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Archive for the ‘Ecclesiology’ Category

My Memories of a Pedophile Priest

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Just as the wounds of the American Church began to heal after the excruciating, drawn-out crisis of clerical abuse that exploded in 2002, we are again seeing the crime of clerical abuse being manifested in other countries.

Shortly after the passion of the American Church, the tsunami of shame inundated Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Vatican insisted it was a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon issue. Then the Church in Ireland imploded. The Vatican said it was a problem of English-speaking nations.

Now we hear of cataclysmic crises of sexual abuse striking in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, The Philippines and Brazil. The Vatican can no longer claim it is a problem peculiar to those who speak English. Now they say it is either a plot by the media, a conspiracy of homosexuals or a symptom of the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s (despite the fact that many of the cases occurred before then). (more…)

How the Order of Deacons Was Restored to the Roman Church

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010
St. Stephen and St. Lawrence, Deacons and Martyrs

St. Stephen and St. Lawrence, Deacons and Martyrs

When the Council Fathers arrived in Rome on October 11, 1962, for the opening of the First Session of the Second Vatican Council called by John XXIII, they had already received a number of schemas, or draft documents, dealing with various topics that had been developed from extensive surveying of the world’s bishops and religious superiors. One of these schemas was called De Ecclesia (On the Church), and the story of its debate tied the two issues of collegiality (the authority of the bishops as individuals and as a group) and the permanent order of deacon together. (more…)

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Where Would We Go without a Pope?

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

The other day I was bored so I watched the movie “Angels and Demons” on Time Warner’s On Demand.

The central premise of this movie is that some ancient enemies of the Church were conspiring to bring about its end. The way they planned to do this was to destroy St. Peter’s Basilica during a papal conclave. The reasoning? By destroying that church and all the cardinals in it, the Catholic Church would therefore cease to exist.


First of all, the Church is not the institution. It will continue to exist despite such a calamity.

Secondly, St. Peter’s Basilica is not the center of Catholicism. If you want to pick some building that is the center of the Church, it would not be St. Peter’s. St. Peter’s is important because it is a pilgrimage church built upon the grave of St. Peter. The actual Mother Church of the Catholic faith is the Cathedral of St. John Lateran, the seat of the bishop of Rome.

But let’s indulge Dan Brown for a moment. Suppose there was no pope and all the cardinals were victims of an antimatter attack on a conclave. From an institutional standpoint, who would lead the Catholic Church?

The answer is deceptively simple and rooted in our ancient Christian history. It has to do with the concept of the Five Ancient Patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. These are the five ancient centers of Christianity, and they are ranked in order of importance. Each of them has a modern bishop that follows their ancient tradition, except Jerusalem, where a Latin (Roman Catholic) patriarch is anachronistically installed along with bishops of other Christian traditions. Jerusalem is the only ancient patriarchate that has not produced a distinct liturgical, theological and cultural tradition in modern times.

Rome is the first in honor of all the ancient patriarchal sees. It was always considered the final court of appeal, so to speak. So if Rome were institutionally decimated, the answer from our Christian history is quite simple. Jurisdiction would revert to Constantinople as the second see. The reconstitution of the Roman hierarchy and the election of the Bishop of Rome would become the responsibility of His All Holiness, Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch, the leader of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Patriarch of Constantinople would have to arrange for the succession of the Roman Pontiff and the safeguarding of the Roman tradition.

The leadership of the Roman Catholic Church would therefore be worked out in a small building, called the Phenar, in the middle of Istanbul, in Turkey, a predominately Muslim country. There the Ecumenical Patriarch would be challenged to do what is best for the world’s one billion Roman Catholics while respecting the differences between his own tradition and the Roman tradition. Most likely we can assume he would do an admirable job, as he already presides over a diverse communion of many independent Orthodox churches. One imagines he would handle it as all leaders of Orthodox Churches are chosen: election by synod. He would call a synod of all Roman Catholic bishops to elect the new bishop of Rome.

