Thursday, April 26, 2012

Bishops Behaving Badly

If the Catholic hierarchy were to design a plan for driving people away from the church, they could not have found a more effective method than the ongoing embarrassments coming from Rome and from certain American bishops.

The bishop of Peoria, IL, who compared President Obama to Hitler and Stalin, is too stupid to warrant much response. He condemns himself out of his own mouth. The bishops who excommunicate politicians who do not vote the pro-life agenda do everyone involved a disservice.

The recent Vatican action of stripping American nuns of the right of self-governance by condemning the Leadership Conference on Women Religious has prompted Garry Wills to react, somewhat overheatedly, in the New York Review of Books. "Is it any wonder so many nuns have left the orders or avoided joining them? Who wants to be bullied?"

Wills is one of many intelligent Catholics who try to remain faithful to a life of prayer and the sacraments while deploring the reactionary activities of the men in power, celibate men who are afraid of women, sexuality, change, and even discussion of such issues as clerical celibacy, the ordination of women, the rights of homosexuals in the church, and contraception.

The Vatican officials involved in the recent scrutiny of U.S. nuns, Wills says, are upset that these women, who have done heroic work for generations, do not follow the bishops' thinking. We should be grateful they do not. "Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them."

Strong stuff, yet the state of the macro-church, as opposed to the parish-level life of the church, is in a crisis that will lead either to a second Reformation or a tragic schism.

The nuns are accused of being more interested in ministering to those affected by the AIDS crisis, just as their forbears ran soup kitchens and hospitals and supported the civil rights movement, than in the Gospel teachings on contraception, which do not exist (Wills notes). They are criticized for teaching the "social Gospel" as if there was another kind --one that doesn't say love thy neighbor or challenge injustice.

While mixing politics with religion at the highest levels in Washington, in an effort to defeat Democrats, the bishops oppose religious women and laypeople from being overly political. How long can thinking people tolerate such hypocrisy?

As Wills and other have long observed, women in particular must be singled out by our frightened hierarchs for public chastisement, the very women whose humility stands in such stark contrast to episcopal arrogance.

So we have a hierarchy distrustful of the People of God, as the Second Vatican Council defined the church, and interested in reverting to Latin ritual practices, turning the clock back while the world moves on. These leaders are fearful of the intelligent discussions that female and other progressive theologians want to have, and their fear leads to anger and the threat of excommunication of anyone who dares defy church teaching on sexual morality. These are, of course, the same bishops who, as a group, have mishandled the sexual abuse crisis to the great shame and embarrassment of us all.

Calling the state of the church sad, a writer in Commonweal (4-9-12), Jo McGowan, addresses the blindness of many clergy in the area of sexuality. She does so as a prolife Catholic mother who has "practiced only Natural Family Planning." She is saddened by the priests' limited understanding of contraception as it re-surfaced in the recent debate over health insurance (and the candidacy of Rick Santorum).

She finds it "unsettling when men who may never have experienced sex feel qualified not just to speak about it but to pronounce on it with certainty." She wants the clergy to understand that defending contraception within marriage is not defending sexual license. "The church has made a spectacle of itself by promoting an immature version of sexuality that is missing the sinew of lived experience." (emphasis added)

She does not raise the issue of mandatory celibacy for priests, but this is obvious from her heartfelt and thoughtful article. Insisting on all priests remaining permanently celibate, however noble and beautiful, is at the root of the shame and ignorance that church leaders have displayed for years whenever issues of sexual morality arise.

What we face in the future is the decline of a church as a large tent that can embrace all--even gay men and women, even dissidents from the official teaching--and focus on the Gospel mandate for social justice in the world rather than a small-tent church of narrow thinking and exclusion. (Sister Joan Chittister has, among others, used this helpful tent metaphor.)

I pray that one day, after I am gone from this earth no doubt, the Catholic Church will become more inclusive, the kind of church envisioned by the Second Vatican Council that the bullies in Rome seem determined to thwart. These men need more than prayers. They need to be called to account regularly, as Garry Wills and members of Call to Action have been doing, demanding change.

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