Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 13, 2003
Change confounds our Church
Power and Peril: The Catholic Church at the Crossroads, by Michael Higgins and Douglas Letson. HarperCollins Canada: Toronto, Ont. 2002. 440 pages. Hardcover.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Catholic survival and its concomitant good hangs in perilous balance.
As laymen, not part of the priestly guild but nonetheless committed and accountable Catholics, they fully understand and claim the mission of the Catholic university to shape a better society for all and a better Church through their poignant and candid, scholarly assessment.
The best Catholic theology teaches that the Church is not the equivalent of its hierarchical expression. Yet, to be Catholic is to start at the top. A quarter of the book investigates the foundations and defining features of the modern papacy and probes extensively the pontificate of John Paul. To understand Catholicism in this new century, we need to understand the disposition of the current pope who has held the seat of Peter for almost a quarter century.
John Paul gets mixed reviews. His stand against dehumanizing economic systems, whether communist or capitalist, is acknowledged. His approach to sexuality, on the other hand, is repudiated as based on “textual exegesis” not “lived experience.” As happily married lay Catholic heterosexuals, the authors can speak with integrity from actual relational life.
The current pope has little patience with dissent and erroneously assumes that declaring a debate closed actually stops discussion. The Church’s key dilemma is the challenge of reconciling the fact of change with its strong doctrine of unalterable truth.
The authors give good Pope John XXIII, convener of Vatican II, high marks for his openness. They admire his modeled image of a Church in pilgrimage with the world in search of a greater truth. John XXIII believed the Spirit’s influence to be at work among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
The present papal incumbent seems mired in a fixed and outdated philosophical construct of the nature of truth. This is supported by an exclusive, centralized institution which appears to be growingly out of touch. Special note is made of Catholic scholars who have fallen prey to Rome’s scrutiny and who have been invited to “correct their errors.” Those who have run afoul of John Paul and his prefect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the Church’s teaching office include, to name a few: Andre Guindon of Canada, Charles Curran and Matthew Fox of the U.S., Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Hans Kung of Germany, Tissa Balasuriya of Sri Lanka and Anthony de Mello of India.
The late Cardinal Basil Hume, primate of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, took a different approach to dissent. “I am constantly being urged to suppress this group of people or that group, or drive out of the Church this lot or that lot,” he once said.
“I do not believe that this is right. I believe that as a bishop, I have to try to lead people from where they are to where they never dreamt they might go. If you drive a person out of the Church, you have taken a very grave responsibility on yourself.”
There is a chapter on the curse of clericalism that, while in decline, is still evident. The authors believe, along with Martin Luther and many of his Protestant co-reformers, that “the future of the Church will almost certainly depend very much on the realizing of a meaningful priesthood of all believers.” The cost of clericalism is indeed high.
A final chapter attempts to enunciate spirituality best poised to thrive in the new century. It is exemplified in the work of such guides as Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. It is a spirituality that is communal, historical, theological and self-evidently committed to justice.
Canadian theologian Gregory Baum claims that the question of leadership and ecclesiastical dissent must be seen in the larger context of institutional governance. Baum believes the Catholic Church as presently constituted is actually quite ungovernable. Governance is simply impossible. “You have to delegate and decentralize,” he says. “You need a different system.”
Higgins and Letson do not attempt to reconstruct the Church. They do however claim first-hand and far-reaching experience that the views they express are widely held and deserve collective attention.
This labour of tough love invites careful consideration by the hierarchy, the faithful, and the rest of us.
(Dr. Wayne Holst is a writer who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)
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