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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.
Yesterday afternoon I broke from my homework to read the latest NYTimes op-ed on Catholicism, “The Curse of Catholicism” by Frank Bruni. Prompted by Gary Wills’ forthcoming book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, Bruni argues that institutional Catholicism has done a disservice to its priests and practitioners by “tuck[ing] priests into a cosseted caste above the flock, wrapp[ing] them in mysticism and prioritize[ing] their protection and reputations over the needs and sometimes even the anguish of the people in the pews.” The column, relatively lengthy for an op-ed, goes on to connect explicitly the structural privilege of priests and the power abuses exercised in the global clergy sexual abuse crisis and its cover-up. I have been reading studies on this connection for years and continue to find it deeply concerning.
I do have some contentions with the article—namely, Bruni’s emphasis at one point on Wills’ claim that Christianity was “opposed to the priesthood” from the start, an argument that strikes me as anti-Jewish and rather untenable in view of the tradition of understanding Jesus as the High Priest, as showcased in the Letter to the Hebrews that the church prayed with just this past week! Still, despite this and despite the fact that I have been brooding over the connection of church structures and power abuses for nearly a decade now, something about this article affected me anew. Skimming my computer screen, my heart felt so heavy I thought I might have to hunch over to lean my elbows on the table, just to manage of the weight of it.
Perhaps it is because the details of the article reminded me that I am simply so close, so entangled in the ongoing terrible tragedy that Bruni narrates. A good deal of the piece rehearses new reports about the extensive cover-up of clergy sexual abuse carried out by Cardinal Roger Mahoney, former Archbishop of Los Angeles. He signed my paychecks in 2009 when I served as a minister in the Archdiocesan Office of Religious Education. Every day I worked just a few floors below him. I ministered at liturgies where he presided. I probably shook his hand once or twice. Or maybe I was struck by my closeness to all this because I read that article from a seminary library—a library I occupy nearly every day—that was sold to Boston College by the Archdiocese of Boston in its scramble to attain excess cash for clergy sexual abuse lawsuits. The window I sat beside looks out over Cardinal Law’s former residence, which also sits on the property. The mere mention of his name still infuriates the people of Boston.
In moments like this when I am reminded that I am frighteningly proximate to this scandal, it is also easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of complicity. This Church—led officially by many people who have abused power, and defined by structures that enable them—I am a part of it. I choose to be a part of it. My religious life, my professional life, and so many of my friendships are entirely entangled in this Church. If the structures of this community enabled some leaders to commit appalling abuses, and I am a part of this community, am I not somehow indirectly complicit?
This question is terribly uncomfortable, but whenever it confronts me I have the conviction that it is not to be easily dismissed. So yesterday afternoon, after closing my computer screen, I let that question haunt me. I sat with it before bed and I woke up with it. And then I read that famous passage about the Body of Christ from the First Letter to the Corinthians, which appears in today’s liturgical readings. Despite decades of familiarity with it, something about this passage affected me anew when I read it this morning. It was two brief sentences that struck me, actually: “Now the body is not a single part, but many….Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” The first sentence reminds us that we cannot reduce the body—the church—to a single part, to oneself. Or to anyone else for that matter—a pope, a priest, a parent. The second sentence, however, emphasizes the opposite: we are distinct individual parts within this larger body. We do not lose our particularities in our belonging to this larger body, as if conflated or erased. This is a tension of being Church: We are many and we are one. We belong to each other but we do not lose ourselves as individuals. We are responsible for one another, but we are also responsible for our own actions and inactions.
So, again, this question: Am I complicit? In view of the vision of church we find in today’s reading, I think we ought not set aside the question of communal responsibility, of structural sin. At the same time, we must keep in mind the obvious fact that people must take responsibility for their own individual actions and inactions when it comes to this terrible scandal. The Church as a whole cannot be conflated with any of its figureheads; in turn, any priests’ sin is not every Catholic’s sin. We must learn to live in this tension as church, and we must learn to live with it in a way that doesn’t leave us so heavy hearted that we are paralyzed. We cannot let the difficulty of church keep us from being the best of church–
More on that last line in the next blog post.
When the headlines appear, the questions come in. I’m used to this. And in fact, I’m absolutely flattered by it. It means a lot to me that people take the time to ask for my thoughts about whatever Catholic controversy fills the news on any given day. Sometimes, friends ask me to sort out the esoteric religious jargon for them. I’m capable of this only sometimes, but I am always honored that folks trust my assessment of the tradition. Other times, these blessed friends are simply concerned about how I’m dealing with it all. “How are you feeling about this, Jessica. How are you doing?”
In recent weeks when the news spread that the Vatican is making significant strides to revise its handling of clergy sexual abuse cases–all while allegedly linking the severity of these sins to the ordination of women–the questions came in, and I started to ask myself, “How are you feeling about this, Jessica? How are you doing?”
I couldn’t stop thinking about the story my friend Katie told me the other day. During a recent weekend, she volunteered at a middle school camp for inner city youth run by the Catholic parochial school where she taught for a few years after college. On that Sunday morning, she went to Mass with the students and their teachers in the camp’s quaint wooden chapel. The presider was gracious with the kids, and a good homilist, too. “But the tabernacle there–” she told me. That’s what got her. “The tabernacle looks just like the boy’s Catholic school down the street. Like the shape of their building.” I began to smile as she went on. I delighted in the fact that this friend anticipated the wonder I would share with her as she recounted this experience for me. “This is what Catholicism is about, isn’t it? Recognizing Jesus inside an inner city school like that? Like that? Believing that Jesus dwells with the underprivileged so much that you make a symbol of it with the most important part of your sanctuary?”
I nodded as we savored this moment that captured the best of our Church. In that small moment, we didn’t have to convince ourselves that we are so blessed to belong to this Church. We are blessed to have church that views inner city schools as tabernacles, and tabernacles as inner city schools. And blessed to be raised in a church that has given us the eyes to see the world in this way, too. “I wish I had moments like that more often,” Katie said. I think she was referring to the tabernacle at the camp, but I was thinking the same thing about the moment we had just shared–that moment of unwavering pride for our faith.
I’ve been telling a lot of people that, for many reasons, I feel sad and disappointed about the recent Vatican stirrings. And, really, I’m feeling tired of feeling sad and disappointed. But I am also trying to tell a lot of people about my hope. I’m trying to talk about that, too. I’m trying to tell them about the eyes this tradition has afforded me–Katie and me. Eyes that recognize miraculous transformations in places and people that much of society overlooks. Eyes that see Jesus in the sometimes harsh and unglamorous realities of our cities. Eyes set on recognizing God’s redemption of our world in any and every place. Even in our Church.
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.