I looked at Pete, the first black president of the United States was seated to his right, and I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. ..At some point, he decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. It was like, “Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!
Bruce Springsteen on Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday in 2009
Disagreement with the magisterium may render an important service to the Church, helping it to respond to the signs of the times in light of the Catholic faith…This may be a duty of conscience.”
Pete Seeger died yesterday, a man beloved by most. He lived a long and principled life with music as his nonviolent weapon. I met Seeger about a decade ago when the film about his manager Harold Leventhal (Isn’t This a Time) was shown at the old Downtown Loews. The remaining Weavers sang a few songs and there was a party later at the Royal York. I happened to be walking in with my friend Canadian jazz singer Don Francks when I literally bumped into the American legend. In retrospect I was shocked at how tall he was and recalling that impression today about his physical size, I ruminated that he really did stand tall in his long commitment to justice and the common good. Pete also paid a price he paid for his truth telling (The Weavers were blackballed in 50s as part of the McCarthy scare). This set me thinking about all the “small” men in the last 35 years of Catholic reaction.
Here I am thinking of clergy and right wing bloviators who fit the description in W H Auden’s Unknown Citizen:
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of the year;
When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.
No need to name them here but they were the ones who ascended in last 2 pontificates, who tailored their views to the forces of reaction. They were in vogue, on the telly and in the paper genuflecting to local bishops whose careers were rewarded for following the leader in Rome.
The last three decades were not a great time for the Catholic Church. The earth-shaking Council created an equal reaction. It was simply Newton’s second law, pure physics. The reaction was led by the Polish pope whose national church had been frozen in time next to the communist monolith. For historical reasons Poland had not had its Vatican ll spring.
As a great British theologian aptly said, “some people just show up at the wrong time.” John Paul ll was that man. A genuine justice man on the world stage, he was anything but inside the walls of the church. He literally imposed his ossified theology on the whole church and the Catholic Church lost a brilliant chance to modernize itself. Millions left in disgust as critical thinking was shut down. Power was totally centralized and the Church appeared more like a Politburo than a “discipleship of equals” and the People of God.
Pope Paul Vl, much maligned, was a sophisticated Vatican insider who understood the necessity of ongoing renovation and he allowed our best theologians to exert peer review on the thousand flowers which were blooming. He silenced no theologians. He recognized them as loyal teachers in service to the universal church. Contrast that with the shocking intellectual abuse of Woytyla and his henchman Ratzinger. They both tried to shoe horn critical thought into one narrow channel. As Chicago theologian David Tracy said at the time, “It won’t work.” And it didn’t. Many careers however were ended and good men and women were sacrificed on the the narrow grounds of ideology. Uninspiring men, absolutely loyal to Rome,rock solid against birth control and female ordination were placed in charge of major sees. It was if the clock stood still. All in all It was a shameful period.
But like Pete Seeger, many stood tall, great principled resisters to the “ice age”(Rahner) we had to endure, There were many national theological conferences who refused to buckle under. Thse were professional theologians who loved the church but were cast into nether darkness by both Woytyla and Ratzinger. There were hundreds of such teachers who were denied positions in Catholic institutions. We know the names of the more famous ones but many felt the chill of non-promotion and marginalization. Theology in Catholic institutions particularly in the moral realm ground to a halt
”If the Pope does what does not belong to his office, he cannot demand obedience in the name of Catholicism,” some 163 theologians from West Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland stated in January of 1989.
Now known as the Cologne Declaration it said. ”In such a case, he must expect opposition.” Their objections were tripartite:
• John Paul’s appointment of bishops “without respecting the suggestions of the local churches and neglecting their established rights,” which runs counter to the Catholic tradition that the selection of bishops “is not some private choice of the pope’s”;
• The Vatican’s refusal to grant official license to theologians with whom it disagrees, part of its general campaign to silence dissent, representing “a dangerous intrusion into the freedom of research and teaching”;
• The pope’s “overstepping and enforcing in an inadmissible way” his proper doctrinal competence, insisting that every pronouncement of the magisterium be treated as ipso facto infallible. The declaration called special attention to the ban on birth control.
Complaining that the collegiality called for by Vatican II was “being smothered by a new Roman centralism,” the declaration predicted: “If the pope undertakes things that are not part of his role, then he cannot demand obedience in the name of Catholicism. He must expect dissent.”
From June 6-9 of 1990, the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) with Canadian Basilian Walter Principe as its president, affirmed “the right of theologians to freedom of research, their right to raise questions, their right to re-examine the meaning of dogmas, and even more to explore the import of past authoritative statements by the magisterium, and finally the right within a faithful unprejudiced presentation of the official teaching to disagree publicly with that teaching under certain circumstances.”
The statement “Do not Extinguish the Spirit” was critical of the growing chill within the Church and the increasing denigration of theologians who were now seen as “dissenters,” rather than loyalists who had a different opinion. Principe addressed the Vatican criticism about “harm being done to the faithful by theologians.” He countered with the harm being done by “the Vatican issuing of documents without prior discussion and consultation with bishops and theologians, their inhibiting legitimate discussion by premature decisions on complicated questions, their condemnation or silencing of theologians and their presentation of reformable teaching almost as if they were matters of faith.” Do not extinguish the Spirit was concerned about “excessive Roman centralization” that diminishes the role of local bishops and which impugned the authority of bishops’ conferences.
This brave statement well summarizes the general disenchantment with this papacy.
While the theologians raised objections, the best educated generation of Catholics were becoming restless at the attempted ecclesial coup and the overturning of Vatican ll.
And then 2002 happened, The explosion of the sex abuse scandal and church coverups, generally by the servile bishops promoted by JP ll and Ratzinger. 55 Boston priests told the imperious Cardinal Law it was time to go. The Boston Globe won a Pulitzer prize for uncovering the rot which a bloated church had allowed to fester for decades.
The laity was energized. The sensus fidelium was rediscovered, the fact that each baptized person has a sensus fidei, the indwelling of the Spirit which was not a preserve of a celibate priesthood but was present in the whole Body. It was basic Vatican ll stuff we had forgotten: “the whole body of the faithful have received an anointing” (Lumen Gentium #12,)
The Church i.e. the institution cannot speak without listening to the sensus fidelium. Even the autocratic pope began to understand this shortly before his death. He was worn down by the fierce resistance to his dictatorial style and finally in 2004 said, “Certainly this will involve a conscious effort on the part of each bishop to develop, within his particular Church, structures of communion and participation which make it possible, without prejudice to his personal responsibility for decisions he is called to make by virtue of his apostolic authority, to listen to the Spirit who lives and speaks in the faithful.”
This of course has yet to happen. Power historically concedes nothing and we have yet to be consulted on major issues.
And now a new pope has arrived, a Vatican ll man. The small men are in retreat. Meanwhile in the life of Pete Seeger we once again realize that “the Spirit blows where it wills” (John 3:8) and the Roman Church best realize that a gale force may be coming.