Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Fr Thomas Reese On All Things Hopeful

Fr. Thomas Reese fraternizing with lay rabble at a Voice of the Faithful conference.

As far as this blog is concerned, the NCR is on a role.  The following excerpt is taken from Jerry Filtaeu's report of a forum at St Joseph's University in Philadelphia. (hmm another St Joseph's hits the news) The forum was entitled 'The Future of the Church: A Woodstock Forum on Sources of Hope'.  What follows focuses on the thinking of Fr. Thomas Reese:

....Reese, a political scientist, nationally known media consultant and former editor of America, a Jesuit-run national magazine, said, “Personally, as a social scientist, I tend to be a pessimist when looking at the church. But as a Christian, I think I have to be an optimist. That’s part of our DNA as Christians. After all, our religion is based on someone who died and rose from the dead.”

A recent Pew Forum study showed that about one-third of American adults who were raised Catholic are no longer Catholic, he said, and the number of priests and religious in the U.S. church has declined dramatically, with new vocations few and far between.

“At 65, I’m considered a young priest,” he said, adding that the Catholic priesthood may be the only profession in the country today where someone who dies of old age is still considered “young.” Because of the church’s sacramental theology linked to ordination, lack of priests means lack of access to the Eucharist and other sacraments, weakening the entire institutional structure, he said. (This point about the declining numbers of priests is universally overlooked by the rightwing when discussing vocations.  They much prefer to bash the LCWR for their decline in numbers, a situation which has exactly zero impact on the availability of Mass and other sacraments.)

He said that for him the most depressing finding of the Pew study was that 71 percent of former Catholics said the reason they left the church was “that my spiritual needs were not met by the church -- in other words, our fundamental product failed.

Another major negative factor in U.S. Catholic membership trends, Reese said, is that in the United States today, many of those leaving are women.

In the 19th century we lost men in Europe. We didn’t lose the women,” he said. “Today we’re losing women too. ... Mothers are more important to the Catholic church than priests, because they are the ones that pass the faith on to the next generation. They are the ones who teach the kids how to pray, answer their questions about God, etc. Women are absolutely essential. If we lose women, we might as well close shop. And then the worst thing about this is that the more educated a woman becomes, the more alienated she tends to become from the Catholic church.” (The education component was a large part of the exodus of men in the nineteenth century. While they were educated citizens of the state, they were supposed to be dependent children in the Church.)

Reese said that for church leaders to blame the exodus of Catholics from the church on sinfulness, dissent, lack of commitment, or other factors among those who leave is ignoring a major issue. “If this was a retail outlet, we’d say we’re blaming the customers -- and that’s not a way to make your bottom line,” he said.

He said a welcoming attitude, implemented in concrete welcoming practices, is lacking in most Catholic parishes and is one of the major weaknesses in U.S. Catholic practice today.  While this is certainly true, I think the perceived lack of welcome has an awful lot to do with a burgeoning lack of trust in Church leadership to walk their talk.)
“When was the last time you entered a Catholic church and actually were welcomed?” he asked. “Our churches and our liturgies are boring. That, I think, more than theology, is what is driving our people away from our church. (This maybe true for some Catholics, but the theology is huge problem for a lot of other Catholics--especially women.)

“What you need is good music, good preaching, programs for kids and a welcoming community,” he said. “If you have that, you will have a full church.”  (But one keeps the Church full by meeting  spiritual needs and that goes back to the theology and the world view the theology describes.)
He called the Catholic church today “a lazy monopoly” around which evangelical churches “are running circles.”

As signs of hope, he said, the church “is much better today than it was” in the 1950s, and it is a church “that always changes.”

He cited the return to biblical scholarship and spirituality among the major causes for hope in the Catholic church today.

The Catholic focus on social justice attracts young Catholics, “especially when this work is seen not just as kind of an appendix to Christianity, as being a Catholic, but is integrated into our spirituality, as part of who we are, so it becomes part of who we are as Christians -- for many young Catholics this becomes attractive,” he said. (Christianity was intended to be a 24/7 lifestyle, not a series of 'obligations'.

