Might the Catholic Church One Day Be Transformed?
This is a letter sent out by James Burch, Coordinating Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of One Spirit of Northern Virginia, a reformist and highly innovative Catholic group.
I’m passing along at my own initiative, not his behest, because I think it’s exciting to think about voices such as these traveling up the ranks in this vast religious organization. I stir at the message in this letter, that the revolutionary voices exist in the ranks of the Church, seeking leverage. I think the whole thing is exciting, and merits support!
CATHOLIC CHURCH LEADERSHIP
The Catholic Diocese of One Spirit
April 20, 2005
(This is one in a series of pastoral letters put out by the Catholic Diocese of One Spirit. There is no obligation on the part of ordained members or others who feel themselves a part of this diocese to believe all that is written here, or in the way that it is written. This is offered by the current Coordinating Bishop of this diocese as a validly alternative Catholic Christian viewpoint, which readers may use to philosophically engage this topic.)
The election of Joseph Ratzinger as the Roman Catholic Church’s new Pope Benedict XVI is a conclusive sign that the leadership engine of the church’s train is only remotely connected to the people in that train. Catholic theology, brought to a higher level of fruition in the Second Vatican Council, teaches that the people of God are themselves the Church. The Church is not the hierarchy … though you would never know that truth based on the distance between the hierarchy and the people today and on the hierarchy’s totally un-Christian chokehold on power.
Pope John Paul II, a man of many talents and a singular and most conservative experience of spirituality (rather than an admirer of God’s many beautiful expressions in peoples, cultures and perspectives), singularly appointed all but two of those who chose his successor. He stacked the deck with those of his own limited vision. He also appointed approximately 90% of the world’s Roman Catholic bishops over his 26 year “reign”. The dioceses over which these appointed bishops “ruled” had virtually no say whatsoever regarding who would be their “leader”. The “laity” (the word “lay” literally means “uninformed”, as in “a lay opinion”) had no say at all, zilch, nada, zero. The priests in each diocese – themselves products of a dictatorial, paternalistic, authoritarian leadership structure – had input that was so cursory as to be virtually non-existent.
This was not always the case. The word “pontiff” comes from two Latin words meaning “bridge” and “builder”. In early centuries of the church – after the concept of a “pope” had evolved into being more than just another bishop – the pope was considered the “bridge-builder”, the one who kept the peace and who brought different factions together. It was considered inappropriate for him to take a position that would fracture Christian unity. Today, thanks to the last couple of hundred years, he is considered by his appointed leadership to be virtually a spiritual dictator. In the early 19th century, only a handful of bishops were appointed by Rome; the great majority were either elected by their dioceses or appointed by the civil authorities in their countries. To counter some abuses that were occurring with civil appointments, Rome did not reform the democratic process for the selection of bishops but rather usurped to itself the practice (it is not a “right”) of appointing whomever it chose. The result has been a complete disenfranchisement between the “leadership” and the Roman Catholic people. These appointed bishops might as well be from Mars. It is as if the United States of America somewhere along the line had initiated the rule that only residents of Key West are allowed to be President, and that that President appointed only Key West residents as senators for all states, congressmen from all districts across the US, and governors of the various states. Sound ridiculous? Well, that is how the Roman Catholic Church propagates its leadership today.
All during the many days of commentary on the Catholic Church by the news media (during which, by the way, almost exclusively conservative commentators were interviewed, and virtually all men to the exclusion of women), there was much bemoaning of the virtual abandonment of the Roman Catholic Church by Europeans (who go to church only in the single digits) and Americans (only 27% of American Catholics go regularly to church services). This was seen not as a failure of the Church to provide any kind of intellectual and pastoral stimulation, but rather as a form of spiritual depravity of the people.
Anyone who really knows these non-church-going Americans and Europeans knows that they are, by and large, extraordinarily decent people. They care about becoming more loving people; they care about others; especially those who have less; and they have a finely-tuned sense to seek personal happiness. Yet they are condemned and tsskd-tsskd by men in red dresses as being morally untethered.
