The revolution will have no cardinals

While attending the Nov. 4-6 Call To Action conference in Milwaukee, I had dinner with a few other 20/30s. One was a chaplain whose department actually sent her. She couldn’t believe they did it. And she knew outsiders must never find out.

Two and a half weeks later, I read an NCR blog post from veteran journalist and CTA member Robert McClory, entitled “The high cost of lost integrity”. McClory begins:

In commenting on my article concerning the nonreception of church teaching (“When is dissent not just dissent?” Nov. 17), Jim McCrea made some valid points well worth considering: “How many of us know priests and lay people, active in parishes and dioceses, who compromise their core beliefs so as to carry on the good work they are doing within church structures? Whether the issue is Eucharistic inclusivity, option for the poor, a thinking laity, married clergy, women’s ordination, homosexuality, contraception, our Church fosters a culture of keeping quiet so as to keep going…”

And McClory concludes:

I may be wrong but I submit a direct link exists between…survey findings showing the withdrawal of trust people place in church leadership and the inability of church leaders to be open, candid and transparent about their convictions. You may include here a great number of priests, religion teachers, laity working in Catholic hospitals, universities and other institutions, pastors, chancery officials and those bishops who understand what’s going on [bold text mine]. They remain outwardly discrete and noncommittal lest honest candor cost them their jobs. And everyone sees through this thin disguise. The result is often not sympathy for their plight but sad disillusionment among many Catholics and angry cynicism among others.

To be fair, Church structures do have a few slots for mavericks. As a semi-Chicagoan, I think first of Father Michael Pfleger, a social justice priest known nationally for his in-your-face activism and Masses featuring lots of praise-and-worship music, lots of liturgical dancing, and lots of Pentecostal-style preaching. He has usually, though not always, served with a free hand.

However, Pfleger does not survive by charisma alone. He is pastor of St. Sabina’s, a vibrant mega-parish with huge neighborhood clout on the South Side. Without that clout, progressive ministry easily turns into high-stakes poker.

I was on the inside of lay ministry as an amateur. I know first-hand that the ranks are heavily composed of colorful closet radicals, compassionate people insatiably attracted by the hope of a world made new. And they are always meticulously checking themselves, constantly alert, like the deer in my backyard listening for coyotes.

Over time, as I tuned in to the myriad backroom machinations of our polarized Church, I realized all this was prudent. But the undercurrent of evasion increasingly put me off. And I’ve stopped considering professional ministry in part because, as my blog presumably makes clear, I can’t shut up.

But for those whose discernment leaves you no escape, where are you to turn? Job loss is the least of your problems. Ministry possesses you. The call to be a Christ-light for others will burn you if you reject it. It is who you are. And there are so few places in our society, let alone careers, where you are allowed to even approximate who you are.

Some would say: “just go find another church.” But again: you’re either a Catholic in your gut or you’re not. And if you are, you’re incurable–a gift and a curse.

Mike Royko, in his 1971 book Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, quotes the legendary mayor’s customary rant against neighborhood groups he considered pushy:

I want you to tell me what to do. You come up with the answers. You come up with the program. Are we perfect? Are you perfect? We all make mistakes. We all have faults. It’s easy to criticize. It’s easy to find fault. But you tell me what to do. This problem is all over the city. We didn’t create these problems. We don’t want them. But we are doing what we can. You tell me how to solve them. You give me a program.

It is easy for us to criticize church employees. It is easy to find fault. They didn’t create these problems. They do what they can. And I do not know how to solve it. I do not have a program.

But I know that once you truly understand your participation in a fearful, conformist environment, you have to examine your complicity. I know that complicity creates cynicism that cripples the Church. I know complicity must somehow stop. I know it must somehow stop down here on the bottom, with the lowly priests, the campus chaplains, the social services, the sisters, the brothers, and the laity.

Because, above all, I know this: the revolution will have no cardinals.

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4 thoughts on “The revolution will have no cardinals

  1. “While attending the Nov. 4-6 Call To Action conference in Milwaukee, I had dinner with a few other 20/30s. One was a chaplain whose department actually sent her. She couldn’t believe they did it. And she knew outsiders must never find out.”

    “I may be wrong but I submit a direct link exists between…survey findings showing the withdrawal of trust people place in church leadership and the inability of church leaders to be open, candid and transparent about their convictions.”

    CTA is going to lie and keep secrets but everyone else must be “open, candid and transparent about their convictions”. Disgusting hypocrisy on the part of CTA and its members.

    • I suspect many progressive Catholics employed by the Church would agree with some introductory comments by Garry Wills in his book “Papal Sin” (New York: Doubleday, 2000). Wills writes: “Who am I–or who is anyone except the Pope–to decide what a Catholic may or may not accept as binding doctrine? That is a serious question…But the question is based on an assumption that is not only challengeable but extremely unhealthy. It assumes that the whole test of Catholicism, the essence of the faith, is submission to the Pope” (6). And, because this assumption is indeed so challengeable: “To maintain an impression that Popes cannot err, Popes deceive–as if distorting the truth in the present were not a worse thing than mistaking it in the past” (7). The rest of the book elaborates on the “structures of deceit” in the Church, which create a hostile environment in the “attempt to prove that the church has never changed” (7). I recommend it.

      So I contend thus: if progressive Catholics employed by the Church keep on the down-low, the ultimate responsibility rests on those “structures of deceit” that reach all the way to the top, where they are initiated and perpetuated.

      • I don’t know what these comments of Mr. Wills have to do with anything, but I suspect you believe your double standard is somehow justified. I think the lying you support is wrong, an obstacle to your salvation and the salvation of others you may influence, and a hindrance to those who seek the truth.

  2. Justin-
    Thank-you for this reflection. I love ministry. My heart was set on serving the Church, G-d, and the people who make the Church. When I was in school for theology/ministry, most of the lay, ordained or vowed ministers I knew were madly in love with G-d, G-d’s people and the Church, yet personally they disagreed with the Church on many issues. They, and I for a while, taught the Church teachings as they are and either hid our personal beliefs or introduced “primacy of conscience” in the next breath offering the listeners a chance to think, pray and discern their views in light of their Catholic faith.

    For me, ministry is something I will always do, but I now must do it in a secular context as a social worker. I still hold people’s hands when they are in pain, help them solve problems, find that inner strength, and hopefully work with them to help them see the beautiful person (Child of G-d) that they are. I could not keep hiding my own beliefs and push a social doctrine that year by year becomes more exclusionary and less about caring for the poor and most vulnerable of society. So, I am still Catholic, I still minister, but I don’t have the Church financially supporting my work…and neither did Christ, so I have a model for my faith inspired work.

    I appreciate you sharing your experience, and “letting the cat out of the bag” about the plight many Catholic ministers must endure.

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