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Catholicism's Big Tent

Polarization has poisoned politics in America.  It has also poisoned dialogue in our Catholic Church.  What should be a respectful interaction of faithful followers of Christ sharing valid insights on issues affecting life in the twenty-first century too often degenerates into name-calling and attacks among the laity, and censure and excommunication from the bishops.  What would Christ expect of us?

The Big Tent
Not long ago an Opus Dei priest in Washington notoriously remarked that the term ‘liberal Catholic’ was an oxymoron.  I would argue that the term ‘conservative Catholic’ could equally be termed an oxymoron.  Such statements do not advance the public debate.  The big tent of Catholicism embraces the right as well as the left, and the many apathetic or tuned out in between.  This is not a matter of right versus wrong, truth versus error, virtue versus vice.  It is a case of honest seekers after truth, no one of whom possesses absolute truth in everything, but all of whom are bound to listen to one another and form their consciences in fidelity to God’s inspirations.

To put the matter bluntly, I believe that William Buckley was as fervent a Catholic as Ted Kennedy. The one was convinced that conservative values strengthened the nation both morally and economically; the other sought after equal justice for all citizens - including the handicapped, the disenfranchised, the socially deprived.  Both could turn to sound Catholic principles in defense of their stance.

I believe Ric Santorum and Henry Hyde were as good Catholics as John Kerry and Joe Biden.  The former argued conservatively and passionately for protection of the lives of the unborn, the latter responded liberally and compassionately to the evolving needs and rights of the already born.  Notably they all base themselves in the US Constitution and make judgements according to Catholic moral principles learned in their youth.

Much is made of our five conservative Catholic Supreme Court justices today.  I would argue that they are more uniformly conservative than Catholic.  On capital punishment they are certainly more conservative than Catholic.  On guns, war, torture, violence and immigration, they also appear to be more conservative than Catholic.  I have hopes that  Sandra Sotomayor will provide a more balanced perspective, and together with the others reflect the breadth of Catholic teachings.

Moreover I believe that Joseph Ratzinger and Angelo Roncalli, as well as Alfredo Ottaviani and Hans Kung, were all good Catholics.  While the two former exercised power in accord with their naturally traditional or progressive bent, the latter two used all the strength of their character (and wiliness) to move the Church in the traditional or progressive direction they passionately deemed necessary.  I’m convinced that each acted out of firm moral conviction, and I will leave it to the Living God to make the final judgement on the lives of each of these Catholic leaders.

Here Comes Everybody
James Joyce correctly remarked about the big tent of the Catholic Church: “Here comes everybody.”  In our Catholic tradition we are a motley crew of saints and sinners, coming from diverse backgrounds and bringing different perspectives.  One measure of that diversity is the degree of conservatism and liberalism it embraces.   Yet we are one in our commitment to Christ.

Catholics in the public media demonstrate that diversity clearly.  They bring a broad range of views on the critical issues of the day.  Those on the right speak out firmly (usually with abundant episcopal and conservative group backing) - Patrick Buchanan, William Donohue, Michael Novak, Bill O’Reilly, George Weigel, etc.  And those on the left are increasingly speaking out (usually with strong support from the laity and progressive groups) -  James Carroll, E. J. Dionne, Maureen Dowd, Chris Matthews, Anna Quindlen, etc.  These are all honest and sincere followers of Christ, and their voices should be part of the public debate.

I was delighted to see President Obama warmly welcomed by Pope Benedict, while some of our more conservative American bishops were shunning him.  And I was also happy to see the same Pope earlier invite his old friend Hans Kung for a meal together.  It shows that civility is still possible and that there are other issues to talk about besides abortion (though the latter must not be ignored).  In much the same way I was happy to see the Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) eschew official positions on women’s ordination and married priesthood.  They  preferred to allow the democratic process among the faithful to work itself out naturally through well researched dialogue on controversial matters.

The diversity of Catholic publications is encouraging - America, The Catholic Register, The Catholic World, Commonweal, First Things, The Liguorian, National Catholic Reporter, Our Sunday Visitor, St. Anthony’s Messenger, The US Catholic, etc.   And the diversity of Catholic organizations is also impressive - Call To Action (CTA), Catholics United for the Faith (CUF), Knights of Columbus, Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), We Are Church, etc.  They reflect an active and engaged Christian community.

Who Speaks for Catholicism?
So where are the voices speaking out for authentic Catholicism in America today?  Just as the news media lack a trusted voice like Walter Cronkite, we as Catholics no longer have a Fulton Sheen with broad nationwide appeal, nor any one with the stature of John Carroll in the colonial period, or James Gibbons at the start of the twentieth century (not that they all enjoyed such esteem in their lifetimes).  So where do we turn?

The normal place for Catholics to look for guidance is their religious leaders.  But as many have correctly observed, the credibility of our Catholic bishops in the US has been seriously compromised.  A major test for them was the clerical sexual abuse controversy.  They failed tragically.  There is some cogency in the bishops’ argument that they were poorly advised by the experts and were unaware of the recidivism rate among pedophiles.  But no one doubts that if laypersons were credibly accused of pedophilia, those same bishops would have immediately condemned them and removed them from their jobs, with no access to further Church employment.  The same was not done with clergy.  Their victims were our innocent children, who were exploited and manipulated.  The words of the normally gentle Christ speak in unmistakably clear language: “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”   (Lk 17; 2)  Bishops cannot easily claim innocence in their handling of these cases.

