On Being (Roman) Catholic

It’s been some time since I’ve posted on this site.  And I’m sad to report that one of my most careful readers and critics (who regularly posted responses on the blogsite) has died unexpectedly.  Rhett Segall, a former Marianist (as am I) was a teacher of Theology in Catholic High Schools for many years.  We university professors tend to look down our noses at “mere high school teachers.”  Yet Rhett knew and articulated more theological breadth and depth than many professors I know.  So to him I say, “Rest in Peace good Brother.  I will miss your feedback.”           

Now to the present writing…  Over the years I’ve often written about the Catholic Church. Of late, I’ve tried to draft an overview of what it means, for me at least, to be a Roman Catholic, yet I’ve never been satisfied with the results.  So here’s my final and still very inadequate attempt which, will much too lengthy, still leaves out too much.

A final introductory note: in what follows I make some sharp criticisms.  Yet these are criticisms of ideas and not of the persons who hold them.  I have good friends whose life has led them to embrace these ideas.  I am not criticizing them, and I welcome their critical responses to what I write.

I’m regularly asked why I remain Catholic even as I so often criticize the Church.  Those who ask me have criticisms which I share:  about patriarchy and abuse, boring homilies and uninspiring ritual, irrelevant rules and the absence of a strong sense of community in the parishes they know. Perhaps especially criticisms of Church teaching on sexuality and gender.

What follows is my response.  It’s a personal, not a scholarly or theological essay despite its length

It Begins With Jesus

1. There would be no Church without Jesus of Nazareth.  Many scholars argue (and I largely agree) that Jesus saw himself as Prophet trying to reform the religion of Israel and not seeking to establish a new church.  Many suggest that that Paul, with his mission to Gentiles, was the real founder of a new religion.  And that Paul’s ideas are reflected in the subsequent Gospels which give clear evidence of separation of the Christian movement from Judaism.  At times they also give indications of the beginnings of new rituals and new forms of leadership in the early Christian communities.

All who call themselves “Christian” — Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic; liberal and conservative — consider themselves disciples or followers of “the way” Jesus called us to live.  Most seek especially to follow Jesus’ mission to uplift the poor, to work for justice, to bring the Reign or Kingdom of God into the social realities of his times.  Yet many find “the Church” irrelevant to that mission, often an obstacle to it.  Jesus is, for them, a guide and model, their teacher or rabbi, for some even their “master.” (In trying to pray, I often address Jesus as “boss.”) They commonly refer to “the Jesus of the Gospels”, while doubting or rejecting the “Jesus Christ” of the New Testament and subsequent Creeds – often dismissing (though they would say understanding) such beliefs as “myths.”

I admire and agree with all those trying to follow the Jesus of the Gospels who challenged us to help “the least of our brothers [and sisters].”  The itinerant rabbi who summarized all of Jewish Law with just two commands – to “love God with your whole heart, mind, and soul” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Just as Pope Francis in his recent writings uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate what real discipleship means.

Yet I still find it a bit ironic that many such folks neither believe in God nor in any judgment or afterlife.  Ironic, too, that their sweeping references to “the Gospels” often ignores what those Gospels actually say.

2. Let’s be clear.  Jesus of Nazareth was, in both Gospel story and Church creeds, a fully human being.  Weeping, angry, tender, compassionate, courageous.  Born of woman, suffering a real death.  And even, as some today insist (on the basis of sketchy texts in the so-called “Gnostic Gospels”) a man who loved that (obviously beautiful) Mary Magdalene.  (As an aside: my own suspicion about such emphasis on Jesus’ sexuality has far less to do with these texts than with the modern exaltation of sex as the central criterion for full maturity or humanity.)

Yet it is also clear to me (again, from both the Gospels and the Creeds) that Jesus was/is God’s Word to us, Emmanuel (God with Us), our Christ (Messiah) and Savior.  And it is helpful for me to realize that Jesus himself, as a human being “growing in wisdom and grace,” only gradually came to a fuller awareness of his unique oneness with God. 

Jesus believed in the One God whom he called “Father.”  He was executed for preaching the revolutionary idea that God’s Kingdom should come to this world to transform or replace both Jewish and Roman power structures.

