Thursday, October 16, 2008

Conflicting Understandings of Church and Revelation Underlie Situation in Madison and Beyond

A well-balanced article by Doug Erickson in the October 11 issue of the Wisconsin State Journal highlights the escalating tensions in the Diocese of Madison, WI.

Erickson begins his piece by noting that a number of Catholics have recently published an open letter to Bishop Robert Morlino, decrying his leadership style - one that they say is characterized by intimidation, fear, and punitive acts of punishment.

Conflicting models of church and revelation

As with many of these types of situations, I believe that what we’re seeing played out in Madison is a clash between two very different models of Church – Church as monarchical hierarchy and Church as People of God; a vertical Church as opposed to a horizontal Church.

And as theologian Mary Hunt has perceptively observed: “[The] struggle between those who want an open and participatory church which would be quite diverse, and those . . . who believe that a smaller, more homogeneous church would be better — what I have come to think of the leaner/meaner style — is a struggle that forms the context or the backdrop for most of our contemporary experience of church.”

Part of this struggle, of course, involves not only conflicting understandings of what it means to be Church, but of the meaning and nature of revelation.

The Church teaches that bishops are the guardians of a deposit of truths handed down by Christ himself and the apostles. These truths are seen to be complete and unchangeable. This model of revelation certainly has its proponents - including men and women who need and want to be told exactly what to do and how to think. They are also people who are fixated on keeping things static.
Change is unthinkable and public dissent from their understanding of both Church and revelation often comes across as the greatest of sins.

Yet as Pope John XXIII reminded us, “We are not on Earth to guard a museum but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.” Such a statement implies that revelation filters upwards through human life and experience, that revelation is ongoing. And if there are any “absolutes” from the life and teachings of Jesus they’re surely to do with justice and compassion, not with stipulations on the gender of priests or with prohibitions on what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their loving relationship.

The concept of ongoing revelation, of God still speaking and revealing Godself through our experiences, is both wondrous and unsettling. Yet for some it is a concept that is extremely threatening. Embracing the reality of ongoing revelation propels us out of our comfortable ghettos of formulated answers and into compassionate, and at times challenging, engagement with the world.

Many Catholics sense and believe that the Spirit is moving the Church away from the hierarchical model and its narrow understanding of revelation. Such a model of Church and an understanding of revelation may well have served a useful purpose in centuries past, given certain historical and social contexts, but they are clearly failing us today. And of course the idea that a feudal, monarchical model of Church is somehow ordained by God is ludicrous.

As theologian and historian Paul Collins has pointed out: 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.” (For more on this issue, see the previous Wild Reed post, Beyond Papalism.)

Some historical perspective, please

I find it rather interesting (and disturbing) that many so-called traditionalists insist that the hallmark of a “good Catholic” is unquestioning obedience to “the teachings passed down from Christ and the apostles,” i.e., that model of revelation outlined above that says only the hierarchy has and can interpret “the truth.”

That kind of heavy-handed and simplistic understanding of both revelation and authority just doesn’t fly with the majority of Catholics – many of whom are, quite frankly, more educated in the history and development of Catholicism then members of the hierarchy. (See, for instance, the previous Wild Reed post,
Coadjutor Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory.) They also seem more compassionate and pastorally-sensitive than many of the bishops.

Like author Garry Wills, I don’t believe that “the whole test of Catholicism, the essence of the faith, is submission to the Pope” – and by extension, papal teachings.

In his book, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, Wills observes that “during long periods of the church’s history, [such unquestioning submission] was not the rule – St. Augustine, for one, would have flunked such a test. And today it is a test that would decimate the ranks of current churchgoers. It is not a position that has a solid body of theology behind it, no matter how common it is as a popular notion.”

I also appreciate the historical perspective provided by Gary Macy – a perspective that accurately identifies the “strange form of authoritarianism” currently popular among so-called traditionalists (including the majority of those who comprise the hierarchy) as stemming from the “ultra-montanism of the late nineteenth-century papacy.”

