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.

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