Friday, August 09, 2002

A Saintly Salmagundi blog is leaving the blog sphere and generating a lot of comments.

Everyone seems to be assuming that his Bishop is up to something sinister.

There could be a valid reason for such an action by a bishop which doesn't necessarily have to imply malevolence. On the other hand it raises an issue that is a major point of contention for me with the Catholic Church, the absolute power of Bishops and the heirarchy.

I interpret the primary goal of the hierarchy, as it is now, as the maintenance of their power and control over the Catholic faithful, any mission statements to the contrary notwithstanding. I view most things like I do bodies. Every body exudes a force of attraction, a sort of personal gravity. So also do non-physical entities including the Catholic hierarchy. The hierarchy has its own personal gravity.

Just as the bigger bodies get, the more pronounced and effective this gravity is, so also the bigger the hierarchy has gotten since its "inception" hundreds of year ago has its force of gravity grown. This gravity or pull to one's self is the same thing as self interest. Self interest is not a bad thing and is, at base, responsible for many of the good things in our lives and in our world. The problem is when it grows beyond a critical point.

Just as when bodies get too big and their gravitational pull is excessive and becomes harmful so also is my interpretation of the hierarchy now. There was a time when the hierarchy could pursue it's self interest, its preservation, control and power, and this was inherently beneficial for the Church. But after a certain point, that self interest collapses in on itself and it fails to serve the Church usefully.

The Church, using the U.S. as an example, has three kinds of political power: spiritual power, as leaders of the church; internal Church political power, i.e., the fact that they control 60-65 million Catholics and each one is king in his own diocese and real secular political power, i.e., Catholic bishops can exert a significant amount of political influence on secular politics. All three kinds of power reside in the hierarchy unchecked.

This is clearly unhealthy and counterproductive to the Church's life.

The other disconcerting fact is that, given the laity's effective exclusion from the hierarchy, the only place that reforms can then legitimately arise is within the hierarchy itself. But then, there is absolutely no self interest or impetus to engage in any meaningful reform. Nothing makes this clearer than our Catholic obsession with obedience. Obedience allows the hierarchy to silence and police itself thereby preserving its real self interest of preservation of power and control.

Of course, here in the U.S. because our culture is opposed to such control and the idea of free speech is fundamental to our ethos, the self policing of the hierarchy cannot always, or even often, be succesful. Also, because we believe in full participation, and that tends to be a guage of equality, the laity feel they have as much a right as any to have their opinion heard in the Church.

I think the culture of free speech and participation is a true gift that the U.S. Catholic Church can inject into Catholic culture and the tide, it seems, is swinging that way.

The hierarchy at this point, as an entity, does not have the interests of the faithful at heart, because they have gotten too big, too bureaucratic, and have too much unchecked power. It's primary interest is itself. No one ever gives up power, and so it would be foolish to expect the hierarchy to do so, but that power can be eroded gradually if the hierarchy begins to loose its relevance.

I contend that the Catholic hierarchy is losing its relevance to younger U.S. Catholics, I'd say 35 and under. For this reason, I think they need to be considering ways to get lay people really involved in the power structures of the Church and also think of ways to rid themselves of unnecessary political and power baggage.

Conservative Catholics like to point to studies that show that Gen X, Y and Millis are more spiritual and orthodox, but that is an over simplification and a gross mistake. It is true that these generations are very spiritual, like rules, and appear to be somewhat orthodox (I question that claim), but these groups have a far different sense of authority, its competence, its relevance. They do love the social justice aspects of Church and many traditional aspects of Catholic worship but that should not be mistaken for unwavering and unquestioning orthodoxy. They will question and if not satisfied, will reject, teachings. And yet they do not perceive this as a contradiction.

The hierarchy needs desparately to reconsider itself and interest and reform itself or reform will come upon it like a dam breakin loose. Vatican II showed us the devastating effects of waiting too long to attempt reforms and the Church of the period between Trent and VII showed us the negative impact of a fortress mentality. We need to avoid both mistakes and attempt necessary reforms. The ball is in the hierarchy's court.


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