In the sacristy after Mass, a woman told me that she was very disturbed by something I had said during my brief homily. I was commenting on the Gospel reading in which Jesus says that the fields are white for the harvest and that we should pray that the Lord sends workers into the fields. I observed that there were two possible reasons for the alarming shortage of priests: 1) God is calling people, but they are not responding, or 2) there are people who feel called but are not accepted, such as women and married men. I then asked: “Are such people called? Only God knows for sure. So let’s pray that we listen to the Spirit.”
The parishioner (I’ll call her Virginia) objected to my bringing up the possibility of women being called to the priesthood, because Rome has pronounced any discussion of the issue as out of bounds. I replied that I was aware of this; but since I have yet to hear any personally convincing arguments against women’s ordination, I continue to wonder. And it was this very wondering that offended her! How could I, a priest, have any reservations when authority has spoken? And worse still, how could I even intimate such reservations from the altar?
Any attempt to explain my thinking was, of course, futile. Such a conversation was doomed from the outset and destined to go downhill, which it did. For this dispute was not just about women’s ordination but about something much more basic. It goes to the very heart of what it means to be a Catholic, and it sheds light on the divisions that presently trouble the church and threaten to tear it apart. Virginia and I are like two ships passing in the night, and we both have millions of companions on our respective vessels that seem to be drifting farther and farther apart.
It would be well to point out, at the outset, that we are not disagreeing about some article of the Creed or other basic dogma. As in other derivative issues, like artificial birth control, capital punishment and end-of-life care, the substance of the faith is not at stake. These questions are important but must be kept in perspective. And there should be room for serious adult Catholics to reflect, question and debate such issues without reading one another out of the church. This is not to say that one opinion is as good as another, or that sincerity is all that matters. We’re talking here about a search for truth. The question is, how should we search for the truth?
For Virginia, the answer is simple. Listen to those in authority, especially the pope and those around him, whose judgments are final and not subject to review. The reasons they give for their decisions are irrelevant; the only thing that matters is the source. Her attitude is based on genuine faith in the vicar of Christ, confident that any pronouncement emanating from the Vatican comes from God. Any attempt to question its validity is tantamount to a rejection of the faith. But for me, and others like me, there is a problem. We have these little gray cells that persist in working even after respected authority speaks. We can’t seem to turn these cells off, and we tend to wonder, to question, to speculate, to evaluate, to criticize. In short, we can’t help thinking; and if those of us who are priests think out loud, Virginia and her friends are scandalized. She thinks our job is to tell people when to stop thinking, instead of giving bad example and continuing to speak when we have all presumably heard the last word.
In the final analysis, it’s all about loyalty. How can you refuse to give unquestioning assent and still call yourself a loyal member of the church? Isn’t the very notion of loyal opposition a contradiction in terms? It depends. I question the wisdom of some church policies and disagree with some decisions, but I do not leave the church. I work within the community of believers, accepting and obeying regulations and procedures even as I try to do my little bit, preaching and teaching and writing, to change them by appealing to minds and hearts. I know enough church history to realize that down the centuries, fallible church leaders have made mistakes and pursued misguided policies, many of which have in time been corrected with the help of the Holy Spirit. I am often annoyed, sometimes disappointed and occasionally angry, but I try not to lose patience and I keep the faith. And there are millions more like me.
If these divisions among Catholics were found only in the pews, it would be bad enough. But they go all the way up through the clergy and the episcopacy. Everyone knows that there are litmus tests to be passed before priests can become bishops or bishops become cardinals. And there is a disturbing development going on in the seminaries and among the priests themselves. Many of the younger clergy find their identity in professing unquestioning assent to authority, and they explicitly differentiate themselves from those older priests who have failed to purge themselves of the disease of critical thinking.
There have always been careerists and climbers among the clergy who were willing to stifle individuality for the sake of advancement, but now there is a rising generation of priests who are moved not just by ambition but by a disturbing collectivism that narrows options for service and styles of leadership. These men are interested not in asking questions but in giving answers. Questions make trouble; answers provide assurance. Inquiring minds are not only annoying; they are superfluous. All the answers we need are ready at hand, supplied by documents and pronouncements that are self-justifying and need no validation.
This movement comes at a time when many Catholics are suffering from a loss of nerve. Empty convents and rectories, half-empty churches, closing schools, contracting parishes and sexual abuse scandals eat away at our confidence. There is an understandable hunger for stability, for certainty. Unity is sought through uniformity. Catechetical materials are vigorously scanned and blue-penciled. Stimulating topics and speakers are no longer welcome in parish halls. Adventuresome theologians are not just criticized; they must be silenced. All this amounts to a kind of intellectual circling of the wagons—a skill at which the clergy have often excelled.
All popular movements have their buzzwords, and this one is no exception. The patrons of mental somnolence have a favorite: serene. Sometimes serenity is a good thing, a mark of emotional health, as when Pope John Paul II, in his last hours, was described as serene in the face of approaching death. That was admirable, even inspiring. At other times the word is used to manipulate and to offer false comfort. Time and again during the last several years, when pronouncements from the Vatican provoked consternation and disbelief on the part of thoughtful Catholics, the papal spokesman advised one and all to welcome the latest bad news “in a spirit of serene acceptance,” or words to that effect.
This is not the kind of serenity that comes from inner strength or conviction, but rather that of Alfred E. Newman, the resident dunce of Mad magazine: “What, me worry?” Cheer up, everyone; cool it. If no one gets excited, then everything must be all right. But in the church today, everything is not all right. There are pressing needs to be addressed, policies to be reviewed, problems to be faced, dogmatisms to be challenged, issues to be taken off back burners and closed questions to be reopened. At such a time, being serene is just another way of being in denial.
At this moment in the life of the church, those who refuse to close their eyes, turn off their minds, and settle for slack-jawed certainty are in for some bad times. They look more and more like blue staters in a red-state church, as the true believers move into positions of power and influence and set out to silence the voices of reason.
We have been down this road before. A hundred years ago, Catholic biblical scholars were being harassed, threatened and discredited for questioning outdated, untenable interpretations of Sacred Scripture. Sixty years later, during the Second Vatican Council, they were vindicated, and their best work was endorsed as official Catholic teaching in the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the French Jesuit paleontologist and religious thinker, never got to see his impressive body of work in print. He had to die first, so that friends and admirers might see to its publication. John Courtney Murray, S.J. (1904-67), the U.S. theologian, fared somewhat better. He lived to see his teaching on religious liberty vindicated by the council, but only after enduring years of enforced silence imposed by mediocre minds. In all these cases the operative force was fear—fear of confusing or disturbing the faithful. Such concern is not improper. What is mistaken is the attempt to maintain clarity by silencing voices and closing minds. In so doing, those who use these tactics create a desert and call it peace.
Today the Catholic Church stands at a crossroads. This is a time fraught with peril and possibility. There is a place for caution and prudence, but also a need for creativity and courage. A jumble of conflicting voices frightens the guardians of order, but we have more to fear from a false impression of unanimity achieved at the price of stifling the most active minds among us. It is a characteristic of many dysfunctional families that their members are unable to bring their differences to the surface and deal with them. Many noisy, quarrelsome households, on the other hand, are actually healthier.
Yes, Virginia, there is another opinion out there, and it’s all right. You do not have to agree with it, but try not to be shocked at its expression. It means you belong to a church that is not dead but alive, and where the little gray cells continue to grow and flourish in freedom.