Archive for December 31st, 2006

Bad theology begets bad practice

December 31, 2006

Religions commit suicide when they find their inspiration in dogmas.
Alfred North Whitehead

Recently I was in Oakland,California visiting a good friend, a gay man who is responsible for adult education in his parish. I mention his sexual orientation since it is irrelevant and known to his pastor, who appears to be in the 21st century. While there we went to a huge Oakland parish for an evening with Gary Wills, the noted Catholic author of several books on the church, the foremost being Papal Sin. The place was packed and I met the affable pastor who by all accounts should have been the bishop of his home town but in today’s’ church such an appointment is not possible. It makes too much sense. A local product, personally engaging and highly pastoral, theologically well read and committed to dialogue, he was not one of those John Paul ll clones obsessed with “Catholic identity” , doctrinal rigorism and pelvic orthodoxy. The new bishop was found tucked away in a Detroit seminary, a total stranger to the Bay area.But boy was he orthodox.

Now it would be my assumption that all bishops know the Catholic story and are orthodox but few appear to be about the kingdom of God. Few inspire any evangelical enthusiasm for peace and justice, the authentic signs of the reign. Most get their signals from Rome and are depressingly monochromatic.

The last pontificate and the present one do not compare favorably with that of Leo Xlll’s(1878-1903) who said that he “was never afraid to appoint somebody who disagreed with me.” Variety at one time was the spice of life. Not in today’s Catholic church. One hymn book is manufactured in Rome, distributed around the world and everybody is expected to sing from it. It is called Cookie Cutter theology. There is but one truth, one way of expressing it. Well, the soup is getting tasteless and the salt is losing its flavour. Nobody is heading for the life-giving gallows without which there is no resurrection. Few have the capacity to energize the faithful.The reason is simple: bad theology begets bad practice and a Church which puts the institution over the reign of God has it backwards. As Paul Vl said in his 1975 encyclical Evangelium Nuntiandi, only the kingdom is ultimate, everything else is in addition-priesthood, sacraments, liturgy etc.Too often the Spirit is blowing outside the Church, often as a gale force (eg the environmental movement) but appears MIA inside the walls.

Can this be biblical faith? Hardly .

The great rabbi Abraham Heschel phrased it in this way: “It would be honest to to blame religion for its own defeats.Religion declined not because it was refuted but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendour of the past, when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain, when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.”