Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Growing Up Catholic

The Pastor

By Mary Lynn Murphy

One of the most memorable characters who shaped my Catholic childhood was the pastor of our South Minneapolis parish in the mid-1950s.

He was a heavy-set, bald-headed, ham-fisted, red-faced, gravelly voiced, hot-tempered Irishman who seemed particularly tired on Sunday mornings, and who intimidated almost everyone except my dear petite mother who adored him. He was much like her deceased father – gruff, but tender with underdogs. He knew her voice in the confessional where he addressed her by name, forgave her repeated failures, and comforted her fellow Irish heart. He enjoyed her unfailing loyalty, despite his utter intransigence regarding the practice of birth control (“No excuses, no exceptions!”), and the wrath it incurred in my father and most of the parish men, as families grew larger and intimacies grew fewer.

He was kind and encouraging with well-behaved students, but tough as nails on those “sly little urchins” he distrusted. He could smell a liar a mile away, and there was hell to pay when he caught one red-handed. He batted them around, shouted in their faces, and publicly recited their succession of Ds and Fs to the entire class at report card time! His most despised target was beautiful Johnathon, a cunning, blue-eyed, black haired Irish kid we all steered clear of – and who, true to Father’s instincts, spent much of his life in jail.

Father had no mercy for "second rate givers." In the church vestibule, he published the names of all weekly donors, and the exact amounts contributed. If the sum total was too paltry, BACK went the thermostat on even the coldest Sundays - just to motivate more "enthusiastic" giving among his shivering parishioners!

Father could have doubled as a union boss or a 5th Ward Chicago alderman. The Sisters of St. Joseph cowered in his presence, catered to his whims, and cringed (like all of us) at the approaching sound of his heavy footfalls, flapping robes, and rattling rosary beads before unannounced classroom visits. Just to please him on “Paddy’s Day,” the Sisters staged an enormous Irish variety show each year. Every kid in the school practiced his/her brains out for weeks. We could sing “Hail, Glorious St. Patrick” backwards in our sleep, and our dance steps could put the ROC-KETS to shame! Even our mothers feverishly sewed green costumes and designed props, and virtually everyone participated in the audacious annual show presented on the gymnasium stage to a raucously applauding audience of . . . ONE!! . . . The Most Reverend Father!

Monday, October 8, 2007

An Open Letter to Coadjutor Archbishop John Nienstedt

Dear Archbishop John Nienstedt,

Welcome to the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis.

In your homily at your Mass of Reception on June 29, 2007, you expressed a desire for unity among Catholics of the Archdiocese. This is our deepest desire also.

At present we are painfully conscious of division and divisiveness among us that inhibits the Gospel witness of the Roman Catholic Church in the state of Minnesota. We invite you to lead us in healing our divisions.

We believe that we all start from the same position: we want the Catholic community in this state to be a vibrant living witness that our God is a God of love manifested in the whole creation and in each individual within it. We believe with you that this is the Gospel lived and preached by Jesus. We are all called, sent, baptized, to live this simple message of universal, unconditional love.

However, working out the Gospel message in human community at this stage of our evolution is not so simple. We believe that unity – community – is an organic working together of individuals with different gifts and views.

Our individual spirits and life experiences have formed us with different outlooks and drives. Among us we have progressive views, moderate views and conservative views. Each has a role to play in shaping the ongoing life of the community.

The Archdiocese is an institution to be administered, but it is also a thinking, feeling, and acting community requiring continual formation and renewal. All voices must be included in the dialogue necessary for this type of pilgrimage, and in order to heal divisions and grow in effectiveness and love.

We are progressive Catholics who ask you to dialogue with us and to include us in the ongoing conversations that shape the thinking of the community.

The Progressive Catholic Voice Editorial Team

Sunday, October 7, 2007

A Church Jesus Would Recognize

An Interview with Lena Woltering of the Lay Synod Movement

Lena Woltering is an active member of the Fellowship of Southern Illinois Laity (FOSIL) – an organization of lay Catholics working, in the tradition of the early Christian community, to “keep the voice of prophecy alive” and thus “further the reform and renewal of the Catholic Church and to ensure justice, equality, and dignity for all people.”