Such “authoritarianism,” Macy reminds us, “narrowly understands Roman Catholicism as fundamentally an attempt to provide the definitive answers to all questions, usually in one ‘big book of doctrine,’ whether it be Thomas’s Summa, Denzinger’s Enchiridion, or lately the Roman Catechism of the Universal Church.”

Again, it’s important to remember that this “strange form of authoritarianism” and its “Big Book of Doctrine” school of theology are, as Catholic theologian Mary Bednarowski notes, a “fairly recent development” in Catholic history. Yet there are some Catholics who insist that these human developments are in fact unquestionable manifestations of God him/herself! For others, such an ahistorical perspective and rigid insistence borders on idolatry.

Labor pains of the emerging church

And so the tensions and struggles continue. Some lament them as divisive and scandalous. I would like to suggest that they are the labor pains of a renewed understanding of Church. It’s an understanding being birthed by those frequently dismissed as “liberals,” “dissenters,” and “progressives,” and a birthing in which the Spirit is acting as midwife. Birth and new life can be frightening to many, and so understandably there are those who resist and, in their efforts to reinsert the old ways, become dictatorial and abusive. We’re seeing this throughout the Catholic world.

But we’re also seeing incredible signs of resistance and proactivism; of creativity and new life. In many and varied ways, those forced to the periphery by those in positions of influence and power (not the same as authority!) are forming new and vibrant Catholic communities. And as I noted in my recent homily to one such Catholic community, it is on the periphery, as theologian Leonardo Boff reminds us, where “life flourishes in all its exuberance and as a challenge.” It’s on the periphery, he says, “where those who hope and live at the margin of all organization, find the necessary soil for the creativity and emergence of what is new and not yet taught.”

Amen, brother!

Anyway, keeping these words of hope and courage in mind, I present now Doug Erickson’s article on the exciting events in the Diocese of Madison. And, yes, they are exciting – as are any and all situations where Catholics find and lift their voices in opposition to the sexist, homophobic, and feudal ruling caste that has hijacked the message of Jesus and, contrary to his healing and compassionate welcome, enforces a rigid, reactionary, oppressive, and wounding ideology masquerading as “faith.” It’s an ideology that does not accept or respect either women or gay people, and a ruling caste that has fashioned a monarchical system that allows its members to remain in a corrupt state of absolute power.

Now, I understand that the desire for absolute certainty is a very human one, but in our pursuit of such certainty we tend to create rigid, monolithic and very absolutist institutions that accordingly are very dehumanizing. They become the very antithesis of what Jesus was all about.

As followers of Jesus we can do better. And there’s a growing Spirit-inspired movement of Catholics – in the Diocese of Madison, in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, in Rochester, in Holland, and in places all over the world – who are attempting to do just that.

Is this exciting or what?!


Madison-area Catholics Decry
Morlino’s Leadership in Open Letter

By Doug Erickson
Wisconsin State Journal October 11, 2008

A group of Madison-area Catholics says in an open letter to Bishop Robert Morlino that he is ignoring the input of clergy and lay people, causing some parishioners to stop attending Mass and hurting the morale of priests.

The letter writers point to priests banding together for fear of retribution if they dissent, pursuit of a new cathedral despite opposition, the firing of an openly gay music director, the hiring of priests who ban female altar servers and the alleged alienation of Catholics who disagree with church doctrine as examples of problems in the diocese.

“We need more compassion not dismissal,” the letter says.

The letter, which appears as a paid advertisement in the Business section of today’s Wisconsin State Journal, is the latest flare-up in an increasingly vigorous debate over Morlino’s leadership of 270,000 Catholics in the 11-county Madison diocese.

In a statement, the diocese said Morlino is sorry that “certain groups, who claim to be Catholic, would assume postures which clearly are not in accord with the teachings of the church.”

James Green of Madison, one of the organizers of the effort, said the advertisement cost about $3,500 and was paid for by more than 40 people, 36 of whom are listed by name. Seven others are remaining anonymous because they work for the church, Green said.

