Küng & Ratzinger vs Benedict XVI !

At the age of 82, my good friend Hans Küng is still at it.  He launched a new book on March 10 (the same day his former university colleague, Joseph Ratzinger — a.k.a. Benedict XVI — launched Part II of his book on Jesus).

The title of Küng’s book  in English, Can the Church Still Be Saved?, is essentially a call to the Roman Catholic laity to stand up,  to resist the refusal of Pope and bishops to allow any real change in the RC Church, and so save the Church.

The only hope for the Church, Küng maintains, lies in the courage and resistance of the laity.

Sounds radical?  Sure is.  But I heard basically the same message from Joseph Ratzinger when he was a promising young theologian serving as a “peritus” (an expert advisor to the bishops) during the Second Vatican Council.  At a press conference during the 1963 session (the exact year is fuzzy in my aging memory), he told us that throughout the history of the RC Church it has happened that the Bishops so lost touch with the message of Jesus that it became incumbent upon the laity to exercise their prophetic role given in Baptism and to stand up and refuse to obey!

That was Joseph Ratzinger in 1963….Quite different from Benedict XVI in 2011.

But the Ratzinger of 63 echoes what Küng said in the press conference for his new book. I quote from a report on the conference:

Speaking at the book launch in Tübingen, Germany, Wednesday, the 82-year-old said Jesus Christ would not like today’s Catholic Church.

‘If Jesus of Nazareth returned, he would not prohibit contraceptives, he would not shut out divorced people, and so on’, Kueng said.

He charged that the curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, had come up with a long series of rulings over the centuries that opposed the teachings laid down in the Christian New Testament.  He said Benedict XVI and his predecessor John Paul II had reinforced this.

In the book, he argues that resistance to church doctrines that are ‘obviously against the Gospels’ is a duty.

Küng said this included Catholic parishes insisting on keeping their priests after they marry, even if church law declares the man is no longer a priest.

He said the church could only saved by the faithful taking over responsibility for their church.

Küng’s words, and his example, urge me to take up this responsibility.

I sure hope a growing number of Catholic laywomen and men will feel the same. The well-being of our Church is at stake.

The Catholic Church Burns While the Bishops Fiddle

Two items crossed my desk and mind yesterday. Together, they evoked Nero and his fiddle.

The first was an excellent article by my fellow parishioner at Ascension Parish on 107th Street, Peter Steinfels.   It’s titled “Further Adrift,” playing on the title of his 2004 book, A People Adrift, and showing that in the light of the Pew Forum’s recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, the Catholic Church is suffering even greater losses, in numbers and in spirit.

Two paragraphs in Peter’s reflections captured the sad reality of my church:

One out of every three Americans who were raised Catholic have left the church. That dwarfs the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler. Thomas Reese, SJ, recently described that loss as “a disaster.” He added, “You wonder if the bishops have noticed.”

I wonder too. As far as I know, there has never been any systematic discussion of these findings at the meetings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. They will meet again in mid-November, with an agenda that will deal with many things—but not with these devastating losses.

Item #2: My son John sent me a pamphlet that had been distributed in his Chicago parish on Understanding the Revised Mass Texts. In it, the bishops, following orders from the Vatican, labor to explain the importance of such liturgical changes as:

  • “greatly sinned” instead of “sinned through my own fault.”
  • “and with thy spirit” instead of “and also with you”
  • “Lord God of hosts” instead of “God of power and might.”
  • (here’s the kicker!) “not worthy that you should come under my roof” instead of “worthy to receive you.”

Where are these men, these pastors!  They fiddle with language while their – OUR! – church burns.

In his article, Steinfels expresses not just the anger, but the deep, deep grief that so many Catholics are feeling.

Whether it’s “greatly sinned” or “sinned through my own fault” something is profoundly amiss in the Catholic Church.

Not So Easy, your Holiness!

Pope Bendict XVI’s recent efforts to deal with the clergy sexual abuse problem are not only too feeble; they’re downright dangerous.

The National Catholic Reporter reported on Benedict’s sermon for his general audience on Sept 8 with this lead: “The problem of abuse by clergy is solved more by a spirit of penitence and conversion by its members than by a radical change of church structures, Pope Benedict XVI said.”

The Pope’s own words were: “a true renewal of the ecclesial community is not achieved so much with a change in the structures as much as with a sincere spirit of penitence.”

Your Holiness,  that approach not only lets you and the bishops off the hook.  It allows the conditions in which this problem bred to endure.

Maybe it’s because the Pope doesn’t like liberation theology that he won’t accept one of its central claims:  sin may have its roots in the human heart, but it can take on an independent reality of its own in the structures of institutions and laws.  To confront sin and evil, a change of heart is always necessary.  But often it is not enough.

And that certainly pertains to the problem of priestly and episcopal pedophilia, and its cover up.   The actual acts of sexual abuse of children may not be directly linked to obligatory celibacy. But it does have to do with the clerical ethos or culture that results from the all-male, all-celibate (supposedly), and all-powerful structures of authority in the Catholic Church.

Even more clearly, the sad cover-ups and the persistent refusal to admit complicity by most bishops (especially in the USA) have to do with the patriarchal structures that place absolute power of authority in the hands of one bishop in each diocese and in the hands of one bishop over all the Catholic Church.

Unless these structures are changed according to the spirit and I dare say mandates of the Second Vatican Council – which called for greater power sharing between bishops and pope, and between laity and clergy – there will be no “true renewal of the ecclesial community.”

Your Holiness,  Please change your heart so that we can change our structures.

The Pope Just Doesn’t Get It!

He may be infallible. But he sure can screw up when it comes to public relations.

That was painfully clear in the latest Vatican publication of “Substantive Norms” on how it is going to get tough on priest pedophiles.

