Last week, National Catholic Reporter published an essay by Joe Orso titled “The Power of the Dying Hierarchy Is An Illusion.” With lines comparing the Church leadership to a dying dragon and an impotent old man, it’s a challenging read, and easy to mistake for a rant. But Orso’s main point, that the Vatican and the bishops have only a limited impact on the views and practices of the faithful, is hard to refute.
Orso’s own faith journey is a case in point. Though he no longer attends weekly Mass, he still considers himself Catholic. “My experience of Catholicism,” he writes, “is relational.” His most profound and faith-sustaining relationships have been with the type of religious sisters lately censured by the Vatican. He has every confidence that, despite any meddling on the hierarchy’s part, the sisters’ “live-giving” charismata will “persist, transform, perhaps die and resurrect but certainly continue far into the future, as long as humans exist.”
Anyone could make the case that, lacking any institutional support, life-giving sisters could become pretty tough to find. (Or maybe not — this is the digital age, after all, where community is only a few clicks away.) Still, Orso’s not the first person I’ve seen settle more or less happily into a kind of niche spirituality. One of the my first regular readers belonged to a schismatic traditionalist sect. Because it’s small and relatively underfunded, the sect has no ad extra ministries and no higher-learning institutions for laypeople. What it does have, however, is the Latin Mass, which it offers on a daily basis. That’s what this reader wanted, and that’s what she got. Know thyself and thy priorities, the rule seems to go, and thou wilt find a way to be happy.
But few Catholics are truly anarchists at heart. Even many who currently feel driven to a state of rebellion approve strong Church leadership provided the leaders lead in a direction they approve. Archbishop Hunthausen of Seattle, who once compared a U.S. Navy nuclear-weapons facility to Auschwitz — a bit of grandstanding by any reasonable standard — remains a hero to those who found Bishop Jenky’s Obama-bashing speech overbearing and alarmist.
When the European theater of the child sex abuse scandal first opened, pundit and former Paulist Father James Carroll was quick to denounce the culture of a celibate clergy for the way it strives to control the inner lives of the faithful. But for Bl. Pope John XXIII, a product of that culture, Carroll admits to a kind of hero-worship. Being embraced by the pope in a private audience brought the young Carroll “to a sure trust in God’s love,” and inspired him to enter the seminary. Though part of the draw for Carroll was Papa Roncalli’s “magnanimous” personality, he must recognize, at a certain level, that summoning all the world’s bishops to an ecumenical council required the same nerve and force of character that Ike showed in invading Normandy.
Watching authoritatianism creep out of the closet can be a hoot. Or it can make the skin crawl. An author once suggested, apparently more than half in earnest, that bishops confine priests convicted through canonical proceedings of child abuse to locked-down “healing and treatment” centers for the duration of their lives. More shocking than the woman’s Orwellian verbiage– would she treat really hard cases to a turn in the hempen spinal re-aligner? — was her inconsistency. Normally, she agreed with those who thought the bishops too autocratic. But where her priorities were at issue, she’d give them the power to banish priests to an ecclesial Château d’If.
My point is that Orso’s decision to go it alone on a matter of principle makes him more of an anomaly than a prototype. In a study conducted by Fr. William Byron, S.J., many lapsed Catholics from the Diocese of Trenton, NJ. cited an unresponsive hierarchy, or one too generous to pedophile priests, among their reasons for leaving. But when asked whether any changes in Church or parish might get their business back, their answers tended to reflect annoyances and deficiencies on the most local and micro levels. One respondent did report wishing that the Church would be “more accepting of divorced and remarried congregants,” but others wished for homilies more in line with their own politics, better childcare, and “more spiritual guidance.”
Many subjects expressed disagreement with Church teachings on homosexuality, or divorce and remarriage, but they did so in response to a direct question from the researchers. It doesn’t appear these disagreements formed their chief basis for alienation. Though it’s possible to see the oft-mentioned “aloof” and conspicuously consuming priests as products of decisions made higher up — for example, changes in seminary curricula — it still seems Catholics will give administration a free hand until their noses get rubbed directly in the handiwork.
Here’s another difference between the Trentonians and Orso: whereas an “overwhelming number” of Byron’s respondents report having left both parish and Church, Orso continues, doggedly, to call himself Catholic. The very fact that he cared enough to write his essay in the first place makes me suspect he has much less in common with the defectors in the study than he has with the semi-gruntled Catholics who populate comboxes all over Christendom. When feeling sorely pressed by official decisions, we react in a way that Orso considers a waste of time, namely, by “venting our frustration to each other about the Vatican’s actions or the ultraconservative pastor who has hijacked our parish.” I do wish he wouldn’t knock venting. Careers have been made there.
Anyway, implicit in the venting is always a hope — that the suits, guided by the power of the Holy Spirit, will come around to our version of common sense. Jews petition “Next year in Jerusalem”; sports fans tell each other “Wait till next year.” Aggrieved Catholics who care enough to follow Church news closely say, “Veni, Sancte Spiritu.” Our hopes may not be totally off the wall — barring infallible statements, there’s not much one pope can do that his successor can’t slide away from — but they do respresent a long shot. The fact that we insist on clinging to them (sometimes bitterly, as President Obama might have it) testifies to the fatal attraction ecclesial life can exert. Orso agrees with Native American essayist Vine Deloria that doctrine-happy religions are doomed to “collapse under their own silliness.” But there are plenty more out there who, like the cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, tell the Church, “I wish I could quit you.”