Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Challenges to Us As Catholics

Part 1 of a special series:

Countdown to Synod of the Baptized 2010

by Paula Ruddy

The Progressive Catholic Voice is a member of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, along with seven other local Catholic organizations, and the calendar days are flying fast toward CCCR’s Synod of the Baptized on September 18. We have 450 people registered on this day after Labor Day, with more registering now for overflow seating. The goal is to channel our energies toward the mission of the Church. We realize that to do this we have to be open to our own conversion. No small task.

Paul Lakeland will be our keynote speaker. Paul is a professor of Catholic Studies and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, and in chapter two of his most recent book, Church: Living Communion (Liturgical Press, 2009), he describes ten challenges for the contemporary Church, six internal and four external.

To give those of you who haven’t had a chance to read his book some idea of Paul’s thinking, we will outline one challenge a day in the countdown to the Synod. These are our understandings of what Paul is saying. You can correct or amend and we can dialogue with Paul if he comments online or when he gets here.

The First Challenge: Identity and Commitment

When Paul looks at the Church, he looks at it “from below.” That is, he starts his analysis with what is happening among the people who identify themselves as Catholic.

With data from sociologists, Paul observes that many people identify strongly as Catholic but are not committed to Catholic institutional practices. For example, they say they value Eucharist, but they don’t attend Mass regularly. How do we account for this gap between strong identity and weak commitment to practices that the community values?

Most of us who have lived through the last fifty years, know that fear of God’s wrath and belief in mortal sin with relation to Church practices has changed drastically. Some are happy about it, some not so happy. Why have beliefs changed?

Taking the long view, we can say the whole of Western civilization underwent a change in the way we look at the world from about 1600 to 1900, and the changes speeded up after the World Wars and into the 21st century. And the Roman Catholic Church, already in existence for centuries, reacted negatively to these changes until Vatican II in the 1960’s. The Catholic self-understanding, developed through the Middle Ages, has an emphasis on community. From the Reformation and the Enlightenment onward, with many nuances, the emphasis in the world shifted to the dignity of the individual, his/her rights, duties, equality and freedom. As inhabitants in both Roman Catholic and secular cultures, it is no wonder that we feel the tension.

Here is how Paul puts it:

Through the Middle Ages and succeeding centuries up to the middle of the twentieth, the Catholic Church provided its members with one of the most complete pictures of the meaning of life and a distinctive method for patterning one’s life accordingly. The stages of life, the liturgical year, the practices of repentance, prayer, good works, and the sacraments all came together in a seamless framework of meaning and order. God was in heaven, the members of the Church were heading in that direction, and obeying God in and through the Church would assure a happy death and entry into the presence of God in heaven. … Expressing dissent by living lives different from the vast majority of those around you was difficult if not impossible. …

In the end the apparently impregnable fortress of Catholicism was breached by the modern world’s discovery of the rights and responsibilities of the human subject. (p. 64)

(In chapter 3, following Bernard Lonergan, SJ, Canadian philosopher, Paul goes into how human subjectivity naturally reaches for self-transcendence—conversion—and must be grounded in the “concrete, dynamic, personal, communal, and historical.” The “turn to the subject” of modernity has had deep and pervasive effects on how all of us think and value things. Some of us are still making the turn.)

Here is the challenge that Paul Lakeland points to: this long gradual change in emphasis toward the value of the individual has resulted in many Catholics, particularly young ones, thinking that their subjective experience is enough to direct them in religious living and ethical relating. They don’t believe they need institutions or tradition or community.

Many of us have noticed that when young people feel the need for direction from community they turn to religions that value the subjectivity of the individual. It seems obvious that a response to this challenge has to take human subjectivity into account in the task of passing on the value of community. One key might be to show how the tradition can ground and deepen the inner life of the individual and enrich intersubjectivity. We have communication technology galore with nothing to say to each other.

