Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Fr. McBrien On JPII: The Pope Behind The Polarization In Catholicism

John Paul II: The real reason for church polarization

by Richard McBrien on Oct. 19, 2010 Essays in Theology - National Catholic Reporter

In mid-August a group of young theologians, all under the age of 40, teaching at Catholic colleges, universities, and seminaries met at Fordham University in New York City to discover ways to overcome the polarization they find in today’s Catholic Church.

Although the group did not draft a mission statement as such, it formulated a paragraph as a kind of self-description of their work on behalf of the Church:

“We are young Catholic theologians at colleges, universities or seminaries, who desire to shape our careers in ways that reduce polarization in the American Catholic church. Each of us came of age at some distance from the ideological debates of Vatican II and the immediate postconciliar era, and we believe that our Catholic generation has new opportunities to heal divisions in the body of Christ. We proceed with profound humility toward the previous generation’s tilling of common ground, even as we hope to plant new seeds of faith and charity in our church. As Christians committed to the unity of the Holy Spirit, we approach our task with intellectual solidarity toward one another.”

What does the Fordham group mean by the “ideological” character of the debates at Vatican II? Did those debates represent differences in theological and pastoral emphases, or were they reflective of radically different understandings of the nature, mission, and structural operations of the Church?

Were the debates, however characterized, carried on by two more or less evenly divided groups, or were we dealing instead with an overwhelming majority of bishops and theologians on the one hand and a relatively tiny minority of bishops and their theological allies on the other? (Right on Father McBrien. This idea that the discussions at VII were 'even' is one the greatest myths perpetrated by Conservative Catholic leadership.)

McBrien then goes on to describe the reaction of a student of his to the manufactured ND/Obama controversy.  In the student's observations one is again left with the idea that both sides were 'even' in this controversy.

The impression may have been left, however, that both sides were about equal in size. Such was not the case.

The overwhelming majority of graduates were in the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center. As soon as a few adults who had received entry tickets from anti-Obama students began to shout epithets at the President, the assembled student body -- spontaneously and without any prompt-ing -- began chanting “We are ND!” and continued doing so until the disrupters were removed from the building. (Unlike certain mass demonstrations in support of JPII orchestrated by the Neo Cats.)

To be sure, the alternative ceremony held elsewhere on campus was conducted peacefully and with dignity, but it never consisted of more than a tiny minority of graduates and their supporters from outside the university.

If the Fordham group of young Catholic theologians were guilty of anything -- beyond their evident good will -- it may have been naivete.

They implied that an older generation of Catholic theologians may have been somehow responsible for the polarization in the Catholic Church by fomenting the so-called culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s “through which much of the council and its aftermath were read.”

But the Fordham group’s sense of history seems truncated. Have they forgotten that after Pope Paul VI, the man elected to the papacy was John Paul I -- the Patriarch of Venice -- and that he died after only 33 days in office? (Great question.  How easy it is to forget JPI, who was a real pastoral example of the theology of VII.  Maybe because he somehow managed to die after only one month.)

Had John Paul I not died prematurely, we would never have had John Paul II, who came into office with a clearly conceived plan to re-make the face of the hierarchy -- a plan that involved the dismantling of much of what Paul VI tried to create, particularly a cadre of pastoral bishops committed to carrying out the reforms and renewal launched, under Paul VI’s direction, by Vatican II. (One can't help but wonder how Cardinals who elected JPI then turn around and elect Karol Wotyla--one of the driving forces for the minority report on birth control. Another mystery we will undoubtedly never have an answer for.)

Thus, if there is any single reason why polarization exists in the Catholic Church today it is because of the type of bishops whom John Paul II appointed and promoted within the hierarchy over the course of his 26 and a half years in office.

Any other explanation of the polarization that now afflicts the Church is simply naive.  (As I wrote yesterday, honest naivete seems to be the flavor of the favored in Benedict's Church.)

