Old Reformers, New Visions; by Eugene C. Bianchi

By Eugene C. Bianchi
Voice from the Desert

August 1, 2008

I saw this important piece by Gene Bianchi on the VOR_VOTF Yahoogroup and felt compelled to share it.

Old Reformers, New Visions

Eugene C. Bianchi

I was asked to pinch-hit for my old friend, Robert Blair Kaiser, at the Boston Inclusive Ministry Conference in July. The topic of his workshop was "Taking Back Our Church." Since Bob Kaiser and I entered the Jesuits sixty years ago in California on the same day, we have kept up on each otherís careers. I admire Bobís forthright dedication to church reformin his many writings. Now we find ourselves amicable, dueling novelists (his Cardinal Mahony and my Bishop of San Francisco and soon to appear, The Childrenís Crusade). I presented Bobís main points and then gave my own thoughts on reform that differ from or maybe complement his.

The key question for Kaiser, as developed in Mahony and many other publications is: how do we bring about deep structural change in the Catholic Church? In the spirit of "enculturation," endorsed at Vatican II, he calls for a peopleís church, adapted to different locales and not dominated by a Roman monarchical hierarchy. He and many others see a rampant clericalism virtually excluding Catholic Christians from serious decision-making and self-determination. Kaiserís idea of a peopleís church would break the stranglehold of the celibate male caste.

Such democratized churches would also be "autochthonous," self-ruling national or regional bodies in union with Rome . He points out that twenty such churches already exist, and that the Roman church is really just number twenty-one. He cites John England, the nineteenth-century bishop of Charleston , who wanted to write a democratic constitution for the American church. Kaiserís approach is consciously political. One gets images of French students in 1968 throwing up barricades in the streets. Kaiser is not passive-aggressive. Heís straight-on: "up against the wall, you Cardinals." This may be a tad too strong, but Kaiser wants to get your attention. He is part of a VOTF working group planning a national peopleís synod for 2010. So his question becomes: how does the laity (a misnomer in his lexicon, wrongly used since the Middle Ages to separate Christians) and the lower clergy develop practical strategies for "taking back the church."

Now thereís the rub. I agree that the political-religious mission is an important avenue for Catholic reformers. The hierarchical oligarchy will not give up power voluntarily. It took so much life energy for top bishops to get to their princely status. Moreover, the hierarchy and their house theologians have had a thousand years to construe theological ideologies to undergird the absolutist system. I also pointed out the excellent study of Thomas Reese, S.J., (Commonweal, ) which undercuts the "divinizing" of the Roman system by pointing out how its governance structures throughout the centuries imitated secular ways of ruling. Reeseís work opens up the argument: what was made by humans can be changedby humans.

But letís get back to the rub. Kaiser and I are old guys now. We were formed in a pre-Vatican II culture, and let loose into a new kind of religious freedom by Vatican II. As young men, we tasted the exhilaration of that watershed change. We felt the shackles fall away as we took up banners and hurried into the streets. But where have all the enthusiasts gone? I looked over the crowded room of gray-hairs. I reminded them that in a few years we would all be gone. We needed to study the new culture of the young who did not share our halcyon years. They are not picking up the fallen flags. Many of the best are going elsewhere for spirituality. Young folk see themselves as spiritual but not religious, which usually means that they are not attracted to religious institutions, rules and rituals. A number of studies bear out this theme. And the middle-aged seem to have no fire in the belly for lofty church-oriented causes. Some are satisfied with the status quo or fearful of change, while others are so beset by the busyness of life as to have no energy left for church reform. I donít heard bugles and distant drummers. It is a muted time.

Yet quiet days summon us to imaginative listening. The Spirit seems to be leading the young in new directions. I see a spectrum of coming religious communities. On the right, there will be very traditional communities as exemplified by Tridentine groups and Opus Dei Catholics who will for some time represent the mind of the Vatican . In the middle will be families looking for moral guidance as they raise their children. Others will more or less put up with the ways of todayís church. It will still offer them rituals for major life transitions from birth to grave. But an increasingly large number of young people will be looking elsewhere for spiritual nourishment. They will be seeking communities of relevance and inspiration. For them, changing the Catholic structure will be left to holy termites well advanced in their work on the Constantinian shape of Peterís bark. Here are a few traits of such communities, if Iím reading the future with even a little wisdom. They will be seeking different modes of living the Way of Jesus within and outside of Catholicism.

