A Fear-Based Church?
I've been thinking a lot about Bishop Kevin Dowling lately. As you probably have seen in the past few posts, Dowling, an outspoken South African bishop, gave a frank talk to a group of lay leaders in Cape Town in June. Yesterday a friend sent me a link to his thoughtful address, posted on Independent Catholic News, parts of which I posted here on this blog. Many read it, and other sites subsequently picked it up. Then--mysteriously, it seemed at first--it was removed from ICN. Then, as Kevin Clarke noted below, it was posted again. (As it turned out, this was due to a glitch involving some incorrectly deleted words, the website's editor explained in an email.) Subsequently, the National Catholic Reporter reported that the bishop intended the alk to be off the record. "Given the fact that it would be a select group with no media present, I decided I would be open and honest in my views to initiate debate and discussion," he said.
But why wouldn't a bishop want such a carefully crafted, well-thought-out talk disseminated widely? Why not be "open and honest" with everyone?
Bear with me. For I've been thinking about his talk not so much to unravel the twisted skein of the on-again, off-again posting saga, but to meditate on what it might say about the church.
Bishop Dowling's blunt address was not only about what he called the “dismantling" of Vatican II, but about something else: the "pressure to conform.” And here’s the irony: the one speaking out about speaking out did not feel that he could speak out, at least not broadly, or at least not to everyone, or at least not publicly. His desire not to speak more publicly on the topic effectively proved his point.
None of this is meant to be a slight against the bishop, who I've greatly admired for some time. He is a terrific leader, a wonderful teacher and, in many ways, a real prophet. What a bishop should and could be.
But neither is this surprising. We live in a church where almost any disagreement to almost any degree with almost any church leader on almost any topic is seen as dissent. And I'm not speaking about the essentials of the faith--those elements contained in the Creed--but about less essential topics. Even on those topics—say, the proper way to deal with politicians at odds with church teaching, new translations of the Mass, the best way for bishops to deal with complicated pastoral issues, and so on—the slightest whiff of disagreement is confused with disloyalty.
Certainly disagreement with any statements from Rome, even on non-dogmatic or non-doctrinal matters, is seen as close to heresy. As Bishop Dowling said:
What compounds this [frustration over the church’s unwillingness to be critiqued], for me, is the mystique which has in increasing measure surrounded the person of the pope in the last 30 years, such that any hint of critique or questioning of his policies, his way of thinking, his exercise of authority etc. is equated with disloyalty. There is more than a perception, because of this mystique, that unquestioning obedience by the faithful to the pope is required and is a sign of the ethos and fidelity of a true Catholic. When the pope's authority is then intentionally extended to the Vatican curia, there exists a real possibility that unquestioning obedience to very human decisions about a whole range of issues by the curial departments and cardinals also becomes a mark of one's fidelity as a Catholic, and anything less is interpreted as being disloyal to the pope who is charged with steering the bark of Peter.
Even for bishops! Kevin Dowling is, for Pete's sake, or for Christ's sake--and I mean that literally--a bishop. A teacher. A successor to the apostles. Not simply a branch manager of the Vatican's main office. Not some lowly functionary. Not a cog. But a teacher in his own right. And even he feels the "pressure to conform."
What does this engender? It engenders a fear-based church. It creates clergy and religious frightened of speaking out, terrified of reflecting on complicated questions, and nervous about proposing creative solutions to new problems. It leads to the laity, who have a hard enough time getting their voice heard, giving up. It causes the diminution of a thoughtful theological community. It muzzles what should be a vibrant, flourishing, provocative, innovative, challenging Catholic press. It empowers minuscule cadres of self-appointed watchdogs, whose malign voices are magnified by the blogosphere, and who, with little to no theological background, freely declare any sort of disagreement as tantamount to schism--and are listened to by those in authority. It creates fear.
Now, does this seem like what Jesus wanted to establish on earth? It doesn't to me. I thought he said "Fear not!" And I thought St. John said, “There is no fear in love." And "Perfect love casts out fear." But perfect fear casts out love, too.
Sometimes when I'm writing or speaking, even to small groups, I find myself thinking not "What would God want me to say?" But “Will this get me in trouble?” Again it’s not surprising. Occasionally, during my talks I’ll spy a humorless man and woman furiously taking notes. The other night it happened during a talk on a particularly controversial topic: joy. Ironically, I am probably one of the most theologically conservative Catholics you'll ever meet. You may not believe that, but it's true. Every Sunday, when I say the Creed, I believe every single word of it.
Bishop Dowling is right. There is a "pressure to conform." And it is intense, particularly official church circles. Sadly, this is the last thing that the church needs right now. In the midst of perhaps one of the worst crises ever to face the church--the sexual abuse scandals--what we need is not fear-bred silence, but a hope-filled willingness to listen to any and all voices. Because the Holy Spirit works through all of us.
What's the alternative? Well, for an answer I’d like to turn to Pope Benedict XVI. I've been making my way through his book Jesus of Nazareth, which I'm enjoying very much. At the beginning of his book the pope says something surprising. The pope says that the book is "absolutely not" a work of doctrine, but the “expression of my own personal research." “Consequently, everyone is free to contradict me. I only ask the readers that they read with sympathy, without which there will be no comprehension." That seemed eminently sensible, completely humble and absolutely right. How much easier it is to listen to someone who invites, rather than commands.
And how wonderful if everyone in the church could be afforded that “sympathy.” Then we could listen to the voices of all sorts of people who have much to offer the church, by way of their own "expressions" of their "personal research"--that is, the experience of their lives as faith-filled members of the Body of Christ. The pope’s approach in his book--about Jesus, hardly an insignificant topic!--is the way to go.
Another irony: I'm sure that even writing this blogpost will lead people to think I'm a dissenter--even though I've not dissented from any teaching. I'm sure that out there in the blogosphere are those same self-appointed guardians ready to pounce on any whiff of disagreement or critique and somehow twist it into disloyalty.
Well, they’ll do that anyway, so why not say what I have to say?
James Martin, SJ