Critics From Within

I entered St. Peter’s Basilica yesterday just after the gates swung open at seven in the morning and found myself drawn to the altar of Blessed John XXIII. Each day a priest preaches there who does everything wrong and everything right. He didn’t disappoint me. Having once taught homiletics, I’m terribly critical of him. In yesterday’s brief homily he mentioned Michelangelo, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, Moses, Aaron, Jesus, of course, and Catherine of Siena. Unity, the lesson I used to drill into my students, is surely not his strength.

But I go to St. Peter’s to listen to him again and again, because, apart from all the rules he breaks, he does everything right. Today I noticed how he prayed before he preached, his head bowed reverently. His love for God’s word radiated as soon as he launched into the homily. As he spoke, I saw that he had prepared well, meditating on the Scriptures. In spite of all his digressions, some of which were intriguing, his main point hit me forcefully.


The reading was from Exodus 32. Moses, coming down from the mountain, found his people worshiping a golden calf and reacted with rage. “But notice,” this fascinating preacher said to the little group gathered around the altar, “notice the difference between Moses and Aaron. Aaron, who had been quite involved in the idolatry, dumps the responsibility on the people, saying to Moses: ‘You know how prone the people are to evil. They said to me: Make us a god to be our leader; as for the man Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.’ In contrast, even in his anger Moses, instead of pinning the blame on others, identifies with his sinful people and cries out to God: ‘If you would only forgive their sin! If you will not, then strike me out of the book you have written.’”

“Aren’t we all like Aaron?” he asked us. “We readily blame others: our parents, our teachers, the church. But Moses knew that he and his people were marching toward the promised land together. He recognized that he was one of them!”

As usual, he saved something until the end of Mass. As the drowsy-looking altar boy led him down from the altar, he stopped in the midst of his little flock, raised his hand and said: “The Roman poet Trilussa was often very critical of the church. He was also a man of remarkable insight into human nature. Last night I was reading a poem of his entitled ‘Peccato Numero Uno.’” He then cited it from memory in the Romanesque dialect that Trilussa had used. In rough translation, the poem goes like this: 

God asked Adam—Who ate the apple?
—I did!—he responded—But she gave it to me.
—Absolutely. Otherwise I wouldn’t say it...
So much for the first Christian gentleman!

I thought about the homily all day. Don’t I often react toward the church as Aaron did? Don’t my criticisms often sound like those of an outsider, rather than of someone within? I remembered an incident that occurred years ago when I was visiting England. I went to see the movie “The Mission.” When I came home that night, there was a guest at table. I mentioned that I had just seen “The Mission,” and he asked me what I thought of it. I said that I liked it a lot but felt that the church had come off rather badly. The guest responded: “Really? I thought the church came off rather well. But I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘church.’ I guess you’re referring to the hierarchy, the curial officials of the time, but, to me, the Jesuit missionaries and the Paraguayan Indians in the film were quite remarkable.” I knew that I had been taught a lesson, but it was a good one. The church is us, all of us.

Reflecting on criticism, especially criticism of “the church,” I notice that there are three tendencies.

Some are sentinels, ever on the watch, guarding against any critical word. They defend even the indefensible. Or, in egregious cases, they become sphinx-like, gloomily silent. I lived for years with a very intelligent man with whom it was impossible to have a reasonable discussion in which any criticism of the hierarchy was expressed. Gradually, I came to sense that he needed high defenses in order to live serenely, but I also noticed that his defenses isolated this bright man from his peers and even made close friendship with him rather difficult.

A second tendency is Aaron’s, a trap into which many, myself included, often fall. It is easy to blame “the bishops” or “the Roman Curia” for decisions we do not like, but it is not so easy to voice our legitimate criticisms directly and constructively to those who make those decisions. Nor is it easy to formulate effective solutions as part of a dialogue with decision makers, or at least to do all in our power toward that end. Blaming them is simpler. But blame, while cathartic, is rarely creative. It may serve to determine who was responsible for past events, but often fails to move toward constructing avenues that will lead to a new future. The Aaron group readily shifts responsibility to others, but rarely accepts responsibility itself.