© 2010 Richard P. McBrien. All rights reserved

Two of those JPII bishops Fr. McBrien refers to are now cardinals---Raymond Burke and Donald Wuerl.  I remember Wuerl for a number of things, none of which would pad his resume for his red hat, but I guess all that was overlooked.  I'm sure there is very little rejoicing in Seattle over Wuerl's elevation to cardinal.  As for Burke, well lots of republican activists will be popping champagne.  That's about as generous a comment as I can muster.

Pope Benedict's other cardinal appointees are heavy on Italian and curial lifers.  Appointees from the South, where the vast majority of Catholics actually live, represented only 1/3 of his appointees.  Benedict's church may be overwhelmingly non white, but his administration is decidedly not.  We can expect more ranting from these cardinals on the low birthrate in white European and North American countries.  Sigh......

One other article of note which I think dovetails with McBrien's take on JPII is Pope Benedict's recent global letter to seminarians.  Benedict actually hints at problems in priestly formation having something to do with the abuse crisis:

"The priest must first and foremost be a “man of God,” who is willing to grow in self-knowledge and “humility” through prayer, the Pope said. He encouraged the seminarians to cultivate an “inner closeness” with Jesus through the sacraments, especially the sacrament of Penance.

This sacrament is vitally important to the spiritual formation of priests, he said.

“It teaches me to see myself as God sees me, and it forces me to be honest with myself …” the Pope said. “Moreover, by letting myself be forgiven, I learn to forgive others. In recognizing my own weakness, I grow more tolerant and understanding of the failings of my neighbor.”

The Pope also urged seminarians to foster “the right balance of heart and mind, reason and feeling, body and soul, and to be humanly integrated.”

“This also involves the integration of sexuality into the whole personality,” he said. “Sexuality is a gift of the Creator yet it is also a task which relates to a person’s growth towards human maturity. When it is not integrated within the person, sexuality becomes banal and destructive.”

“Recently we have seen with great dismay that some priests disfigured their ministry by sexually abusing children and young people,” the Pope added. “Instead of guiding people to greater human maturity and setting them an example, their abusive behavior caused great damage for which we feel profound shame and regret.”

“Yet even the most reprehensible abuse cannot discredit the priestly mission,” Pope Benedict stressed, “which remains great and pure.”

This last sentence once again is based in the idea of a perfect society for which no amount of dirt could ever effect the shine of it's underlying truth.  There will never be a re evaluation of the Catholic priesthood as long as this Pope lives and he is doing his utmost to stack the deck in favor of a like minded successor.  Hence the third world is totally under represented because a real push for rethinking the priesthood is coming from the South.

One last observation.  Benedict has been stressing the Sacrament of Penance lately, especially for the priesthood.  I've been struck in reading documentation in abuse cases,  by how often the notion of confession was misconstrued as therapy.  The black board of the soul was magically erased so abusive priests could then be reassigned without any attempt to understand the behavior was about far more than an inclination to sin.

When people have an understanding of the Sacrament of Penance as a form of chalk board eraser, and not as a call to repentance and conversion, they have no motivation to change.  They have motivation to find a compliant confessor.  Way too often that compliant confessor has had real motivation to forgive without insisting on much in the way of repentance and conversion. My mother used to call this notion the 'mafia death bed get out of hell free card'.  She thought VII's reforming of the sacrament of confession as something more meaningful than 'three our fathers, three hail mary's' was the one good thing accomplished by the 'whole mess'.  I do too, but I also think we're going to see the trend to return to the old 'three hail mary's, three our fathers' magic erase board mentality. That version doesn't take a real relationship between the penitent and the confessor to be 'effective'.  Which is why it worked so great for bishops and abusive priests. Bishops could keep their distance while soothing their consciences.  Kind of like JPII and Maciel.


  1. While I recognize the great value of the sacrament of reconciliation, it seems that there is an important step which seems to be missing from the way the Roman church presently looks at reconciliation, i.e. the step of restitution.

