Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Of Mustard Seeds and Walled Gardens

The Kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed,
which, sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;
yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of shrubs,
and puts fort large branches, so that the birds of the air
can make nests in its shade. (Mark 4:30-32)

Intense discussions about what it means to be Catholic - discussions once limited to internal and tightly controlled Church forums - have recently been very much in the public arena. And that’s a good thing.

I’ve noted previously that in the area of human sexuality, a 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 within and among us.

Accordingly, the more we force the hierarchy of the Church to publicly articulate (and attempt to defend) its intellectually dishonest and dysfunctional ideology of sexuality, the more obvious and untenable this dishonesty and dysfunction will become to “regular” Catholics. It’s happening already. And, yes, that’s a good thing.

Spirit-led developments at the periphery

Commentators both within and outside the Church are noting how the hierarchy is increasingly retreating into a cultic and fundamentalist mindset. Recently, Dennis, over at the (now defunct) NCR Cafe, perceptively observed that the function of this mindset is to:

Protect the faith, retreat to the basics (interpreted as dogma or as biblical literalism, simply and rigidly held and enforced); ostracize and demean the intellectual independents; exclude the seekers and the searchers; sanctify compliance; resurrect and idolize the symbols and trappings of the age of obeisance; redefine dialogue as negotiation; redefine terms of convenience like natural “law” to absolute; reintroduce fear as a teaching instrument (excommunication/dismemberment or “left behind”) for high and low; reward medievalism (plenary indulgences “advertised” for the year of St. Paul). These are the tactics, the politics, the strategies of fear, of dislike, of desperation - retreat behind the walls that are crumbling in the deception of strength and in the vain hope that the cavalry will come.

Pathetic, isn’t it? And if this was all that Roman Catholicism had to offer in these early years of the 21st century then the game would really and truly be up.

But wait! The center may be in a state of stasis and decay, but at the periphery of our living tradition we can observe sprouting and flourishing like mustard seeds, pesky* yet invigorating ways of being Catholic that are truer to the life and message of Jesus, and thus the true mission of the Church. Two recent examples are St. Mary’s in South Brisbane, Australia, and the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community in Minneapolis, USA. (The latter is my spiritual home.)

I resonate with Colleen Kochivar-Baker’s perspective on these developments (ones that I call “mustard seed” developments) that we’re witnessing throughout Roman Catholicism. They are, I am convinced, Spirit-led developments that are leading the Church beyond the cultic, fundamentalist, and, yes, for many, safe and uncomplicated mindset of the hierarchy. Not surprisingly, these developments are being experienced as both crisis and opportunity (depending, I guess, on whether one identifies with the wild and “dangerous” mustard seeds or with walled gardens of exclusivity and extreme control!)

Writes Kochivar-Baker:

The real split in the Church today is occurring in it’s educated laity who are no longer the ‘simple peasants’ of yor. For the most part this split is not organizational, it’s an exodus. People give up and leave.

However, what’s happening in St. Mary’s Brisbane and with St. Stephen’s in South Minneapolis is far more dangerous to Benedict’s notion of Church. These are two congregations which are living a different kind of Catholicism. It’s a Catholicism which directly threatens the . . . established clerical structure. These are not parishes of ‘simple faithful,’ they are parishes of dangerous ‘intellectuals’ practicing a social justice Catholicism which directly contradicts official church teachings about divorced couples, reception of the Eucharist, the place of gays, and ecumenism. These parishes also take lay involvement seriously. Their liturgies reflect a very different Catholicism from the one espoused by Benedict.

In the case of Saint Stephens, there the biggest majority of the congregation pulled up stakes and left. They have formed their own parish using different property. In the case of St. Mary’s it remains to be seen what will happen. I’m sure the Vatican would prefer they all leave before it has to resort to excommunication. But in either case the result is the same, a preference for an empty church building rather than a vibrant left-leaning parish.

A pesky “mustard seed” Catholic speaks

In an op ed by Juliette Hughes in The Age of Melbourne, one of these emerging ways of being Catholic identified by Kochivar-Baker is explored - as is the hierarchy's response to it. Hughes’ piece focuses on the situation at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in South Brisbane, a situation that I reported on last month (see the previous Wild Reed post,
A “Catholic Moment” in Brisbane).