That is precisely what the third group, the Moses group, tries to do. Unlike the first group, it is not afraid to voice criticisms; unlike the second, it does so as a full member of the church. Something that has struck me over the years is that so many great 20th-century theologians, like Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar openly voiced their complaints to “the church I love.” They wrote from within rather than from without. Today too, during the ongoing crisis of the church in the United States, many of its critics are faithful Catholics who speak out because they love the church and are eager for it to grow, to move beyond the present tragic events and to reform the structures that contributed to them.

Basically, it takes lots of courage to speak, to write and to persevere in expressing the truth with love. But just as Paul withstood Peter when “he was clearly in the wrong” (Gal 2:11), the church has always had, and continues to need, loyal critics.

One of history’s greatest lay critics was Catherine Benincasa, whom the preacher mentioned in his homily as St. Catherine of Siena. She had enormous courage, urging and finally convincing Pope Gregory XI to return from Avignon to Rome. She wrote to him: “Don’t be a fearful child, but a grown man.” It was surely helpful that when she wrote to the pope, she was already renowned for holiness. She counseled Gregory’s successor, Urban VI, telling him bluntly that he needed to control his temper. Her letters to cardinals who supported an anti-pope are extremely direct. Today, their language even sounds harsh: “What made you do this? You are flowers that shed no perfume, but a stench that makes the whole world reek.” In 1995 Pope John Paul II praised her “impassioned liveliness” and “freedom of initiative.”

Perhaps part of the problem today is the lack of channels for speaking, especially for lay people. One does not readily get to see the pope, or a cardinal, or even a diocesan bishop. The local pastor may or may not be receptive. One could write to members of the hierarchy, of course, but such letters often get filtered and delegated to others who have little authority to say anything other than what was said in the past. Theologians might address difficult issues by publishing articles, but the number and prestige of those summoned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in recent decades tends to discourage critical public theological reflection.

Are there ways in which critics from within might more readily be heard? Would more frequent diocesan synods provide the opportunity for lay men and women to speak out more easily? Would more collegial synods of bishops provide the same opportunity for members of the hierarchy and other church representatives at such gatherings? Could there be broader consultation, with more lay people included, prior to the selection of bishops? Could more lay men and women be members of the congregations of the Roman Curia and, as such, advisors to the pope? Could new processes be devised to gather clearer information about what lay people think concerning important church issues? I sense that in the rather painful contemporary situation, it is imperative to invent new ways of fuller participation for all.

There is a tendency for those in authority to surround themselves with like-minded people. That becomes dangerous when the voices reaching authorities tell them only what they want to hear and label critics as “disloyal.” But ironically, critics are sometimes the church’s most loyal members. They are like Socrates, who told the jurors at his trial:

I am that gadfly which God has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. And as you will not easily find another like me, I would advise you to spare me. I daresay that you may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping; and you might think that if you were to strike me dead...then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you gives you another gadfly.

It is a blessing that there will always be such voices within the church.

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14 years 3 months ago
Fr. Maloney, God bless him, raises an array of the right ideas and quite a few astute rhetorical questions to suggest paths to implementing them for sorely needed remedies. The one thing missing is a set of Here Are Several Ways to Make It All Happen -- a "cookbook" if you will. Absent that next step, his wonderful footwork is doomed to raise hopes but in the event to go sadly aglimmering, yet again. Maybe a follow-up, Father M?
14 years 3 months ago
Fr. Maloney, God bless him, raises an array of the right ideas and quite a few astute rhetorical questions to suggest paths to implementing them for sorely needed remedies. The one thing missing is a set of Here Are Several Ways to Make It All Happen -- a "cookbook" if you will. Absent that next step, his wonderful footwork is doomed to raise hopes but in the event to go sadly aglimmering, yet again. Maybe a follow-up, Father M?


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