Even for it’s having gained some benefit of hindsight, in the wake of the recent apology by Pope John Paul II for the more lamentable blunders of the Catholic Church’s history, some doubt may yet remain in the minds of it’s faithful as to whether any feasible restitution is to be expected from a Roman Curia which has earned for itself such a consistent track record for imperviousness.
In Saint Peter’s Basilica on March 12 (and more recently during Youth Day festivities), it was a tired looking pontiff who concelebrated Mass - burdened, perhaps, as much by the weight of his years as by the demands of an office which, however exalted, finds itself increasingly under pressure from the vast family of believers who look to his attested authority as Vicar of Christ, begging new answers to old questions.
In a dramatic departure, Sean Page of Sligo, Co. Mayo, reluctantly forsakes the priesthood to join his beloved, a divorcee, and her young family. Father Robert Nugent, no less disheartened, finally submits to orders from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to suspend his New Ways Ministry to American gay and lesbian Catholics. Familiar stitches in the precarious tapestry of a Church in flux.
A persisting question is whether the Church still commands the kind of blind submission to the obvious follies of her more absurd—and less revocable—teachings as she has done in the past—the same which, arguably, are the result of centuries of unreflected fear and lingering superstition. Certainly, at the innovation of a visionary pope, the Second Vatican Council went some leagues in establishing, albeit perhaps unwittingly, the creation of a more discriminating laity.
During my own brief romance with the ‘vowed life’ in the early nineties, over some years living in communities of two religious orders, I was impressed to find novices and scholastics holding the ideal of ecclesial Poverty in so much esteem that, not infrequently, they shared even their beds—to say nothing of the ordained. Met with such a visible contradiction, I remember being faced with the conundrum of trying to hazard some insight into precisely what it is that defines the celibate’s fidelity or holiness in the light of his role in the Church. Needless to say, I have no recollection of any poignant revelation in this direction save the few words a wise Dominican friar proffered on the question which served as some satisfaction at the time: ‘There are far more serious sins (than having sex) a priest can commit. If he chooses, consciously, to be deaf to the cries of his people, if he will not be available to them in their hour of need, he fails both his vocation and his God.’ Following the unremitting exhortation, spanning the length of my school years with the Marist Brothers, to ‘listen to what Father says,’ after the disillusionment (with my education) which ensued, it surprises me the words stick still so indelibly in my mind.
Imprisoned in such restrictive legislation, it can be in the context of such a dispirited acknowledgement that the conduct of his whole life is starkly incongruous with what he preaches in the name of the Church that such a man chooses to resume his place in ‘civil’ society. For him it is usually a conscience decision to leave the priesthood, making it alarmingly clear—even as the pealing of bells—that, in respect of Holy Chastity, the Church may be doing her ministers a serious injustice.
Notwithstanding the oft-heard assumption in seminaries—admittedly among less orthodox students—that gay clergy, being typically more conversant with the illusive anima within may be, for their accompanying aptitude for empathy (at least in the counseling situation), an asset to any parish community, it goes without saying the current model offered by the Church is a potential haven for emotional instability and any number of mental disorders. If this has a ‘scapegoat’ ring to it, let me add in my defense that my problem here is decidedly not with homosexuality per se, but rather with the ‘package’ being sold (and, of course, who is selling it). My own experience can testify that this kind of set-up inadvertently extends to one so inclined an unsavoury invitation to hide his sexual orientation amid the volumes of prohibitions published by Rome (which never accorded it any dignity as a valid option in the first place) while, simultaneously, creating for the queerest antics a veritable camping ground in which to surreptitiously flourish. It follows, then, that such archaic regulations as mandatory celibacy present the risk of rendering pathological any practical application.
Ostensibly, amid the psycho-sexual ethos of his world the celibate is trapped in a subculture of sorts, fortified by patriarchal traditions which, conversely, draw on deeply entrenched sentiments around the perpetual virginity of Mary, the Church’s matriarchal archetype. I am always intrigued how this exclusively male priesthood incorporates most visibly in the sacramental duties of their consecration the same functions which have, since time immemorial, been associated with women: Baptism being reminiscent of the washing of infants, Eucharist recalling the baking of bread, the Anointing of the Sick drawing a parallel with the dual role of nursing and caring. Each of these were perceived throughout the ages, popularly or unpopularly as the case may be, to be the province of women (indeed, the clerical or monastic habit is quite plainly, and to all appearances, a dress).
