Tuesday, February 22, 2011

3 "-isms", a dangerous combination

(NOTE: I have been writing this for about a week now, but how providential for the topic to be posted on the Feast of the Chair of Peter-- happy feast day!)

There's no doubt about it, the Modern Church is having an identity crisis. Just this past week, our parish had a "listening session" to try and come up with creative solutions to the clergy shortage. The usual answers came out of the usual places-- womenpriests, married clergy, etc. I find it interesting that not many people are paying attention to what is being done differently by these young traditional communities with flourishing vocations. Perhaps many view them as idealistic, and could never work in a modern parish setting. I beg to differ.

In my travels, I have noticed that there are three -isms in particular that have combined in a very interesting fashion in the West today (though, there are probably more), which I think are at the source of this crisis.

The three I am referring to are Americanism, Conciliarism, and a new form of "anti"-Clericalism. I say, a "new form," because, rather than an extreme dislike for things clerical, there is an apathy or total lack of recognition of the role of the clergy. Indeed, perhaps this new form is actually the goal toward which anti-clericalism was originally oriented-- violent emotions cause for people to weigh in and take sides; apathy allows for something to quietly go the way of the buffalo.

I think, that, in doing a proper study of the Church, we would see that these three -isms have merged in such a way that they have influenced the standard method of operating a parish, or a diocese, or even a Bishop's Conference-- though, of course, we have those outliers that rebel against this model, and are bravely and (usually) silently on the edge of things, just doing their jobs as good parish priests or Bishops.

While I won't get into the nuances of each of the -isms, I'll give a brief explanation of how I see them in action today.

Americanism (see here) as a heresy could simply be defined as a national pride which sees America (or name your country) as on the cutting edge of progress, and therefore has more of a claim to pointing the direction of the Church in the future-- indeed, to the point that they may feel Rome should take notes from them.

Really, this is the same agenda that was being pushed back in the 4th-6th centuries by the see of Constantinople, struggling to gain equal or more authority than the see of Rome. Though I don't think that the USCCB or the BCEW, etc, would ever say that this is their objective (in fact, the Bishop's Conferences in general do great work within their scope), I do think that there are many members of the Conference who would like to see something of this nature happen. The solution? trust the hierarchy established by Christ. "Tu es Petrus..."

This leads very naturally in to the next "-ism". Conciliarism was a big idea in the Middle Ages, when bishops were trying to push the Pope around. The gist is that if Bishops got together and weighed in on an issue, then the Pope would have to do what they wanted him to do.

I think we're seeing this particular "-ism" on many levels in the modern western Church. First, the notion that Bishops Conferences have real authority to make decisions that are overarching in every diocese in the realm. This can be a problem when a local Ordinary voluntarily hands over his own authority to be exercised by the Bishop's Conference. His Excellency, Bishop Vasa, now co-adjutor of Santa Rosa, addresses this very issue here:

More locally, we are seeing that in a lot of dioceses, the priests are pushing for a different notion of conciliarism, called "collegiality," with regard to how they would like their Bishop to operate. Though this call for collegiality from the Council was rooted in being more pastoral, in practice, this has become a means of reducing the local Ordinary to merely a "pal," or "buddy," who exists solely to justify what a priest would like to see done, rather than someone who has authority over his flock, and whom they are obliged to obey. Sadly, many Bishops are forced into this role because of fraction and schism in the modern Church, in order to keep the peace. (Perhaps it would be good to remind folks what the crozier is actually for!)

Still more locally, we have the phenomena of "the parish council". Meant to be a consultative body, so that the Pastor can make informed decisions, in too many places, the council is simply a means of turning in to a democratic church, where these folks are elected to tailor the Church to how they would like to see it. When a good priest tries to implement any real change for the better in these parishes, too often the "vote" is made by the offering plate, or in parishioners simply moving to another parish.

Finally, we have a new "anti-"clericalism. Clericalism is used as a pejorative in many places, but I think today we should be trying to rehabilitate the term. Misunderstanding the role of the clergy in the Church is (imho) the main cause of the aforementioned issues. In America, a traditionally "anti-clerical" country, we have empowered the laity so far as to turn the priesthood in to a function of utility. "Stand here and say Mass, Peter," "Don't worry about how the finances are being spent, Peter"-- of course, in these churches they would not even think of calling a priest "father". And we wonder why there is a vocations "shortage"?

I should point out at this point that I am in no way discounting the importance of the laity. They have a very important role in the Church, and when rightly ordered, can contribute in dialogue with the clergy in a mutually beneficial manner. The document, "Ecclesiae de Mysterio," does a very good job of laying out the very real ministry that a layman exercises, and where that line is between the clergy and the laity, which in many places has been all but erased.

At this point, I hope you too recognize that these "-isms" are not unrelated. So what is the solution to all of this madness?

Ephesians 5 comes to mind, here-- what if the bride of Christ allowed her spouse to love her so much that he would sacrifice himself for her? Are our clergy formed to see this as the relationship they have with those in their care? Modern "pastoral theology" seems to me to be missing this element, and the generations of fracturing relationships between the priest and the community have led toward a lack of respect for the priest on the part of the community.

In rehabilitating the term "clericalism," it seems that the laity have to desire to be guided towards Heaven, and to allow their father to act in a fatherly manner. Similarly, priests have to be formed to view this as their relationship with their parish, and have a pure intention toward fulfilling this mission of bringing all people to Christ.

In recognizing that these tendencies exist in the Church today, especially in those who were formed in the years following the Council, I think we should also recognize that many of the young priests and seminarians that we have today are exemplifying heroic virtue in responding to their call to the priesthood, and to be spiritual fathers. What a blessing it has been to have met so many young, holy men in my travels!

These problems will probably take decades to lose their hold on the Church, until they inevitably re-appear under another form, but I think that the best thing for us as laity to do is to pray for our clergy, to support them in their decision making, to be in deference to their decisions (whether we agree or disagree), and to earnestly desire to have that spiritual fatherhood cultivated in our parishes and in our lives.

I think that, in recognizing these -isms for what they are, and how much of an effect that they have on parish life, we will find that this is the first step toward rehabilitating an "authentic clericalism," a truly healthy relationship between priest and layman; and by doing so, the Church will in turn be more effective in her mission of the salvation of souls.

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