Yet what about the “myths” of Incarnation and Resurrection which reveal that  Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God?

I use the term “myth” because I am responding to those who insist on it, even though I find it is a very inadequate way of talking about religious beliefs.  The word “mystery” better catches the reality, though it too can be reduced to just something mysterious or “supernatural” in the modern TV sense of that word.  Christian use of “mystery” always refers to a particular event or belief which demands faith.  Yet today’s widespread use of the term “myth” generally lumps all such beliefs and events into a vague commonality.  Jesus and Buddha, Confucius and Mohammed, all become much alike as “mythic religious figures” thereby losing their unique particularity and, as a result, giving insult to believers of each particular religionThe title of a book by one of these myth pushers says it all.  I refer to Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.”

One response is simply to observe that we would know nothing of Jesus without the New Testament writings which were written only because of those “myths.” Jesus would be but a small footnote in long forgotten Roman and Jewish histories without those mythologizing Gospels. Another blunt response would be to push a question about what is this “Gospel” that Jesus’ contemporary admirers talk about following?  Perhaps something like Thomas Jefferson’s own “expurgated” version of the New Testament which deleted every reference to anything “mythic.”

The modern attempt to discover the “historical Jesus” behind the mythic “Christ of Faith” has borne some significant results, but (and here are more fightin’ words) much of it – at least it’s supposedly scientific conclusions — is rubbish which leaps beyond evidence and has been spread by media ever-hungry for something “new.”

To be equally blunt and confrontational, most of the cotton-candy cant about myth, while perhaps derived from serious thinkers like Carl Jung, come from the soi-disant sage, profit-making popularizer, and right-wing bigot Campbell and his disciples. Again, there’s probably something to the myth idea, but it’s hardly a good basis for either serious historical scholarship, good theology, or serious faith. More like the slippery slope to watered-down Christianity and easy agnosticism.

5. I will not take up the truly difficult question about God’s existence other than to observe that there is no “problem of evil” if there is nothing like a Good God. Aquinas still makes good sense to me.  Even more does Jesus’ proclamation of God’s Kingdom.  As with evil, any notion of working for a kingdom of justice and peace on this earth is, as Thomas More famously said, utopian rubbish if God’s Spirit is not moving through our violent and unjust world “writing straight with crooked lines.”

6. As to the crucial claims about Resurrection and Jesus as Christ, in the end I believe those claims because of the creeds and traditions of the Church.  Chesterton said that tradition means “giving the ancestors a vote.”  That is, not allowing one’s beliefs to be shaped by the prevailing skepticism of our times.  Learn from that skepticism?  By all means.  Yet only with awareness of its own “myths” about reason, science, and freedom.  Yes, embrace reason and real science and freedom.  But be wary of scientism and individualism.  And above all bear in mind that our supposedly enlightened era is pervasively darkened by an “oblivion of eternity” which reduces reality to the savagery of history.

Then The Apostles

1.  It’s pretty clear to me that the notion of “the 12” is taken by New Testament writers to indicate representatives of the 12 tribes of the “New Israel.”  Jesus clearly chose and attracted many disciples.  Probably many more than twelve.  Including many women who played key roles, the beloved Mary perhaps first among them.  Yet such women are relegated to subsidiary roles by the NT writers  who were trying to address the patriarchal and misogynistic sensibilities of both Jews and Gentiles.

2. Also clear is that, as this new movement spread through the Gentile (Greco-Roman) world it adapted the structures of that world – by formalizing church leadership roles and ritual. 

It is likely that other movements, now termed “gnostic,” had from the beginning other ideas about Jesus and salvation, but these were condemned and buried by that same Roman power structure.  As is very clear from history, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and for the same political reasons banished all those variants.

3. So our Bishops (including the Bishop of Rome) and priests are not direct descendants by the imposition of hands from the Apostles.  They are a development within the Christian movement (by now the Church). They continued to develop through Christian history and thus can develop and change in our times.

