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“Resignation: that’s what American Catholics are feeling about our faith. We are resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won’t be fixed anytime soon. So if the pope can resign, we can, too. We should give up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time.”
A few days ago writer Paul Elie joined the chorus of voices offering commentary on the Catholic Church surrounding the resignation of the now-Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. As the above quote indicates, Elie’s op-ed, “Give Up Your Pew for Lent,” plays with the double-meaning of the term “resignation” to make a case for a temporary, protest exodus from the Catholic Church. While Benedict resigned—that is, gave up his office—Elie notes that many American Catholics experience another form of resignation—that is, an acceptance of the inevitable unpleasant reality of their church. From this, he exhorts Catholics to vacate parishes in an effort express to church leaders the resignation they feel, and to spend time reconsidering their resignation. Perhaps some time away and the experience of other faith communities can even dispel their resignation.
There is much to say in response to Elie’s piece. My friend Dan over at datinggod.org has already articulated well how Elie’s proposal betrays our theological conceptions of church and Eucharist, and misplaces the power of ecclesial change in the hands of those who leave the Church rather than those who articulate their criticisms with the tradition. To this, I would add my concern for Elie’s general characterization of American Catholics—Are we really all so “resigned”?
In my mind, “resignation” connotes passivity, a disposition of disinterest, acquiescence. To characterize the temperament of American Catholics—particularly those troubled by Catholicism’s interfaith relations or leaders’ handling of the clergy abuse crisis, to cite some issues listed by Elie—is to depict a gross misrepresentation of American Catholics that overlooks some of the most engaged and faithful practitioners in the Church today. Surely, many dissatisfied Catholics might be characterized appropriately as “resigned,” but to say that this represents the “what American Catholics are feeling,” is an overstatement that overlooks the complex reality of lived Catholicism today.
Furthermore, many of the Catholics I know who are most committed to the types of ecclesial changes underwriting Elie’s op-ed are—undoubtedly—the most engaged and least “resigned” Catholics I know. They have not resigned to bitterness and complaint about the Catholicism; they are deeply hopeful and actively engaged in actualizing a Church grounded in the Gospel.
They are Catholic like those who wrote for the recent publication, Hungering and Thirsting For Justice, co-edited by Lacey Louwagie and my friend Kate Ward, or the colleagues and friends alongside whom I wrote in the collection, From the Pews in the Back: Young Women and Catholicism. These and so many other Catholics are anything but “resigned,” and most would adamantly disagree with Elie’s charge that resigning—that is, giving up on one’s place in the pew—is a good way to engage Catholicism.
What’s more, many of the Catholics I know who have resigned—who have left Catholicism—rarely if ever do so in a state of emotional resignation. They wrestle with the Church and the Catholic tradition, and often experience an incredible amount of conflict about their decision to seek God in another faith community. The kind of easy departure that Elie presents in his op-ed betrays the genuine strife that many Catholics experience as they struggle to understand their place inside—or outside—the Church. The idea of “giving up one’s pew for Lent” seems rather trite in view of the genuine struggles of these faithful friends.
That many American Catholics–on any side of the aisle–are unhappy about the realities of Catholicism is true. That we all feel so resigned is an overgeneralization, I think. It is a misrepresentation of American Catholicism’s complex realities. And, that we ought to resign from our pews, wherever we sit, is no solution for the resignation that some folks do actually feel.
A woman said this to Karen during her recent trip to Honduras. Along with a group of students from Harvard Divinity School, Karen was there to learn from the women of this rural Honduran community whose lives are plagued by rape and murder. She had proposed a moment of silence to initiate the gathering of local women and foreign students that day, but she learned there was no more tolerance for silence in this community. For too long violence and abuse has been hushed.
So they clapped.
Increasingly, I am aware of how silence shapes my formation as a young Catholic theologian. Beginning with my early undergraduate years, I was schooled in the politics of Catholic speech: there are theological statements—even questions—that one simply cannot ask before certain audiences. Over the years, however, I have learned that with meticulous care, one can find ways to articulate these inquiries in a language that veils its hints of potential “uncertainty” or “disagreement.” If I break this decorum of speech, even in the nascent phases of my theological career, I fear it may cost me a professorship or a ministry job. I can already name numerous theologians and ministers for whom this is the case.
It is unsettling to recognize the many ways in which I must privately silence myself for the sake of avoiding potential silencing from others. What kind of theology can happen in this environment? Can I produce relevant theology when I often feel that I cannot outwardly address the probing, courageous questions of my community? Maybe once I’m tenured. Can these questions wait twenty years?
For years, the unfolding public recognition of the Church’s orchestrated silencing of clerical sexual abuse victims has shaped my life as a Catholic. These clergymen stood up and spoke before their congregations week and week—year after year—while their victims sat silently in the pews. Yesterday in a report on Pope Benedict’s Palm Sunday Homily, the New York Times analyzed what sounded like an implicit response to critics who implicate his guilt in the European abuse scandals. Granted, the Times reads between the lines of the Pope’s homily, but in the context of his public indictment, his words strike me as a clear attempt to hush his critics: “The pontiff said faith in God helps lead one ‘towards the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.’” The silence continues–and I continue to wonder what kinds of faith development, worship, or social justice work can happen in a church of whispers and hushed voices.
