The Catholic Phase 1960-Present


The American Catholic Church works best with revolutions. Two key revolutions define where the American Catholic Church is today.

We have seen how the American Revolution itself shaped Catholicism in this country. I suggest it would have given this nation and the world a brilliant model of creative theology for the modern era had it not been crushed.

The second revolution came in our time and we are its heirs and witnesses. This was, of course, Vatican II. It has shaped the American Catholic Church perhaps more profoundly than any other national Church. Indeed, it has both moved us forward and brought us back to our revolutionary roots.

Vatican II changed Rome itself and moved Rome closer to American Catholicism than anyone might have expected. Rome is now more defined by the American Declaration of Independence than it is by the papal Syllabus of Errors; it is more powerfully influenced by the Declaration on Religious Freedom, a Vatican II document Americans crafted, than it is by its own condemnation of Modernism; its present Code of Canon Law resonates with the language of the Bill of Rights and affirms equality, free speech, due process, freedom of association, freedom of inquiry and the right of privacy (this is very different from Pius X's insistence that the laity must be "led…like a docile flock, to follow their pastor"). Rome realizes that the ideas and the language of American culture create a far more credible vocabulary for modern discourse than its own monarchical system.

Rome, I suggest, has no choice now except to move in an American direction. A revolution begins by rejecting the language of oppression and then compels the oppressor to change the system. The revolution has begun and it will carry the Catholic Church to reform and renewal.

Vatican II unmasked the liabilities of Vatican I. Vatican I gave the Church to the Pope; Vatican II made clear that the Pope cannot manage the Church.

The papal mishandling of the Church between Vatican I and Vatican II is breath-taking in its scope. The popes have been wrong on issues Vatican II reversed: political democracy and ecumenism, biblical studies and liturgy, religious liberty and world religions, Judaism and the Holocaust, the definition of marriage and the acceptance of married clerics, theological freedom and the overwhelming vote of the papal commission to approve birth control as a moral option in marriage (52-4). The architects of Vatican II were the theologians in the generation before it who were silenced by the popes for proposing the very doctrines which were now declared official teaching.

The last effort to maintain a Vatican I Church is the pontificate of John Paul II. He has made his own theology and piety the norm for approval. Theologians have been intimidated and excommunicated, books suppressed, male celibate priesthood proclaimed as ontologically superior to all the baptized, debate prohibited, women defined without their concurrence or consent, and servile bishops appointed in extraordinary numbers to tasks which exceed their intelligence, their competence, and their pastoral skills. The sexual abuse of clergy is criticized in gentler terms than the condemnation of condoms to prevent AIDS or irresponsible pregnancies. Catholic political leaders are censured for their views on abortion but not for their support of the death penalty and their approval of war. The notion that the Pope is the Church and that the Church is a monarchy has been revived under John Paul II but this time there is a Council, Vatican II, and a world-wide consensus which offer resistance.

In June of 1995, twelve American bishops (with the support of forty other bishops who endorsed but did not sign the document) listed fifteen pastorally urgent issues which the episcopal conference is frightened to discuss because of Vatican intimidation:
  • presenting the minority position of Vatican II as though it were the majority
  • ecumenical issues
  • marital annulments
  • appointment of bishops
  • the relationship of episcopal conferences and Rome
  • collegiality in the Church
  • the role of women and their ordination
  • the shortage of priests
  • the morale of priests
  • the ordination of married men
  • sexual ethics
  • contraception
  • homosexuality
  • abortion
  • pedophilia

    We must not, of course, overlook the good this papacy accomplished with its millennial plea for forgiveness for catastrophes and scandals caused by Catholics over the centuries. The social justice teaching which is a complement to the plea for forgiveness has been impressive. There have been prayers with world religious leaders and support by the Vatican for separating Church and State, even in Italy. John Paul II has prayed in mosques and synagogues, in Protestant Churches commemorating Martin Luther and at Gandhi's tomb. There is the beginnings of a Catholic bill of rights in the 1983 Code of Canon Law and a changed policy on married Latin-Rite Catholic priests if they are former Protestant pastors.

    Nonetheless, these changes have been made monarchically, not collegially. They are admirable decisions but they do not alter the underlying abusive system.

    This papacy has destroyed the effectiveness of the International Synod of Bishops, the most impressive collegial structure set up by Vatican II. It has taken direct aim at freedom of speech and inquiry with its mandatum of episcopal approval for Catholic theologians and threatened them thereby with dismissal and loss of livelihood if they are not compliant. The world at large does not see the Catholic Church as a champion of freedom or human rights. It is not friendly to women or eager for Christian unity. It has not been sensitive to the pastoral care people deserve if that care requires an inclusive priesthood or an acceptance of faithful homosexuals or remarried Catholics or a trust in the work of the Spirit as manifested in the sensus fidelium. At its best, it has been benignly patriarchical. In its worst moments, it has terrified God's People and tyrannized them in a shameful and deeply hurtful manner. This is not a papacy which people turn to for healing; indeed it has left in its wake countless wounded Catholics, the collateral damage it inflicted as it imposed on the Church an abusive system of authority and control.

