Friday, September 16, 2011

A Tradition Worth Returning To

By Michael J. Bayly

Recently on 60 Minutes, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan called for a return to orthodoxy and tradition within the Roman Catholic Church. Judging from recent events, some might conclude that this “return” is in full swing. We see Catholics excommunicated for simply voicing support for female ordination; girl altar servers banned; certain theologians declared “a curse and affliction upon the church,” and parents supportive of their gay and lesbian children being viewed as cooperating in evil.

Exclusion appears to be the hallmark of this “return to tradition,” along with the clerical leadership’s condemnation of “relativism” – the allowing of wider cultural trends or developments to inform and shape church teachings and practices. Yet, ironically, the exclusionary, so-called “traditional” attitudes and practices being championed by members of the church hierarchy are themselves relative to past historical and cultural developments. Specifically, they are relative to the church’s embracing of the imperial trappings of empire in the fourth century and the Vatican’s later appropriation of absolute monarchy in the seventeenth century. Such accommodations to exclusionary political systems and hierarchical structures have obscured the radical egalitarianism that Jesus lived and taught and which actually reflects the earliest and deepest tradition of the Catholic faith.

We see all of this being played out in our own local church. Recently Archbishop John Nienstedt cautioned the priests and the Catholic faithful of the “threat to unity” posed by a local coalition of Catholics gathering for its second annual “Synod of the Baptized” on September 17 at the DoubleTree Hilton in Bloomington. The event, expected to draw over 500 reform-minded Catholics, will feature a keynote address by theologian Anthony Padovano on the role of conscience in the work of church reform.

Making Our Voices Heard” is the title of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform’s 2011 synod. It is a title purposely chosen by organizers in response to many Catholic lay people’s experience of not having their voices heard on matters of church teaching and practice that impact their lives. A new initiative, the Council of the Baptized, will be launched at the synod. Its members will act as representatives of the lay Catholic community in developing policies, practices, and church administrative structures that will serve the Gospel message of justice, inclusion and compassion. It is envisioned that the Council will work collaboratively with the ordained leadership of the Archdiocese. Yet according to the archbishop, the only baptized members of the church that can respond to the issues and concerns raised by the Council are the bishops. The implication is that all others must be quiet and simply obey. Some even declare that this is the traditional role of the laity.

Organizers of Synod 2011, however, draw on church history and teaching to support a very different role of the laity – one that makes a claim for active participation by all in every aspect of church life. Such participation was a deeply valued and practiced tradition of the early church and reflects the belief that the consensus of the Christian people indicates the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the church. Cardinal John Henry Newman highlighted this belief in the nineteenth century when he noted that church authority needs to take into account “the opinion of the laity on subjects in which the laity are especially concerned."

The Catholic Coalition for Church Reform also draws inspiration and support from the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, where it was taught that church teachings develop through the contemplation and study made not just by members of the hierarchy, but by believers’ “intimate understanding” of things they experience. (Dei Verbum, 8)

Thus contrary to Archbishop Nienstedt’s recent condemnation of the “Making Our Voices Heard” synod as “an affront to the hierarchical ordering of the church,” organizers insist that they are in no way denigrating the proper role and authority of the bishops and the Pope. Rather, we are emphasizing and claiming the traditional Catholic role of the laity. For many Catholics, it is to this earliest and inclusive tradition, free of the exclusionary attitudes and practices that developed later, that the church needs to return if it is to faithfully embody the presence of Jesus in the world.


UPDATE: Following are images and commentary from CCCR's Second Annual Synod of the Baptized: "Making Our Voices Heard" – September 17, 2011, at the DoubleTree Hilton in Bloomington.

Above: Theologian and author Anthony Padovano, keynote speaker at Synod 2011.

Here's part of what Anthony shared with the close to 400 Catholics in attendance . . .

. . . The sensus fidelium is the point of convergence in Catholic life for law, reception, community, conscience, and faith.

The escalating division in the Catholic Church between what people believe and what administrators teach, between how people behave and what lawmakers require is not due solely to secularism or self-indulgence. Educated and autonomous Catholics do not accept monarchical legislation. They force a culture of dialogue on the Church by non-compliance if they have not been consulted or taken into account.

The three magisterial or teaching offices in the Church (bishops, theologians, and the People of God) are obliged by Church teaching to create a culture of dialogue between and among them. If this does not happen, the community acts accordingly. Today, bishops at large ignore university scholarship and have contempt for the sensus fidelium when it is not compliant. The response of people has been active and passive resistance to being governed in such a manner.

This crisis gives us the opportunity to act creatively and responsibly. . . .