For ten years Woltering served on the national board of Call to Action (CTA). Currently, she devotes much of her time and energy to traveling around the United States helping to organize CTA-sponsored events that call for inclusion of the laity in critical Church decisions. Through these local events, she challenges the laity to claim their rights as full members of the Roman Catholic Church.

Along with Sr. Kate Kuenstler, Lena Woltering will be a keynote speaker at the October 13 conference of Call to Action Minnesota (see listing in Upcoming Events). Woltering’s presentation at Call to Action Minnesota’s conference will be entitled “Powerful Persuasion: Creating a Church the Historical Jesus Would Recognize,” and will explore the ever-growing Lay Synod Movement that began with the church reformers of FOSIL and is being replicated across the country.

Recently, Progressive Catholic Voice editor Michael Bayly interviewed Lena Waltering via e-mail about the Lay Synod Movement.


PCV: What are some of the distinguishing characteristics of the model of Church embodied by the Lay Synod Movement that you maintain would be recognizable by the historical Jesus?

Lena Waltering: There are four:

1) Acknowledging our own culpability in the dysfunction of our Church.

2) Moving from a “catechism faith” where dependence on the hierarchy is crucial, to a “biblical faith” where we, by our baptism, are all called to ministry.

3) Participation by all baptized in the governance of our Church, including selection of leaders.

4) Recognizing that “charity” is not social justice work. (We miss the boat if we simply feed the hungry and never ask the question, “Why are so many folks starving?”)

PCV: How do you account for the absence of these characteristics in the Church beyond the Lay Synod Movement?

Lena Woltering: The clerical model of Church we have grown up with does not make room for, nor tolerate, the characteristics of the Lay Synod Movement because they undermine the power structure that has been in place for centuries. Many Catholics look at the institutional church as a vendor of grace and salvation. The concept of “being” church is something vague and bothersome to many.

PVC: What do you see as some of the implications of the Lay Synod Movement on the Church's methods and conclusions with regards to its authoritative teaching on issues of doctrine and morality?

Lena Woltering: Education is the most crucial element in the Lay Synod Movement. Thinking “out of the box” does not have to be risky business as many of us were taught. With regard to authoritative teaching, “Father” does not necessarily know everything about morality and salvation. We should not be so quick to accept the adage, “The Church has always taught . . .” because many church teachings are merely disciplines that have changed and evolved with our culture. Becoming participants in what has, for many, been a spectator sport requires a new sense of responsibility.

PVC: Are there Church documents that support the vision of Church embodied by the Lay Synod Movement?

Lena Woltering: The most evident documentation of what our lay synod movement envisions are the documents of Vatican II and the Revised Code of Canon Law (Obligations and Rights of the Lay Christian Faithful.)

PVC: How popular is the Lay Synod Movement within and beyond the United States?

Lena Woltering: The Lay Synod Movement is picking up steam in the U.S. Since the first gathering in Southern Illinois in 2002, synods have been held in Upstate New York; McAllen, TX; San Francisco; and Dallas/Fort Worth. Upcoming events are planned for Minneapolis, Florida and two sites in Wisconsin. I have also been responding to inquiries from other parts of the country. I know of no activity outside of the United States at this time.

PVC: Doesn’t the use of the term “lay” reinforce the hierarchical model of Church contrary to the vision of community embodied by Jesus, and which for centuries has pitted clergy against laity? What about calling the movement the “Synod of the Baptized”? In this way, all could be included and distinctions between clergy and laity would be deemphasized. What are your thoughts on this?

Lena Woltering: The use of the words “lay” and “synod” are very deliberate – precisely for the reason you object. Both have been used by the hierarchy for centuries, but never have they been used together. In fact, when the concept first arose there was much discussion about what we would call our gathering. We were told only bishops had the authority to call synods. Recognizing our own baptismal authority, the decision was made to call a lay synod where we could begin the work to break down the divisions created by centuries of clericalism. As we do the work on a local level, we will continue to use the term. However, once the movement has grown significantly (and we believe it will) we are hoping to hold a national gathering that will be all about “the people of God!”

