09 December, 2009

Manna in a Modern Desert?

On their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, God fed the Israelites with manna in the desert to sustain them. Beginning with John Paul II, and continuing with Benedict XVI, we are experiencing the appointment of a host of "conservative" bishops and the rise among them, some theologians and many lay people of what is becoming known as "Evangelical. Catholicism." What are Vatican II Progressive Catholics to do and how will they be sustained during the modern desert experience that is descending upon us?

In my second Post here I mentioned a few of the events that signal the revisionist attitude, theology and liturgical practices that characterizes this retreat from Vatican II. As the institutional church moves evermore in this direction, well into the twenty-first century, it will become difficult for Progressive Catholics to be sustained. Below I suggest some things which we can do to  maintain and enhance the vision of  Vatican II and further our mission to help bring about the Reign of God.:

Be Mindful of and Act from a Conviction that "Jesus is Lord."

Hans Kung reminds us that our most fundamental and basic creed can be stated simply: "Jesus is Lord."That is, faith and confidence in the Jesus of the four Gospels is what counts. It is in Jesus that everything should take on meaning. Otherwise we will remain, at best, some kind of "Anonymous Christian."  The Nicene Creed, the Apostle's Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and other Christian creeds are to be honored and treasured, but what is absolutely primary is commitment to the person and mission of Jesus.

Understand and Act from a Well-Formed Conscience.
Our personal responsibility for what we do does not come merely from what opinion polls,  our peers or authorities dictate, but from what our conscience guides us to do. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson reminds us that there are only two sources that are available to us in reaching decisions: Sacred Scripture (the Word of God)  and the world around and within us (creation). The "world around us" includes the Great Tradition of the Faith, the teachings of the hierarchy, science, history,. and all the other human disciplines. The "world within us" includes, most especially, our own experience and the experiences we share with others. One thing, Robinson warns us against, is falling prey to "creeping infallibility," that is, the tendency of the hierarchy to claim directly or by insinuation  that all important decisions they make must be obeyed exclusively or primarily on the basis of their authority.

With the spread of Evangelical Catholicism and the authoritarian attitude that accompanies it, it will become increasingly important that Vatican II Progressive Catholics form strong Catholic / Christian consciences. This will strengthen and support their resolve and innoculate them from creeping infallibility.

Form Communities and Support Groups.
There are many who existentially experience separateness, loneliness and alienation from others. Many others believe and attempt to live a type of "rugged," expressive  individualism in the belief that they can create or construct themselves and "their" world without the need for or influence others. But "no man [sic] is an island" and as ancient sages and modern science explain, human beings are constituted as "social animals."  Here, the point is that everyone needs support especially in difficult times when they and what they think, feel, and do is dis-valued.

Seeing the direction in which the institutional Church is moving, Vatican II Progressives are liable to find less and less support in parishes, dioceses and other standard church groups. There may well be fewer Church  resources available to them. Vatican II Catholics will need to support and join other forward-looking groups like Call to Action, Voice of the Faithful,  Dignity, and other existing progressive groups. Progressive Catholics will need to support each other in finding priests and parishes (or informal gatherings) where they can celebrate the Eucharist. Finally, it will be very important for us Catholics to form small faith and action groups

Own that Our Ministry and Mission is "ad extra."

From the 1920s to the 1950s there was a great emphasis on "Catholic Action." Oldsters may recall the YCS, YCW, CFM, the Jesuit sponsored Sodality of the Blessed Virgin, and even remember singing, "An army of Youth flying the standards of truth...We are fighting for Christ the Lord..." Catholic Action was a very important movement in the American and European Church. It was very successful in training, motivating, and guiding thousands of Catholics to take the Gospel to the world around them through their "Think, Judge, Act" discernment process (which incidently in a secular form has been adopted by the U.S. Military).

The difficulty with Catholic Action was that  it's foundation rested on the ministry of the priest who alone had the right and responsibility to engage in ministry. In other words the laity could only assist the priest in his ministry if and when he allowed it. This, in turn, was based on a theology which held that ordination constituted the priest as "ontologically" different from the lay person; the priest alone participated in the priestly, prophetic, and governing mission of Christ. Also, there was was no provision at all for any ministry (E.g. Lector) within the Church. The role of the laity remained "pray, pay, and obey" unless invited to assist the Church its ministry.