On the church’s immediate prospects for the future, “maybe God knows what she’s doing,” he said. “If you don’t have clergy, maybe the job’s yours.” (That does seem to be the moral at the end of current Catholic story.)


Given the current trends, Fr. Reese's last sentence will turn out to be prophetic.  When I look at the recent history of Catholicism, one trend stands out above all the others and that's the problems inherent in the clerical caste system.  It's not just that this system brought us the sexual abuse crisis and it's endless cover up, but that the theology which supports this system is itself an opportunity to abuse the laity. Catholicism is lucky in one respect, that so many of our priests to do not take full advantage of the abuse potential inherent in the system.  They also don't seem to want to do too much to buck this system or force any accountability on the priests who do use the system to abuse laity. And that may be part of God's plan as well.  The clerical system and it's theology need to go. It does not need to be policed or held accountable.  It just needs to go.  It's past it's sell by date.

One of the other presenters, Dolores Leckey,  made a very good observation about the hierarchy involved in Vatican II:
“What happened there was a monumental conversion of consciousness” among the world’s 2,500 Catholic bishops, she said, and one key area of that was recognition of the role of the laity, by virtue of their baptism, in the church’s mission of ministry and spreading the Gospel in the world."

The operative words in the above quote are 'conversion of consciousness'.  It's this conversion that makes Benedict's view of the priesthood so obsolete.  The bishops of Vatican II were only recognizing what had already happened on a more global level.  Humanity no longer related to the world in the way it had in previous centuries.  The paternally led family model was already on it's way out in social and governmental organization.  The ideas of human equality with full human rights meant something more than everyone had an equal opportunity to lives dominated by their social betters and the right to be considered legitimate targets of war.

World War II had shown in spades that in modern industrialized societies the old notions of paternal or imperial benevolence were dangerous concepts.  Both Germany's glorious Fatherland and Japan's Imperial Kingdom fell to the 'inferior rabble and their notions of democratic rule'.  There was enormous strength and resiliency in societies that promoted equality, inherent human rights and responsibilities, and provided the opportunity to advance oneself no matter one's birth standing. Ability mattered, birth family and gender status not so much.

Vatican II was preparing the ground to recognize this conversion of consciousness with in the Roman Catholicism.  Collegiality was in, autocratic rule was out.  A view of laity as educated adults capable of being full citizens of God's Kingdom and making legitimate moral decisions about their own lives was in it's birth pangs. The theology behind the liturgical changes were about community and not the transcendence of the priesthood.  Core fundamental changes were envisioned about how the Church would be constituted, how it would do business, and how it's history would be written.

And then came the reactionary response, and of course the first targets were maintaining the celibate magical priesthood, and usurping the laity's right to determine the bounds of their own sexuality.  The traditional forms of control had for centuries been the celibacy of the clergy and the lay bedroom. In the end these two Vatican addictions proved too strong to let go.

For all his vaunted piety and holiness JPII grabbed on to a really bankrupt path to spiritual authority because neither clerical magic nor bedroom admonitions have a thing to do with real spiritual authority.  That kind of authority only comes from service through love and compassion and the healing that kind of service brings.  This kind of authority has nothing to do with ordination or education or any of the other myriad of attributes we normally use to elevate others above others.  This kind of authority, which is predicated on a committed 24/7 lifestyle, is what our younger generations are defining as meaningful spirituality.  If the teachers of a given faith can't or won't walk their talk, the talk is not worth listening to.  In fact it becomes a joke, fodder for the sarcastic and cynical.  And that is what our bishops should really be afraid of, that their current policies are making Jesus's Church one big joke. And that's not funny. 

Come to think of it, neither is Catholic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia very funny.  He represents the end point of lay evangelization as envisioned by the Vatican. It really is time the laity took back their Church.


