” Actions of Cardinal Pell
“Uncle Vince” is at it Again
It’s Time We Moved Beyond Theological Imperialism
Paul Collins and Marilyn Hatton
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”

Images of Vatican City: Michael Bayly (August 2005).


Anonymous said...


Your perfectly happy to remove my right to vote lest tyranny of the majority thwart your aim. Let's be honest here. If the pope 'narrowly defined' a gay rights agenda you'd be papalist.

For Collins and others, papalism describes “the constant movement toward centralization, bureaucratic control, and a narrow orthodoxy that has characterized the activities of the papacy and the Roman curia over the last two centuries, especially since the definition of papal infallibility and primacy at the First Vatican Council in 1870.”**

What this is all about is not the sense fidelis but pure activism. If you agreed with the pope then "“the constant movement toward centralization, bureaucratic control, and a narrow orthodoxy" would be your be all and end all. Protest this all you want, but you were cheering when the judges and politicians in Massachusetts decided I couldn't be trusted with a vote.

Therefore I don't believe for a second that you are worried about centralization of power. Heck you're pretty far left, if not a marxist, so you'd probably be pretty happy centralizing my bank account under centralized control too.

So why on earth should I take anyone from the left's claim seriously that they dislike the vatican because it is central and narrow? You'd be perfectly jolly if it was *your* narrow and not someone else's.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Winnipeg Catholic,

Boy! You’ve certainly weaved a lot of different issues together in your comment! It’s hard to know where to start in terms of a response. But I’ll try.

So, let the disentanglement begin . . .

First, it’s inaccurate and misleading to compare the monarchical system of the papacy to the judicial system of a liberal democracy like the U.S. The former, by its structure, is exclusionary and prone to “centralization, bureaucratic control, and narrow orthodoxy.” The latter should guard against exclusion and, if necessary, for the sake of justice for all, be open to expanded understandings and greater levels of inclusion.

One of the key phrases in the quote by Collins you highlight is “narrow orthodoxy.” Papalism, as Collins and others have noted, champions and encourages a very narrow, exclusive orthodoxy. And one could argue that, as the head of a religious organization, that’s the papacy’s prerogative and mission.

This line of thinking would say that the magisterium, in its interpreting of God’s will, is under no obligation to take into consideration the experiences and insights of the people of God. Now, whether or not that’s an authentic Catholic way of discernment is another issue all together.

The US judicial system, on the other hand, is expected to interpret laws with the experiences, rights and welfare of all citizens in mind. There’s an established legal basis for any court’s interpretation of the law. There are mechanisms in place to challenge such interpretations and decisions (unlike within the monarchical structure of the Catholic Church), and indeed, in the case of Massachusetts, it was challenged (by a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage).

The elected legislative body (something else you won’t find in the Catholic Church) did its job as it saw fit and defeated this measure. As I’m sure you know, the requirements for a citizen-generated amendment are that such an amendment receive 25% favorable vote from the joint legislature in two consecutive sessions along with a favorable vote from the populace. A decision wasn’t made that you can’t be “trusted with a vote.” Rather, a previous decision that granted gay couples equal access to rights and benefits afforded to straight couples, was deemed by elected officials and lawmakers as being fair and legally sound. To get the proposed ban on the 2008 statewide ballot would have required 50 votes. It got 45, with 151 lawmakers opposed. Whether or not I “cheered” this decision is beside the point.

Maybe Kung Fu Monkey’s perspective on this matter is needed here.

Earlier this year he wrote:

“The phrase ‘activist judge’ will pop up in [the] gay marriage discussion. People will insist that this judge is circumventing the will of the people, the will represented by the legislature in passing certain laws, or backing certain legal definitions over others.

“I’m sorry – I’m really sorry – but if you use the term ‘activist judge’, then frankly you know absolutely nothing about how the US works. . . . I’m going to say this slowly. Judges. Are. Supposed. To. Overturn. Laws. Not all of them. But yeah, some of them. Then there are appeals, or new laws are passed, and the process starts all over again. That’s how it works. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

“You can disagree with a judge overturning a law you like, fine, that’s democracy. But implying the judge has no right to overturn a law because said law represents the will of the majority, and therefore that judge is an ‘activist’ judge, well, sadly, that reveals a depth of ignorance about the Constitution and the writings of the Founding Fathers which automatically disqualifies you from the discussion.

