Monday, December 17, 2012

From Compliant to Complaint

A thought-provoking phenomenon is taking place among a growing number of Catholic clerics, religious, and laity. These men and women are no longer simply compliant but are publicly criticizing the way the hierarchy is running the Church today.

Calls for reform of the "Church" are as old as the Church itself. The New Testament gives witness to Paul's complaint to the authorities in Jerusalem that insistence on compliance to Mosaic practice  (for example, circumcision) was an unnecessary hindrance to conversions (cf. Acts 15, Galatians 2). When Peter, James and John saw the fruits of Paul's work, they agreed with his complaint.

Fifteen hundred years later there was the great upheaval and resulting schism known as the Protestant Reformation. And sandwiched in between there were other complaints about how the Church was carrying out the Father's business, led by men and women such as Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Catharine of Siena.

Complaints contemporary to our time have been leveled by theologians (for example, Hans Kung), cardinals (for example, Carlo Maria Martini), Benedictine abbots (for example, Martin Werlen and Peter von Sury), priests (such as Father Helmut Schuller and the Austrian Priests' Initiative), and religious (such as Sister Theresa Kane, RSM).

In 1979 Kane, as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, made an appeal to Pope John Paul II during his visit to the United States: "I urge you, Your Holiness, to be open to and respond to the voices coming from the women of this country who are desirous of serving in and through the Church as fully participating members." The pope refused her request.

Werlen and von Sury, Benedictine abbots in Switzerland, have publicly appealed for Church reforms, for example, the reinstatement of the practice  that would allow dioceses to elect the men who would be their ordinaries (their bishops). The people of the diocese of Chur in Switzerland remember when in 1990 Bishop Wolfgang Haas, newly appointed by Pope John Paul II, was forced to enter his cathedral by the backdoor because 200 protesters blocked the front entrance with their bodies.

The head of the priests council in the diocese of Chur assessed Haas as a "madman at the head of the diocese, and he's wrecking it." Later Haas was moved and appointed bishop for the newly-formed diocese of Vaduz in Lichtenstein, leading to division in the Church community in that tiny Alpine principality as well. Werlen and von Sury want to prevent such disruption and divisiveness in the future.

Cardinal Martini, the late archbishop of Milan, in an interview shortly before his death, criticized the Church for its financial wealth, comparing it to the rich young man who went away from Jesus sad but unwilling to give to the poor and follow the Master.

Martini advised the Church to recognize its errors and "travel a radical journey of change." He then underscored the importance of the Bible and the sacraments for developing persons of holiness. He questioned likewise the Church's way of dealing with members who have divorced and entered second marriages.

Kung's post-Vatican II theologizing has earned him severe criticism from the Curia, and he in turn remains defiant, refusing to meet with Vatican critics until they allow him access to the file they keep on him. Kung insists that theologians should be able to debate difficult questions (for him papal infallibility is one such issue) on "the basis of the declarations issued to date." Kung summarizes his stance and the Curia's rejection in this simple statement: "In short --conversations, yes; inquisition, no."

Even a cursory reading of the signs of the times recognizes that there is significant unrest in the Church. Huge numbers of European Catholics no longer celebrate Sunday Mass, and the drop-off in the United States is obvious too. The shortage of priests, the decline in religious communities, the loss of young people as Church members are all alarming signs of disorder and unrest.

Something is happening in the Catholic Church. Many Vatican II-priests believe that implementation of the pastoral as well as dogmatic directions given by the Second Vatican Council will stem the decline and enliven the Church body. Others among the clergy blame the Council and insist that only strict adherence to canon law and the magisterium is viable.

Complaint and compliance are struggling with each other, and the outcome of this match has far-reaching effects for the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Martini addressed the issue in these words: "Fr. Karl Rahner liked to use the image of embers under ashes. I see in the Church today so many ashes above the embers that I am often assailed by a sense of powerlessness. How can the embers be freed from the ashes to rekindle love?

"First of all we have to look for those embers. Where are the individuals full of generosity, like the Good Samaritan? who have the faith like that of the Roman centurion? who are as enthusiastic as John the Baptist? who dare new things as Paul did? who are faithful as Mary Magdalen was?

"I advise the pope and the bishops to look for twelve people outside the lines for administrative posts (posti direzionali) --people who are close to the poorest and who are surrounded by young people and are trying out new things. We need that comparison with people who are on fire so that the spirit can spread everywhere."