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)