Friday, October 04, 2013


Yes, astounded. That's the best word I can think of to describe how I'm feeling and (just like Prince Valiant pictured at left) no doubt sometimes looking these days as I watch momentous events at both the local and global church level unfold – and, in some cases, unravel.

To appreciate what I mean, let me take you back to this day – the feast of St. Francis of Assisi – six years ago. This will help highlight some of the astounding differences between the situation then and what's taking place now.

Back in 2007 I wrote about a group of Catholics in the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese coming together to launch a new online forum called The Progressive Catholic Voice. We felt there was a need for such a forum as the official channels of communication in the archdiocese, including The Catholic Spirit newspaper, were not open to sharing progressive Catholic perspectives. We decided that if we couldn't access the media, we'd become the media!

Repairing the church

We intentionally called ourselves "progressive" as we were drawn to participate in our church’s wondrous capacity to grow, change, and evolve in ways that ever increasingly reveal God’s transforming love in our midst. We also intentionally chose to dedicate our new venture to St. Francis as we were inspired by how he listened for and responded to God’s call to "repair my church."

Back in 2007 we acknowledged that this call continued to resound in a Roman Catholic Church that, at its worst, is corroded and weakened by clericalism, hypocrisy, intellectual dishonesty, a profound lack of imagination, and a monarchical mindset and structure totally contrary to Jesus’ egalitarian model of community. The launching of The Progressive Catholic Voice was one way that local Catholics sought to pro-actively respond to these threats and challenges to the building of a church that truly embodies the "good news" of Jesus.

Another pro-active response soon followed in April of 2009 with the formation of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR). For the past four years CCCR has been working to envision and build a local Catholic community alive with Jesus' message of inclusivity, equality, and transforming love. CCCR finds inspiration and purpose in integrating and embodying the gospel message, Catholic practice, and the ‘new creation story’ emerging from contemporary science.

I helped co-found CCCR and continue to serve on its board. To date we've hosted three Synods of the Baptized. The most recent was last weekend. It drew 300 people, featured Sister Gail Worcelo, sgm, and was entitled "Co-creating the Living Church." Synod 2013 built on previous synods which focused on "Taking Our Place at the Table" (2010) and "Making Our Voices Heard" (2011). The latter launched the Council of the Baptized, which serves as "the voice of the community, discerning the direction of the Holy Spirit among us." To date, the Council of the Baptized has researched and published position papers calling for lay preaching, financial transparency and accountability, the re-establishment of an Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, and the participation of the Catholic people in the selection of bishops.

Differing models of church

It should be noted that the activities of both CCCR and the Council of the Baptized have been consistently dismissed and denounced by Archbishop John C. Nienstedt. He has repeatedly refused invitations to meet with representatives from both groups. He does not see us as part of the church, and has warned Catholics against attending our events.

Archbishop Nienstedt's dismissive stance on CCCR, the Council of the Baptized, and indeed any Catholic who questions or disagrees with him is supported, indeed fueled by a model of church promulgated by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. It's the "smaller, purer" model of church; one that gladly shows the door to those who express sincere questions of conscience and/or who faithfully dissent from official church edicts on issues relating to sexuality, or from decisions like those of Archbishop Nienstedt to actively (and expensively) campaign against civil marriage rights for same-sex couples.

The "smaller, purer" model of church championed by Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Nienstedt is not the model of church that groups like CCCR believe God is calling us to build, to embody. Rather, drawing from the life and message of Jesus, the insights of contemporary Catholic theologians, and the experiences of the Catholic faithful, we envision a pilgrim church, a living church – one that's very much still growing and evolving into the reality of Christ, "the fused one," present within and among us.

Such ongoing transformation – of ourselves as individuals and as community – requires the participation of all. It also requires open communication, a willingness to be vulnerable, and the building and maintaining of an environment that invites and welcomes diversity and dialogue. We don't limit "the church" to the hierarchy but rather see it as the "people of God." All are welcome. All have something to contribute as together we continue our journey of ever-expanding consciousness into the fullness of God. Given this participatory and 'welcoming of all' understanding of church, you can understand why many of those involved with CCCR found Archbishop Nienstedt's denouncements and refusal to engage in dialogue both baffling and hurtful.

Yet something quite astounding has occurred: We have a new pope whose approach to thinking and talking about the church actually mirrors in a number of important ways the approach that The Progressive Catholic Voice, CCCR, and other church reform-focused individuals and groups have long embraced!