    If I break someone's window and I feel I should 'make it right', I'll pay for a new one. If I screwed up (spiritually) and I'm so inclined, saying extra prayers as penance may be in order, but those prayers don't fix the window.

    No amount of Aves, Paters or Mea Culpas will heal the wounds inflicted on these kids. It's not about 'getting right with God', but making it right with the hurt.

    Having the Vatican give some bland message of 'oh, that's too bad' to the victims does nothing for the healing process. Having the priests (or, more generally, the Church) make restitution would go far, though, to reconciling the abusers and the abused.

  2. Love your avatar Tim. Reconcilliation without restitution is not usually very effective in getting people to modify their behaviors or opinions.
    Restitution is generally a part of the sacrament for more egregious offenses, but there's nothing that says it has to be. In the abuse crisis it's pretty obvious that avoiding scandal far superceded any thoughts of restitution towards victims--by either the individual abuser or the Church.

  3. re: my Avatar.
    Thank you. :) As I keep on this path, I try to remind myself that Humour, like Grace, is a gift from God.

    As to the rite of Reconciliation, it is one of my Credo points which I've written about at some length here.

    I have substantive trouble with how the Roman church appears to be handling this whole idea, especially when it's the physicians who need the healing.

    I would argue that the Church is actively avoiding restitution in the modern sense of the word as they are (justifiably) afraid it will open up a bottomless pit of lawsuits. That is not even a pretense of a defense, more of a recognition as to their motives.

  4. I wonder how many of these priests that physically and sexually abused children and teens were ever made to apologize to those that they harmed. In some cases, in court. Church lawyers actually attacked the victims, aired their dirty laundry and sometimes even blamed them. What a disgrace.

  5. Is it truly an apology if they are made to do it? Anybody can mouth or write words. Clearly these abusive priests can if they are carrying on the Catholic rituals in public and then abusing children in private.

    I was once on the receiving end of an apology from an adult person who was made to do it. And he very clearly was only mouthing the words. He looked and sounded like a 3 year old and all it did was lower him in my respect that much farther. I don't think he gained anything of remorse or humility by the exercise. And it disgusted me nearly as much as the sexual harassment that I'd filed a complaint against him.

    If the argument is that the abuser realized the sin and wanted to apologize but was prevented by legal counsel, that's another issue. But somehow I doubt this happens all that much.

  6. Veronica, your comment only reinforces the idea that so much of what passes as meaningful discourse is really parental manipulation. I hate those forced apologies. They mostly only serve to fuel the fires. Maybe that's why Benedict is the one making all the apologies for clergy abuse. He can't trust anyone else to come across as sincere because he knows too many of them aren't sincere.

  7. The trouble, colkoch, is that he's surpassed the number of apologies he is allowed to make without putting into place the meaningful systemic changes to make sure the frequency of abuse is on a downward spiral. Even in a case where the parents are making the apology on behalf of the child, the only way it really works is if it can be seen the parents ensure the child makes some sort of restitution [to make the situation with the victim right] and steps are taken by the parent to ensure the child doesn't or can't transgress again.

    B16 has not done anything toward this end that I can see. And so my respect for him is almost as low as it is for the abusers. I personally think the lack of apology is not a problem so long as I can see those systemic improvements are being made. For me, actions speak louder than words.

    Yes. I know I'm preaching to the choir.

  8. The sad part is that the Pope and bishops are apologizing for what some priests have done but have they apologized for what THEY did? That is where is gets sticky. The Pope has gone easy on bishops who have enabled abusers,

  9. I still smile at an apology I received on another site. The man said, "I am sorry if you were offended by what I said in charity." This same man also said that most of the problems in the Catholic Church are caused by women, who have to much power in the Church!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Mareczku, it's got to be a very unique personal point of view that women have too strong a voice in the church, unless he means something along the lines of keeping a tight lid on a boiling tea kettle.

    I kind of doubt that though. More likely he has mother issues he's transferred to 'mother church'.