Pope, Bishops, Priests, and The Church

As a prefatory note, I think most of my friends reduce the Church a few simplistic images about archaic structures and rules which are experienced as increasingly irrelevant and often as seriously unjust and evil.  It’s akin to the mistake made by many who reject God because they have reduced the reality of God to similarly simplistic images of patriarch and punisher or master planner and distant designer.  To some objectionable “being” rather than to Being Itself, as Aquinas would have it.  Or the Power/Ground of Being (Tillich, etc.).  Or the “Vortex of Love” as Pope Francis recently put it.

1. One of the reasons for the development of a hierarchical church is, quite simply, that it worked.  I’d even go so far as to say that, just as we’d know virtually nothing about Jesus without the Gospels, we’d know little of Christianity without the hierarchical structure of the Church. 

Said differently, without a Pope and Bishops, and without the different but similarly clerical movement of Monasticism, Christianity would not have survived the fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent, so-called Dark Ages.  Yet it not only survived but thrived, eventually leading to Christendom, the new Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages.

2. I’d say much the same about the periods of Renaissance and Reformation which succeeded Christendom.  Some “protestants” quite consciously saw the need to continue the structures of hierarchy and sacred ritual, and thrived because of these structures.  Of course the corresponding Catholic Reformation (or counter Reformation) very deliberately emphasized these same structures while also seeking to reform them.  And even the more radical “left wing” of the Reformation, while rejecting both priesthood and sacramental ritual, ended up by filling the vacuum with new but implicit forms of priesthood and ritual.

I think that it is a general law of human organization, whether religious or secular, that when we get rid of the corrupt clerics we end up replacing them with new forms of clerical leadership.  It’s simply what human organization requires.

3. While I’m extremely critical of most Bishops, especially the John Paul II appointed majority in the US, I nonetheless affirm the need for the office of Bishop in the Catholic Church.  The present Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, is for me a great example of the importance of the office of Bishop, its significance for the Catholic Church, for other religious groups, and for our secular world.  He is, in my view, the most significant religious figure in the present world because of his work for the immigrant, the poor, and against our terribly unjust social and economic structures.

Of course Francis himself is working continually (may he live long and prosper!) for reform of both hierarchy and ritual within the Catholic Church.  He is doing this not by open and polarizing conflict with his opponents in the Vatican and in Bishops’ Conferences (above all in the US), but by slowly replacing them and by demanding a challenging process of “synodality” (gathering all God’s people to discern the path forward for God’s Church).

The Future of the Church

Predictions inevitably fail.  Yet we need, nonetheless, to try to imagine our future in hopefully realistic ways.  Here are transformations of Catholicism which I imagine:

1. Feminism, for all its too many stupid and ideological forms, is nonetheless one of the most important and humanizing movements sweeping the entire globe.  Changing, often with great struggle, the structures and rituals of politics, economics, religion, etc. 

Thus it seems to me inevitable that women will soon, though probably not in my lifetime, be priests and bishops in Catholicism as they already are in most forms of Protestantism.  Eventually, Pope Elizabeth or Jean or….

2. Pastors, parish priests and local bishops, will soon enough be elected/selected through some sort of back and forth – proposals and vetoes and more of the like – as they are today among Episcopalians and Presbyterians and other “protestant” groups.

3. There will be regular “synods” at all levels – in parishes, dioceses, individual nations, and (as at present) those called by the Pope for the entire Catholic world.  None of them will be perfect, but they will nonetheless involve the entire people of God in discerning the path forward.

4. Ecumenism will flourish, not necessarily by the joining of traditions within Christianity, but by real affirmation of the other and fruitful learning from each other. 

5. Interfaith dialogue and cooperation will grow, again by mutual affirmation and work for justice — as in Francis’ major push for dialogue and cooperation with Muslims in his latest writings.

6. Finally, the different religious faiths will join with humanists to affirm the legitimacy of the growing secularity of the world, while also criticizing the many dehumanizing aspects of the present process of secularization.  Criticizing, in other words, secularism but not authentic secularity which in its many forms simply means humanization.

As my mentor Lynch stressed, such affirmation and prophetic criticism of secularization is perhaps the most significant dimension of working for the coming of God’s Kingdom, on this earth as it is in heaven.

I close by repeating my constant request that readers who wish to send responses to what I’ve written might write them on this website (as my good brother Rhett always did) so that others might benefit from such further exchange of ideas.

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