Reading The Signs Of The Times

Last post, while explaining the petition, I sketched the connections from local to diocesan to larger units such as the Commonwealth, the U. S., and Catholic “headquarters” based in Rome. “All politics is local” and church politics are no exception. Church officials insist that the church is above politics, whether of the secular or religious variety. Careful observation belies this claim, and not only at the macro-level, where Cardinal Dolan plays a role on the national stage.

The parishes are the building blocks of the church. Parish councils, though ostensibly formed to help the laity govern, in reality play a very different role in the Springfield Diocese. They have a gate-keeping function, and one of their assignments is to squelch unorthodox strains of thought which may erupt into public speech, discussion and advocacy, and thereby undermine (so the thinking goes) the larger good of shaping behavior based on top-down authority. Propriety and appearance are very important values in the Springfield Diocese. 

This orthodoxy is expressed in pronouncements from "spokesmen" rather than individual parishioners; in marching orders issued from Elliot St., the centralized headquarters of the bishop, rather than bubbling up from an organic base; in a liturgy where spontaneity is discouraged; in chilly  homiletics, so barren of new theological thought; in the rich clothing and ceremonial trappings of the chancery, so clearly modeled on Roman imperial might. Without question, these sentiments and displays are backwards and anti-democratic. Yet, many Catholics accept them, often with the disclaimer that “that’s the way the Catholic church operates.” 

Curiously, the suspicion that these may not be gospel values hardly comes up. Even more curious, church officials claim to be not only unwilling, but unable to change — and proud of it, to boot. 

Are we not supposed to be listening to the signs of the times? When clergy and church members turn our back on change, are we not projecting our own limitations on a limitless good? 

Many Catholics have gauged the state of the church, read the propensity for orthodoxy as fatal, put their affairs in order, and bowed out. I don't blame them. Nevertheless, my choice is to remain. I can see no other way to affect the church for the better than to continue belonging to it. 

The first task while working for reform within the church is to understand how the church hierarchy thinks, not because they lead, but because they have appropriated all of the power. Power in this sense meaning simply "the ability to do." It is obvious that the power needs to be reassigned. This task of understanding what lies behind the liturgy, the ceremonies, the boilerplate of chancery pronouncements is harder than it sounds. 

All priests are trained in the arts of persuasion: in rhetorical, logical, and oratorical skills. Not surprisingly, those who rise in the ranks have more of these skills than their peers. I have found that if you want to understand the Catholic clergy, the last thing to listen to are pronouncements from diocesan spokesmen. Nor are statements from the pulpit to be taken at face value.

No, the most fertile ground for understanding what makes official Catholicism tick is not found in church, but in court: in the Bishop's lawsuits. Study the arguments made in the lawsuits. Study what they do and do not say. 

Study the positions taken by the lawyers of the bishops, and then we will understand the bishops themselves, and their vision for what the church is and should be in these times.