Has the Holy left the church building?


All over the Catholic world clerics were opining on the resignation of Pope Benedict XVl.The  papal media steeplechase has begun! Start your cameras! Turn on those tape recorders! That venerable institution  is at it again! Who will the next pontiff be? I hear there is a Canadian in the running. Could it possibly be?

All of this media hullabaloo is deeply regrettable.The focus seems to be on the papal office as  a celebrity commodity, a great news story. What will happen with the venerable institution etc.

For Catholics however it is problematic. Most of the oped pieces by clerics are fawning  and predictable. They are written by men in religious life (almost always priests) who owe their exalted positions to a hierarchical church which up until recently has marginalized the female and lay voice. There will be few critical comments from this priestly demographic. The reason is simple. For over thirty years a Roman chill has descended on Catholic institutions and those under Holy Orders are vulnerable to quick dismissal even if those comments are in the area of the non-doctrinal e.g. the shocking sacking of the  great priest Fr. Roy Bourgeois whose major crime was to advocate female ordination.

What comes out of our Catholic universities then should be taken with a grain of salt as they are loosely under a Pontifical aegis. Any realistic assessment of Benedict’s tenure as pope will be simply seen as disloyalty and not be tolerated. The author then will be quickly reprimanded, told to recant or he will face increasingly serious ecclesial penalties including dismissal. Most as we know will remain silent. Ireland’s brave priest Tony Flannery is the rare exception. So far the best and most honest commentary on Benedict’s legacy  has come from secular sources, those who are no longer affiliated with the Church or who see it as a hopeless retrograde institution mired in a medieval world disengaed from contemporary history.

Compelled by conscience to speak

Paradoxically, and this is a new phenomenon, many lay Catholics feel absolutely free to be critical of the institution. They are under no episcopal control and see that their comments, positive or negative, are both worthy and absolutely necessary if the Church is to flourish. At Vatican ll  it was stated that “the laity too share in the priestly, prophetic and and royal office of Christ.” This is no passive role either: “An individual layman is permitted, even obliged to express his opinion on matters  which concern the good of the Church.” In an almost sardonic expression which Catholics came to deeply appreciate Gaudium et Spes (43) said, “Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts….” We have been quickly disabused of that idea.

The Church at large and in fidelity to the Hebrew scriptures, has appreciated the gift of the prophetic as a  necessary counterbalance to imperial and arrogant pretensions. Benedict XVl acknowledged this himself in 1962 when as Joseph Ratzinger, theologian  he said that the meaning of prophecy is ‘in the prophetic protest against the self-righteousness of the institutions…God throughout history has not been on the side of the institutions but on the  side of the suffering and the persecuted.” This biblical truism drips with irony as Ratzinger himself embodied “the self-righteousness of the institution” when as Grand Inquisitor of the Holy Office since 1981 he attempted to silence the prophetic voices of over one hundred theologians.This lamentable performance may be described as “intellectual abuse.”


And now briefly  to “oranges”.

In my last post I commented on Pope Benedict’s Ash Wednesday sermon where he  flagged the Catholic anarchist Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. The Pope praised Day for recognizing that her activism  in the world, her peace protests, writing and marching were not enough.She had to return to the bosom of the Church and a life of prayer.

Benedict as the papal enforcer and Grand inquisitor under Pope John Paul ll initiated a holy war against “activist” priests and their bishops. His attitude seemed to be that somehow these  men were less spiritual, maybe  “Marxists” too heavily engaged in society.Like Day, they were “protesting”, raising their voices as Ratzinger earlier stated “on the side of the suffering and persecuted.” Ratzinger’s presumptive, false judgment was that because these clerics were activists they had no interior spiritual life. The classic case was the martyred hero of El Salvador, Oscar Romero who was humiliated by Pope John Paul ll and whose dismissal was on his desk when Romero was murdered. But there were hundreds of others whose major crime seemed to be their vigorous defense of the poor and abused in their respective countries. These victims of imperial oppression (largely supported by Ronald Reagan), the biblical anawim,  (“the poor ones of God)  are the locus of God’s special love. Ratzinger as an academic could not grasp  the ministry of these holy men. And they were legion in the  southern cone.

When so many Catholics were focussed on the “apples” of the papal resignation, “oranges” appeared  on the White House lawn, 48 environmental activists were arrested for calling attention to the Keystone XL pipeline. This pipeline will carry tar sands Albertan oil to Texas. It is in this coterminous event to the  papal obsession which we will best understand why religion is in stark decline today. On this Valentine Day protest no Catholic bishops were seen.It is in this secular  snapshot that we see the divine presence embodied, in movements of the Spirit which seem to have bypassed the institutional leadership of the Catholic Church.


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