“No, seriously. If you say you disagree with gay marriage, fine – I disagree with you, but you’re entitled to whatever opinion you have in your skull. But as soon as you use the phrase ‘activist judge’, you take yourself out of the game. Not according to me. I like you. No, you’re an idiot according to Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams, Ben Franklin, et al. So, go read the Federalist Papers, and preferably leaf through Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom, and come back when you have a basic understanding of civics.”

Hmmm, perhaps Drs. Robert Benne and Gerald McDermott of Roanoke College should gain such an understanding of civics. In the February 16, 2004 edition of Christianity Today, they published an editorial entitled ”Speaking Out: Why Gay Marriage Would Be Harmful”.

One of their arguments against gay marriage is as follows:

“We believe that gay marriage can only be imposed by activist judges, not by the democratic will of the people. The vast majority of people define marriage as the life-long union of a man and a woman. They will strongly resist definition.”

I appreciate Jim Burroway’s response to this particular line of argument. In his online article, ”Refuting Benne and McDermott, Burroway notes:

“Many surveys certainly do show that varying margins of a majority (slim to wide, depending on how the polls were worded) oppose gay marriage. Some thirty years ago, nearly two-thirds of all Americans opposed interracial marriage. But times change, and so do attitudes. Those today who disapprove of racially-mixed marriages are in the distinct minority. But those numbers didn’t start to decline until the “activist judges” on the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws restricting such marriages when legislatures failed to act. If we had waited until legislatures got around to changing the laws in many of these states, justice for many interracial couples would have been delayed for at least another generation. This generation of gay men and women is no longer willing to wait.”



Michael J. Bayly said...

Here are some more thoughts on “activist judges.”

Winnipeg Catholic, I take it you would agree with the contention that: “Liberal activist judges make law, as opposed to interpreting it. They ignore the plain meaning of texts to invent new rights. Superimposing their moral views onto their legal reasoning, they brazenly advance the cause of the fringe liberal elites in the culture wars.”

In her online commentary, “Activist Judges: What’s in a Name?”, Lithwick goes on to note: “We all evidently believe that you’re either for the liberal activist judges or against them. Folks on the left say they protect minorities from majority tyranny, as the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did last year in the gay marriage decision. Folks on the right say they act as unelected superlegislators. Folks on the left say they are interpreting a living Constitution. Folks on the right say they are unmoored from any fixed point, save, perhaps, the Harvard Law School.”

Yet, says Lithwick, what about inventing “a new term . . . for judges or judicial nominees on the right, who claim to be merely ‘interpreting’ the Constitution, even when they are refusing to impose settled law; law they deem unsettled because it was invented by ‘liberal activist judges.’”

“Re-activist judges,” Lithwick writes, “are able to present themselves as ‘strict constructionists’ or ‘originalists’ by arguing, as does Justice Clarence Thomas, that any case decided wrongly (i.e., not in accordance with the framers of the Constitution) should simply be erased, as though erasure is somehow a passive act. And while there is an urgent normative debate underlying this issue – over whether the Constitution should evolve or stay static – no one ought to be allowed to claim that the act of clubbing a live Constitution to death isn’t activism. So, judicial re-activism. It doesn't exactly trip off the tongue, I know. But let’s put it out there anyhow, and attempt to level the rhetorical playing field.”

I’m all for that!

Then there’s this quote by judicial analyst and former superior court judge Andrew Napolitano that's worth pondering:

“There is no such thing as an activist judge. An activist judge is one whose ruling you disagree with. And if you agree with what the judge has done, you call them heroic and honest.”

Napolitano goes on to say: “To conservatives, activist judges are those who permit or compel activity in which the opinion of conservatives can only be done in the legislative branch. To liberals, activist judges are judges who prevent the government from doing the things the Legislature wants to do.”

These quotes by Napolitano can be found in Mariah Wojdacz’s LegalZoom.com commentary, ”Activist Judges: Why Are They Creating Such a Stir?”.

Wojdacz’s concluding thoughts on the matter are as follows (and serve as yet more food for thought!):

“Contrary to what Americans hear daily, our country is not and never has been a democracy. Democracy is mob rule, where the will of the majority is forced on the minority, and the minority has little or no representation. America is a constitutional republic, governed not by the majority, but by the rule of law. Since the people are represented by the politicians they elect, of course the majority party often has more representation, however the importance of a sound judiciary in a constitutional republic cannot be over-estimated. If the judiciary begins imposing the will of the majority when popular opinion stands in opposition to the law, then the judiciary is enforcing mob rule, and our constitutional republic is lost.