Lena Woltering will be speaking on Saturday, October 13, at the Annual Conference of Call to Action Minnesota.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Living Tree of Catholicism: Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity

By Michael Bayly

As we launch this blogsite, you can be sure that The Progressive Catholic Voice will be perceived and condemned by some of our Catholic brothers and sisters as “not really Catholic.” Why? Because The Progressive Catholic Voice dares to ask questions, dares to challenge, dares to dream.

A reaction against a certain type of authority

In order to prepare for the inevitable backlash, I think it’s crucial that as progressive Catholics we acknowledge that such angry reactions to endeavors like The Progressive Catholic Voice reflect a type of Catholic theology that, according to English Jesuit Philip Endean, is “shaped by a Counter-Reformation reaction against Protestantism, in particular against the possibility that a person’s private experience of God could serve as a source of religious authority overriding the Church’s official leaders.” (1)

Endean’s reflections on such a theology can be found in his introduction to the book Karl Rahner: Spiritual Writings. Rahner, of course, is one of Catholicism’s great twentieth-century theologians. He was also a key figure at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and, as such, helped move the Church beyond the ghetto of neo-scholastic thinking.

Rahner was instrumental in developing and articulating an alternative theology to such a narrow and abstruse way of thinking, a theology that sought to “integrate the whole of Christian theology around one simple message: that God is a God of self-gift, a self-gift that can, however dimly and incompletely, be experienced.” (2)

A theology based on this understanding of God’s active presence in human life, notes Endean, is one that is open to “a permanent process of growth, interchange, and transformation.” (3)

It’s clear, though, that, such a progressive process of “growth, interchange, and transformation” (especially as it relates to complex human realities such as gender and sexuality) is very frightening for some Catholics. And in order to deny and avoid such a process, many resort to “equat[ing] ecclesial fidelity with passive toadyism” – which for Endean, is “a temptation of modern Roman Catholics.” (4)

More than we know

As comfortable as it may be to wrap ourselves in all sorts of “absolutes” with regards to issues such as gender and sexuality, Endean, in reflecting on the work of Karl Rahner, nevertheless reminds us of the authentically Catholic perspective which recognizes that “dogmas of tradition exist not as truths complete in themselves, but rather as resources for helping us discover the ever greater glory . . . of the God whose gift of self pervades all possible experience.” (5)

Basically, to quote one of my favorite lines from the movie Ben-Hur: “The world is more than we know.”

And whereas I, and others, find hope in such a description of reality, there are those whose response is one of distrust and fear. As a result, some poor souls cling so desperately to aspects of the known that they prop them up as idols from whose shadow they dare not venture (or allow others to venture) out into the world.

Yet as Endean reminds us, “Christian fidelity is not a matter simply of preserving a heritage unsullied, but rather of courageous engagement with what is new, with what seems strange.” (6)

His words recall those of Pope John XXIII: “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.”

Endean goes on to say that “the proclamation of the gospel is permanently interactive: no one is untouched by the grace of God, and the proclaimed message will be heard aright only if it somehow interacts – in ways that might be surprising, creative, or unprecedented – with the self-gift of God already present. It follows, too, that Christianity is permanently growing and in process.” (7)

“What Christianity is committed to,” concludes Endean, “is not the claim that its traditions possess the whole truth, incontrovertibly, but rather the claim that its traditions possess one resource among others – admittedly a privileged and indispensable one – for continuing to discover God’s truth.” (8)

Understanding “the Church”

In light of this very Catholic way of understanding the ongoing process of discerning and discovering God’s truth, I, as a Catholic, respectfully disagree with the contention that the “one way and truth” of the Catholic faith excludes those who dissent from the supposed “rules” of our Catholic tradition.