Armed with these striking paradoxes the Church invested herself, from the outset, with formidable authority. By these she was able to bewilder the human psyche into imagining that, essentially, things are not always as they appear to be at face value. By their further associations with solemn rites and incense-filled liturgies, she succeeded in instilling in it an enduring reverence.
In view of these contradictions, for many it may now have become debatable whether Rome’s persisting intransigence over the issue of contraception is defensible. In Humanae Vitae (1960, Unlawful Birth Control Methods, 15,16), more euphemistically entitled the ‘Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the Regulation of Birth,’ it is admonished : ‘...to be condemned...is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary,’ and, ‘Similarly excluded is any action which, either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.’ At the further assertion of John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (1995, Present-day Threats to Human Life, 15), the watchful gaze of the Holy See proceeds, unabashed, with finding a way into our bedrooms: ‘The Catholic Church ... (obstinately) continues to teach the moral unlawfulness of contraception.’
Nonetheless, whether it was a grace-inspired charism for prophecy or merely a case of their own inability to ‘keep their pants up’ beginning to make them look ridiculous, what was glaringly apparent to me was that, for the enlightened caucus at least, it had become frankly embarrassing to endorse the Church’s position on certain aspects of birth control.
One would imagine that these days Holy Mother Church is more aware than before of the notable dearth in any pious adherence to the teachings of her Magisterium on Moral Theology intermittently published by the Vatican, with misadventurous young faithful joining the scores of casualties prematurely en route to becoming parents. Again, by a curious turn of fate, we see even married couples finding themselves unexpectedly ‘with child’—more probably, we must concede, by accident of the ill-advised ‘rhythm method’ or by fiendish defect of coitus interruptus than by the Holy Spirit. Here the abysmally naive deduction is hardly difficult to discern : at least this way we run the risk of being ambushed by such sobering realities as school fees and medical bills without further incurring the penalty of doing more time in Purgatory than is absolutely needful. With such logic in mind, we can only hope most fervently they don’t consider us simpler yet.
In more ‘seriously Catholic’ days I recall progressives having their sights on Carlo Maria Martini, Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, as favourite to succeed John Paul II—the benign Jesuit who, still today, maintains a clandestine reputation for level headedness in matters moral. Of course, none could possibly have foretold that, not unlike ancient mores of sexual behaviour, even a Bishop of Rome might prove immortal. Were it not for his venerable age, I imagine our Martini should be confidently listed among the papabili.
But whoever may next succeed to the Chair of Peter, it is likely the demands of the new Millennium will storm his papacy with a medley of unexpected challenges—even to it’s foundations. It should be already self-evident that fresh vision and an enlightened leadership reminiscent of the pontificate of John XXIII is a must if any effective or palatable change is to be procured. Then we may hear from the Church yet another resounding mea culpa - only this time in the form of a plea for pardon for the crimes against the legions of her disaffected priests.
After the pope’s recent apology in Saint Peter’s Basilica for crimes committed by the Catholic Church throughout it’s checked history, with the vexed questions of women priests and married clergy no nearer to being resolved, once again the more revolutionary tides of modern thought are rocking the boat of an antiquated corpus of clerical disciplines. As happened on the Sea of Galilee almost two thousand years ago, still we find our Apostles frightened in the surge of the raging storm, with an ebbing pontificate jealously guarding it’s authority with Draconian disciplines and tactical threats startlingly reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition.
In the annals of the Friars Preachers, or Dominicans, the Order celebrates the charismatic prowess of it’s founder. A popular legend recounts him publicly repudiating the teachings of the heretical Cathars in the South of France, to whom his bishop had sent him to restore them to the ‘True Faith’. In a narrative creatively resonant with Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal, Dominic challenges the sect’s leaders to cast their books of lore into a bonfire prepared for the purpose. After hurling these forward, so the story goes, his contenders look on as the fire proceeds to consume the offending volumes. Then, as the young canon throws his copy (of the Gospels) into the inferno, it is at once rejected by the flames, returning to him whole and intact.
