No, not schismatic, American  
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Robert Kaiser

No, not schismatic, American

Modest Proposals

I had one last meeting with Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor in the spacious office of the Archbishop's House on Ambrosden Avenue in London. We could talk little about the conclave because, as he reminded me, he had taken an oath of silence. "I wouldn't want to be excommunicated", he said with a twinkle in his eye.

I took the occasion to tell him I was disappointed with the conclave's choice of Benedict XVI. In my view, we now had a pope who was taking us back to the nineteenth century, when Gregory XVI was condemning something he called "liberalism" and Pius IX was condemning freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. Trying to give me some perspective, he said, "Perhaps we put too much emphasis on the pope. Real reform in the Church doesn't come from the top. It comes from below, from the people. We need more saints. Yes, men like Saint Francis of Assisi and women like Saint Catherine of Siena. And the Jesuits."

Later, I pondered the cardinal's words, thinking of the saints I had met in my  wanderings of the past five years, men and women who, with their minds and hearts firmly fixed on Jesus, went about their quiet witness in the world with hardly a thought about the pope. I thought of a Jesuit in the Syrian desert who had become a Muslim at heart, and a nun in Jakarta worshiping five times a day in the mosque across the street from her Sacred Heart convent, and the president of a Benedictine college in Manila gathering all of her community together to celebrate their own mass, and I thought again about Murphy-O'Connor's insight, that the real strength of the Church lay in its faith-filled people.

There are millions of Catholics all over the world who are making their own independent moves, feeling free in a new kind of people's Church, working out new ways of being and loving, and doing so without drawing upraised eyebrows or incurring excommunications from Rome. They're asserting their freedom, spurred on in many cases by their best priests, secure under the trusting, watchful eyes of their bishops, who want to mean it when they tell their people this is their Church.

I once asked Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Mân, archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, what he thought of a people's Church. He said, "I would love to have one if someone can just tell me how to get it." I suggested he give his people some proof that they own it and make it ever more their own by adapting it to their own culture, making it more catholic, less Roman.

By now, most Catholics, even most of the officials of the Roman Curia, applaud the enculturation they see or read about in Africa, in the Congo, for instance, where the people's Church has created its own masses, with drums, dancing, and song. The Vatican didn't create those liturgies for the people of the Congo; they did it for themselves.

Up to now, however, America's Catholic pastors, buying too deeply, perhaps, into Rome's way as the only way to be Catholic, haven't done much hard thinking about enculturating their mission in the United States. Nor have they encouraged their people to think they have any special stake in the process. If they realized how important their share is, they would demand their Church be run better.

In November 2004, James Carroll, the novelist and historian, told a Catholic reform group meeting in Boston that they had to insist that the American Church be run by a consensus of the governed. "God may be love," he said, 'but the polis isn't, and neither is the Church. Everyone must be protected from the unchecked, uncriticized, and unregulated power of every other, including the well-meaning leader. The Church's own experience – its grievous sin in relation to the Jews, for example, its long tradition of denigrating women, and, lately, the inability of clerical leaders to dismantle an autocratic structure that enabled priestly child abuse – proves how desperately the Catholic Church is in need of democratic reform."

Earlier, in July 2004, a group of Catholic business leaders and academics – all staunch Catholics meeting under the banner of something they called the Church in America Leadership Roundtable – met at the Wharton School in Philadelphia to confront a dozen American bishops with some hard facts. Taken collectively, they told the bishops, the 293 American dioceses have more than a million employees and a yearly operating budget of almost $1 billion, making the American Church as large as many of the nation's largest corporations.

As a corporation, however, they said the American Church was headed toward ruin. Pred Gluck, a former director of McKinsey and Company, one of the world's leading management consulting firms, told the bishops,

On the personnel side, your workforce is rapidly aging. Your ability to recruit has declined dramatically over the last forty years. You are no longer first choice of the best and the brightest. Your people are demoralized by internal conflict and public scandal. On the financial side, your traditional sources of revenue are drying up. Your costs are escalating rapidly as you no longer are attracting high-quality cheap labor. Your plant is rapidly obsolescing. Your potential liabilities as a result of the recent scandals are large and growing. Your processes for financial management seem to be highly fragmented and uncoordinated and much too underdeveloped to deal with the problems enumerated above. On the marketing side, many of your faithful customers no longer feel committed to your product line and openly reject portions of it as irrelevant to their lives, though most of them remain highly committed to your basic message and thirst for sure-handed leadership and dramatic change in the delivery system.