Dan Brown, for all his ridiculous notions and silly ecclesiology, may have given us something significant to ponder. If such a catastrophe as depicted in “Angels and Demons” were to occur, it would not be the end of Christianity, but rather a new era for the disciples of Jesus. Through the fraternal, pastoral intervention of Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism would be saved. And God, as is his wont, would pull triumph from tragedy, bringing us a new vision of Christian unity through the power of the Holy Spirit. The politics and theological dialogues we have engaged in to date would suddenly wither in importance in the face of such a concrete expression of unity in diversity. And we would be catapulted toward the vision of Jesus that all his followers would be one.

So let’s not categorically dismiss the effects of Dan Brown’s blockbuster. It’s certainly laughable on many levels, but perhaps it can make us consider anew what the Church truly is. The Church is not the institution, or the pope, or the cardinals. It is all the baptized, including the Orthodox, who stand ready to rise to our aid from the mists of history if we ever need it. Should we pray that such an intervention never becomes necessary?

Is the Vatican Creating an Anglican Petting Zoo?

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

I’m not a big fan of setting up faith communities that are ideologically homogeneous. So on the one hand I am uncomfortable with groups like Dignity that are made up entirely of “liberal” members, and on the other groups like the Society of St. Pius X that are made up entirely of “conservative” members.

To me, the idea of the catholic Church (with the small “c”) is that everyone is welcome. And when we look at being “conservative” or “liberal” as tendencies rather than ideologies, we have to admit that both viewpoints are necessary for a healthy faith community. It’s wrong for “liberals” to want to drive out “conservatives,” and vice versa. Again, here I am talking about basic approaches being conservative or liberal, not the rigorous ideologies we associate with these words today. A healthy community has both people who are averse to change and people who advocate change. That’s how we strike a balance between becoming either rootless or irrelevant.

This give and take is an organic, dynamic process that makes our communities alive. I remember that in the early days of the historic preservation movement, for example, preservation often was no more than an occasional cry to “save” some individual building. Sometimes these buildings would all be moved to a vacant lot, where buildings of various styles, periods and neighborhoods sat awkwardly together without historical context in what preservationists referred to disparagingly as “architectural petting zoos.” Now preservation movements seek to preserve neighborhoods and districts with actual people living and working in historic structures and even (oh my!) adapting them within reason instead of the structures being empty stage sets with docents leading people through excruciatingly correct period interiors.

So I have to admit I am a bit concerned about the news today that an upcoming Apostolic Constitution will create an organizational structure for “conservative” Anglicans within the Catholic Church. Naturally, we’ll have to wait and see what the document actually says, but some initial indications from Rome are somewhat disconcerting.

My first concern is that this initiative does not appear to be in line with true ecumenism. Oh, yes, various people have tried to put a brave ecumenical face on it, but it’s telling that the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity was apparently not involved in the decision (unless you count expressing concerns and having them ignored—as some news reports indicate happened—as involvement).

The new proposed structure for Anglicans is not true ecumenism because it does not involve an authentic historic Christian tradition bringing its entire membership to unity while preserving its heritage intact. Rather, the proposed initiative is Rome building an Anglican-themed structure, presumably telling a certain number of Anglicans what they may and may not retain from their tradition as they submit to the centralized control of Rome. The Vatican proposal appears to closely follow the old practice of “uniatism,” which is not—or up to this point, was not—considered the proper approach to ecumenism. “Uniatism” is a method despised by the Orthodox, who are wary of Roman control. This new outreach to disaffected Anglicans will no doubt strike the Orthodox as the Catholic Church returning to the uniate model despite decades of assurances we would not. That would certainly cool enthusiasm for Christian Unity among some Orthodox, who rightly maintain that Christian Unity should not mean that patriarchs of Churches will be subjected to the minute regulations of the Roman Curia.

