The Church is not a Democracy – UPDATED

The Church is not a Democracy – UPDATED April 14, 2011

As Holy Week approaches we can always count on provocative headlines, like Time Magazine’s Is Hell Dead? which looks at the latest book by Evangelical preacher Rob Bell. In October, it wouldn’t warrant a cover, I’m sure.

This entire Lent, however, the Catholic church in America has been roiling with Cult of Personality issues. The scandals of recent years have shaken the faithful; Rome seems distant to many and in our media-obsessed society a passionate orator proclaiming “the truth” as-you-want-to-hear-it can seem like the prophetic lone voice that will save the church from all her failings and foibles — or at least the ones that have you stewing in your pew, week after week.

Currently there are two very distinct stories playing out in our Catholic Theater of Hysteria. Both involve rabble-rousers playing to their respective crowds; both of them are eagerly tugging on the outflung arms of Christ — now to the left, now to the right — and rocking the upraised cross that saves. Pronouncing a wish to save the church from hierarchs or heretics, they both seem to be looking for excuses to split the Body of Christ by ripping their respective arm from the cross and toodling off with it, in schism.

In Chicago, Fr. Michael Pfleger (who you may remember as the Hillary-Clinton-imitating-priest who came to national prominence during the Obama presidential campaign) is making some noise about leaving the church because Cardinal Francis George wishes to transfer him to a new apostolate, away from the parish he has served for 30 years. What that apostolate is, is unclear at the moment; in an interview Pfleger said:

“I want to try to stay in the Catholic Church,” he said. “If they say, ‘You either take this principalship of [Leo High School] or pastorship there or leave,’ then I’ll have to look outside the Church.”

Well, what is it that Cardinal George wants Pfleger to take over, a “principalship” or a “pastorship”? Does he want Pfleger to become the school’s chaplain? I put a call in to the Cardinal’s office, for clarification. I am not sure why a priest with no background in education would be named a school principal, but then again, Pfleger’s made his reputation as a community-builder, and perhaps that’s what the school needs? Or perhaps the cardinal feels the humility of a chaplainship might feed his priest’s perspective? We don’t know. That’s all unclear.

What is not unclear, however, is Pfleger’s disdain for his own vow of obedience. It is unthinkable that any priest should be in the same parish for 30 years. Priests are moved around with some regularity precisely to prevent attachments from forming that can develop into ego-gratifying little fiefdoms or, personal possessions.

So, Fr. Pfleger, unhappy to consider that he made a vow, or that, in the Lord’s manifestly mysterious ways, it may simply be time for him to serve in another way (or reacquaint himself with the notion of obedience — which is, let’s face it, a discipline in humility) essentially says that if he does not get his own way, he will leave the church. Implicit in the threat, of course, is that he’ll take his followers with him.

Tugging on the right arm of the cross is a layman, Michael Voris, the founder of “REAL” Catholic TV, the one-man-arbiter of what is “real” Catholicism, and what is not. Increasingly, Voris seems to think the Pope is okay, but beyond that, he’s not too sure. He’s all hopped up, today about some stupid Earth Day memo that’s been sent to all Catholic parishes by the likes of Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio and which suggests that parishes use Good Friday, Easter Sunday or Divine Mercy Sunday to talk about cleaning parks and using crappy lightbulbs.

Most parishes will probably throw the thing into the circular filing cabinet without a second look, but Voris — quick to assume the worst (which seems un-Christlike to me) — uses the memo to fling a bunch of red meat to his followers, and encourage them in anticipating the worst, as well. With barely contained hysteria he tells his viewers that if any priest so much as “breathes a word” about the environment, the faithful should by-pass the collection plate and later resign from the parish.

Got that? Not “talk to the priest of your concerns,” not “meet with the pastor,” just hold on to your dimes and resign.

If you watch the video which, like the Pfleger video I find too grotesque to post here, you’ll see why some are wondering whether Voris is actually saying to leave the Catholic church, itself. I don’t think he meant to say that, but if he didn’t mean to, he should have redone his little spiel, because that is how it comes off.

Voris strikes me as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
He says just enough that’s “right” to completely hook people who are already concerned, particularly if they’re politically angry, and then adds a layer of negativity and some seeds of cynicism — which is the easiest thing in the world to grow. Then, he recommends methods that smack more of Wisconsin Public Union tactics than Christian responses. “Resign from your parish” is like saying “have a teachers sick-out.”

Newsflash, Mr. Voris and Fr. Pfleger: the church is not a democracy and cannot respond to those tactics — which foment greater measures of doubt and confusion — without ultimately bringing destruction to the whole. But you both already know that; Voris dislikes democracy and is the one advocating for a “noble” Catholic monarchy to rule governments in a “benevolent dictatorship,” and Pfleger developed his little barony thanks to an overlong tenure encouraging entrenched and absolute power.

Both of these men are extremists, tugging at the Body of Christ. But if we look at the Crucifix, we see Jesus is neither right nor left. Jesus is Balance.

Mark Shea has a few things to say about putting too much trust in Catholic gasbaggery, and I concur:

Don’t put a mitre on the head of any loudmouth in the blogosphere or Catholic media, especially me. A gaggle of apologists and bigmouths like me is not the Magisterium!

Mark is a little more rough-n-tumble than I am, but I do agree. Though I get some pretty juicy hate mail from time-to-time, the really terrifying stuff is the “you might be a saint” email. Um, no, just ask the kids about the time I threw the chair. I know who I am, and all my darkest ways. “It is better to put your trust in the Lord…”

And if you’re a Catholic and you believe in the One, Holy, Apostolic church — the Eucharistic church and that whole bit about Jesus and Peter and the Keys to the Kingdom, and the gates of hell not prevailing, then just look at history — understand with clarity that the church has never been perfect, not from day one, when its Keymaster lied three times and all its priests but one ran away. Remember that in 2000 years, unrest and reform, scandal and more unrest have been the norm, and that those cozy nostalgic glory days of the mid-20th century were quite the aberration.

And then have a little charity for your imperfectly-administered church; she is hobbled by that humanity in which we all have a share — broken, faulty and sinful — but she is divinely ordained, and chugs along by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

And we know that with certainty, thanks to how imperfectly-run she is. Without the Holy Spirit, we’d never have lasted this long.

UPDATE: Another salient quote from Shea A “Shea-lient” point?

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