Concerned Catholics of Missoula, Montana, USA  
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Concerned Catholics of Missoula, Montana, USA,
wrote a letter to their bishop

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas
Bishop of Helena
P.O. Box 1729
Helena, Montana 59624

Dear Bishop Thomas,
On several occasions, Martin Luther King is quoted as saying “…history will show that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of bad people, but the appalling silence of good people.” For some time, we, the undersigned, have remained silent during an important period of transition, all the while moaning to ourselves: “What have they done to our church?” But recently, thanks in large measure to the American Catholic Council (ACC), we have found our voice, and have chosen this letter as one way to give it expression.

American Catholic Council is an organization committed to reform of the Catholic Church as envisioned by the promise and spirit of the Second Vatican Council. We understand that prior to its conference in Detroit this past June invitations and conference materials were sent to all U.S. bishops. Against the possibility that you did not receive them, we have presumed to provide the accompanying packet of materials (Soundings of the Faithful and Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, as well as a listing of all of the groups associated with ACC and represented at the conference). We invite you to explore these materials as we have done during the past several weeks here in Missoula.

Who are ‘we’? We are a group of people who are members of most of the parishes in Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley. We are real people, fairly well educated women and men…. Mostly educated in Catholic schools, we are an older crowd; we have kids and grandkids, the majority of whom are no longer practicing Catholics. We mirror the over 1800 people who attended the ACC Conference, peaking to over 2000 on the final day representing 44 states and 13 countries as well as the four thousand people who participated in 81 listening sessions across the country in preparation for the conference. For all of us, the church is our home and we have chosen not to leave that home.

This choice, however, creates for us a problem. Because we read, travel, use the internet and avail ourselves of social media, we are very much aware of the world in which we live. It is a world that is moving forward at an incredible pace - rapid social and geopolitical shifts, the end of colonialism, the coming of feminism, the Arab Spring, a revolution in spiritual consciousness and ever new and faster technologies that are changing the condition of our ordinary lives. Yes we live in that world, but a world also lives in us - a world wherein we strive to nuture faith, to seek warrants of hope, and to find direction for our yearnings - a world that our church could and should help structure.

Vatican II provided a blueprint for that world, laying out ways to help the church negotiate the increasing tensions, affecting all institutions, between change and continuity. Initiating a profound shift away from 400 years of hide-bound ways, Vatican II stressed collegiality and subsidiarity, promising openness and tolerance, inclusiveness, and liberty of conscience. Now five decades later, hopes for that new blossoming have been dashed, so many promises eroded. Those of us who lived in those heady days following Vatican II as well as those who have joined us along the way have become saddened and increasingly discouraged as we watch our church plunge headlong into the past. Rather than participating in vibrant communities with meaningful liturgy and relevant preaching, many of us feel we belong to passive congregations, peopled almost exclusively by graying heads who mourn the absence of old friends searching elsewhere to satisfy their spiritual needs. Rather than welcoming communities, the spirit of Catholic rigidity all too often prevails. Orthodoxy determines admission and participation. Women are assigned narrowly defined roles, our gay and lesbian friends and relatives are, at best, tolerated; rules and policies prevail.

On a broader scale this spirit of defensiveness prevails in an even more pronounced fashion. Uniformity has become a point of contention. Liturgy and ritual have become battlegrounds. Suppression of thought and censorship of theologians causes growth to wither. The demon of sexism runs rampant. One looks in vain for any serious effort at ecumenism on either the local or national level. Because of the hierarchy’s inability or unwillingness to dialogue with the laity on issues of interest and concern to them, as, for example, the forthcoming translation of the Roman Missal, rank and file Catholics have concluded that the church’s leadership has either lost its way or stopped caring. The Statistics on clerical abuse of children are a painful embarrassment to even the strongest defenders of the system. As also was the effort of the hierarchy to circle the wagons in an effort to protect offenders and, when confronted, to contend that what they were doing was above the law. What is to be made of episcopal accountability in those instances of dioceses maintaining two sets of books and slush funds? It is hard for us to imagine that the Eucharist, the sign of Jesus’ love and concern for his people, could ever be used by his church as a reward or punishment to control the faithful. Equally egregious is the use of the Eucharist in a diverse, pluralistic political arena in an effort to control politicians. Richard McBrien, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and an outspoken critic of the institutional church says and we quote, “The hierarchy is largely irrelevant to any intelligent, educated Catholic.”

Reaching even higher, there is ample evidence of papal ambivalence to the spirit of Vatican II. Whether that be lifting the excommunication of a bishop who has denied the existence of the Holocaust, or the less than subtle treatment of newsworthy hierarchs, to wit - removal of an Australian bishop for daring to ask questions out of concern for the needs of his people, while leaving in place priests and bishops known to have molested children, and promoting a cardinal who had harbored them. Stated simply, the governance model of the church is not working. It has given us a medieval system abandoned by everyone but us.

As we have declared, the church is our home. We love the church, the sacraments, the solemnity of the liturgy. Scripture is the basis of our faith. Jesus is our model. We value the sense of belonging. But we don’t simply belong to the church. In the spirit of Vatican II, we are the church, we are the Body of Christ. In claiming that we are not getting what we want, we recognize that this doesn’t make us unique. We are no different from fellow Catholics who would disagree with us on many points. Change is difficult and contentious. Who is not without a broken heart? The whole body of Christ is broken.

But, this is no reason to remain silent. If the words we speak are hard, this is because the realities they describe are urgent, at times harsh. This can no longer be sedated by silence. As we speak out, we realize that we are not isolated or alone. Through ACC we are connected with similar groups and organizations spread not just across the US, but around the globe. Nor are our contentions ours alone as witnessed by some 400 priests in Austria.

It is common wisdom that nothing can be sliced so thin as to have but one side. In human affairs, this means a difference of perspective. To follow is a list of things that from our perspective are desirable - indeed necessary - for the good of the church. With some of them, we imagine you might agree. Others you will likely find controversial. A situation such as this is fertile ground for dialogue.

Our deepest wish is that our church be more inclusive, welcoming not just tolerating those different than us. We insist that transparency and accountability characterize relationships between clergy and laity, that tolerance and freedom of conscience be hallmarks of all our parishes, and that social justice be deemed a necessity and not an option.

We call for a radical rethinking of priesthood that is gender neutral, i.e. ordination of women, revision of the process whereby male candidates are recruited and trained, and the restoration of the diaconate for women. To address the growing number of priestless parishes in the US (from 500 in 1965 to 3200 in 1995), optional celibacy and readmission to ministry for married priests are preposterously simple solutions.

Finally, in view of Rome’s concerted effort to thwart Vatican II through the practice of appointing episcopal ‘company men’, we call for election of bishops.

It is our fervent hope that this letter be received in the spirit in which it has been written, a speaking out born of frustration, a genuine love for the entire church and a desire for collegial dialogue. Four of our members, listed below, have agreed to serve as contact persons with whom you are welcome to correspond at your convenience. Since we are members of various parishes in the Missoula deanery, we think it appropriate to send a copy of this letter to our respective pastors.

Thank you for your interest and consideration.

Concerned Catholics of Missoula

This letter was published in National Catholic Reporter, October 2011.

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