Saturday, February 27, 2010

In a Catholic Church in Flux, What Would Jesus Have Us Do?

By Tom Westbrook

Editor's Note: This commentary was first published in the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, WA.

More than the Roman Catholic Church was moved by that non-triumphalist renovation rendered nearly a half century ago.

Much good has evolved from that Second Vatican Council of shakers and movers. The gathering initiated a wondrous transition of the church. Its image as a block-solid monolith was transformed.

We were shown to be not so much an “it” as an “us.” Many got the heartening message: “We are the church!” For the wearied and jaded “hangers on,” it came as quite unexpected but truly joyous news.

Not all applauded. Though the ideas and interpretations advanced by the rare assembly were well-researched and a long time in incubation, they met with reserve and rejection stemming from those unprepared for the amazing outpouring.

It seemed a foolish debasement to some. It was even labeled a manifest threat by people who called themselves “traditionalists.”

Controversy erupted. Catholics took on strong and wrongly named sides, referring to themselves and each other as liberals and conservatives. All invoked precedent. Contentious exchanges continue unabated.

Vatican II invited us to see ourselves as “people of God.” Even so, given our nature and numbers, we must recognize that our church constitutes a polity that requires governance.

As members, we owe allegiance to our leadership. We are rightly expected to be supportive of the Pope and his retinue, but must also stand ready to rebut and refuse Caesarlike demands emanating from his echelons.

Writing as a long-lived, loyal layman, I’m quite aware of the traditions and justifications claimed by and for the institutional entity of our Christ-initiated, Spirit-guided faith community.

I truly treasure the church, its mission and its gifts. I try to recognize and accept the human element of the institution as a corollary consequence of our incarnational origin.

Whatever its cause or explanations, I don’t feel compelled to accept, let alone endorse, the all-or-nothing demands and compliance impositions set by various hyperprotective, organizational bureaucrats. Regardless of their sincerity of motive, these controllers can’t be allowed to triumph over anyone’s responsibly formed conscience.

Our institutional church has an established pattern of making gradualist responses to emerging needs. The resultant delays often engender needless frustrations. Our hierarchs too often appear as status-clinging denizens of an upper room.

So, is there a problem? More than one! Many are growing. Tensions abound.

We of the Spokane Diocese will soon be greatly affected by the word we’ll receive from a Vatican spokesman. We’ll be informed that empowered officials in Rome have secured needed papal approval of their choice for our next bishop.

Their man might prove to be compassionate, even holy. We hope for that. But recent appointments have hardly been stellar.

It’s not unlikely that we’ll be sent a “company man” who will focus on wielding power and control. Unfortunately, since the era of Pope John XXIII and Paul VI, we’ve felt little “bubbling up.”

Church life has sadly reverted to the enervating process of “trickling down.” The Vatican has in recent decades been dispatching reactive hierarchs to take charge of what it views as its recalcitrant wards.

The world’s too easily distracted media has heralded John Paul, the recent hard-charging Polish pontiff, for his zesty political undertakings. Most have overlooked that doubt-free dominator’s stifling of Vatican II.

Obstreperous Catholics such as myself who first witnessed and gloried in the overdue breakthrough of Vatican II have buoyantly called for the ordination of women as priests and bishops. We are ready for these changes and more.

Retrogressive repressions are now heavily burdening those of us who won’t give up the hope or the faith. We know our need to seek God’s forbearance and guidance in channeling our increasing impatience.

We’re called to act with love, yet we’re terribly tempted to be less than gentle in our remonstrations with the clerical keepers of the ecclesial club. We are wondering: “What would Jesus have us do?”

Thomas L. Westbrook, a still “practicing” Catholic, is a member of the Community of St. Ann in Spokane, a sanctuary parish.

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