    Since secularity and modernity have often been denounced by Church leaders, sometimes correctly, but often as a way of shifting blame and attention, it may be useful to reflect on the immediate past and to determine whether the world at large or Americans in particular are untrustworthy. The twentieth century was not only a century of unimaginable human suffering but a century of revolution and freedom. We must not indict the crimes without citing the miracles. Nor must we be embarrassed if the miracles were frequently the work of American influence and democracy.

    Three of these miracles are especially impressive:

    1. the creation of the United Nations, an American idea, in 1945; it has lasted now some sixty years and emerged as the conscience of the world, sometimes witnessing against American arrogance; minorities and women found a voice at the United Nations never given them in the Catholic Church

    2. the creation of the European Union, begun with the Marshall Plan in 1946, supported by Americans wholeheartedly and now autonomous of American dominance; the European Union has given diversity, reproductive rights and civil liberties a hearing they never received at the Vatican

    2. the creation of democracy in Russia with the breath-taking collapse of Eastern European colonies (1989), the Berlin Wall (1990), and the Soviet Union (1991), all in a two-year period and all without violence

    The fact that Americans cannot bring democracy or these miracles to the Catholic Church at large is the single greatest failure of American Catholicism. The fact that American bishops repeat mindlessly that the Church must not be a democracy is anti-American and anti-Christian. All the other Christian Churches are collegial. Loyalty to Christ, after all, is not essentially connected with monarchy and ecclesial feudalism.

    Democracy is not only the key to all ecclesial reform but the essential ingredient in global social justice.

    No less a figure than Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel laureate in economics, insists on two observations of paramount importance.

    In Democracy as Freedom (1989), he writes:

    "No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy."

    Sen argues that the openness of a democracy, its accountability and its freedom of the press make it impossible for governments to tolerate famines. Famines are the legacy of monarchical systems.

    Indeed, we know that free markets are also crucial. It is impossible to have free markets and not to have a democracy. Once the economic sphere is removed from government control, the government is not strong enough to maintain totalitarianism. A Church that is proud it is not a democracy is a model for totalitarianism systems.

    Sen argues, at a later date, that no multi-partied democracy has ever waged war on another democracy.

    If Sen is right and if democracy restricts famine and war, then a democratic world will be one in which social justice and peace may be possible on a scale greater than we have heretofore imagined. This is not a time for the Church to boast that it will never be a democracy.

    American democracy has brought this nation enormous benefits. It may also change the word in a way that fits the Gospel better than any other governance structure we have known. This is an urgent hour for dialogue and democracy; it is not a time for pontifical wisdom and infallibility.

    It is time for democracy to revolutionize the Church and restore it to its original New Testament charter of freedom, collegiality and community. We need to decide now which tradition works better for our Church and serves its life; the imperial, feudal and monarchical system of John Paul II or the New Testament, modern, Post-Reformation, Enlightenment, American model of government.

    Democracy is the only way to bring back from the margins of the Church the massive numbers who choose to be Catholics but not serfs, who hear Christ but will not listen to Caesar.

    American Catholics will not allow this papacy to prevail. Some will openly resist; other clandestinely subvert; most will simply not comply.

    The levels of dysfunctionality in priestly ministry in this country is a sign of the resistance. The shortage comes from non-compliance. The lack of morale comes from hopelessness. Nothing else in American Church history has shaken it to its foundations as destructively as has the sexual abuse scandal. This scandal is not limited to the horror of pedophilia; it extends to abuse of adult women and adult men. In this scandal and its cover-up we see the end of the celibate male, clerical culture which is directly responsible for it and the beginning of the end of the monarchical system which thrives in an enforced, celibate, clerical culture.

    We have traveled a long road from the Roman Phase of movies like "Going My Way," "The Bells of St. Mary's" and "Boystown" to the cinema of "Thorn Birds," "Priest," "The Power and the Glory" and "Nothing Sacred."

    We behold in the burgeoning of this new revolution on our shores the ghosts and memories of John Carroll and John England, of Courtney Murray and Dorothy Day. We see the inclusiveness of the first native-born American saint, Elizabeth Seton, who was Catholic and Protestant, wife, mother, widow and celibate. We trace the journey to freedom as the Ark and the Dove drop anchor in 1634 and as Charles Carroll signs the Declaration of Independence. We note the Catholic connection with America at its imaginative best in Benjamin Franklin's nomination of John Carroll and in John Kennedy's inauguration as an American president who happens to be Catholic. We cannot forget the thousands of priests and women religious and laity who followed an African-American Baptist pastor, Martin Luther King, an American Gandhi all the way up the mountain of freedom. In such a march, we experience the rejection of ecclesiological servitude.

    There is no turning back now, no way to stop all this. There will never again be a Roman Phase to the American Church. We have come too far, seen too much.

    We are Catholic now in a way we have never before known. And we are American again as Alexis de Tocqueville saw us in 1831, the most democratic class in the new nation. We will not let ourselves be led without representation.

    We have come thusfar with broken hearts and bruised spirits, betrayed again and again by shepherds who became predators and preyed on our trust. But no more. We ourselves were not always sinless. But the crimes of democracy are always less than those of tyranny. We are free of that now.

    We have a mission and a mandate, in independence and baptism, that will not allow slavery again in this nation, this time under the guise of religious tyranny. For we have been called to freedom by something even more awesome than our Declaration of Independence. We have been called to freedom by Christ.

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