“Because federal judges are appointed, not elected, many Americans do not know who they are or what they are doing. But the reason for that is not because judges’ actions or identities are kept secret. The reason is apathy on the part of the American public. Court opinions are widely available to anyone who wants to read them.

“It can be argued that the actions of the federal judiciary have the greatest impact on the daily lives of citizens, and that Supreme Court rulings shape the fabric of American society more than the legislative or executive branches ever could. The more educated the American public becomes about its judiciary, the less politicians will be able to scream ‘activist!’ and get away with it.”

So much to think about!



Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

Activist judges:
On one level, I agree that almost all judges are activists. Conservatives don't like the liberal ones and liberals don't like the conservative ones. But we all *want* them to enforce the constitution, and we all *don't* want them to legislate. So there is a sort of dichotomy there. I have heard some of those supposedly constructionist judges say some pretty activist things like "How is the DEA supposed to enforce drug policy if we do this..." Well, the court is not supposed to allow the DEA to do anything, that's congress's problem. The court is supposed to enforce the constitution.

I didn't really mind the Massachusetts judge challenging the legislature that the constitution as written does not ban gay marriage and does protect all citizens. I certainly didn't mind Bill Maher criticizine our overwhelmingly liberal and democratic legislature for failing to live up to their ideals and stand by what they would all admit to believing at thanksgiving dinner with their families, that they support gay rights. And I personally would support gay marriage, (though in my heart I want the state out of *all* sacraments for gays or straights - I want a civil union! ... but that's a tangent).

Mixed Marriages:
I think right up into the 90s and even now the eldest generation was pretty unsure about mixed marriages. So yes, I hear that argument loud and clear.

But what does this argument imply? The 'Mixed Marriage Argument' implies that if a small group forces something on the majority for a period of time they will stop protesting it. That argument can be made about good things, like civil rights and gay rights. That argument can be made about bad things, like islamofascism and Nazism. Surely if we were under the thumb of the Nazis for 40 years we might forget our protests to racism?

What's really bugging me:
In Massachusetts I think there was a real chance of democratically achieving gay marriage and that was lost. My right to vote on this issue was thwarted by activists.

My point on 'Papalism':
I am sure orthodox conservatives like papalism a lot. If the pope was a bedrock of gay rights activism, surely you would have a giant B16 poster on your wall, regardless of the fact that you claim to be anti-authoritarian in matters of church. I can only draw this conclusion because you don't seem at all bothered that I didn't get to vote.

Republicanism vs Pure Democracy:
That being saidyour defense that the rules of a republic do allow the representatives to over-ride the whim of the populace.

The Remaining Question:
Will the backlash of thwarting a vote render the use of the court and blocking of the referendum bad tactics? Or, will the populace get used to the idea of gay marraige in Massachusetts and allow it to stay on the books?

That is a big question. We are a small state. When an entire nation has a change the effects are a bit less focused on a small area.

Lesbians are about X% of the population, I don't know, 5%? How many of them will move to Massachusetts to get married?

Will there be a backlash?

Anonymous said...

Come on guys! I thought liberals prided themselves on their honesty and openness to the truth. Once upon a time, "strict constructionists" could be either liberal or conservative. Felix Frankfurter, a member of SCOTUS from 1939 till 1962, is a case in point. Terming current strict constructionists "re-activists" because they oppose the activism on the left is a complete non-starter. Many chided the conservative justices for activism in the ruling handed down in Bush v. Gore (and probably rightly so). They have veered over the line at other times as well, but far, far fewer times than progressive justices. There is really no debate that the left has taken part in wholesale legislation from the bench. When and if that ever starts happening from the right, the left will unleash unholy hell...rhetorically at least.

I say this as someone who is personally left of center, who sometimes agrees--wholeheartedly even--with the content of activist decisions. BUT WHO NEVERTHELESS DECRIES THE PRACTICE with as much vehemence as he can possibly muster!

How have we gotten to he point were someone can say something as clueless as the following?

“There is no such thing as an activist judge. An activist judge is one whose ruling you disagree with. And if you agree with what the judge has done, you call them heroic and honest.”

If we do not learn to love the Constitution and abide by its parameters, we will live to regret it....