Saturday, November 10, 2007

Can Catholic Culture Be Renewed?

By Paula Ruddy

I experience the current culture in the Roman Catholic institution as increasingly intolerable. I am not alone. Almost every week I hear of people who have left the institution behind, either tacitly or by joining another Christian or non-Christian denomination.

What do I mean by “culture’? We all live in multiple cultures to some extent. Each family, each workplace, each social group has its own culture. Without even being conscious of it, we adjust our mental outlook, our way of talking and acting, as we go from the family breakfast table to the office. We can think of ourselves in the center of many concentric or overlapping circles ranging in size from the family to neighborhood to ethnic group to economic class to national identity. It’s about fitting in, belonging. Group coherence results from thinking alike, using the same language, understanding the coded behaviors. People can adjust and get comfortable in many cultures when the underlying values are the same.

When values conflict, however, the pain is intolerable. For example, let’s say the culture in your family is based on love and respect for each individual person, you listen with eye contact when a person is speaking, you use respectful language, and thoughtful behavior. If your employer values only getting the job done, if harsh demeaning talk is common, and if you sense you could be replaced with a smoothly functioning robot without anyone’s noticing, then you will probably opt out of that workplace if at all economically feasible. Authenticity requires it.

Each Catholic parish or faith community has its own culture, of course. People can find a place in one or another parish or community as a spiritual home. They feel connected to the others in a way that fills their need for meaning, however they would express it. They can meet regularly with people who want to know and love God and their neighbors, demonstrating God’s love in the world. They join in the sacramental life that is at the heart of Catholicism. Some join parishes involved in social justice or with many opportunities to talk about spiritual growth. Some join parishes for the kind of liturgy celebrated or for the music. Some people want to be involved in the running of the parish; some people are happy to let the priest and his staff do the work, and there are parishes for both. There are parishes in which progressive people have been welcome, where their values of freedom and equality have been honored, their questions respected, and where change is accepted.

What in the world, then, is my problem? My problem is that in all the parishes where I can feel at home, the ones in which there is a progressive, hopeful, love of freedom and equality and expansiveness of spirit, there is currently also fear. At the present time in the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis, the bishops and the staff that run the diocese have so suppressed the progressive voice that fear reigns. Parishes that allow too much freedom are fearful of reprisals, of spies who come and sit in silence at liturgies and report back to diocesan offices. Progressive priests and progressive parish staff fear they will lose their jobs or their status as loyal colleagues if they question authority.

There is a terrible cost to the spirit in being discounted and silenced. The crippling effect of this is that people begin to find solidarity in being oppressed. Instead of being able to contribute our progressive voices to the institution as valued members, we can become adversaries, proud to be outcasts. We find ourselves congratulating each other on being censured. We speak cynically of hierarchy. It is a conflicted status, belonging and not belonging at the same time. We have heard the message from the Catholic hierarchy, “We do not welcome a progressive voice. Go somewhere else.” It seems healthier to opt out.

Friends say, “Ignore them. By our baptism, we are the Church.” Even my friends who say they are ignoring it are in constant fear of the bishop’s power to disable their beloved communities in some way. An institution so centrally organized and with so many members generates power at the center; it is impossible to ignore the power of bishops and diocesan machinery. They can determine practices in a parish down to the way you position your hands in receiving communion.

Other friends say, “Let’s establish our own parish.” Congregational independence is, of course, one answer. By disengaging from the power that is threatening us, we gain freedom from it. But we also lose the opportunity to use that power to make the Christ vision real on a larger scale. We can get off the big bus, but the bus will move on carrying some people, crippling or crushing others. We may be more effective as members to prevent destructive actions in the larger society. For example, progressive Catholics made their strong moral dissent clear when the Minnesota bishops sponsored an amendment to the Minnesota constitution in 2006 denying GLBT citizens equal protection under civil law. As far as I know, they did not acknowledge having heard us, so the question of effectiveness is always an open one.

This loss of faith and trust in the hierarchy is painful to life-long progressive Catholics. We are going through the stages of grief, some angry, some resigned, some struggling to hold on to hope. It matters to us because we have loved our tradition, so rich in the diversity of human spirituality, so productive of intellectual and artistic grandeur, so peopled with humble and driven saints, so important to the evolution of Western civilization by preserving the writings of the early church. We have loved it despite recognizing the immense evils that have shadowed it. We had high hopes at the time of Vatican II that the institution would face its defensive intransigence during the centuries from the Reformation through the Enlightenment and become a creative conversation partner with the other religious and philosophical traditions of the world. We are dismayed by the deliberate back pedaling from that vision today.

So the problem is at the hierarchical level of the Catholic culture. Specifically the problem is authority and how the authority is wielded. If the bishop invites dialogue with all the members of the church, the progressives, the moderates, the conservatives, and creates a culture in which freedom and equality as well as consensus and traditional stability are honored, everyone can grow in spirit. A wise bishop could create a culture around him that nourishes an energetic, emergent and joyful church.

