Thursday, April 10, 2008

Responding to Voice of the Faithful's demand for "Structural Change"

Joseph F. O'Callaghan, professor emeritus in the department of history at Fordham University and past president of the American Catholic Historical Association, posts his "Reflections on Benedict XVI's Visit to the U.S.".

I must confess when I heard the name "Fordham" the images of two great Fordham Jesuits flashed through my mind -- those of Avery Cardinal Dulles and Joseph Koterski, SJ -- and I anticipated a respite from the usual griping from the mainstream press.

Unfortunately, O'Callaghan's reflections turn out to be much of the same (what fellow papal blogger Tim Drake has taken to calling the "WOCHA mantra"). Observe:

On each occasion he will give a homily or a formal address. The faithful will hear him, but will he listen to them? He could learn much about the state of the Church in the United States by participating in informal listening sessions with ordinary laymen and laywomen and rank-and-file priests. He would hear first hand people’s worries about parish closings, the lack of parish priests, and the divergence between episcopal pronouncements on sexuality and the lived experience of the faithful. By listening, by engaging in real dialogue with the people in the pews, Benedict XVI would show himself to be a true pastor. He would also show other bishops how it’s done.
Does Callaghan mean to suggest that the "lived experience of the faithful" in matters of sexuality is completely at odds with the "episcopal pronouncements" of their pastors? On what issues, exactly?
If the pope and his theologians can engage in dialogue with Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, and Jews in Catholic venues, he should ask our bishops: “why do you refuse to meet with faithful Catholics with whom you don’t agree and prohibit them from meeting on church property? Why do you deny members of Voice of the Faithful the right to gather in their parishes to discuss the scandal of priestly sexual abuse and the attendant cover-up by the bishops? Why do you deny them the right to gather in their parishes to discuss financial embezzlement by pastors and negligence in episcopal oversight? Why do you refuse to permit distinguished leaders of the American Catholic community, such as Bishop Thomas Gumbleton and Richard McBrien, to speak on church property if the events are hosted by Voice of the Faithful?
I'll concede that Callaghan has a point keeping the channels of communication open with regards to the survivors of priestly sexual abuse (a subject which, incidentally, Benedict plans to address during his visit). But to describe Bishop Thomas Gumbleton and Richard McBrien as "distinguished leaders of the American Catholic community?" -- Please. This might have a shred of truth were the 'American Catholic Community' constituted solely of those lobbying for a reversal of Church teaching on homosexuality and the acceptance of openly gay clergy.

And judging by the Review of Fr. McBrien's Catholicism by the NCCB's Committee on Doctrine, our nation's Bishops have good reason to be wary of this particular theologian, reasons that Benedict himself (as former Prefect of the CDF) might agree with.

O'Callaghan next raises the matter of the Eucharistic celebration and the vocations crisis ("the documented aging of our priests; the shortage of active priests; the precipitous decline in the ranks of seminarians; and the scant number of newly-ordained priests"). I happen to share his concern, but while I'd suggest the answer might reside in encouraging vocations among Catholic youth and heeding the Holy Father's own call to vocations, O'Callaghan's liberal "solution" is something else altogether:

Benedict XVI should act on the many proposals that have been put forward to alleviate this problem, namely, making celibacy voluntary; ending the ban on married clergy; allowing priests, currently inactive because they chose to marry, to return to ministry; and opening the priesthood to women.
O'Callaghan ends his list of demands for the Pope with the standard "progressive Catholic" sales pitch, the Magisterium be damned:
As all the members of that Body have their own special gifts that are essential to the well-being of the whole, should not these councils be fully representative of the whole body of the faithful, namely, bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and laymen and women? Should they not possess deliberative authority on every issue affecting our spiritual lives? Would not deliberation concerning doctrinal, liturgical, disciplinary, administrative, and financial issues by a diversity of councils communicating regularly with one another develop a true sensus fidelium?”
Well, I do think we've experienced what happens when we permit the masses to "deliberate" over liturgical matters -- Benedict's written quite extensively on this subject, and has devoted his pontificate in part to repairing the damage of the last four decades.

Likewise, one can only wonder what we'd end up with if every Tom, Dick and Harry got together to "deliberate" over doctrinal issues and refashion Church teaching according to the prevailing winds of public opinion. (G.K. Chesterton had it right when he said "The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.")