"We should not think that 'thinking with the church' means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church," said Pope Francis in his recent interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J. "[The] church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity."

This is a clear rejection of the "smaller, purer" model of church. Indeed, it brings to mind the title of the 2008 prayer breakfast at which the seeds of CCCR were first planted: "Here Comes Everyone!"

Beyond authoritarianism to dialogue

Much to the relief and astonishment of many Catholics, Pope Francis is open to dialogue and consultation – something his predecessors were not open to, and something that CCCR and the Council of the Baptized have been so far unsuccessful in facilitating between their members and members of our local clerical leadership.

Writing about this aspect of Francis' ecclesiology – his way of talking about the church – David Gibson notes:

When the cardinals gathered last March to elect a successor to Benedict XVI, many Catholics were praying for a reformer who would tilt the church toward the progressive side of the spectrum. The cardinals, and many other bishops, were mainly concerned with getting a pope who would get the Roman Curia off their backs and maybe even listen to their concerns once in a while.

Both prayers may have been answered, but the most significant development may be Francis’ vow to have a “real, not ceremonial consultation” in which he hears all points of view and where everyone can speak freely.

Francis wants to consult with the bishops, but it doesn’t stop there: He wants the bishops to consult with their people, to “support the movements of God among their people with patience.” The point is that the institutional church needs to account for the beliefs of the “people of God.”

He expressed that most provocatively in highlighting that all Catholics — rather than the pope alone — "are infallible in matters of belief."

Francis' appreciation of consultation comes from reflecting on his past mistakes, when he vaulted to a senior leadership position in the Jesuits at the age of 36 and alienated many with his “authoritarian way of making decisions.” The church, too, has been guilty of that fault, he says, and he wants to change that.

Of course, the way to change an authoritarian way of making decisions is to invite and foster dialogue – a key goal of CCCR. In his recent dialogue with La Repubblica's founder Eugenio Scalfari, Pope Francis expressed the same goal.

We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. . . . [A] Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us. I do not share this view and I'll do everything I can to change it. The Church is or should go back to being a community of God's people, and priests, pastors and bishops who have the care of souls, are at the service of the people of God.

It remains to be seen if Archbishop Nienstedt will follow Pope Francis' example and be of service to the people of God by actually getting to know them through dialogue. Admittedly, such service is probably not high on his agenda just now due to a rather major issue he's dealing with among his fellow clerics. (Yes, it's that astounding unraveling I mentioned earlier.)

A horizontal church

Speaking of this particular unraveling in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, it should be noted that CCCR and progressive local Catholics in general have long recognized clericalism as a diseased system. Pope Francis agrees, noting that: "[W]hen I meet a clericalist, I suddenly become anti-clerical. Clericalism should not have anything to do with Christianity." (Clericalism, unfortunately but not surprisingly, is at the root of the pornography cover-up scandal that's currently astounding many here in Minnesota.)

Aware of the dangers of clericalism and as Catholics mindful of the church's capacity for growth and change, we've also talked about the need for a strong horizontal dimension to the church, not simply a vertical, hierarchical one. The pope shares this perspective, remarking that he intends on "gently, but firmly and tenaciously" creating "a Church with an organization that is not just top-down but also horizontal."

The creation of such a church will require open communication with the laity. I trust that the pope is serious about such communication. And when it happens we will be, as our most recent synod title describes it, "co-creators of the living Church." I believe the pope, like so many of us, is discovering that, at its best, the church is, as Cletus Wessels, O.P. said, not hierarchical but holarchical, not a pyramid but a web of relationships.

Pope Francis also appears to have evolved beyond theological imperialism, which puts him in stark contrast to his predecessor. At the heart of theological imperialism, says theologian Darmuid Ó Murchú, is the claim that "our religion contains the fullness of revelation, in the light of which all other religions are deemed to be somehow inferior."

Pope Francis is not motivated by such triumphalist thinking. He states, for example, that "there is no Catholic God" and that "a spark of divine light is within each of us." He also says that "proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us."

Great hope

Some will no doubt be quick to point out that all of these similarities I've highlighted between Pope Francis and church reform-focused groups such as CCCR are to do with leadership style, with focus, and with approach. The teachings of the Church on, say, homosexuality, remain unchanged. This is true. The pope has not changed any church teachings. But he is doing three important things.

First, he is giving permission to Catholics to not be fixated on issues such as gay marriage. He himself doesn't seem particularly interested in such issues. And when it comes to gay issues, he compels us to first and foremost focus on the person:

When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being.

