The United Church of Christ has recently launched a fun new outreach campaign in which sixteen reasons are shared for why members love their church.
Reason number one for loving the UCC? “Because it’s sort of like The Wizard of Oz – it’s about having a heart and a brain. And courage!”
What a pity that these words can’t be used to describe the Roman Catholic Church.
Do you think I’m being too harsh? Perhaps. Certainly throughout its history the Roman Catholic Church has done some great and noble things, and has undoubtedly been a light of hope, strength, and guidance for many. I think of the great Catholic “cloud of witnesses,” populated by such inspiring people like St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Bede Griffiths, Mother Teresa, Mychal Judge, to name just a few. All of these Catholic men and women embodied, in numerous and diverse ways, the healing and transforming love of God.
Yet in the area of human sexuality, I think a pretty clear case can be made that, throughout its history, the institutional component of the Roman Catholic Church has demonstrated a lack of wisdom and compassion, has discouraged people from thinking and raising informed questions, and has dismissed and maligned courageous acts of truth telling.
As a Catholic, I lament this sad and sorry state of affairs. Yet I remain dedicated to working with others so as to bring about reform, renewal, change, and transformation – convinced, as I am, that such work is inspired and led by God’s spirit.
Recently, my friend Mary Beckfeld, a fellow worker in the holy work of renewal and reform, shared with me an article from the May 30, 2005 issue of America Magazine. Written by Fr. James J. DiGiacomo (left) and entitled “Little Gray Cells,” this article begins with DiGiacomo relating an exchange between himself and a parishioner (whom he refers to as “Virginia”) who had expressed shock that DiGiacomo had brought up the possibility of women being called to the priesthood. After all, “Rome has pronounced any discussion of the issue out of bounds.”
As DiGiacomo notes early in his article, “This dispute was not just about women’s ordination but about something much more basic. It goes to the very heart of what it means to be a Catholic, and it sheds light on the divisions that presently trouble the church and threaten to tear it apart.”
Following are excerpts from DiGiacomo’s article – one that with heart, intelligence, and courage attempts to grapple with that crucial question of what it means to be Catholic.
Virginia and I are like two ships passing in the night, and we both have millions of companions on our respective vessels that seem to be drifting farther and farther apart.
It would be well to point out, at the outset, that we are not disagreeing about some article of the Creed or other basic dogma. As in other derivative issues, like artificial birth control, capital punishment, and end-of-life care, the substance of the faith is not at stake. These questions are important but must be kept in perspective. And there should be room for serious adult Catholics to reflect, question and debate such issues without reading one another out of the church. This is not to say that one opinion is as good as another, or that sincerity is all that matters. We’re talking here about a search for truth. The question is, how should we search for the truth?
For Virginia, the answer is simple. Listen to those in authority, especially the pope and those around him, whose judgments are final and not subject to review. The reasons they give for their decisions are irrelevant; the only thing that matters is the source. Her attitude is based on genuine faith in the vicar of Christ, confident that any pronouncement emanating from the Vatican comes from God. Any attempt to question its validity is tantamount to a rejection of the faith.
But for me, and others like me, there is a problem. We have these little gray cells that persist in working even after respected authority speaks. We can’t seem to turn these cells off, and we tend to wonder, to question, to speculate, to evaluate, to criticize. In short, we can’t help thinking; and if those of us who are priests think out loud, Virginia and her friends are scandalized. She thinks our job is to tell people when to stop thinking, instead of giving bad example and continuing to speak when we have all presumably heard the last word.
In the final analysis, it’s all about loyalty. How can you refuse to give unquestioning assent and still call yourself a loyal member of the church? Isn’t the very notion of loyal opposition a contradiction in terms?
It depends. I question the wisdom of some church policies and disagree with some decisions, but I do not leave the church. I work within the community of believers, accepting and obeying regulations and procedures even as I try to do my little bit, preaching and teaching and writing, to change them by appealing to minds and hearts.
I know enough church history to realize that down the centuries, fallible church leaders have made mistakes and pursued misguided policies, many of which have in time been corrected with the help of the Holy Spirit. I am often annoyed, sometimes disappointed and occasionally angry, but I try not to lose patience and I keep the faith. And there are millions more like me.
If these divisions among Catholics were found only in the pews, it would be bad enough. But they go all the way up through the clergy and the episcopacy. Everyone knows that there are litmus tests to be passed before priests can become bishops or bishops become cardinals. And there is a disturbing development going on in the seminaries and among the priests themselves. Many of the younger clergy find their identity in professing unquestioning assent to authority, and they explicitly differentiate themselves from those older priests who have failed to purge themselves of the disease of critical thinking.