It was not entirely fair for the Leadership Roundtable to look upon their Church as it might look at any business corporation. In fact, each American bishop (appointed by the pope in a secret process that remains a mystery even to most American priests) is on his own, an absolute ruler until retirement, unless, of course, he is caught in some crime. Since 2000, six American bishops have resigned, five of them for aberrations of a sexual nature that became public and one after he was charged (and later convicted) with leaving the scene of a fatal hit-and-run auto incident, a felony. In none of these cases did the pope intervene. He didn't have to. Local public opinion told the misbehaving bishops what to do.

A bishop who behaves himself, however, and remembers to pay a visit to Rome every five years with an envelope of cash for the pope, can exercise a rule that is close to absolute, hardly diminished by his diocesan finance council, whose members he appoints and whose advice he need not follow, or by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, an organization he supports with annual  contributions but whose resolutions he can, according to canon law, safely ignore.

If any wonder why the American Church is in such a parlous condition, they must, therefore, lay the blame on the bishops who have enjoyed such extraordinary control and on the pastors who support them. Some bishops say canon law blocks various initiatives recommended by the forces of reform, which quiets some reformers but should not, since canon law itself says a bishop need not follow those rules that in his judgment are overridden by his people's needs. If he insists on following the letter of Church law, one can only conclude that he is using it as an excuse to stave off cries for reform out of a simple, perverse desire to maintain his absolute power.

Why a bishop would want to cling to this kind of absolutism is puzzling. He would live a far less anxious existence, and his people would be better served if he shared governance in an enculturated Church with, by, and for the people.

How would he do that? Leonard Swidler, a distinguished professor of theology at Temple University in Philadelphia, has long argued that the Catholic Church in the United States will enter a new, more vital existence when it can make a declaration of independence, not independence from the pope (for American Catholics tend to love their pope, no matter who he is) but independence from a system of governance that is entirely man-made, and made in another time and another place that bears no resemblance to twenty-first-century America.

Swidler is referring to the Church's canon law, written by a foreign monarch, the pope, so that he can exercise absolute power absolutely. Americans do not understand how and why a pope, with the assistance of his courtiers, can make the laws, enforce the laws, and be the judge of his own justice, all in secret. "If canon law isn't helping the Church achieve its mission, then," he says, "the American Church should write some new law,"

The new law he has in mind would not deal with changes in doctrine but in discipline. Other theologians are beginning to see a way out for the American Church, which they suggest could become an autochthonous Church, modeled on the ancient Churches of the Middle East: the Chaldeans, the Maronites, the Melkites, the Armenians, and the Copts, for example, who are Catholics united with Rome, with their own patriarchs, their own liturgies, and their own mostly married clergy.

But could they create an autochthonous Church in modern times? It is not unthinkable. In 1925, the Belgian cardinal Désiré Joseph Mercier proposed that the Anglican Communion be brought back into union with Rome whole and entire, as an autochthonous Church-with its own patriarch, the archbishop of Canterbury, its own married clergy, and its own English liturgy. Mercier was ahead of his time: Pope Pius XI wouldn't hear of it. A little more than seventy years later, however, Indonesian bishops at the 1998 Asian synod in Rome called for an autochthonous Church in southern Asia on the stated grounds that Rome had "neither the knowledge nor the competence" to make their pastoral decisions for them. In 2001, at another synod in Rome, Indonesian bishops called for a new ecumenical council, one that would launch the radical decentralization implied in the concept of autochthony. "Only then," one of them said, "can we be free to proclaim the gospel." The Indonesian bishops justified their position by harking back to the new charter that was written for the Church at Vatican II. They cited the series of enactments that dealt with the Church's need to make the gospel come alive everywhere on the planet, and in every culture.

Francis Hadisumarta, the tail, patrician Carmelite who was bishop of Manokwari-Sorong, stood up in that Roman synod of 2001 and said, "In many crucial pastoral areas, we need the authority to interpret Church law according to our own cultural ethos, to change, and where necessary, to replace it." He mentioned the decades-long pleas from Indonesian bishops to ordain married men, always turned down by Rome. And he cited the issue of liturgical translations and adaptations. "Why;" he said, "do we have to go to Rome for approval by people who do not understand our language?" This is a case, he said, where local Churches can become truly local, when its laws are not only in line with the spirit of the gospel and ecclesial norms but also with the ethos and legal tradition of the local people." In general, he asserted, "Theology, spirituality, law and liturgy should be as diverse as our languages and cultures."