And then, of course, there's the pope's now famous statement on gay men and the priesthood: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"

Again, it's important to note that church teaching on the sinfulness of "homosexual acts" has not changed. Accordingly, I agree with Jamie Manson when she writes:

What Francis doesn't seem to understand is that it is precisely the teaching of the church that is doing the wounding. If the teaching remains the same, the harm will only continue, regardless of how warm the welcome appears to be.

However, at this point I think it's helpful to highlight the second important thing Francis is doing: He is creating an environment for dialogue and the exchange of perspectives, insights, and ideas. This type of communication and sharing has the power to change hearts and minds. We saw this powerfully demonstrated during last year's "marriage amendment" campaign (see here and here). If at some future time church teaching on homosexuality is ever changed, it will in large part be because of the changed hearts and minds that had come about as a result of the type of dialogue Francis is encouraging today.

Third, and this in many ways follows from the creation of an environment of dialogue, Francis is very clearly saying that our church is one that can and has and will continue to change. He notes, for instance, that: "The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong." The church, continues Francis, "must better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the Church’s teaching [and to] grow in the understanding of the truth."

These words give great hope to those who sincerely believe that the church, the people of God, is still growing in awareness of complex realities such as sexuality. They also validate, I believe, not only the important sharing of personal stories that many LGBT Catholics and their families engage in, but the theological undertakings of Catholic thinkers such as Margaret Farley and Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler. These theologians' scholarly books on sexuality were denounced under the reign of the previous pope (as was my own book, Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective). Yet in light of Pope Francis' recent comments they are doing exactly what he says needs to be done: helping the church grow in understanding on how we as humans — as sexual beings — understand ourselves and thus the truth of God's presence in our lives and our world.

Change is coming

David Gibson observes that Pope Francis "seems to echo the 19th-century English convert, Cardinal John Henry Newman, who has been both celebrated and condemned for his writings on how doctrine evolves over time. It was Newman who famously said: 'To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.'"

I agree with Gibson when he writes that "it is unclear how long any changes might take under Francis, or exactly what form they will take. But . . . it seems inevitable that change is coming."

And just how threatening is this to some Catholics? Well, let me just say that the same people who for years have been highly (and often nastily) critical of groups like CCCR are simply aghast at the things Pope Francis has been saying. Which reminds me of the maxim: My opponent's opponent is my friend.

Who would have thought it would have come to this? Yes, like I said, I'm often quite astounded these days.

Related Off-site Links:
The Pope's Radical Whisper – Frank Bruni (New York Times via The Progressive Catholic Voice, September 22, 2013).
A Big Heart Open to God: An Exclusive Interview with Pope Francis – Antonio Spadaro, S.J. (America, September 30, 2013).
The Pope: How the Church Will Change – Eugenio Scalfari (La Repubblica, October 1, 2013).
Can the Pope Help End the Culture Wars? – Robert Christian (Washington Post, September 23, 2013).
Twin Cities Parishioners—Those Who See Big Change, Some Who Don't—Respond to Pope – Beth Hawkins (MinnPost, September 23, 2013).
Dueling Worldviews – Paula Ruddy (The Progressive Catholic Voice, August 19, 2013).
Franciscans' Global Leader: Pope's Assisi Trip Time to Consider Church Reform – Joshua J. McElwee (National Catholic Reporter, October 3, 2013).
It's Time for Real Authority for Women in the Church – Editorial Staff (National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2013).
The Wounds Will Not Heal If the Teachings Remain the Same – Jamie Manson (National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 2013).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What It Means to Be Catholic
Introducing the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform
Preparing to Claim Our Place at the Table
Many Voices, One Church
"Something Exciting and Joyous"
The Call to be Dialogical Catholics
The Holarchical Church: Not a Pyramid But a Web of Relationships
It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism
Comprehending the "Fullness of Truth"
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
Quote of the Day — September 19, 2013
The Onward Call

Image: Prince Valiant as drawn by Gary Gianni (November 11, 2007).

1 comment:

Terence Weldon said...

Astounded a week ago, Michael? How about today, when as part of catechesis, no less, in his general audience yesterday, he described Catholicism as NOT requiring uniformity. By using the analogy of the differing sounds and notes of the instruments of the symphony orchestra, which combine to produce glorious harmony, he was in effect celebrating diversity within the church.

No wonder that the orthotoxic Catholic right, so convinced that real Catholicism means strict compliance with their own understanding of rules and regulations on belief and practice, are now in a state of panic.