In her op ed (reprinted below) Hughes raises some important questions and exposes the untenable nature of the fundamentalist theology that, sadly, has always been part of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. “The deity [fundamentalists] believe in,” Hughes writes, “is one whose morals are like any sociopathic despot’s: toe its line, obey, don’t commit a thought-crime or it will chuck you into a lake of fire for all eternity. Do these worshippers ever think how they would judge a human who was such a sadistic tyrant as this nightmarish torturer-god?” Hughes, a Catholic herself, then describes the God that she “can believe in.”

Juliett Hughes is what you might call a “regular” Catholic, and yet she’s voicing loudly and clearly (and in one of Australia's leading newspapers!) certain views on the state of the Church that I hear all the time from fellow “regular” Catholics - both in the U.S. and Australia. These Catholics clearly see themselves as active agents (pesky mustard seeds?) within a living tradition - and not as the uncritical yes men of a stagnant institution that believes it has all possible answers, here and now.

And, yes, that such “regular” Catholics are finally finding their voice and speaking out is a very good thing.


Catholic Church Must Rediscover a Tolerant God
Juliette Hughes
The Age
February 21, 2009

The banner outside St Mary’s Catholic Church, South Brisbane, reads: “Everyone has a place in the church. Every person without exception should be able to feel at home and never rejected.” These are the words of Pope Benedict XVI himself. But it seems they don’t apply to the community of St Mary’s.

God is good. Organised religion is often not. To some in the Catholic hierarchy, it doesn’t matter how much godly good you do if you don’t toe the line. The past 40 years have seen a determined fundamentalist backlash against the openness and reforms of the Second Vatican Council that began so hopefully in the 1960s.

Now an entire parish of decent, spiritual people can be threatened with expulsion from the faith because some bigot has protested to Rome that they are, horror of horrors, too tolerant and accepting of diversity. Most parishes are burdened with a tiny minority of fundamentalist obsessives who dob in priests for supposed breaches of tradition. They are successful way beyond their numerical strength; indeed, the Vatican is notoriously deaf to anyone else in the laity, ignoring the concerns of the vast majority of those who call themselves Catholic. Accordingly, in August last year, the Archbishop of Brisbane, John Bathersby, wrote a letter to Peter Kennedy, St Mary’s parish priest. In it he objected to the kind of prayers said at the parish’s liturgies and to the style of clothing worn by Father Kennedy at Mass (Kennedy wears ordinary clothes much of the time).

It wasn’t only about clothes. The parish was adapting some prayers, allowing divorced and gay people to receive the Eucharist and letting groups such as a Buddhist group and a gay choir use the church when it wasn’t in use for Catholic celebrations. According to the letter, this was enough to put them outside the Catholic Church.

“The question for me,” the archbishop wrote, “is not so much whether St Mary’s should be closed down, but whether St Mary’s will close itself down by practices that separate it from communion with the Roman Catholic Church.”

Now Kennedy has been sacked and yesterday a new, Vatican-approved parish priest was shoehorned into the place. Kennedy has said that he intends to offer the 9am Mass today, and many are expected to attend.

In the meantime, the Pope is battling on another front: the public relations disaster he incurred when he rescinded the excommunication of four dissident hyper-conservative bishops. These chaps, so much more acceptable to the Vatican than the gentle people of St Mary’s, belong to the Society of St Pius X. The SSPX adheres to a form of liturgy that was rejected by the Second Vatican Council as anti-Semitic: it includes a disgraceful Good Friday prayer for the conversion of “the perfidious Jews.”

Unfortunately, Richard Williamson, one of the four bishops, went further, stating on Swedish television that no more than 300,000 Jews perished under the Nazis, and that he did not believe there were gas chambers in Auschwitz.

It is baffling that the Vatican machinery that can sniff out a recalcitrant liberal in Queensland did not pick this up. For those who adhere to notions of papal infallibility, it wasn’t a good look: either the Pope didn’t know and blundered into this, or he knew and didn’t care until the international fuss. In damage control, the Pope stated that Holocaust denial was “intolerable.”. And then he had to go and threaten to excommunicate Williamson again.

