Sunday, June 22, 2014

Broadly Catholic, Narrowly Catholic: Can the Two Ways Pull Together to Save the Institutional Church?

Question posted by Paula Ruddy

As much as we all want this long culture war to be over, the conflict is hard to resolve. It came up in a committee in my parish this week; it is the main thread on the dotcommonweal blog just now about the role of Catholic theologians. The conflict is a constant undercurrent in Catholic life.

Usually labeled “liberalism” and “conservatism,” the division has been thoroughly analyzed for why it exists, what historical and psychological factors account for it. But what is the bottom line?

I’m calling it a difference between broad and narrow and I am asking you not to place a value on either word for the time being. Like the uses of optical lenses, both broad and narrow are good, but they are different. Narrow can be “bad” because it misses a lot. Broad can be “bad” because it can get very fuzzy without showing anything clearly. There are upsides and downsides to both.

Broadly Catholic Catholics recognize God in “the world” (hereafter BC’s). Another way of being Catholic is to recognize God within the Roman Catholic magisterial world, as distinct from “the world.” It is a narrower focus (hereafter NC’s). BC’s set out into the “secular” world in a maze of paths, highways, byways, guided by faith, the tradition, and a community, discerning the true, the good, and the beautiful from step to step. NC’s are happy with the path laid out by the magisterial community, illuminating the true, the good, and the beautiful in age old forms, warning of fruitless byways and evil open highways. Tradition is a guide to the BC’s, a set path for the NC’s. Too simple, I know, but the general idea is useful.

The bottom line raises fearful questions: if most Catholics turn to “the world” to be broadly Catholic, will the Roman Catholic magisterial world fall apart? If dogma is discarded because we all now know that truth is always on the horizon of knowledge, and goodness and beauty are all around us, what will happen to the magisterium? Will it have finances and authority to continue? If that world falls apart, how will the tradition be maintained and grow? Will most “broadly Catholic” people lose their way to the world’s banality without the guidance of the large community? Will Catholics who depend most on the Roman Catholic magisterial world be left behind with no support?

I see the magisterium in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis trying to solve the problem by narrowing the focus, trying to gather Catholics together for strength inside the corral of dogma, Catholic identity, pre-Vatican II practices, condemnation of “broadly Catholic” and “the world.” They are looking to Evangelical Protestantism for ways to narrow the focus and attract more people to be churched.

Wouldn’t it be better to spend the energy talking with the “broadly Catholic” to find ways to support all Catholics in living in the world and maybe even to influence the world? Could we get some leadership in that direction? What does anyone think?


  1. Matters of faith require a statement of faith in what? Faith in the Magisterium is faith misplaced. The proper repository of faith is in God, or at least what we know of God as evidenced by her Creation. We see that evidence by the light of knowledge given to us divinely, in the company of our fellow human beings, over time and in a multitude of ways. We are called to act morally based upon that knowledge and the evidence it illuminates.

    The Magestirium of the Church is more properly a beneficiary of trust, if trust seems deserved. Of late, does it?

    If the Magisterium fails to keep the trust of increasing numbers of faithful, it will impoverish the Church spiritually and materially. Those faithful already engaged in the exploration of all Creation by the light of God will continue to follow that light. Those who are not will be left in darkness by the Magisterium they trusted.

    What then?
    Michael D. Anderson

    1. Very beautifully said, Michael, imo. I take it you speak as a "broadly Catholic" Catholic. Does the "What then?" worry you? Can they count on the Southern hemisphere to support the Vatican if the US and Canada go the way of Europe? Can you see the trend toward secularization reversing itself? Without priests or generations of young people, how many years do you give it?

  2. Paula,

    I think the "broadly Catholic" and "narrowly Catholic" is a good definition. What worries me more than anything is that there is no known bridge to get these sectors to communicate with each other. The both stand on opposite sides of the river and look across the divide with skepticism; but none will cross the river. Hence it would be a dream come true if the NC in St. Paul would entertain conversation, then one could openly hope for more dialog, more openness, more acceptance. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will bring forth a miracle and we can all breath freely again. Until then, the cloud of John, weighs us down with more rainy forecasts.

    Tom Cooley

    1. Thanks, Tom. I'm thinking that it is necessary to have a very strong faith in the Holy Spirit to let go, stop trying to control the minds and actions of the "flock" when you feel responsible for them as John probably does. He has angrily said "I am the chief catechist." Tough job.

