Essay: Power of the Dying Hierarchy Is an Illusion

By Joe Orso
National Catholic Reporter
June 8, 2012

A woman joins a vigil in support of U.S. Catholic sisters on May 22 outside the headquarters of the U.S. bishops’ conference in Washington.

Emily Jendzejec and Geoff Gusoff participate in a vigil to support women religious on May 8 outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.

The Eucharist will live only if we find a way for it to live outside the Mass. I heard this from a Catholic sister last year, who was quoting a lay parish worker.

Another sister told me this about a decade ago: The hierarchy is like a dying dragon, breathing fire on those around it as it flails through its final collapse. But don't worry, she said, it is dying and someday something else will resurrect.

I believe both of those statements, I love both of those sisters, and the recent news about the Vatican's actions toward the Leadership Conference of Women Religious does not stir anger in me one bit.

I am not shocked by the Vatican's bad manners in handling the incident, nor by the hypocrisy of these so recently scandalized Catholic authorities attacking some of the most admired members of our Catholic family. At this point I, like many, expect such behavior.

Even more than a dragon, the church hierarchy looks to me like a senile old man, babbling, impotent and chastising anyone within earshot. What I struggle to understand is why anyone with a congruent perspective still listens to the old man. Why do thinking Catholics become outraged by the absurd actions of a hierarchy that holds little moral or practical authority in the world?

We live in a unique historical moment in which the ecological balance of the planet is endangered. Biodiversity is dwindling. The waters are sick. Cultures are increasingly homogenized. As our planetary community experiences trauma, our human-made systems persist in endangering the lives of our descendants. Many are waking up to this state of affairs, and across the Earth revolutions are challenging destructive power structures.

Meanwhile the Catholic community, too often lost in an abyss of irrelevance, argues about the language of the Mass, radical feminism and other obsessions of the Vatican. The Vatican has already forfeited most of its relevance in the larger world; in responding with anger, shock or moral platitudes about the injustice of Rome's actions, we Catholics also sacrifice some of our own relevance in that world.

As a body of people, we reveal ourselves to be sorrowfully distracted. The hierarchy wastes its energy trying to rein in American prophets and elevate a top-down spiritual path. The people in the pews follow their lead, either reconciling their lives with the strange demands of the robed men or else simmering with frustration over how absurd those demands are. Either way, it's all a waste, all a distraction, and Catholicism's irrelevance grows.

This, at least, is how it looks to me -- not a theologian, leader or representative of anyone, but simply a 31-year-old American who loves the Catholic community and tradition, though connects with its formal expressions less and less.

To many, I would not be considered Catholic, primarily because I have shed the institutional Mass as a weekly practice. I'm certainly not Catholic in the way elder generations have been, nor in the way my more conservative young friends are. But I still experience a deep inner bond with Catholicism, I draw on the community and tradition in my prayer life, and I identify as Catholic.

As an adult, my strongest experience of Catholicism has been with the good sisters and those who gather around them. I believe the sisters have as much to offer us non-churchgoers -- both Catholic and non-Catholic -- as they do to offer churchgoers. If my wife and I have children, we will be intentional about fostering relationships between them and the sisters we know.

My experience of Catholicism, then, is relational; the institutional dimension of the church, represented by the hierarchy of priests, fades more and more from my experience. From where I stand, it is clear to me that if Catholicism is to thrive as a cultural force beyond its own echo chamber, at least some Catholics must not only realize that the hierarchy is a fading ghost, but live in a way that responds to this reality. For example, instead of venting our frustration to each other about the Vatican's actions or the ultraconservative pastor who has hijacked our parish, we need to realize these men have no power over us, individually or communally, and to respond from that freedom, creating new forms of relationship and religious practice not dependent on the pastors.

In short, we must find ways for the Eucharist to exist outside the Mass.

Vine Deloria Jr., the late Native American scholar, wrote that "institutions and beliefs are rapidly eroding" in our world and "the religions that depend on the articulation of doctrinal propositions to maintain themselves are doomed to disappear beneath their own silliness. Those religious traditions that depend primarily upon invoking some kind of experience that is qualitatively distinct from everyday feelings will become the vehicles for religious expression in the future."

In these words, I believe, you have a hint as to where Catholicism could shift if Catholics choose. The religious communities of sisters would be natural leaders in this.

Those, like me, who love the sisters know that their charisms -- their spiritual energies in our lives and the life of the Earth community -- will persist, transform, perhaps die and resurrect but certainly continue far into the future, as long as humans exist. What we encounter in them as individual women and as religious communities shows us their spirit is authentic. They lead us into the profound realms of experience, and we know that no matter what the Vatican does, it cannot force its kind of religious expression onto the sisters or us, their supporters.

The hierarchy, on the other hand, is indeed disappearing beneath its own silliness. The Vatican makes ridiculous power plays, and those priests and bishops who see this are largely silent. Perhaps these men will one day undergo a conversion and come back to the large family of Catholics. In a people inspired by a Resurrection, we shouldn't lose hope for that.

But for now, we laypeople's relationships with the sisters need not be negatively impacted by the sisters' relationship with the Vatican. We can simply live our lives and allow the Vatican to keep fading, and perhaps at times help it with the process. The sisters' leadership obviously will have to respond to the silliness, and we can express our solidarity with them. But outrage at the Vatican can be counterproductive. If anything, we ought to feel pity for these aging men -- not abandon them, but also not let their sickly hearts fill our own with bitterness.

Their power is an illusion. They are dying. And we, to the degree that we can feel our freedom and act on it, will rise.


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