There have always been careerists and climbers among the clergy who were willing to stifle individuality for the sake of advancement, but now there is a rising generation of priests who are moved not just by ambition but by a disturbing collectivism that narrows options for service and styles of leadership. These men are interested not in asking questions but in giving answers. Questions make trouble; answers provide assurance. Inquiring minds are not only annoying; they are superfluous. All the answers we need are ready at hand, supplied by documents and pronouncements that are self-justifying and need no validation.
This movement comes at a time when many Catholics are suffering from a loss of nerve. Empty convents and rectories, half-empty churches, closing schools, contracting parishes and sexual abuse scandals eat away at our confidence. There is an understandable hunger for stability, for certainty. Unity is sought through uniformity. Catechetical materials are vigorously scanned and blue-penciled. Stimulating topics and speakers are no longer welcome in parish halls. Adventuresome theologians are not just criticized; they must be silenced. All this amounts to a kind of intellectual circling of the wagons — a skill at which the clergy have often excelled.
. . . [I]n the church today, everything is not all right. There are pressing needs to be addressed, policies to be reviewed, problems to be faced, dogmatisms to be challenged, issues to be taken off back burners and closed questions to be reopened. At such a time, being serene is just another way of being in denial.
At this moment in the life of the church, those who refuse to close their eyes, turn off their minds, and settle for slack-jawed certainty are in for some bad times. They look more and more like blue staters in a red-state church, as the true believers move into positions of power and influence and set out to silence the voices of reason.
We have been down this road before. A hundred years ago, Catholic biblical scholars were being harassed, threatened and discredited for questioning outdated, untenable interpretations of Sacred Scripture. Sixty years later, during the Second Vatican Council, they were vindicated, and their best work was endorsed as official Catholic teaching in the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the French Jesuit paleontologist and religious thinker, never got to see his impressive body of work in print. He had to die first, so that friends and admirers might see to its publication.
John Courtney Murray, S.J. (1904-67), the U.S. theologian, fared somewhat better. He lived to see his teaching on religious liberty vindicated by the council, but only after enduring years of enforced silence imposed by mediocre minds.
In all these cases the operative force was fear – fear of confusing or disturbing the faithful. Such concern is not improper. What is mistaken is the attempt to maintain clarity by silencing voices and closing minds. In so doing, those who use these tactics create a desert and call it peace.
Today the Catholic Church stands at a crossroads. This is a time fraught with peril and possibility. There is a place for caution and prudence, but also a need for creativity and courage. A jumble of conflicting voices frightens the guardians of order, but we have more to fear from a false impression of unanimity achieved at the price of stifling the most active minds among us. It is a characteristic of many dysfunctional families that their members are unable to bring their differences to the surface and deal with them. Many noisy, quarrelsome households, on the other hand, are actually healthier.
What a great article! It contains such warmth and wisdom, don’t you think? There is nothing shrill, rhetorical, or mean-spirited about DiGiacomo’s style of communicating. Rather, he invites reflection and, certainly for me, inspires commitment to the living God proclaimed and embodied by our brother Jesus.
According to America Magazine, James J. DiGiacomo is the author of a number of books. A quick online search reveals several interesting titles, including Teaching Right From Wrong: The Moral Education of Today’s Youth, So You Do Ministry? (with John J. Walsh), Morality and Youth: Fostering Christian Identity, and Sundays with Jesus: Reflections for the Year of Luke.
Of course, the question of what it means to be Catholic is one I’ve addressed a number of times on the pages of The Wild Reed.
Basically, I’ve come to recognize (believe, I guess you could say) that our rich, diverse, and evolving Catholic tradition tells us that the Catholic endeavor is not about fearful and unquestioning obedience to a monolithic and rigid hierarchy of institutional power – one mired in the “diseased system” of clericalism and the excesses of papalism. Rather, our tradition tells us that the Catholic endeavor is all about trustful openness to God’s transforming presence within and throughout the vast arena of human life and relationships.
Our responses of integrity and love to this presence trumps unquestioning obedience to the institutional Church – the function of which seems to be more about continuing itself in its current crystallized form than about being open to the spirit of God which blows where it wills.
And as Jesus reminds us: the form profits nothing. It’s the spirit that gives life – or, in other words, heart, wisdom, and courage.
Hang on a minute! Heart, wisdom, and courage. Hey, I guess that as Catholics we can say the church is “sort of like The Wizard of Oz” after all! The potential is certainly there. I guess it’s up to us and our willingness to embody the spirit!
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
• Who Gets to be Called “Catholic” – and Why?
• Comprehending the “Fullness of Truth”
• The Two-sided Catholic Crisis
• Coadjutor Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory
• Chris McGillion Respnds to the “Exacerbating” Actions of Cardinal Pell
• Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
• It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism
• A Catholic’s Prayer for his Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
• “Uncle Vince” is at it Again
• The Old Catholic Church: Catholicism Beyond Rome