Now that puts the excommunicated Kennedy and the St Mary’s folk in some unpleasant company. But we have to realise that to the mindset of fundamentalists, all deviation from the party line is intolerable, so Holocaust denial is only as bad to them as some other things that wouldn’t bother you or me.

Let’s see: allowing women to preside at the Eucharist and preach homilies; that’ll get you into heaps of strife. Bless the loving union of gay or divorced couples? Ouch. Wear ordinary clothes to celebrate Mass? That's it, you’ve done it now: the vestment police are at your door.

Fundamentalists are so afraid of freedom. The deity they believe in is one whose morals are like any sociopathic despot’s: toe its line, obey, don’t commit a thought-crime or it will chuck you into a lake of fire for all eternity. Do these worshippers ever think how they would judge a human who was such a sadistic tyrant as this nightmarish torturer-god?

But for the majority of Catholics (only 13 per cent of us even bother to go to church these days), their God does not sit there devising horrible punishments and scourging the unbeliever, but is infinitely, unconditionally loving and kind. That’s the God I can believe in. The one who understands failure, suffering and frailty. I hope the hierarchy of my church can rediscover the God of all creation, with the gentle son of a humble Jewish woman as our guide.

Juliette Hughes is a Melbourne writer.

* In Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, John Dominic Crossan offers the following insights on the parable of the mustard seed:

The mustard plant is dangerous even when domesticated in the garden, and is deadly when growing wild in the grain fields. And those nesting birds, which may strike us as charming, represented to ancient farmers a permanent danger to the seed and the grain. The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three, four, or even more feet in height. It is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas, where they are nor particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like. Like a pungent shrub with dangerous take-over properties. Something you would want only in small and carefully controlled doses - if you could control it. It is a startling metaphor, but it would be interpreted quite differently by those, on the one hand, concerned about their fields, their crops, and their harvests, and by those, on the other, for whom fields, crops, and harvest were always the property of others. (Pp. 65-66)

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What It Means to Be Catholic
A “Catholic Moment” in Brisbane
A Catholic Crisis and Opportunity in South Minneapolis
Dispatches from the Periphery
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 1)
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 2)
A Church That Can and Cannot Change
Benedict’s Understanding of Church
“The Real Battle”
An Enlightened Exploration of Integrity and Obedience
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Genuine Authority
A Declaration of Reform and Renewal

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If Fr Kennedy were wise, what he should have done long ago was to prepare his flock for his departure rather than wait for sacking and try to ride the melodrama of that. He needed to transition his flock to a state where it was no longer about him, where his personality was no longer at issue for the community. He needed to detach from his role for the longer term good of his flock.

In his prophetic dimension, Jesus was notable for preparing his disciples for his departure.

Intentional (and quasi-intentional) communities often get trapped in the dysfunction of charismatic leadership and have to work very hard to wean themselves off it.

28 years is way too long to be the pastor of a small community . My diocese has pastorates set in 6 year terms - and no one serves more than a double term in any one place.

Interestingly, my parents' old parish (where I grew up, in a different state) finally had its pastor of 30+ years retire - the diocese could not wait to accept his required offer of retirement at 75. However, this pastor and parish were a mirror image of St Mary's - he was very conservative, and the parish attracted an intentional component of very traditional congregants in addition to territorial congregants. (My parents chafed with this for 30 years, but happy options were few for them due to handicap issues.) The pastor newly installed by the diocese set about a lot of changes, and the more traditional segment of the community went into rebellion St Mary's style (but for the opposite reasons). News reports, blog coverage, denunciations, et cet. Still ongoing.

My family knew this would happen when such a long-term pastor with a strong ideological profile retired. (Since he was appointed pastor under the 1917 Code of Canon Law (which lasted until 1983), he had the right to not be reassigned to pastor another flock.)

Communities suffer under long ideologically charged pastorates. They may seem to flourish in the short term, but they suffer in the long term. It's a recipe for disaster. I am not surprised when traditionalists don't get this, but I would hope progressives would have more of a clue about how undesireable this is. You can't implement Vatican III using Vatican I methods.