An understanding of the Catholic Church as some kind of exclusive club with an inflexible set of rules fails to reflect basic Catholic theological tenets articulated by folks like Karl Rahner, as well as by the example of community modeled by Jesus.

I think a better and more inviting way of understanding the Church than as an exclusive club, is that of a shared pilgrimage of a diverse group of people united in their commitment to embody God’s loving and transforming presence through their words, actions, and relationships of compassion and justice.

Perhaps the commitment to embody such values should take precedence over “rules.” Jesus certainly wasn’t averse to breaking the religious rules of his day when responding to the demands of compassion and justice.

Those of us frequently accused of trying to “change the rules” of the Church, tend also to be those who are willing to embark on those very Catholic journeys of “courageous engagement with what is new, with what seems strange.” We also tend to be people who have been denied any voice in developing the “rules” that others are so intent on lifting up as absolute and thus unchangeable.

But in reality, the Church’s understanding, and thus teaching (or set of “rules”) on, for example, human sexuality, has been primarily shaped by men within a patriarchal culture. If we want teaching that truly reflects a universal – i.e., catholic – perspective, then a more diverse and inclusive range of voices and experiences needs to be taken into account – including the voices and experiences of women and gay people.

The role of the laity

Also, once we acknowledge the significant role that human experience plays in the process of continually discovering God’s truth about human life and relationships, the role of the laity – all members of the laity – comes into much clearer focus.

Australian theologian Paul Collins, for instance, reminds us that, “Consulting the laity in the formulation of doctrine is part of Catholicism’s theological tradition. Also, the whole Church’s acceptance of papal and episcopal teaching is an integral part of testing the veracity of that teaching. The hierarchy does not have a monopoly on truth.” (9)

Collins finds support for such claims in the writings of the great English theologian, Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90), “who said unequivocally that the laity has to be consulted in matters of doctrine, especially when teachings concern their lives so intimately.” (10)

Wrote Newman: “The body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and . . . their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church.” (11)

Good news to share

Many of us within the Catholic Church have come to realize the ancient spiritual truth (and thus Catholic truth) that not only can our beliefs shape our reality, but our reality can and should shape our beliefs. That’s the kind of living, growing Catholic Church that most Catholics want to live in and contribute to.

Such an understanding of Church could be imagined as a great sheltering tree. And just as a tree is comprised of different parts, both straight and curved, firm and supple, the Church too is not as rigid and uniform as some may wish to believe it to be. Like a healthy tree, the Church needs both anchoring roots and growing branches that are reaching ever outwards. That such a reality leads to tension is inevitable. But such tension doesn’t have to be divisive or destructive. It can be creative and life-giving.

Accordingly, I believe that despite our differences, those who may feel threatened and/or hostile towards The Progressive Catholic Voice, and those who readily identify with this voice, all have a place and role to play in the Catholic Church.

And for me, that truth says much about the beauty and power of our Catholic faith.

Michael Bayly is an editor of The Progressive Catholic Voice and the executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM).

1. Endean, P. (Ed.), Karl Rahner: Spiritual Writings (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005), p. 13.
2. Ibid., p. 26.
3. Ibid., pp. 26-27.
4. Ibid., p. 26.
5. Ibid., p. 27.
6-8. Ibid., p. 28.
9-10. Collins, P., Between the Rock and a Hard Place: Being Catholic Today (Sydney: ABC Books, 2004), p. 12.
11. Newman, J.H., On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, (1859), ed. John Coulson (London: Collins, 1961), p.63.


. . . to The Progressive Catholic Voice, a grassroots initiative dedicated to reflection, dialogue, and the exchange of ideas aimed at facilitating renewal and reform within the Catholic community of Minnesota and beyond.

The Progressive Catholic Voice has St. Francis of Assisi as its patron saint. In his time, our brother Francis heard and responded to God’s call to “repair my Church.” It’s a call that resounds today in a Catholic Church which, at its worst, is corroded and weakened by clericalism, hypocrisy, intellectual dishonesty, a profound lack of imagination, and a monarchical mind set and structure totally contrary to Jesus’ egalitarian model of community.