Many of the contributors are members of the Madison branch of Call to Action (CTA), a national organization of Catholics whose positions on issues such as women’s ordination and priest celibacy are at odds with church hierarchy. The Catholic Media Coalition, a group loyal to church teachings, describes CTA as the leading organization of liberal, dissenting Catholics.

Brent King, spokesman for the Madison Catholic Diocese, said CTA members gave Morlino a copy of the letter Friday.

The diocese statement said Morlino hopes and prays that members of the group “return to full acceptance of the faith” that comes from the apostles.

“It also very much saddens the bishop when groups, such as Call to Action, resort to the use of the mass media to address internal family problems within the church,” the statement said.

Priests start group

Asked for evidence of poor morale among priests, several of the letter signers mentioned the Association of Madison Priests. The group was formed by priests to support each other and to provide a unified voice on issues in which they differ with Morlino, according to people familiar with the group.

“They feel the need to protect each other,” said Joan Weiss of Prairie du Sac, a CTA leader. “They’re concerned about retaliation if they speak out in opposition in any way.”

Weiss and others said the priest group began shortly after Morlino required all priests to play a taped message prior to the 2006 general election in which he spoke against stem cell research, the death penalty and same-sex marriage. Priests were told they could face serious consequences if they expressed disagreement.

A priest who is a leader of the association confirmed the group’s existence Saturday but said the group did not want to go public at this time.

Another priest who is involved but not a leader said about 50 of the 135 or so active and retired priests in the diocese formed the group “to promote sociality among priests and to formulate a response to some of the diocesan policies as expressed by the bishop.”

The priest said Morlino has tried to squelch the group. “The bishop right from the beginning said he saw no reason for such a group and has tried to torpedo it without success,” he said.

The State Journal agreed to give both priests anonymity because they said they didn’t want to anger Morlino. A bishop can reassign priests to smaller parishes or take action that affects their pay and pension.

King, the diocese spokesman, said Morlino has had conversations with the group’s leaders. At this point, Morlino views the group “neither negatively nor positively, but in a more exploratory way,” King said. King strongly disagrees that priest morale is a problem. “I know a lot of priests, both traditional priests and those who may be a little more progressive, and they all seem to have pretty good morale.”

Independent voice

There are 195 archdioceses and dioceses in the U.S., and each one is required to have a priest council. This group advises the bishop on governance, but the group generally is not open to all priests and the agenda usually is set by the bishop, the council’s president.

A priest association is much different, said Vic Doucette of the National Federation of Priests Councils in Chicago. Priest associations crop up independently, and their members set the agenda.

“It's fairly rare,” Doucette said. “I know of not even a dozen or so in the country.”

In Milwaukee, a priest alliance formed about seven years ago to give members brotherly support and an independent voice, said the Rev. Dave Cooper, a founder.

The Milwaukee group’s 126 members have a good relationship with the church's hierarchy but take opposing stands at times, Cooper said. In 2006, the priest alliance opposed a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage despite the church’s strong support of it.

Cooper said he has attended one meeting of the Madison group but declined to comment more specifically.

“Some of the issues they’re dealing with are different than ours,” he said. “I really can’t address that without getting into trouble or making accusations.”

Critics of Morlino’s five-year tenure contend he rules through intimidation and fear and focuses too much on homosexuality and abortion to the detriment of other issues.

“You don’t hear him talking about the poor. You don’t hear him saying much about the war,” said Sister Mary Francis Heimann of Madison, a Catholic nun and one of the letter signers.

Another letter signer, Jim Beyers, who attends St. Maria Goretti Parish in Madison, said he wants Morlino to respect priests in the diocese.

“He treats them like children. He’s punitive toward them,” Beyers said. Others say Morlino inspires them with his approach and his teaching.

“We just love him,” said Ron Faust of Cross Plains. “I like that he tells the truth and doesn’t back away from it. I think there are more Catholics who support him, by far, but the unhappy speak the loudest.”

Morlino has riled some Catholics from the start. Early on, he seemed to suggest in a public comment that Madison lacks public morality. (He has since said he was merely pointing out that there are few common starting points for discussions about moral reasoning in such a diverse city.)