On the other hand, much was made of the spread of Roman Catholicism in the developing nations of South America and Africa. These are the “good” people, close to God, not caught up in the nasty consumerism and selfishness of the Western mentality. This is the future of the Church, the model for humanity, the hope for salvation of the immoral Western culture.
The reality is that this is just more rationalization from Church leaders who do not want their privileged status to change. They are, in fact, incapable of seeing anything other than through their own tinted glasses. They have created their own plush surroundings, and they like it a lot. Don’t expect voluntary surrender (note the election of Pope Benedict XVI).
The Roman Catholic Church has always been a lover of the poor, and the greatest aid to the poor for all of recorded history. Because of this, people who have little or nothing – who are totally unconcerned with dogmas, doctrines and moral commands – flock to the Church, seeing its genuine love for them. But what happens inevitably is that the poor over time become affluent and educated, as most have done in Europe and America. They are then no longer a recipient of the Church’s love for the poor, but have moved into the category of the New Sheep needing to be morally directed and intellectually constrained. And they go out the back door as fast as the new poor are coming in the Church’s front door.
Does anyone really doubt that as South America and Africa become more affluent and educated, their populations will also follow the historic paths of America and Europe?
This enormous gap between a Roman Catholic leadership run self-servingly wild and a populace being pabulum-fed is destroying the Church. Not until parishes are controlled by the people themselves, until bishops are chosen by their own dioceses, until the heavy hand of dictatorial edict is lifted, until spirituality is seen by the Church as not just filling pews but of enlightening minds – will the Roman Catholic Church really flourish. There is a long, long, long way to go. Sheer numbers do not commitments make.
Women priests, married priests, rational acceptance of contraception/divorce/gay people/etc., less infatuation with sexual practices of the populace, practical respect for the primacy of conscience (taught as fundamental Catholic theology for centuries, but now relegated to textbooks instead of practical life) – all these are secondary matters. The most fundamental teaching of Jesus – the recognition of the presence of God in every thing and in every person, and the deep respect and honor that goes with that recognition – is missing. And it is essential to Jesus, if not to “Christianity” as it is lived today.
There are now, within the Catholic Church (the “Catholic Church” being more than the “Roman” Catholic Church), thousands upon thousands of baptized individuals – ordained and not – who have been blessed to conclude correctly that they do not need the permission or the validation of this leadership class, so self-aggrandizingly aloof, to be what they are, the people of God. There are many non-geographic Catholic, but NOT Roman, dioceses, headed by Catholic bishops with apostolic succession just like their Roman counterparts, which have dispensed with the non-essentials, in favor of living a practical, Jesus-led, truly “Catholic” life (Catholic fundamental theology is that we are made in the image and likeness of God, that we are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that we are sanctified) in this magnificent universe given to us by God to experience the deepest reality of Who We Are. You will see more and more of this in the years to come..
There are now, within the Roman Catholic Church, thousands upon thousands of deeply spiritual reformers, who are crushed by the usurpation of their church by the ultra conservatives. This reality is now clearly evident in the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. The church is now – thanks to the 26 years of appointments by John Paul II – completely dominated by a mind set that demands conformity and certainty, rather than that which honors experience, wisdom and understanding. These reformers have stuck with the Roman Catholic Church through thick and thin, because it is extremely difficult to abandon one’s cultural and familial socialization, especially when it is drilled into one’s head that such orientation is more than cultural choices; it is “God’s Will!”
However, the election of Benedict XVI will be a tipping point. It will cause the damn to break and an unprecedented number of thinking Roman Catholics will expand their concept of Catholicism to include their following their consciences, staying “Catholic” but abandoning the Roman extremism that is not life-enriching and Jesus-experiencing.
Perhaps the election of Pope Benedict XVI is just what the Church needed … just not in the way most think. They might yet clean this place up, without ever picking up a broom.
James H. Burch
The Catholic Diocese of One Spirit