Not all faithful Catholics are right-wing reactionaries. One surprising discovery I made in the early days of my return to the Church was of the vast spectrum of current Catholic thought, from doctrinally ultra-conservative to near-heretical liberal. On this spectrum one can find both clergy and laity and both academics and ordinary Catholics. For example, well-known conservative theologian Scott Hahn, a convert to Catholicism, is a proponent of the factual-literal approach to scripture, an upholder of Catholic tradition, and a supporter of the hierarchy. His scripture study materials are used in bible-study classes in conservative Catholic parishes all over North America.
There are, at the other end of the scale, many so-called progressives who criticize the medieval attitudes of the hierarchy, work for reform in the Church, and even question fundamental Catholic doctrine. Those progressives who hold positions in Catholic academia and those who are members of the clergy are often risking censure from their bishop, their religious superior, or Rome when they present views that dissent from official Catholic teaching; in some cases they risk their jobs.
In 1986 Father Charles Curran, a moral theologian and tenured professor at Catholic University of America, known for his dissenting opinions on contraception, in vitro fertilization, homosexuality and other controversial issues, was removed from his position at the university and prohibited from teaching in any Catholic institution by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican (and now Pope Benedict XVI). Ratzinger pronounced at the time that Curran was “neither suitable nor eligible to be a professor of Catholic theology.” Now Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University, Father Curran is still a Catholic and still a priest.
Other notable outspoken progressives include theologian Hans Küng, Jesuit writers and magazine editors Thomas Reese and James Martin, author James Carroll, South African bishop Kevin Dowling, Father Geoff Farrow, Franciscan Father Richard Rohr, and Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister. Some of these people have suffered censure, dismissal from their jobs, and removal from active ministry on account of their dissenting views and actions.
Yet they remain Catholic.
Not all members of the clergy fit the mould of corporate yes-man. Bishop Kevin Dowling has bravely gone against Church teaching to advocate the use of condoms in order to protect poor and vulnerable African women from HIV/AIDS. And he recently gave an address to a select group of laypersons in which he criticized the Vatican for concentrating too much power in its hands; the text of his address subsequently appeared in the Catholic press.
In May 2010 Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna publicly criticized a powerful fellow cardinal for blocking sex abuse investigations and for dismissing claims of clerical abuse as “petty gossip.” Schonborn was in turn publicly chastised by the Vatican for his remarks. Chicago parish priest and writer Father Dominic Grassi refuses to condemn abortion from the pulpit because he knows there are women sitting in the pews who have had abortions. “I know from talking to them individually who’ve come to me and are dealing with the scars and issues and concerns with what they did.” Father Grassi has indicated that he is not among the clergy most favoured by the Catholic hierarchy of Chicago. Yet after nearly forty years of priesthood, he loves being a Catholic priest.
How have we come to be a Church that is perceived by many — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — to be misogynist, homophobic, insensitive, anti-modern, and irrelevant? We only need to look at how events have unfolded over the past half century to find an answer to this question.
Pope John XXIII (1958-63) recognized the need for reform in the Church after more than one hundred years of official anti-modernism. Among the goals of the Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John in 1962, was what he called aggiornamento—renewal and updating of the Church. Another goal was to create a more “horizontal” Church by giving a greater role in governance and liturgical life to the laity and the local churches and by stressing the collegiality of bishops over the absolute power of the Vatican.
The council, which went on for four years, was characterized by a spirit of openness, reform, and ecumenism, giving hope to laity and clergy alike who had been discouraged by the oppressive and restrictive nature of Vatican authoritarianism. If the spirit of Vatican II had been allowed to grow and to take hold in every corner of the Church, Catholicism would be different today.
Sadly, John XXIII died less than one year after opening the council and was replaced by a weak and indecisive pope (Paul VI), who was followed by a dying pope (John Paul I), who in turn was succeeded by a pope from a very conservative country that had been under authoritarian—if not totalitarian—rule since the Second World War. In his 26-year pontificate, this Polish pope, John Paul II, restored the strict hierarchical structure and unchallenged authority of the Vatican that had characterized the pre-conciliar Church. Women, gay people, theologians, reform-minded priests, proponents of artificial birth control have all been marginalized. The spirit of the council has been effectively smothered and the hopes of millions of Catholics disappointed.
In his book The Catholic Church: A Short History, Swiss theologian Hans Küng, one of the key advisers to the council, characterizes the reign of John Paul II in this way: “Instead of the aggiornamento in the spirit of the gospel there is now again the traditional integral ‘Catholic teaching’ (rigorous moral encyclicals, the traditionalist world catechism). Instead of the collegiality of the pope with the bishops there is again a tighter Roman centralism which in the nomination of bishops and appointments to theological chairs sets itself above the interests of the local churches. Instead of openness to the modern world there is increasingly accusation, lamentation, and complaint over alleged assimilation…. Instead of dialogue there is again reinforced inquisition and a refusal of freedom of conscience and teaching in the church.”
Yet the intellectual, pastoral, and charitable work of the Church goes on, carried out by courageous and selfless individuals in parishes, hospitals, university classrooms, monasteries, and poverty-stricken African villages and refugee camps. This work and the men and women who do it are the Church, far more than the red hats and the popemobile, far more than canon law and the Catechism. Yet the work and the workers go largely unrecognized as People of God and thus as the true Catholic Church.
In the meantime the media and the Catholic hierarchy, with their great power and wealth, conspire unwittingly to paint a one-dimensional, simplistic, and almost entirely negative image of what is in fact a highly complex culture peopled with saints and sinners, activists and pew-warmers, traditionalists and progressives, critics and apologists.
The Catholic Church is not just the medieval and imposing edifice in which the hierarchy resides, presides, and decides. To find the real Church we need to open the doors of all the local churches and see the people inside, not necessarily to join them, but to appreciate their commitment—in all its diverse manifestations—to something that is greater than they are.
“The Dancing Nun” Irish Philadelphia Photo Essays @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Feeding the Hungry in San Francisco. Franco Folini @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
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