ó Inclusive Communities. The groupings will be inclusive in terms of membership and leadership. For example, they will welcome those of other Christian traditions, as well as those outside Christianity who are drawn to the ethos of these fellowships. They will be led by women as well as men. One of the striking aspects of the Boston meeting were the roles played by women. Ordained and non-ordained women conducted the liturgy and, to a large extent, ran the whole conference. On Sunday afternoon, still another Catholic womenís ordination service, noted by CNN, was held at the Church of the Covenant in central Boston . Inclusiveness will also mean drawing from wisdom traditions, East and West. The Christian gospel and the teachings of western mystics and theologians will be in dialogue with the writings of Buddhism, Sufism and Hinduism. An ever more connected world through information technology will expand the global village into more than just a cliche.

ó Contemplative Communities. We may be seeing the dawning of a new age of contemplation. In the past, the church has largely relegated the meditative life to monasteries and religious orders. More time may be devoted to teaching meditation so that individuals can experience spirituality in an interior way. There will always be a place for liturgy and other public forms of prayer. But today these external forms of worship dominate the religious scene. Liturgical worship doesnít usually go beyond actions of singing, oral prayer and listening to sermons. A more contemplative spirit may also lead to expanded understandings of the sacraments. For example, the real presence of God may be experienced as much in sharing an ordinary meal as in a formal Eucharist.

ó Ethical Communities. Gospel-inspired involvements for peace and justice will continue in these new communities. Religious traditions at their best lead to works of compassion, care and service. One of the tasks of the new communities will be to help people form their own moral consciences without threat and coercion.

ó Environmental Communities. The ecological crisis will extend far beyond our own time. As population pressures and global warming advance, spiritual seekers will be increasingly confronted by the need to re-examine older theologies concerning the relation between nature and humanity. The evolutionary earth itself will be grasped as part of Godís revelation. We will have to re-examine our attitudes and conduct regarding our fellow creatures and the planet itself. More emphasis will be placed on the divine manifested in the whole natural order including ourselves as an intrinsic part of nature.

ó Celebratory Communities. Institutional religion, for the most part, has not been connected with a spirit of celebration. Religions have tended to be grim affairs in the minds of many people. The approach has been negative: to overcome sin or to keep the faithful from straying beyond limits set by hierarchs. Celebratory communities will not be pollyanish as they view the reality of evil and suffering. But they will make more of the beauty of the world and of the goodness that can be invoked in humans.

- Dialogic Communities. Most traditional religions have not been good at dialogue. The Catholic Church has made some progress in ecumenical openness with other religions since Vatican II. But the efforts have been mainly on intellectual exchange in theology or some working together in service ministries. But deeper dialogical communication is still foreign to us. Such inter-relating calls for a change of heart in oneself and a new respect for fuller listening to the other. Without seeking to convert the other to our way of thinking/acting, we listen reverently to the deeper values that the other is trying to express. This is more of a process of truly hearing the otherís profound concerns. We become sympathetic listeners. It is an experience of non-violent communication that changes both parties in their respect for one another without necessarily altering their ideas about issues.(See Practical Spirituality by Marshall Rosenberg).

So, in conclusion, the reform of the Catholic Church will not take place like the Boston Tea Party. To incite that kind of revolutionary energy in todayís middle-range Catholics would probably require a return to the Papal States where the Vatican would have the power to tax and imprison us. Short of that, however, reform seems to be working on certain levels, that of the holy termites eating away at the ancient ship, and that of the old dictum: mors pastorum, spes ecclesiae, the death of pastors is the hope of the church. Yet on another plane, the spiritual longings and visions of coming generations impel us to think about reform in new ways. The Spirit is forever surprising us, waiting around corners we never suspected.


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