Surprisingly enough, even a leading curial cardinal in Rome has said as much. Cardinal Walter Kasper of the Vatican's Council for Promoting Christian Unity has suggested "giving relative autonomy to the local Churches." Kasper's willingness to apply the principle of autochthony to other local Churches around the world suggests to some theologians that other Churches may consider it, too. They say the bishop of Rome cannot hope to have the world's billion-plus Catholics marching in lockstep. If Tip O'Neill was right, that all politics is local, then that practical wisdom ought to also apply to Church politics, from Jakarta to Johannesburg.

As we have already seen, the Church in the early history of the United States, led by the bishops of Baltimore, Maryland, and Charleston, South Carolina, could have become a democratic Church. John Carroil was appointed by Rome only after he had been elected by a vote of the nation's priests. John England ran his sprawling diocese, covering what is now the states of North and South Carolina and Georgia, under a constitution that made him accountable to his priests and his people, not to the pope. The democratizing moment faded away when the American hierarchy rejected England's leadership, more comfortable with their status as something very close to feudal lords, an arrangement that worked well for them.

It worked, that is, until the sex-abuse crisis forced Catholics to take a closer look at the stewardship of their bishops. Now organizations are springing up all over the country that are taking that close look. On March 14, 2005, the Church in America Leadership Roundtable called a press conference to issue a set of recommendations for a more accountable Church, and to announce the formation of a new organization, the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management. The National Catholic Reporter hailed their move:

The clergy sex abuse crisis has ricocheted in unanticipated ways, giving a voice to those once content to "pray; pay, and obey" Among them are American Catholic business leaders, highly educated, hugely successful in the secular world, used to making decisions for large organizations after hearing diverse views on complex issues, possessing a call-’em-as-they-see-’em attitude. They don't claim their expertise is sufficient to cure what ails the Church, but they think it is necessary.

Other organizations are gathering momentum. In July 2005, the national organization Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), with 30,000 members in all fifty states and forty-six countries, held a national convention in Indianapolis to determine its next moves toward a more accountable Church. One item on its agenda: to discuss ways they  might push for the election of American bishops, which they claimed had ample precedent in the very early Church. Joseph O'Callaghan, a delegate from Bridgeport, Connecticut, cited the words of Saint Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage who died in 258, writing in his Epistle 67 that a new bishop "should be chosen by the whole people," according to an ancient principle: "what concerns all must be decided by all."

Other VOTF delegates argued that any bishop elected by the people would conduct the Church' s business like any city mayor or state governor, openly and accountably, subject to the normal checks and balances of his collaborators in the ministry. "If everyone is doing his job," said O'Callaghan, "we would have an accountable Church."

This is not pie-in-the-sky theology. It is not theology at all. It is politics, pure politics. When the people of God wake up to the fact that they can exercise the art of politics and remain good Catholics, changes will start to occur in a Church where they can claim ownership, and, just as important, citizenship. O'Callaghan said, "Before too many more dioceses go bankrupt, the American bishops could decide to give the Church back to the people. But the people have to ask for it."

When they do, their asking will mark a new kind of drama in the American Church. Rome may not be happy. Benedict XVI may write a new encyclical inveighing against an old ism, Americanism. But what, in the final analysis, can Rome do to stop the move toward a people's Church in America, especially if the American bishops see the Spirit working in these movements toward a democratic consensus on most of the questions that vex American Catholics? Who can say that the process itself –bishops, priests, sisters, laymen, and laywomen acting in concert – will not give the Church a new vitality and the Jesus message a new credibility?

This is arguably the time to make the Church less Roman, more catholic, and more American. First, however, the people of God in America have to wake up and stand up. About half of the people go to mass and Communion every week, but many of them continue to grumble quietly (not knowing what else to do) about prelates who do not listen to them. The other half stay away, still believers deep down, but lodging by their absence an unspoken indictment of those running an institution they cannot support. Both halves of the people's Church saw the top Ieadership – the American cardinals – on television during April 2005. The television viewers were looking, perhaps, for Jesus. But all they saw were mighty princes of the Church, quite satisfied with themselves and their symbols of power, apparently oblivious of the battle for the future.

Where, then, is the battle? We can only hope that it is stirring now in the hearts of the people. Many of them realize that history and numbers are on their side, and that it is only a matter of time before they win the struggle. What will they win? A Church they can own, a simpler Church, the kind of Church Jesus the carpenter might like to drop in on.

Robert Blair Kaiser

Epilogue from his book A Church in Search of Itself (Knopf 2006).

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