Without a progressive voice there is no forward motion. It is the role of progressives to help the bishop, to be imaginative, creative, fearless, hopeful. I am hopeful that the new Archbishop will work to renew our Catholic culture by actively welcoming progressives back into open dialogue with him.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


By Paula Ruddy

Recently, several people have declined an invitation by The Progressive Catholic Voice for opinions about our project or for contributions to it because they did not want to be "branded" or "labeled" as progressives. For instance, we asked an educator who had written a thoughtful article about the relativity of truth claims for permission to reprint it. He told us he did not want to be branded as a progressive because his educational institution has a strong faction of both progressives and conservatives. The administration wants to side with neither in an attempt to advocate for "civil discourse." That statement set me to wondering about neutrality, polarized factions, and civil discourse.

In his book Call To Liberty: Bridging the Divide Between Liberal and Conservative, Anthony Signorelli, a Stillwater thinker and businessman, describes the roles of the progressive, moderate, and conservative energies in the political arena. All three modalities are directed toward creating a well-functioning society in which people can create a good life for themselves.

Signorelli describes progressive energy as hope-filled, directed to the future and the improvement of current systems. Moderate energy is directed toward the present and how problems can be solved through compromise and consensus. Conservative energy is directed to preserving values and systems that have worked in the past. In different situations an individual may take any one of those roles, but we generally have a dominant focus to our energy. We are looking to the future and change, looking to the past and stability, or grappling with the present to hold the community together. Signorelli argues that each modality has strengths and weaknesses and all modalities are needed in the project of sustaining a liberal democratic republic.

Can we think of those energies also at work in religious institutions? In its history, the Catholic Church has evolved slowly through centuries under the leadership of progressive, moderate, and conservative people in dialogue with one another. Yet what about the present church?

John Allen, in the August 31 issue of National Catholic Reporter, writes that liberal Catholicism predominated from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to the mid 80's. Since then there has been a conservative reversal. Allen says that following Vatican II, liberals wanted the relationship between church and culture to be "a two way street," with adjustment of church teachings and structures in the light of contemporary science and thought. This collaboration with the world can look to conservatives like losing a Catholic identity. Their response is to hold the line with a "bold proclamation of timeless truths." Can't we together acknowledge that healthy, living identities evolve emerging from the past, carrying what is true, good and beautiful into the future? We need all three modalities to do this.

Where does this polarization, the fear of being "branded" either progressive or conservative come from? The problem may be that instead of thinking of those words as naming honorable modalities or energies, as Signorelli suggests, we may be using them to name closed positions on issues. In the political sphere, if I call myself progressive I may be branded as being for abortion, for stem cell research, for high taxes and for amnesty for undocumented immigrants. In the moral and religious sphere, if I call myself progressive I may be branded as being for the state's requiring churches to marry gays, for taking the solemnity and uniformity out of liturgy, and the total collapse of institutional religion as we know it. Conversely, if I have reservations about any of those "progressive" positions, I might be branded as conservative. If I am branded as closed minded either way, I lose credibility as a thinking person.

No thinking person wants to be scripted. Thinking people hold their minds open to new information and new arguments. They hold conclusions provisionally, pending better information. They insist that the deliberative process work itself out with all voices heard before making decisions that affect the lives of others. They value all experiences in the process of moral reasoning. They accept that reasonable people may differ. Thinking people are to be found in all three modalities, progressive, moderate, and conservative, as are unthinking closed-minded people.

The solution to the problem of polarization is, first, for each of us to try our best to be thinking people. Second, instead of using the words "progressive" and "conservative" to name positions on issues, we can use them to name ourselves according to the imaginative drive we bring to thinking about particular questions. Is our gift to create the future, to preserve the past, or to create resolution in the present? Third, after identifying our own contribution, we genuinely have to value and depend upon the contribution of the other.

If the aforementioned cautious, neutral educator led the way by declaring himself a progressive, while all the while keeping an open mind and valuing the conservatives' contributions, he could model civil discourse for the progressive faction. He could move the institution forward without losing the values of the past. Instead of being a leader, he has settled for being a neutral referee out of fear of being branded.

It is our hope that as part of The Progressive Catholic Voice, we can promote conversation among thinking Catholics of all modalities in the Archdiocese. We begin by identifying ourselves as people with progressive energy, a vision of a future church. We invite moderates to join the conversation, people who see how the present teachings and structures have to be negotiated into the future. We invite conservatives, people who love the time-honored, life-sustaining teachings and structures of the past to show us the value of what we might otherwise destroy. All of us have to defy conventional wisdom that cautions us to hide behind neutrality for fear of being branded.

Paula Ruddy is a founding member of The Progressive Catholic Voice.