Other actions, such as his service on an advisory board for a controversial Army training institute, have led some Catholics to question whether Morlino is a good fit for a diocese with many progressive Catholics.

Selection of bishops

A larger issue is whether there are any bishops other than “conservative” ones to choose from, said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame who often clashes with the Catholic Church.

“Under Pope John Paul II, the motive was clear: Replace all progressive bishops who were formed by Vatican II with conservative bishops, and thereby change the face of the U.S. hierarchy,” McBrien said. “The plan has been successful.”

Before 1980, bishops were appointed because they excelled at pastoral care as priests, McBrien said. That pattern was replaced with one in which bishops were appointed “who were uncritically loyal to the Holy See and had absolutely clean records on such issues as contraception, priestly celibacy and the ordination of women. Bishop Morlino fits the pattern.”

This theory — that bishops are no more than “yes men” for the Pope — is “absurd,” said Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics and evangelization for Catholic Answers in El Cajon, Calif., and a leading Catholic author.

“There is no way that the Holy See can make all of the local pastoral decisions affecting the billion-plus Catholics in the world,” he said. “Those decisions are made by the bishops.”

Terms such as “progressive” and “conservative” are drawn from politics and not useful in this discussion, Akin said. “The question is not whether bishops — or any other Catholics — are progressive or conservative, but whether they are faithful to the teachings passed down from Christ and the apostles.”

Morlino’s fans are just as passionate as his detractors.

Huan Hoang of Madison said he was “a sleeper” Catholic until two years ago when he heard a Morlino homily.

“He awakened my faith,” Hoang said. “He needs to know that he’s leading us to Jesus Christ, and at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that’s important.”

Doug Erickson
Wisconsin State Journal
October 11, 2008

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
To Whom the Future of the Catholic Church Belongs
What It Means to Be Catholic
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
Beyond Papalism
The Holarchical Church: Not a Pyramid But a Web of Relationships
The Two-Sided Catholic Crisis
A Smaller, Purer Vision of Church - And Why it Won’t Work
Dispatches from the Periphery
Truth About the “Spirit of Vatican II” Finally Revealed!
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 1)
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 2)
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 3)
A Church That Can and Cannot Change
Crisis? What Crisis?
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 1)
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 2)
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”

Image 1: “Untitled” (2000) - Sughra Raza.
Image 2: “Renewal” - Lucy Liew.


Anonymous said...

I don't know, Michael. The Vatican 2 documents make plenty of references to the bishops, and not just as the flunctionary you find, say, among Anglicans, Lutherans or Methodists. In fact, its settled Catholic doctrine that the People of God don't and can't exist without bishops. The alternative is congregationalism. The Southern Baptists, for example, seem to have preserved everything you dislike about the bishops while doing away with the bishops themselves. How did THAT happen? Hmmm, maybe the "bishops" aren't the problem after all.

Donna said...

Where's Michael saying that we need to get rid of bishops?

I don't read his post as saying that bishops are the problem, just certain understandings of their role within the People of God, based in turn on how we understand Church and revelation.

Actually, I see clericalism as the big problem in the church, and that of course can't be separated from a certain way of understanding church.

Historically, the role of bishops has changed - and not always for the better in my view. For a start, I think we should return to the practice that saw the various believing communities choose (or at least have a say in choosing) their pastors - be they priests or bishops (male or female!).

kevin57 said...

Yes, bishops are a necessary and vital ministry in the Church. They are undoubtedly of apostolic origin.

The way they exercise their ministry, however, must remain rooted in that apostolic spirit, AND, most importantly, the way they are selected. There is not widespread input from the laity in the calling forth of a bishop, and since JPII, far less clergy input. This almost inevitably leads to a lack of respect for the person holding the position, and corrosive mistrust.

But, of course, the Vatican would no more permit more widespread diocesan input into a bishop's election than any proposal posted on this site because they know what the People of God would choose.

Talk about St. Augustine not recognizing this Church!