  1. What I find hilariously delusional is how the Traddies analyze the Church's current crisis (e.g., declining membership). They'll point to "crazy, heretical" 60s "hippies." But, let's look at the historical landscape...the "radicals" had control of the Church, so to say, from what? 1965 to 1980? Fifteen years at the most. The Restorationist agenda has been in full and forceful swing for 30+ years. Yet, the problem is still scapegoated to people whose influence in the Church effectively ended years ago.

  2. I don't know where Fr Reese is finding his hopeful things.
    "Biblical scholarship?"--we are being fed Jeff Cavin and Johnette Benkovic from EWTN.
    "Spirituality?" More emphasis on Stations of the Cross, Eucharistic Adoration and the Rosary-not bad but we can't live on this diet alone.
    "Social Justice?" Here it is just a way to tell us how to vote and that gay marriage is dangerous to the rest of us.
    The bishop only allows deacons to do the Celebration of Communion in the Absence of a Priest even though hundreds of laity were trained.
    Now the bishop is complaining that to many songs in the Christmas season are just celebrating the Pagan Winter Solstice, pagan songs like Jingle Bells and Winter Wonderland.
    I find my hope on line, not in the churches these days.

  3. Vatican II opened the doors. Humanae Vitae slammed them shut.
    And what is pagan about Jingle Bells, escapes me. For that matter, what's pagan about celebrating solstice? It's universal and happy occasion.

  4. Precisely what is this 'welcoming attitude' this priest thinks is so lacking in local parishes? What exactly is so 'boring' about the liturgy?

    Because I am one person who feels left outside the parish door NOT because of a lack of officially sanctioned greeters. If I am truly welcomed by the church then I am by definition at home - and not in need of a host or hostess with a seating chart and wanting to hand me the missal and bulletin as if they were menus.

    I would love to attend a Mass where I could be certain of hearing a true homily about developing a relationship with God rather than a political campaign speech. I would love to feel the Church, from it very foundation in God's Word, would welcome me as the child of God that I am and not as the peg they want to fit into a specific niche in the caste system they've developed.

    I'm not saying I'm perfect here, nor that I can't be challenged by the Church to improve. But if their definition of welcoming is to make everyone go through extra rounds of sharing a sign of peace, that's not a definition with which I can agree. And while I've not met with many priests or parishes, this seems to be the exact solution they find to the charge 'lack of welcome'.

    When I go to a Mass now - I have to go in with shields up to defend myself from the Borg mentality of the current Church.

    PS: I think coolmom is right. More emphasis on the specific prayers such at the Rosary or Stations of the Cross is great. But the church seems to make the exercise little more than mindless repetition of words. Some method of really exploring the meanings would be a start to truly helping develop spirituality and relationship with God. Just because there is a group of people repeating the words doesn't make the prayer more meaningful.

  5. Colleen,

    This is it!

    I want to honor you with some sort of award for this outstanding piece. It touched my heart and made me want to stand up and cheer.


  6. Kevin I think there's some truth in the notion that conservatives can't deal with cognitive dissonance so they invent a story which deals with the dissonance-- and happens to ignore forty years of control of the Church.

  7. I think the hope lies in the final sentence. Reese is one of the first known priests who have stated the obvious. There is no need for an ordained special class of priesthood.

  8. Veronica, I really appreciated your take on spirituality. To really dive into meaningful spirituality means you have to go beyond the ritual and open doorways to different understandings and a different world view. The inherent problem in Catholicism is when one does that one also moves beyond the theology which supports the ritual. That's not necessarily in the interests of the Church, especially on the parish and diocesan level. This is probably why the best spiritual mentors are religious who are not in the day to day Catholic system.

  9. How sad is it when such a "with it" priest speaks of social justice as a novel way to attract youngsters to the Church? It answers its own question.

    Your analysis is spot on. Kids are better than anyone at spotting hypocrites, and the verdict is just about unanimous.