Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Contemporary Reflection on the Becket Controversy

A Becket-in-the-making?
Cardinal Francis George
of  Chicago
Cardinal George’s dire forecast that his successors would die martyrs for the faith triggered me to write these reflections on the contemporary Church in the United States the martyrdom of Thomas Becket—who died not for the faith but to preserve the Church’s privilege of exemption from the Law.  Ironically I am  and have long been a devotee of Becket.  Given the understanding of the Church’s position in the 12th century, I realize that Becket acted on a principle he cherished as a matter of faith.  However in the 20th century none of us would hold to that same principle—well probably Cardinal Law would—that the Church is not answerable to any authority but its own when it comes to crimes by the clergy.  Of course Becket lived in a time when the Church was consolidating its power; today we are somewhat more suspicious about power and reluctant to see it go unchecked, even (and especially) in the Church. 
I have referred several times before to the insight offered by the late Cardinal Avery Dulles in his book, the Catholicity of the Church, that the first thousand years of the papacy were about witness; the second thousand about power; and the third thousand will be about service.  I agree with Dulles but I think the paradigm can be extended from the papacy to the Church itself and this would mean that Catholicism is at one of those great shifts in the theological tectonic plates as we move from the template of power to the template of service.  Little tremors have signaled the shifting ground ever since Bishop Emil de Smedt of Bruges declared in the opening session of Vatican II that the Church had to renounce the “clericalism, juridicism, and triumphalism” of the past and meet the modern world on its own terms.  Paul VI abolished the papal court, drastically simplified the costuming of prelates to be rid of the princely accoutrements.  Religious women, moving out of their large motherhouses, put aside their medieval garb and institutional ministries to undertake hands-on service of abused women, abandoned children, the homeless, the aged, the immigrant, and the mentally ill.  Jesuits and de la Salle Christian Brothers opened up inner city Christo Rey Schools to give the children of the poor an educational leg-up that would let them compete successfully for placement in the academies run by their orders.  Religious Orders of both men and women started NGO’s and Institutes and outreach centers that would interface them with the rank injustices that underlay our social structures on the local, national, and international levels.  New model bishops, noted for their simplicity of style and humble service, emerged in the Church in such figures as Dom Helder Camara of Recife Brazil, Remi de Roo of Victoria,  Bernard Topel of Spokane, Oscar Romero of San Salvador, and Thomas Gumbleton (auxiliary) of Detroit.   But it was an Albanian nun who most personified this new attitude, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and captured the attention of the world by her devoted care of the poorest of the poor.  But it has not been a highway without its detours, roadblocks, speed bumps and potholes. 
There has been a strong current among social conservatives pushing a restorationist agenda in the Church to preserve the privilege and power of past centuries.  Recognizing that the liturgical changes introduced under Paul VI in the 1970 missal have probably been the strongest factor in awakening the social consciousness of the Catholic faithful, some bishops, many priests, and about five percent of the active laity have pushed to restore the pre-conciliar rites along with the elaborate costuming of prelates abolished by Paul VI.  There has been a revival of neo-traditionalist art and architecture in many Catholic parishes that focuses on splendor and material display.  Restorationist prelates such as Cardinal Raymond Burke, Cardinal Bernard Law, and Archbishop William Lori pushed for measures to rein in the religious sisters who have devoted themselves to the service of the poor and disenfranchised in our society.  Ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue and cooperation have come in most places to a grinding halt as Pope Benedict XVI changed the ground-rules from a tone of mutual cordiality and respect to a high-handed arrogance combined with a disdain for any whose understanding of Truth differed from the Catholic norm. 
Most troubling is that, at least on the American scene, the institutional dimension of the Catholic Church ceased speaking up for the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters and began shrill denunciations of those in our society who disagreed with the Church on two issues, abortion and same-sex marriage.  Catholic voices—some bishops, many priests, and a bloc of laity have called for the civil law to enshrine Catholic moral doctrine on these issues regardless of the fact that the majority of Americans do not agree with the moral principles on which the Catholic Church builds her case.  Catholics in public life have been threatened with Church censures if they did not do their jobs according to the directions of the hierarchy.  Catholics who voted for politicians who would not cave in to hierarchic pressure were threatened with censure and punishment if they did not follow the directions of the clergy in casting their ballots.  The Church was seen as using its moral authority to enforce a political agenda and that is not playing according to American Constitutional tradition. 
Fifty three years ago, a Catholic running for President spoke to a group of Protestant clergy declaring

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President -- should he be Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

At the time that man spoke, the Catholic voice stood behind him. It would be our first—and to date only—opportunity to have one of our own in the White House.  But today, many voices in our Church think that prelates should tell politicians how to act; Catholic pastors have no difficulty in telling their parishioners for whom to vote.  Today we see a religious body seeking to impose its will upon the general populace and the public acts of our elected officials. 
I don’t believe this means that Catholics need to be silent about abortion or about same-sex marriage—or about gun control, capital punishment, universal health-care, immigration, or the host of other hot-button political items that have religious implications.  I do believe, however, that our role is to educate and convince the electorate of the truth of our position, not to unilaterally impose our values on the larger society.  We can, as can any citizen or group of citizens, use the political system to further our convictions but we have no right to hijack it, even for the good ends we desire. 

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