My second concern is that this creates a new body within the Catholic Church to which only “conservatives” need apply. There will be no diversity of thought within the new structure, which will either (a) become calcified and rigid, a museum-piece, or (b) become balanced and vital only after several generations of faithful have grown up within it and can create a more inclusive environment. Of course this new outreach to “conservative” Anglicans may become a new strategy extended to other groups, like the Society of St. Pius X, which will most likely not be required to change anything about their practices, teaching or dismissal of the Council, but merely be given their own little corner of the Church to do what they like, occasionally lobbing bombs into the wider Church.

I’m very interested to see what the Apostolic Constitution actually says. I hope the outreach bears good fruit. I hope it does not set back the cause of true ecumenism, increase rigidity in the Catholic Church or create a sort of Anglican petting zoo where we can see neat Anglican things as curated by “conservative” museum-keepers with a curial imprimatur. I hope my concerns are unfounded.

“After God, the priest is everything.” Seriously?

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

On Sunday, Fathers Day, Fr. Gerry was in a great spirits. It was, after all, his day. He has adopted children whom he raised as a priest with great love. He was bustling about the sacristy and asked me if there was a Deacons Day.

Smiling, I replied, “No, but there is a year for priests.” Fr. Gerry laughed.

Fr. Gerry is one of those priests who decline honors and sees himself as a servant. These are the sort of priests who are a bit embarrassed that Benedict XVI has proclaimed a “Year for Priests” that began on June 19.

We have been blessed with many wonderful priests in the history of the Church. In our book Ascend, we include profiles of some of them; Ignatius of Loyola, Miguel Pro, Bartolomé de las Casas, Mychal Judge, Thomas Merton, Matteo Ricci, John Henry Newman. And the witness of John Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars, has stood the test of time to exemplify how a pastor can help to deepen the faith of his parishioners when they open their hearts to the free gift of grace offered by God, who brings all people to himself.

But in his letter proclaiming the Year for Priests, the Holy Father used some rather troubling quotations from John Vianney that seem to indicate Benedict’s approval of a certain clericalist outlook on the life of the Church.

Certainly I do not wish to find fault with John Vianney. His words were directed to a particular people in a particular place and time. I do not pretend to second-guess him. But when Benedict quotes these words favorably in a modern context they present a certain disconnect. These words seem to indicate a certain clericalist mindset that is troubling.

Among the quotations of John Vianney that Benedict cited with apparent approval are these:

“A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy.” I think St. Lawrence would disagree. He said the poor and outcast are the treasures of the Church, not priests.

Benedict quoted John Vianney as saying of the priest: “God obeys him.” Really? Should not the priest obey God?

“After God, the priest is everything!” Wow. So how far after the priest is the Gospel ranked?

“It is the priest who continues the work of redemption on earth…” Got that? Everyone else is apparently unnecessary. I can almost hear John Henry Newman screaming in despair.

And here is perhaps the most insulting passage in the Holy Father’s letter: “Leave a parish for twenty years without a priest, and they will end by worshiping the beasts there …” Oh really? I wonder how this passage sounded to the descendants of the Christians of Nagasaki, who kept their faith for hundreds of years without priests when the missionaries were expelled from Japan. I think of Black Elk, the Lakota catechist, who ministered to his impoverished people when no priests could minister there.

Don’t get me wrong. We need priests. And we also need bishops, deacons and laity. When we elevate priests to some sort of divine arbiter between God and humanity, we set ourselves up for the kind of crises we experienced here in the United States with the clerical abuse crisis and we have heard about in Ireland, where priests and religious systematically tortured, raped and enslaved children.

So we have this year for priests. Let’s observe it. Let’s encourage those priests who follow in the way of Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant, and challenge those priests who consider themselves a divine caste above the People of God. It is the role of the laity to remind priests of these word of John Vianney quoted by Benedict in his letter as advice to his fellow priests: “My secret is simple: give everything away; hold nothing back.”

What we need is less triumphalistic, clericalist proclamations such as this letter by our Holy Father that focus on priestly dignity and privilege, and more everyday witness by priests like Fr. Gerry, who strive to live as servants of God’s people.

Many of our parishes have had decades of “years for priests.” When do parishioners get their year?