As progressive Catholics we are drawn to participate in and contribute to the Church’s capacity to grow, change, and evolve in ways that ever increasingly reveal God’s transforming love in our midst. Accordingly, our calling is to develop and unify the progressive Catholic voice of the local church, as we believe that this voice is an intrinsic and essential part of our Catholic tradition. Along with the moderate and conservative voices within the Church, this progressive voice needs to be heard in the discussions and deliberations that are part of any living faith community. As Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90) once noted: the laity has to be consulted in matters of doctrine, especially when teachings concern their lives so intimately.

Sadly, such consultation is not taking place. In its place we are witnessing an institutional retreat into clericalism and theological absolutism. Yet as distressing as this is, we, as progressive Catholics, are unwavering in our commitment to embody a healthy, life-giving, intellectually-honest, and authentically Gospel-based model of church – especially in terms of organizational structure, decision-making, and Vatican II’s call for “full, conscious, and active participation by all the baptized.”

This embodiment is one way we are called to “repair” the Church. Another involves providing a forum for the voices and stories of progressive Catholics that have been suppressed. A third aspect involves highlighting and critiquing the inconsistencies, incongruencies, and injustices of an institution that claims to be Gospel-based but sometimes falls short. All are proactive endeavors and will be undertaken in a respectful tone and in a spirit of love for our brothers and sisters throughout the Church – regardless of whether they identify as conservative, moderate, or progressive.

More often than not, The Progressive Catholic Voice will undertake these three endeavors, vital for the repairing of our beloved Church, by simply asking and exploring questions. As progressive Catholics, we take to heart Sister Joan Chittister’s observation that “the courage to question the seemingly unquestionable is the essence of spiritual leadership.”

Because we strongly believe that any authentic spiritual leadership must acknowledge and reflect the legitimate concerns and perspectives of all – including progressives – we will lovingly yet firmly question authority.

Some of the questions and issues that relate to our lives as Catholics within both the local and universal Church and which, accordingly, we will raise and explore in future posts of The Progressive Catholic Voice, include:

• Why is there no input from the laity in the selection of bishops? Why do we tolerate a model of leadership that is neither representational nor accountable? How can we inspire positive change?

• How is lay representation on diocesan and national boards determined? Can we be truly represented by “appointed” lay members rather than elected lay members?

• What is the current state of the archdiocese’s Commission on Women? Why have a number of this commission’s members recently resigned? Why are stories such as this not being covered by The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the archdiocese?

• How can we better understand why so many of the young men in the priesthood are pre-Vatican II in their thinking and thus opposed to change within the Church? Is there a role for us to play in dialoging with these men?

• How are young and conservative priests faring in parishes more open to collegial models of leadership and to questions and issues of diversity?

• How does mandatory celibacy and the unacknowledged sexual lives of priests (gay and straight) prohibit and compromise them from being authentic pastors, prophets, and leaders within their communities?

• How does the Church’s insistence on orthodoxy limit intellectual freedom and authentic education in Catholic secondary schools and universities?

• What compelled the archdiocese to recently ban communal penance? How do Catholics experience healing and reconciliation in their lives?

• What percentage of people in the US who call themselves Catholic believe all the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church? Is it possible to identify with the Catholic tradition and question the doctrinal formulations of the Roman church? Could it be that being a “cafeteria Catholic” is the only reasonable and honest way of being Catholic?

We hope you are as energized as we are at the prospect of exploring these and other questions. As part of The Progressive Catholic Voice community, you are welcome to submit your own questions, stories, commentaries and ideas to this blog – one that we hope will serve as a vital forum for informed dialogue and respectful critique.

Submissions may be sent to: progressivecatholicvoice@gmail.com.


The Progressive Catholic Voice Editorial Team:

Michael Bayly (Coordinating Editor)
Mary Beckfeld
Steve Boyle
Susan Kramp
David McCaffrey (Technical Coordinator)
Brian McNeill
Mary Lynn Murphy
Rick Notch
Theresa O'Brien
Paula Ruddy