As reported in the New York Times and in the National Catholic Reporter,  the document, in one sense, doesn’t say that much. Basically, it is a collection of past directives on how to more expeditiously remove offending priests from office and eventually kick them out of the priesthood. (It’s called laicization, which among other things, dispenses the priestly sexual offenders from the obligation of celibacy. Hmmm….).

But what would have been new, and what would have helped the standing of the Vatican and the Catholic Church throughout the world, was glaringly missing: directives on how to call to task bishops who deliberately covered up the offenses or didn’t follow the law and report the offending Fathers to the local authorities.

Nor do these official “norms” say a word about obliging bishops to alert authorities when they have a sexual offender in their midst. Not a word about any of the responsibilities and culpabilities that so many bishops bear in this whole mess. Again, hmmm…. (One can only wonder about possible responsibility and culpability that the present Bishop of Rome might bear in the cover-ups and neglect when he was Bishop of Munich back in the 80s.)

But if this latest statement from the Pope and his staff can be faulted for what it doesn’t say, it can be absolutely deplored for what it does say. Alongside priestly sexual abuse of children and of people with mental disabilities, alongside child pornography, the Vatican statement lists as grievous “delicts” and offenses to the well-being of the church: the ordination of women!

The suggestion here is that God, like the Pope, is equally offended by a woman presenting herself to be a priest as by a priest raping a child!

This is simply beyond the comprehension of most people. And it arouses the consternation of most people: how in the world can the Vatican equate such claimed “dangers” to the church? Why, in a document aimed at dealing with the bewildering and scandalous problem of priests taking sexual advantage of children must the Holy Father and his advisers mention the “problem” of women wanting equal status in the Catholic church?

The New York Times opined that the Vatican inserted mention of women’s ordination in order to send a clear message that it wasn’t buying the suggestion that if there were “Mothers” besides the “Fathers” in the Catholic clergy, there would have been greater concern to protect and then stand up for the rights of children. The Vatican wanted to make perfectly clear that in addressing the problem of abusive priests in the church, it was not addressing the problem of abused women in the church.

If that was the internal motive, it is no justification for the public relations disaster. The fact that the Pope and his fellow-clerics had no inkling of how this juxtaposing of priestly pedophilia and women’s ordination would be perceived, how it would register on the minds and especially in the feelings of people “out in the world,” both inside and outside the Catholic Church, is itself an indication of how much these old, celibate, woman-less and childless men are out of touch with the people they say they are serving.

A “Spiritual Reaganomics” in the Catholic Church?

Does trickle down work in the Catholic Church?

Does "trickle down" work in the Catholic Church?

That’s one of the statements that echoed in my mind and feelings as I flew home from the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America, in Cleveland, June 10-13.

This image of a “spiritual Reaganomics” operating within the Catholic Church was offered in the Plenary Address by Catherine Clifford and Richard Gaillardetz to the over 400 Catholic theologians assembled from around the USA and Canada.

A  Reaganomics of spiritual truth and beliefs, the two speakers pointed out,  claims that truth is delivered from above – from God’s revelation and then through the bishops, especially the Bishop of Rome.   It then is to “trickle down” to the ordinary faith.  In this understanding, the primary role of theologians is to help it trickle.

Such an understanding of how things work, Clifford and Gaillardetz made clear, does not conform to the nature of the Catholic Church, especially as the church as been understood in the Second Vatican Council. In their lecture, which they presented as a verbally danced duet, they gathered, refocused, and recharged what has been the pretty standard “ecclesiology’ (understanding of the church) that Catholic theologians have advanced since the explosive breakthroughs of the Second Vatican Council:

  • That the beliefs of the Catholic Church are to be worked out through the collaborative and dialogical mining of three sources: the people of God (or the sensus fidelium – the sense of the faithful), the bishops (with the Bishop of Rome providing the unifying center), and theologians.
  • While each of these sources of Catholic belief have different roles within the Church, none of them can be placed “above” the other.
  • Each of these sources – bishops, theologians, people — has to “receive” (that means, listen to) what the others are saying.
  • If any of the three sources has a certain “primacy” it is the “the people of God.” Therefore, as Clifford and Gaillardetz stressed, the exercise of the bishops’ and Pope’s teaching office must begin with listening carefully and respectfully to the “sense of the faithful.”   The role of the theologians is “to help the bishops listen carefully.”

But the problem that is rankling the Catholic Church today – and one of the primary reasons why a lot of people  are opting to move out of the Church – is that this leadership of the Catholic Church – yes, the bishops and yes, especially the Bishop of Rome – are NOT LISTENING. Clifford and Gaillardetz pointed out what most of their audience of theologians knew only too well:  many bishops in the US look on theologians with “a presumption of suspicion” that theologians are up to no good and are the primary causes of unrest in the church.

So the conclusion to Clifford and Gaillardetz’s presentation was that theologians, as well as ordinary Catholics in the pews, have to carry out the responsibility given to everyone in their baptism: the responsibility of being prophets.   If theologians and ordinary Catholics always have to listen carefully and respectfully to the bishops and Pope, they sometimes have to speak up and resist honestly and humbly.

In the present state of turmoil and confusion in the Catholic church, that responsibility of speaking up weighs more heavily than ever on the shoulders of Catholics and especially of theologians.  The job description of the theologian is to be a researcher and a teacher – but also to be a prophet.

The problem is that so often when theologians exercise their jobs as prophets and speak up to the bishops and Pope, they get into trouble, even lose their jobs – especially if they are priests or religious.

The power structures today in the Catholic Church do not correspond to the nature of the Church as a community of co-responsibility between people, theologians, bishops.

If the church, as is often said, “is not a democracy” (I’m not so sure about that), neither should it be the monarchy or oligarchy that it seems to be today.