The Passive People of God
April 30th, 2010
by Mark Johnson
The Church is under siege, or so it would seem, with the dark mutterings that ‘secularist’ media are intent upon casting mud at us whenever it can; leaked ‘brain storming’ sessions of minor British bureaucrats depicted as revealing the sinister gaze in which the Vatican and the papacy is held by the British government; a world in which razor sharp gossip and bullet-like chatter prompt declarations of allegiance to Pope Benedict xvi from various curial quarters (and others). In response to this encircling finger pointing we Catholics are told that we are all in it together, or that the episcopate is exhorted to ‘reform’, or that celibacy is to blame, or rather a dysfunctional lace sowing hierarchy, or a cabal of Vatican 2 inspired leftist, liberal, Marxist, guitar strumming, liturgically autistic, homosexual, ‘filth’. Letters, apologies, penances, gaffes, admonishments, each and all are flying from one spectrum of the People of God to the other.
But what is it that is at the heart of this entire tornado like rending and gnashing? This question is not to dismiss in the slightest the dark heart of sexual and structural abuse, which has triggered the afore-listed scenarios. There are very real questions to be answered. There is accountability to be held. Rather, the sexual abuse crisis has significance on another front, and this is what lies under the blame and counter blame, the increasing shrillness, and yes, the confusion. That other front is the question of identity. Who are we as ‘Catholics’? Who are we as ‘Church’? Who are we when so much recent effort has been poured into defending, not just the ‘good name’ of the Church, but also specifically the status of the papacy itself, and the character of the one currently holding that office?
I want to suggest that the current siege mentality that has too largely typified reaction to the assorted demands for accountability, whether gleefully malicious or sincere, is the result of a crippling distortion of the very idea of Church, a narrowing of the expansiveness of the People of God to a brittle and self-proclaiming interest group. The cultivation of such a shrunken idea of Church is typified by insecurity, defensiveness, secrecy, and exclusion. So how has this development manifested in concrete? Here I would like to identify two manifestations of the same problem.
Firstly the creation of a monarchical papacy toward which anger has become focused, and behind which the Church has become increasingly lack-lustre and immature in its cultivated dependence. The papacy has become the Church. Collegial interdependence of regional synods eroded. Special interest groups which pepper our experience of local Church repeatedly ignoring the local Body of Christ and dealing directly with a centralised authority structure. I could go on, but we are all familiar with the pattern. So what does such a re-ordering of Church say about us? How does this define not only our experience of Church, but also our identity as Church? Is this why the media is dominated with those forces arrayed against Pope Benedict in fierce confrontation with those supporting him? Has it all become about Pope Benedict? As Catholics are we mere avatars of a central figure, that figure requiring and summoning our defence? The increasing fervour of the reaction and counter reaction that is resulting from the sexual abuse crisis is symptomatic of the fragility of how one model of identity, a shrunken model, one always too small for its ambitions, is now stretched so tight that the strain is reverberating around the globe.
The second aspect of the problem manifesting in concrete may surprise many, my suggestion of it is not to impugn the integrity with which its advocates laud it. There have been two recent examples of it; one that displayed by Professor Hans Kung, and the other by retired bishop Geoffrey Robinson. Both Hans Kung, in his open letter to bishops dated April 16, 2010, and Geoffrey Robinson in his recent interview concerning the need for bishops to revise the need for celibacy, appeals to the episcopacy to initiate and achieve reform. Of course such an appeal to the collegiality of bishops for reform is in harmony with the vision of Vatican 2, and with apostolic tradition, but what does this say to the wider People of God? What does this say about Church? Is the Catholic identity one of a trickle down effect, or of a widespread passivity whilst waiting for the possibility of initiative from men largely selected for a lack of initiative? Does the sense of structural impotence add to the outrage?
So long as the Church allows itself to continue to be defined by notions foreign to its inherent prophetic and Incarnational character, to be constructed and reconstructed so to serve the interests of the few, and to only speak the monotonic words of passivity and respectability, the shrillness will continue. The Church is more than what it has been made to become, and maybe, just maybe, we will see within the barrage of justified accusation and outrage that is being hurled at what we have become, the pain filled cry of a world that needs us to be that witness so long ago proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth.
That's exactly it! I've been looking for a way to say this for awhile: this crisis isn't about the abuse or even the cover-up anymore; that's just the flash-point, the excuse or occasion which people are using (on either side) to express deep-seated insecurities and ambivalences because there is no ordinary legitimate outlet for it in the Church.
It's about this sense of, as he says, "structural impotence." About the frustration of powerlessness and disenfranchisement among the laity and even much of the lower clergy, of wanting to see initiative from men who don't have it, who are spineless, only to have those hopes disappointed again and again (whatever those hopes may be).
And it's all centered around the figure of the Pope and the personality cult that has developed around him in the past century and a half. The conservatives cling to him and defend him somewhat understandably: because he is the only figure left, under the current model, who might be able to initiate something, to whom any sense of agency is still imputed. In a very real sense seemingly the only one who can do anything actively in the Church anymore. It doesn't matter if he's innocent; the problem was never that he might be guilty, really, but rather his non-initiative and the collective action problem which hinges on him.
People have all this energy they are willing to put into religious projects, that they'd love to try, that they want to dedicate to the Church, but have had to wait for years passively while the hierarchy has stayed the course of the status quo and been a permission-denying No Organization! People's own initiative has been discouraged, crushed really, and their own hopes seemingly banked totally on the whims of just one old man in a white dress thousands of miles away. So, initial enthusiasm has soured into resentment, bitterness, apathy, or even heresy or schism.
Think how many priests had to just wait passively for years for something like Summorum Pontificum to come out, even though they were more than willing (in fact quite enthusiastic about the idea) to say the Old Mass. Think (as I discussed in that Monopoly post) how many people have the entrepreneurial spirit to try to do things better, to put their own ideas (for better or worse) to the test in practice...only to face an organization that is not designed to allow such experimentation or innovation. Think how many men might make better priests but are kept out by the creepy resocializing atmosphere of seminaries and by mandatory celibacy. Think how many mediocre or downright destructive priests stay on staff because of the shortage and the total lack of incentive for bishops to remove them. Think how many bishops are totally lacklustre because they have a cushy position practically guaranteed for life. Think how much obedience is exalted, but then only ever invoked to stop people from rocking the boat, never to actually direct any constructive projects. And think how many Catholics do nothing because they just don't care anymore, because they don't think they can do anything (except complain to each other online).
Imagine if bishops were given local control over...everything, except doctrinal questions. Were allowed to try, in their own dioceses, everything from married priests to different models of seminary formation to different types of liturgy to different structures of priesthood or Catholic community organization. This terrifies the Vatican and the constitutionally conservative personalities now in power, and yet I think we'd see a wonderful evolution. Yes, some projects would fail spectacularly or make the rest of us uncomfortable. But they'd die out, and the good things would succeed and blossom. It's like they don't trust God enough to see that this would be true. It's how organic development happens, as I've discussed before; not top-down, but according to adaptive selection. But there can be no selection if you don't let people adapt.
You have to allow the local dioceses to be the laboratories of experimentation, of new ideas. Good ideas will prosper and spread while bad ideas will die. The problem we have to today is that the liberals aren't afraid to try things without permission (giant puppets and such) but the conservatives feel like they have to wait for the hierarchal green light (which may never come) on every idea that might be positive in the other direction (in other words, the "say the black, do the red" mentality is exactly the problem).
But bishops are picked exactly to be against such an idea. And how do you break that self-perpetuating cycle?