The renowned theological acumen of these friars over the centuries, the same which recruited to their ranks such intellectual giants as Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart has, nonetheless, not always retained it’s integrity. Shortly after the death of their sainted founder the Dominicans were to be assigned an unfortunate page in ecclesial history after Pope Gregory IX appointed them custodians of the Papal Inquisition. Over a century later, Fra Alonzo de Hojeda, prior of the Convent of San Pablo, would be remembered, during Seville’s fateful seder of 1477, for launching a virulent campaign against the city’s Marranos - those Jewish citizens who had previously been forced to convert to Christianity but who remained defiantly observant of their ancient customs.
In more recent times, ‘The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’, so dubbed by Pope Paul VI in an attempt to erase it’s haunting associations with the ‘Holy Office’ under the likes of Sixtus V (in whose pontificate de Hojeda lived), became the official name for this same ‘department’. However, even if the refreshing climate of inquiry and proactive debate which accompanied the Second Vatican Council (11 October, 1962 to 7 December 1965) paved the way towards creating a more co-operative Church leadership, the present ‘Prefect’ of the Congregation, one Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, continues to disappoint theologians with being singularly missionary about redefining it according to it’s medieval impropriety. Effectively, in this portfolio our watchdog becomes the definitive censor of all intelligent thinking on contextual theology current in the Church, making these notorious Roman judiciaries, in no uncertain terms, an enduring legacy. Indeed, similar ‘tribunals’ continue to keep what is being said and written under supervision.
In the early 80’s, Edward Schillebeeckx, the Belgian Dominican, was summoned to Rome to render an account of what he had written in ‘Ministry—A Case for Change’. The book suggests new ways of understanding the sacerdotal role of the priest today. Peculiar to this case was the clear indication that, for the authorities in Rome, any critical analysis of the existing model, however faithfully conversant with tradition, constitutes an impertinant attack on their power-base (even if the approach of our erudite theologian here was, arguably, more orthodox than their own).
Likewise, Brazilian Franciscan Leonardo Boff was repeatedly harassed after publishing ‘Church Charism and Power’ in which he cited, among other things, new possibilities for extending clerical ‘privileges’ to the laity in Third World communities in which the dignity of the priesthood had either lost credibility for having been reduced merely to a form of social rank, or was simply seen to belong (at least in it’s somewhat dated present form) to another century. Not quietly (as was his fashion), and shaking the dust from his sandals, finally Boff left the priesthood four years ago, doubtless fed up with being treated like a naughty child.
As these courts continue to ‘try’ menacing theologians for writings deemed by Ratzinger and his cronies to subvert infallibly defined doctrines, in the light of the pope’s dramatic mea culpa for, among other crimes, the heinous methods adopted by the Spanish Inquisition in combating those ideas it considered heretical, the usual contradictions succeed yet again in astounding us. What remains to be seen is whether the Church will proceed any more cautiously than it has done with entrusting to it’s learned doctors, as it did in centuries’ past, the task of ‘defending the Faith’ against the ‘dissenting’ opinions of some of it’s most esteemed thinkers.
On May 02, the 27th of Nissan according to the Hebrew Calendar, Israel fell silent to mark this year’s Yom Hashoah, or ‘Holocaust Remembrance Day’. At 10h00, as sirens sound across the Holy Land it is, unfailingly (as it has been since it’s inception by the Knesset on April 12, 1951), a moment charged with solemnity. In the uncanny stillness which hangs, menacing, like a pall over the eternal city, witness an entire nation in grave and focused reflection in a silence which bears stark testimony to a shared tragedy - the same which has since come to signify, quite definitively, the shame of humanity in our age, a second fall of Man.
Dark memories of the Third Reich continue to haunt the world, highlighting yet other pogroms of the last century, our minds still replete with images of Rwanda and Bosnia. I remember, in 1995, seeing Arabs in Jerusalem ignoring the day’s call to silence. It was clear to me then, even for the in-your-face inappropriateness, the dissent could not strictly be termed ‘anti-Semitic’ as these are themselves a Semitic people, enmeshed in tensions which seem always to beg more circumspect analyses in the face of hostilities which still fester unabated and which appear, often, in a new guise. Among inter-Faith watchers it seems the consensus here is that current developments, particularly in the wake of this year’s papal apology, are mutually conciliatory and indicate a budding culture of tolerance after the more glaring feuds (or crimes) of history—even if, at least for now, this must be qualified within a Judeo-Christian model.