  3. The institutional church has served a purpose. When there is no king the kingdom collapses. The magesterium at one time served as king and provided leadership to all including the illiterate and those in early stages of spiritual development who just wanted decisions made for them, but Christendom is no more. Since Vat II, The People of God are taking their responsibility and right to use their gifts as priests, prophets, kings (and queens). They are well read, discern with an informed conscience and continue to evolve into spiritually mature adults. Like the magisterium, the People of God have the Holy Spirit and they long to be served by the servants (magisterium) who can give them more power to carry out the gospel. It is inevitable that change must be made and Pope Francis has begun to set the tone. The magisterium has an opportunity to adjust to the progress of the latest science and scholarly works and become more compassionate and rational with the Doctrine they dispense. When I read in "The Catholic Spirit" that one may need dispensation for missing mass while on a cruise ship or possibly risk mortal sin, I shuddered. The People of God will continue to raise their prophetic voices and express concern for rational leadership, one that serves society today. We want the magisterium to succeed but not at the demise of the people. Listen to the cry of the people. Listen, listen and hear.

    Nancy Gotto

  4. Thanks to Paula and to Michael! You have started a much needed conversation...

    Are we listening to the Spirit or are we under the Law.

    The ordained hierarchy of our church are showing fear of the moving Body of Christ. If we truly believe that we are the Body we recognize that some of us are moving forward. If we do not really believe we are moving forward a huge difference becomes apparent. Some of us believe we need hierarchy or a priest to set the Law for us and some of us believe the hierarchy exists to serve others - to offer bodily solace to those suffering, to open doors of knowledge and wisdom to all.

    It is so apparent that some of the hierarchical leadership of the MSP Archdiocese organization are tightening in a protective circle around old church teachings. The organization is not tightening or connecting more fully with the teachings of Jesus or the awareness of the eternal Christ. Clearly (to me) their mission is control of the masses their mission is not sharing Life. Do they long to quench this energy? Do they long to divert the Spirit's movement?

    We recognize that it's a scary time for some and a wonderful and thrilling time for others. We must be aware of the movement of the Spirit. The uncontrollable outpouring of God's life and love continue. Wisdom and knowledge flourish in scientific and theological areas. Common folks are no longer silent. Some faithful followers of Christ have walked out of the building and the organization. Even those who cling to being told what is "Law" are aware of the empty pews and the "disobedience" of the faithful.

    We have traditionally looked to our pastors for leadership - and this situation presents many challenges to our them! They need the Wisdom of the Spirit to navigate during this time. They need our prayers, they need courage to continue, ability to listen, to hold an open stance as the upheaval continues.

    A good leader/Pastor could offer a neutral ground with rules of listening respectfully to those that long for dialog. Those who are certain that they hold the truth and need not listen to others should be very wary. A good leader would offer an opportunity for us to learn more, to honor our past and to offer hope and love to those whose ideas differ.

    The Body of Christ continues in the organization. We need Hope and the Spirit to continue in this Body.

    Bonnie Strand

  5. Good comments all...

    An example from my own life. My children were obliged to attend the local Jewish kindergarten because the others were full. At parent functions I was horrified at the racism expressed towards Arabs. But I said nothing because I was a guest in their community and, looking back, I am pleased that I acted that way. I am not God and it is not my role to judge others

    Fast forward a bit and I find myself surrounded by family members who are definitely in the 'narrow' Catholic category.

    (They will vote anti-Jesus Christ if it is on the same ticket as anti-gay marriage.)

    Again, I think it best not to criticise. God is quite capable of nudging them in the right direction

    So Paula, I don't think dialogue is possible. But I it's not necessarily a problem if we keep up our private prayer


  6. Thanks for weighing in here, Michael F. I agree with you that there is no need to judge Catholics who depend on the Church's bishops to keep them safe from "the world." They come by their dependence very honestly. But I am not talking about individuals. I am talking about institutional reform. Aren't we charged with the growth of the Kingdom of God? The institutional Catholic Church is a valuable support to individuals and itself a means for the Kingdom's growth. Don't we have to use our prudent judgment in discerning the best strategies to move that project forward? Do you believe that God works through the intelligence and good will of all of us? If so, our reasoning together and working together is necessary.

    1. I agree that institutional reform is what's needed and I am sure many religious think the same. But our obligation is to do the will of God without necessarily knowing what it is. It is quite possible that God wants us to do nothing - and in that case we should do nothing. It would be foolish of us to decide on something "good" and proceed to carry it out when God wants us to do nothing.

      God has the power to change the world in an instant. If he does not do that, we should accept it and have faith that things will eventually be put right.

      Personally I find the writings of Teresa de Ahumada helpful. She achieved great things by doing nothing (other than by practising private prayer). A woman in a male-dominated society, elderly, poor, and bound by a vow of obedience, she founded about 20 convents even though attacked by the religious establishment who thought the existing convents were quite good enough, than you very much

      If we want to achieve something, we can do a lot worse than follow her example