With Vatican II, the Council Fathers re-emphasized the role of Baptism in Christian life. The laity were now understood to participate, in their own way, in the three-fold ministry of Christ by virtue of their Baptism. Rather than being mere helpers or instruments, they were now seen as cooperators with the clergy. This provided a deeper understanding of both the Church, as the People of God, and the seriousness and value of lay ministry. This more sacramental understanding of the laity opened new avenues for liturgical, catechetical, and administrative ministry within the Church.  Immediately after Vatican II, and until recently, all forms of lay ministry expanded; people knew that they were now a real part of the Church and not merely "customers" or "objects" of the priests' ministry.

Although it is not noticeable yet, there is a definite return to a pre-Vatican II theology of priesthood as exemplified in new liturgical regulations about how "ministers of Communion" are to participate in the Eucharist, who can purify sacred vessels, and the return to cassocks and other distinctive garb that separates the priest from the people. Rome and the U.S. Bishops have begun to curtail the activities of "liberal" or "leftest" groups thought to be "unorthodox," while welcoming back into the fold very right-wing religious orders and disgruntled conservative Anglicans. New restrictions are being placed on the use of or ability to speak in church-owned buildings. These moves seem to be motivated as much by the need to control as to protect the Church from heresy or schism.

Progressive Vatican II Catholics must work with theologians and receptive pastoral clergy to explain, defend and minister on the basis of their Baptism; hopefully, they can do this with the support, or at least the toleration of the institutional Church. If the Church cannot find a place and role for progressive thought and action, then we must work, not against the Church, but beyond the institution to fulfill our privileged responsibility as Baptized Catholics  to help bring about the Reign of God in the world.

This also means that  we should not get overly involved in or upset about internal debates within the Church about internal "reform." We have been defined out of that role today. We have the very important role of living the Gospel "in the world" working with the poor, abused, and neglected; with environmental issues like global warming; with other globalization issues, with immigration and peace concerns "where the rubber hits the road."

 Prayer and Meditation 

One of the most effective lay ministers "in the world" in the pre-Vatican II Church was Dorothy Day. She lived with and ministered to the most destitute people in New York City. She was a prophet for peace and justice; she was a pacifist and marched against war. She and Peter Maurin formed a local community which gave them support as they served the poor. They also founded the Catholic Worker Movement, a still-existing Christian "community-of-communities." Dorothy was open to dialogue with everyone. Although she may not have used these terms, she was a marvelous example of  "ministry ad extra" to help establish "the Reign of God." Dorothy had her difficulties with the Archbishops of New York and some other bishops, but without compromising her ministry, she was always able to work out a modus vivendi with the institutional Church.

Dorothy Day was also a woman of deep reflection, prayer, and meditation. She attended Mass and went to Holy Communion almost every day. She prayed the Rosary and expressed her faith in other devotions of her time. The point here is not that others should necessarily engage in prayer, meditation and Mass attendance in the particular ways that Dorothy did. What is important and absolutely necessary is that an inner life of prayer characterize us, especially Vatican II Progressive Catholics, who may not have frequent access to a supportive community. It is not my role to suggest that Catholics need a rigid schedule of "prayers" that must be said or a   particular form of meditation. Each person must sense the type of dialogue to which God calls her/him. Each must be aware of those in his/her community or support group to discern what is best for the group and be open to the connection between one's interior life and one's active ministry. 

The above "recommendations" can not be taken in  hand in a mechanistic fashion as five easy steps to success. Rather they might be taken as five pointers that could help individuals, communities and groups discern better how to be sustained in this contemporary desert. 

1 comment:

  1. What I find troubling with the abandonment of Vatican II theology is that more and more the pope and legions of his bishops seem to be abandoning the role of pastor for a place in the political realm.
    The link here


    is to a diary posted the other day on DailyKos about the pope and the present day Catholic Church. The diary has received over a thousand comments which is a large number for a diary there. That diary and most of the comments echo much of what you say here about today's Catholic Church, Sebastian.
    You do offer us ways to survive in a church that seems intent on becoming a bully rather than loving mother or shepherd. I highly recommend finding a small faith group where a one can express his or her faith and find support during this exile in the desert.


Comments most welcome.