How can a young theologian, situated within her own matrix of silence, speak out against the perpetual silencing that enabled—and continues to enable—the grave injustice of the global clerical abuse crisis and its mismanagement at seemingly every level of church leadership? My silencing—as a woman, as a lay person, as a theologian and minister—will never amount to the painful silence imposed upon so many abuse victims in our church. Breaking my silence will not cost me nearly as much either.
I do not know how to speak to our Church right now. In fact, these days I find myself so hurt and angry words feel useless for articulating the magnitude of our situation. But I know there must be noise. “We don’t need a moment of silence. There has been too much silence already.” There must be noise.
Perhaps on Good Friday when I approach the cross of Christ’s suffering with our suffering, there will be no moment of silence. Perhaps I will do as Jesus did—I will shout. “God, why?”
On the days when I particularly overwhelmed–when I am convinced that any reform in my church will require at least 10 million perfect words, when I am sure that nothing I can think or say or write will ever make any difference, when I am tempted to think that the countless number of books in Harvard’s theological library may actually make so little an imprint on the world–on these days you will probably find me cross-legged on the floor of the Harvard Bookstore. I will be hunched over barren pages held together by thin bindings in the poetry aisle. Their words belong to people that most people do not know, people I do not know.
I don’t just come for the poems; I come for all the white space that fills these poetry books. The white space actually comforts me more, I think, reminding me of two things: First, reminding me of the arduous silence–all the wordless thinking–that accompanied very worthwhile word I have ever written. Wordlessness can be precious and productive in its own ways. Second, reminding me that I do not need to say everything–I do not need to say everything–only a few beautiful, dangerous, honest-to-God, true things. Poems are so captivating because they say so much with so little.
I am so little, and I want to say something worth so much.
The liturgy begins when a handsome young man, dressed neatly in an argyle sweater, lifts the worn brass trumpet to his lips. His eyes are closed, his composure calm. With just one breath, everything in the tiny cathedral comes to a halt. We remove drink classes and beer bottles from our lips. Bar chatter hushes. We join the trumpeter’s band in shifting our eyes toward the sound—toward the man who is filling this tiny Boston bar with the most commanding, memorizing music….
Throughout the years I have experienced the benefits of going to worship services at unfamiliar churches. Foreign religious environments force me to face my own assumptions about God and religion—about who God is, how that God is to be worshiped, and what God’s worshipers look like and think about. When I stand with charismatics lifting their hands in praise, or kneel with Muslim women as they whisper Arabic words of prayer, I ask myself, “What can I learn from this genuine expression of worship? How does this push me to think about God in new ways? Who is this God before me?”
Last night in Wally’s Jazz Cafe, I found myself asking these questions. Although I have a casual appreciation for jazz music, I am no musician (to my dismay). I know nothing of the music theory and rhythms and chords upon which jazz improvisation is situated. I could not recognize the finger settings and swift movements as the musicians’ fingers fluttered across trumpet, alto sax, electric guitar or acoustic bass. The rhythmic bounce and sway of the drummer appeared chaotic to my untrained eye.
But while sitting there at the small wooden table—I believed. The aesthetics and decorum of the worship space were foreign, but the energy, vulnerability, conviction of the performance before me was intoxicatingly persuasive. I didn’t know how to recognize It, but I knew the Jazz God was in the room. I believed it. I could feel It. I heard It. I witnessed It in their worship.
I want to believe in the religious experiences of others, at least most of the time. Only in assuming their genuineness can I begin to meet their Gods for myself. And many times, these meetings become meetings with my own God in new ways.
Last Sunday I found myself smack in the middle of a protest between pro-choice feminists and anti-abortion Catholics. This Sunday I took communion with Senator John Kerry.
It wasn’t until halfway through the Mass that I realized the deep singing voice behind me belonged to the famous American Catholic politician. “Peace be with you,” I said, offering the tall man my tiny hand. Only as he reciprocated the gesture and words of peace did I became aware of who this man is.
It wasn’t mere celebrity that had his presence on my mind throughout the Eucharist and the rest of the Mass. After a week of meditating on the difficulties of being a Catholic feminist in light our nation’s debates concerning reproductive rights, there I was with the famous public figure who has been set apart as the embodiment of this tension between women’s rights and religious tradition. I was humbled. What kind of courage and devotion must one possess to show up to Mass time and time again, undoubtedly aware of the political implications accompanying every walk one takes toward the altar in that communion line? Although there is real friction in my feminist Catholic identity when it comes to navigating the question of abortion, the discomfort I experience and the Catholic allegiance I profess in light of it is really so easy compared to a man who must work out these tensions so publicly.
From the protest lines to the Communion line. I felt a great deal of courage, standing in that line with him.