Friday, May 15, 2009

Why the Bishops Are Being Ignored

At one point in his informed and insightful Washington Post commentary, “Memo to Bishops: Most Catholics Aren’t Listening,” Thomas J. Reese, SJ (pictured at right) poses an important question: “Why are the bishops not being listened to?”

This question, of course, is in response to the majority of Catholics being fine with President Obama, despite the “steady drumbeat of opposition to [him] from some U.S. Catholic bishops” – a drumbeat that has only increased after Obama’s election.

Here is Reese’s take on why most Catholics are not listening:

Many think [the bishops] lost their credibility because of the sex abuse crisis. Others say it was even earlier when the laity rejected the hierarchy’s opposition to artificial birth control.

I think part of the problem is that the bishops stopped listening and teaching and started ordering and condemning. With an educated laity it no longer works to simply say, “it is the teaching of the church.” This is the equivalent of a parent shouting, “Because I said so.”

The bishops must persuade and convince with arguments not by turning up the volume. When they resort to commanding and threatening punishments, people are turned off. Banning speakers, denying Communion, silencing theologians is a sign of weakness not strength. Censorship and violations of academic freedom come across as admissions that their arguments are not convincing and therefore the opposition must be silenced.

Reese goes on to observe that:

The bishops are being egged on by Republican activists whose presidential candidate lost the election. There is clearly a conservative conspiracy to do whatever is possible (including lying about ambassadorial candidates) to create conflict between the Catholic Church and the Obama administration. They want the Catholic Church to be the Republican Party at prayer. Some bishops are falling for this.

But the Vatican is not falling into this trap. It clearly wants to have a positive relationship with Obama. The Pope sent him a congratulatory note after his election, although it is normal Vatican protocol not to do this until after the inauguration. Recently, an article in L’Osservatore Romano stated that the first 100 days of the Obama administration have not confirmed the Catholic Church’s worst fears about radical policy changes in ethical areas. No American bishop has been brave or honest enough to say this.

Two things: The first is that Reese’s reflection reminds me of Carter Hayward’s thoughts on genuine authority which, she says, is not obsessed with or embodied in rules, punishment, threats, or intimidation, but is instead organic, encouraging, and trustworthy. She also notes that the embodiment of coercive “force” should not be confused with genuine “authority.”

Second, I’m a firm believer in the idea that people and organizations all move through stages of development. A number of thinkers have proposed frameworks for such development, for example, Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, James Fowler’s stages of faith development, Don Beck and Chris Cowan’s theory of human development known as “Spiral Dynamics,” and Ken Wilber’s various lines and levels of development in his “integral” theory of the evolution of consciousness.

My sense is that, across the board, the church as people of God is more evolved and developed than the church as hierarchy. In other words, the institutional component of the church, as a result of its narrow and rigid structure and self-serving mythology, is stuck at a certain level of development that the majority of Catholics have moved or are moving beyond.

An example: in Fowler’s understanding of faith development, Stage 3 is characterized by conformity, whereas Stage 4 sees people taking personal responsibility for their beliefs and feeling. Stage 5 acknowledges and accepts paradox and transcendence, thereby “relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems.” I think it’s clear that the vast majority of those men who make up the Roman Catholic hierarchy are firmly entrenched in Stage 3, while much of the laity have progressed to those other stages cited. The result? Well, not only are members of the hierarchy ignored, but this ignoring is part of a wider range of tensions that though uncomfortable are unavoidable and indeed necessary for the ongoing development of the Church.

It’s a tension that we’ve experienced in very pronounced ways at regular intervals throughout human history. For as humanity has collectively struggled to move from one stage of development to another, there has always been some who have resisted growth and change. (Of course, this struggle is played out in the journey of our personal lives as well as in the broader journey of humanity.)

According to author Phyllis Tickle, it’s also a tension that has been experienced in very pronounced ways throughout Christian history.
“About every five hundred years,” says Tickle, citing Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer, “the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”

For more on this idea, see this review of Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Notre Dame, Anti-Abortion Extremists, and the Pastoral Failure of the U.S. Catholic Bishops - William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, May 11, 2009).
American Catholics and Abortion - Karlyn Bowman (Forbes Magazine, May 11, 2009).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Catholic Theologian: “The President of Notre Dame is Following the Example Set by the Vatican”
American Catholics and Obama
It’s Still Out There
Responding to Bishop John “We Are at War” Finn
What the Notre Dame Controversy is Really About and What’s Really at Stake
A Mountain Out of a Molehill
The Bishops and Obama (Part 1)
The Bishops and Obama (Part 2)


PrickliestPear said...

It's funny you should bring up Fowler and his theory of faith development, because that's exactly what I thought of when I read Reese's article. I imagine most bishops imagine that most Catholics are at Stage 3 (or should be), and that they will respond to "the equivalent of a parent shouting, 'Because I said so.'" (Interestingly, Stage 3 is something most of us transcend in adolescence, so it's not surprising they think they can talk to the laity as if we were children.)

I'm actually preparing a series of blog posts about Fowler's theory, and how it explains much of what we see happening in the church, so I was very pleased to read your post.

It's very common to see the "polarization" of the church in terms of progressives on the left, conservatives on the right, with the much larger group of moderates in the middle. But in the light of Fowler's theory, I think it's probably more accurate to say that conservatives are usually at Stage 3 (or lower), progressives are usually (but not always) at Stage 5, and the large majority of so-called moderates are at stage 4. In other words, this "polarization" is best understood in terms of vertical stages rather than horizontal styles or preferences.

Fowler also notes, based on the work of John Chirban, that the degree of commitment increases "the further one moves beyond a Synthetic-Conventional [Stage 3] structuring of faith." Up to Stage 3, one's commitment is largely motivated by extrinsic factors (things like reward/punishment, heaven/hell, etc). After Stage 4, motivation is largely intrinsic. That is, believing the truth has value for its own sake, not because it benefits me in some way. This is why people at Stage 4 and higher are more willing to search for ever-higher truths, even though these truths are not accompanied with the promise of eternal salvation.

I think this explains why the most committed people in the church tend to the Stage 5 progressives and Stage 3 conservatives, with the Stage 4 moderates being, overall, must less interested.

I appreciate what you mean when you say that "the vast majority of those men who make up the Roman Catholic hierarchy are firmly entrenched in Stage 3." I suspect some of the brighter ones -- and I would count the current pope as one of them -- have moved beyond that, but only imperfectly. Wilber discusses somewhere how people can progress to higher stages while dragging elements of lower levels with them, like little blobs of the self getting stuck on lower rungs of the ladder. So I might nuance your assertion that the majority are "firmly entrenched in Stage 3," although, at the same time, it's obvious enough that most bishops are not in the pope's league, intellectually.

kevin57 said...

I think Father Reese hits the proverbial nail on the head. While Humanae Vitae marked a critical turning point in when and where the laity would listen to the hierarchical Church, it runs much deeper than that. In fact, it seems to me that the Holy Spirit was leading the People of God where Vatican II had summoned the entire Church just years earlier.

Liam said...

I find the stages of development thesis a bit more facile than actual human development. Even assuming there is something to them, the stages coexist in many people. I've found oceans of conformist and rules-based thinking among my fellow progressives, just manifested in ways we don't tend see as conformist or rules-based. Especially in places we become dominant or ghettoized (which offers a warning).

And, a generation ago, I found (political conservatives) to be generally less conformist and rules-based than their progressive counterparts. That's changed as the conservative movements (note the plural) have ripened and rotted - to my mind, this became evident when Reagan was re-elected, and those movements came closer to grasping a power that could bring more of their vision to birth. It will probably happen to our current progressive wave in due course.