Paul puts it like this:

The correct response to the divorce between claims to continuing Catholic identity and practices that would indicate ongoing institutional commitment is to strengthen the mechanisms of teaching through which the Church hands on its wisdom to the next generation, and the first step in this process is for the institutional Church itself to learn a few lessons about how good teaching takes place. . .

Education does not happen when people ingest information and simply accept it; it happens when they learn the skills of discernment and analysis so that they can make what they are taught their own, when they can even participate in the educational process and sometimes actually teach the teachers something they did not previously know.

. . . Learning occurs when the tradition collides with, corrects and is corrected by the experience of the learning community. The fabled passivity of the Catholic laity is a result of poor teaching for many, many centuries. Those who have broken the shackles of passivity are not helped by being considered troublemakers or dissenters. They are the vanguard in the struggle to overcome the gap between identity and commitment, and they need to be cherished, even if sometimes their stated positions are short of nuance. (pp. 67-68)

NEXT: The Second Challenge: Ministry - Ordained and Lay.


  1. I wish the church would be pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. Then more people would attend mass.

  2. 9-14-10
    The commonality that I see between Rosemary Ruether speaking about a spirituality of infantilism which was deeply bred into our psyches in our traditional Catholic socialization, Tom Doyle speaking about clericalism and its trappings, and Bernie Rodel, Eileen Rodel and Paula Ruddy discussing When is a Law Not a Law? is this. Each is a recent response to the authority question in Catholicism. The question at hand is, where is the justification for such authority? This leads to the next question, where can true authority be found?
    Although I speak as a laywoman, I think that epistemology (theory of knowledge and justification) and other philosophical areas and critical thinking skills, as well as relevant science including especially scientific biblical-historical scholarship, would immediately extricate people from the ‘indoctrination box’ ever implicit in each of these groups’ thinking as Catholic people. The biblical-historical scholarship demonstrates the bedrock of Christianity i.e. the incarnation and resurrection beliefs. If the bedrock is problematic then anything built upon it is even more so. Philosophy and the relevant sciences will enhance the change that Christianity, as a religion that originated in the age of mythology must accept. The significant lack of necessary acceptance is what is promoting Christianity’s demise.
    Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church have had intellectuals in every age. Thinking has both evolved and superseded one mindset over another depending on the circumstances of a particular historical period. But this is the period of a twenty-first century scientific worldview, the age of the Internet, and moving towards a digital world library, as I understand it. This means that the magisterial authority has to prove itself intellectually superior to the world depository of knowledge. The hierarchy has access to the same experts for advice, as does anyone else. Not only that, the church representing itself as ‘the sacred’ and the world representing itself as ‘the secular’ -- in the final analysis -- each has access to the same human knowledge base. Evolutionary theory has preempted the assumed dichotomy between the hypothetical sacred and secular realms. Sacred and secular reality and truth are one. It is difficult for me to imagine how the hierarchical teaching authority can sustain its position.
    Expert group minds giving expert advice as needed in such radically changing times for people and planet is the new necessity. We are into the sixth mass extinction, climate change, depletion of global resources, a global population crisis, a global multifaceted crisis and more. On the one hand we have global coalitions working for people and planet. Yet on the other hand far too many live their lives in the spirit of ‘business as usual’.
    Historically, new knowledge does supersede older knowledge often enough, and especially so in philosophy and science. I admire the progressive Catholics who are the avant-garde and leading the church into a new age. But I think that it will be a post-Axial Age faith replacing an Axial Age religion; cultural evolution will make it so. Many required resources are already available. It’s a matter of connecting the dots -- using the resources and activating the political will to enable people and restore the planet as much as is possible.
    I wish you well in your endeavors. I am sorry that I am not able to join you. The cost-benefit ratio is not working for me. Also, competing priorities prevent me from continuing my Blog People and Planet -- unprecedented change. I appreciate the opportunity google gave me. And I appreciate your kind consideration. Marie.