John Paul II’s canonisation in October 1982 of Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan friar whose offer, accepted by the Nazi commander, to replace a fellow Auschwitz inmate singled out for starvation and lethal injection, might have been a curious form of peace offering by the Church after the post war years left a popular perception of Catholic indifference to the Holocaust. Another canonisation, that of philosopher and phenomenologist Edith Stein (October 1998) had the outward show of a Church defending it’s position on the death camps before an unconvinced world Jewry. A Carmelite nun and convert from Judaism, Stein refused to denounce her identity—a stand which finally included her among the scores of casualties of the Auschwitz death camp. Today Catholics venerate her as a martyr and she becomes the first ‘Jewish Christian’, after the Apostles, to be proclaimed a saint (here meaning one ‘elevated to the altar’, the canonical title singularly reserved for Christians of ‘exemplary life’).
This might have been opportunistic of the Holy See, a move to redeem itself after the wartime Pope, Pius XII, had been criticised for being far less vocal on the horrors of Nazi ethnic cleansing than the urgency of Hitler’s racist policies anticipated from the head of an institution which purports to be the conscience of the world. It is dubious whether history will ever exonerate him and his pontificate is likely to be remembered, indeed for many years to come, as a weak one.
Stein’s canonisation might have been an attempt to woo domestic support, from a pontiff of unrivalled media savvy, in the face of the ongoing threat of Christian numbers in the Holy Land dwindling even further than they have done in recent years. Neither is it any accident it came just a year after the signing of the historic accord between Israel and the Vatican (November 10, 1997), which gave church institutions full autonomy within the state while placing them under the jurisdiction of Israeli law, a predictable next step after the initial 1993 agreement in which full diplomatic ties between the two were established. New alliances for a new Millennium with the obvious losers, invited or uninvited to the party as the case may be, summoned, ostensibly, on terms not their own. However, for the popular associations with clumsy revolutionary strategy and a fundamentalism which is often deemed theologically primitive, even (arguably) by Islamic standards, not unseldom is it smugly concluded by a self-righteous West that, in the main, dispossessed Palestinians bring it all upon themselves.
Here, in taking the safer side, the Vatican’s stance in the Holy Land becomes no different from any other spectator of a peace process which continues to drag uneventfully on and in which, after the lessons of the last century, none are afforded the luxury of taking no position at all. Finally, whichever way the pendulum may swing, one maintains a sense that, in respect of the Middle East, this is a story told more for it than by it, a compromise of ever-conflicting sensibilities, an unfinished drama with protagonists who must needs be protected from their own erratic excesses.
Abbot, W. (ed.), 1965. The Documents of Vatican II. http://www.rc.net/rcchurch/vatican2/index.html
Editor, 1998 (June 6) “Vatican Concerned Over Israeli Decision to Establish Greater Jerusalem.” http://www.arabicnews.com/ansub/Daily/Day/980626/1998062650.html. Arabic News.com.
Editor, 1993. “Fundamental Agreement Between the Holy See and the State of Israel.” Jewish Student Online Resource Centre (Jsource) http://us-israel.org/jsource/anti-semitism/holysee.html. Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Herbstrith, Waltraud, 1992. Edith Stein, A Biography. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
Katz, J., 1987. Exclusion et tolerance. Paris: Lieu Commun.
Koch, K, 1969. The Growth of the Biblical Tradition : The Form-Critical Method. London: Adam and Charles Black, Ltd.
La Guardia, Anton, 1997 (November 11). “Israel Forges Links with the Vatican.” http://www.mt.net/~watcher/vatican6.html The London Telegraph.
Nugent, Robert, and Jeannine Gramick. “Gramick/Nugent Case, 1988-1999.” http://www.natcath.com//NCR_Online/documents/history.htm. National Catholic Reporter Online.
Raphael, Chaim, 1978. A Feast of History. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Thunberg, Lars, 1965. Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor. Chicago: Open Court.
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