On the positive side we find today a growing number of respected theologians, both female and male, lay and religious -  Lisa Sowle Cahill, Margaret A. Farley RSM, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Richard Gaillardetz, Thomas Groome, Elizabeth Johnson SSJ, Bryan N. Massingale, Sandra M. Schneiders IHM, David Tracy, et al.  They provide sound scholarship in fidelity to the Gospel Message.  We also have erudite biblical scholars like Dianne Bergant CSA, Scott Hahn, Luke Timothy Johnson, John P. Meier, and Carolyn Osiek RSCJ, who continue to elucidate the scriptures wisely. 

The task for all these Catholic scholars is not easy.  Gaillardetz has put it well: “A theologian’s work must at times be critical - critical of certain theological trajectories, critical of certain ecclesiastical structures and practices, even critical of doctrinal formulations (distinguished from the deposit of faith) - but this critical role must be undertaken in the context of a real humility before the mystery of the revelation of Christ’s love for us in Jesus Christ and a genuine respect for the teaching office of the Church.”  We see such behavior exemplified nobly in these people.

We are furthermore graced with many religious women with broad appeal among the faithful - Mother Angelica PCPA, Joan Chittister OSB,  Jeannine Gramick SSND, Theresa Kane RSM, Christine Schenk CSJ, et al.   Not to be outdone are the many outstanding and vocal religious men - Roy Borgeois MM, Thomas Doyle OP,  Joseph Fessio SJ,  Roger Haight SJ, Richard Rohr OFM Cap, et al.   We also have a number of diocesan priests who have been speaking out perceptively on the issues - Donald Cozzens, J. Bryan Hehir, Richard McBrien, and Richard John Neuhaus, as well as the perennial advocates of peace - Bps. Walter Sullivan and Thomas Gumbleton.

Where Do We Go From Here?
Sadly we of another generation stand divided.  Some are still enthralled by the aggiornamento of John XXIII and the great promise it held, while others yearn for a return to the status ante concilium, when we had Eucharistic processions, public rosaries, weekly confessions and a climate of “Father knows best.”  If we bask euphorically in either scene we are bound to be disappointed. 

Recent Vatican initiatives have been undertaken with conservative groups like the Lefebvrists and Anglicans opposed to the ordination of women and gays.  Thomas Reese SJ commented perceptively: “As a supporter of the ‘big tent’ concept of the Catholic Church I cannot oppose Benedict’s attempt to welcome into the church Anglicans who have left the Anglican Communion.  Likewise I do not object to negotiations between the Vatican and the conservative Society of St. Pius X, founded by Archbishop Lefebvre.  My only concern is that the right side of the tent has a big ‘Welcome’ sign while the left side has an ‘Exit Only’ sign.” 

In view of these developments, what is our next step on the journey?  Are we to wait patiently until a new Pope arrives in Rome?  That would be woefully misguided.  Are we to hope and pray for a sudden influx of wise, pastoral bishops?  That is equally unrealistic.  Should we await a reversal in the traditional vocation scene, resulting once again in crowded seminaries and growth of membership in religious orders?  If we do that, we fail to fathom the full dimension of our dilemma. 

What then should be our response?  In the words of the Roman poet Horace,  “Carpe diem,”  i.e., seize the moment, take hold of the opportunities afforded us.  We must pray earnestly for guidance, learn from contemporary events, discern truth from the myriad voices being raised, and follow courageously where our enlightened consciences lead us.  The Living God will not abandon us.

While on this journey, we need to foster a climate of mutual respect - no longer the vicious attacks from right and left that so often characterize our dialogue.  We must learn to disagree honorably, ridiculing neither the opposing views nor the people who hold them.  It helps to have wise church leaders - shepherds who engage with their people in a Spirit-directed search for the truth, a process which recognizes God’s voice arising from the ‘sensus fidelium,’ as well as from church leadership.  But sadly such shepherds are rare.

The Great Emergence
Phyllis Tickle in her book, The Great Emergence, points out that a vast transformation occurs in Christianity every 500 years. She gives a sweeping overview of history and then outlines the scientific advances, the social upheavals and the religious consequences of the changes taking place in our very day - roughly five hundred years after the Reformation.   We face a pivotal time, she argues, entailing a massive transition, a paradigm shift whose contours are not yet clearly discernible.  This surely is the work of God.

The Spirit of God is breathing, not simply where confined by man’s limited vision, but also throughout the entire world, wherever the Spirit wills.  May that Spirit transform us in a renewed Catholic Church with mutual respect for all who gather under the big tent of our Catholic Faith, in union with other believers from different cultures and spiritual backgrounds, and in solidarity with all our contemporaries on the essential issues of life in an expanding universe.  The Great Emergence has dawned.

Anthony P. Kowalski



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