Right: Roman Catholic Bishop Regina Nicolosi, one of three recipients of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform's 2011 Adsum Award.

Adsum is a Latin word which means "I am present and listening." Whenever the participants in Vatican II were gathered at St. Peter's Basilica their traditional prayer was the exclamation: Adsumus – "we are present and listening" CCCR's Adsum Award recognizes those individuals who have made an extraordinary commitment to be present and attentive to the Spirit, to be partners in re-creating the face of the church here in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

Notes Regina:

We in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement pray and work for a reformed priesthood in a renewed Catholic Church. We affirm the priesthood of all believers. We believe that our brother Jesus invites all to gather around the table. For me personally, the end of sexism, the inclusion of our GLBT brothers and sisters, the protection of our earth and continuous work for peace are important issues.

Left: The second recipient of the 2011 Adsum Award was local theologian William C. Hunt.

Says William:

We live in a seemingly God-forsaken world where one third of our sisters and brothers are so poor that they are starving to death; where preventable diseases and natural disasters claim the lives of tens of thousands each day; and where senseless wars consume precious lives and resources for destructive purposes. I envisage the Church as a caring, sharing, life-giving community in which all the baptized proclaim and embody the message of God's love in Jesus Christ and serve the world both by providing emergency relief and by working for structural change that embodies justice, peace and reconciliation. I also envision the Church as a functional family in which those called to ministry serve the baptized through word and sacrament so that that the baptized may be empowered to reach out to the world in love and service.

The third recipient of CCCR's 2011 Adsum Award, artist Ansgar Holmberg, was unable to join us on September 17. She did, however, share the following in the Synod 2011 program booklet.

As an artist and illustrator, a major thrust of my work has been inclusivity of gender, race, church, all creation. This is an "adventure" when illustrating church for religious education for children but it is possible to do in subtle ways and I delight in putting in my two cents worth.

Above: Roman Catholic Womanpriest Judith McKloskey. For The Wild Reed's August 2008 interview with Judith, click here.


  1. It's amazing how bad your reasoning is.

  2. Hi Julie,

    I'm curious to know how it is you understand my "reasoning" and why you think it is "bad." As it stands, your comment is not very helpful as it does not give an impression of being informed by much of anything.



  3. Michael, this is wonderful -- clear and to the point. I especially like the move you make, to take back what belongs to us: the language of tradition. This is a necessary move to show the pseudo-traditionalists for what they are -- radical innovators departing from the deepest traditions of all in the church.

  4. 9- 18&19 -11
    May I respectfully suggest that both laity and the hierarchy read the literature that informs us that we are evolving into a new era? Staying with certain previous beliefs may no longer be doable. Pope Pius’ (XII) 1943 encyclical (online) on the revolution in scientific biblical-historical scholarship is a good starting point. Thomas Sheehan’s article on the revolution in the church in (The New York Review of Books June 14, 1984 but now online) gives background on this institutional sea change. Robert Funk and The Jesus Seminar’s The Acts of Jesus is an example of Pope Pius’ decree. If there is plausible reason to believe that there never was an incarnation and resurrection of Jesus then it seems reasonable to believe that Christianity has run its course.
    This is cultural evolution. Other examples: Judaism gave us monotheism even though their forefathers were polytheistic. Christianity absolutely came from a Jewish milieu. While Christianity has diverse expressions, as an axial age religion it is evolving into a post-axial age faith phenomenon because basic presuppositions appear to no longer hold no matter what type of guiding principles and practice. More plausible beliefs are supplanting ancient ones. There is a vast difference between the age of mythology thinking and a twenty-first century scientific worldview.
    Scientific biblical-historical scholarship, and the relevant sciences in general as well as philosophical skills (e.g. understanding the faith-revelation circular argument and the power of good reasoning) are essential tools in the development of an advanced understanding of faith and moral agency.
    Pope Pius’ Divino Afflante Spiritu Encyclical on promoting biblical studies clearly shows the need for accepting change, as new evidence requires. “The value of these excavations is enhanced by the discovery from time to time of written documents, which help much towards the knowledge of the languages, letters, events, customs, and forms of worship of most ancient times. And of no less importance is papyri which have contributed so much to the knowledge of the discovery and investigation, so frequent in our times, of letters and institutions, both public and private, especially of the time of Our Savior.”
    The literature continues, on and on. To me, it seems clear that visionary experts are manifestly revealing that the faith and morals issue is evolving into a new stage congruent with twenty-first century requirements for survival of people and planet.

  5. well said. Thorough, clear, loving, and pastoral. Thank you for your Progressive Catholic Voice.