Let us listen, then, to some relevant words from our dear Pope Benedict -- in his prior incarnation as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, speaking with David Quinn of the Sunday Business Post December 17, 1995). Ratzinger speaks specifically with regard to women's ordination, but his answers touch upon questions of obedience and authority that are pertinent to us all, even O'Callaghan and Voice of the Faithful:

How was the cardinal's response to the charge that this teaching effectively reduces Catholic women to the status of second-class citizens within the Church?

“I would simply say that it is erroneous to think that priests are first among Christians and everyone else is second-class.

“This is a fundamental misunderstanding of priestly service.

“You obviously do not have to be a priest to be a good Christian.

“If you read the New Testament you can see that for the Lord, priestly service entails being in the last place, not the first. This is the opposite of power and privilege.”

But surely it could be objected that this is not a convincing reason to deny women this mode of service?

“It must be pointed out first of all that we are not building Christianity out of our own ideas. The Church is given out of the will of God, and the will of God is in turn a gift to the Church and it determines our will. We must be in communion with the will of the Lord.

“Second, decisions of the Lord can at first seem inexplicable to us. We must follow his way before we can begin to understand. The Pope is obliged to obey the Lord's will.

“The Lord's will is visible in the New Testament and in the tradition of the Christian life and he has shown that men and women have different gifts which are shown in different ways but are equal in dignity.

“We gave to reflect more on why the Lord decided so, but we cannot simply treat the Church as a sociological construct and change it according to our will.”

Yet isn't it true that the Church's magisterium, its teaching authority, is exercised by men and men only? Therefore, isn't the priesthood in reality more about power than about service?

“Two things must be said here. The magisterium is not exercised only at the past moment when a Pope makes a decision or publishes a text. The proclamations of the Holy See develop out of a long process of Church life involving contemplation, study, and experience. In this process, all members of the Church are present. It would be easy to find the influence of Christian women on vital decisions of the Church throughout its history.

“In the end, the Pope can only give definitive form to what is already part of the faith. The second point is that the promulgation of doctrine is not an exercise of power, it is an exercise in obedience.

“There are certain things the Pope cannot do if he is to be obedient to the will of God, and this includes allowing the ordination of women. The magisterium is not like a government which can overturn the decisions of its predecessors.”

The cardinal rejected any suggestion that this teaching could someday be reversed.

“It is impossible because it is part of the deposit of faith.”

The question of women priests has focused attention once again on the way in which authority in the Church is exercised, and has strengthened calls for the Church's decision-making process to be more “open and democratic'‘.

I think we must reflect more on what democracy in the exercise of authority would mean. Is truth determined by a majority vote, only for a new ‘truth' to be ‘discovered' by a new majority tomorrow? In the fields of science or medicine such a method of arriving at the truth would not be taken seriously. A democratic magisterium in this sense would be a false magisterium.”

(The whole interview is available online here -- classic Ratzinger -- and worth reading in its entirety).

* * *

On April 9, Voice of the Faithful ran an advertisement in the New York Times in anticipation of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States next week, calling for "structural change within the Catholic Church." According to Catholic News Agency, the Bridgeport, CT chapter of Voice of the Faithful had sent their proposals regarding laity-run elections to ecclesial office to William E. Lori, the Bishop of Bridgeport; but O’Callaghan said “We have heard nothing from him about it.”

Denver canon lawyer, J.D. Flynn, however, has responded to the group's demands:

“Much of what VOTF calls for in terms of lay, religious, and clerical participation in evaluating the needs of the diocese already takes place in a diocesan pastoral council and a diocesan synod,” Flynn explained.

While granting that lay input into the selection of bishops “is not, in itself, a bad thing,” Flynn said that because the VOTF proposal involves pressuring the Holy Father it would eliminate “both obedience and virtue from the responsibilities of the Christian.”

Flynn called O’Callaghan’s proposal for a direct election of bishops by a diocesan synod, with no confirmation from the Pope, “totally unacceptable.”

“To remove the Holy Father, or seek to minimize his role, as the VOTF plan does, is to impede the communion of the divinely instituted college of bishops,” he said.