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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Review: "A Church in Search of Itself"

Catholics worldwide are looking for hope. While their belief in their faith remains strong, it's that human institution known as "the church" run by fallible human beings that remains the source of contradiction and contention.

A slave to times past, the church is in a constant one-step-forward-two-steps-back mode of operating that at best is inefficient and unresponsive and at worst is driving away the faithful.

The church nearly drove me away. But I rediscovered my faith through an immersion in its history, theology, practices and art. I am a motivated Catholic. Plenty wouldn't have bothered. As devoted as I am to my faith, I have to remind myself that my expectations for its responses and behaviors may not be met. Instead, I'm making my own way.

In a nutshell, that's what Robert Blair Kaiser, author of A Church in Search of Itself: Benedict XVI and the Battle for the Future, originally published in hardcover last March by Alfred A. Knopf and now out in paperback by Vintage Books (both divisions of Random House Inc.) is saying.

Kaiser has a dualistic view of the church that somewhat weakens his arguments. The Vatican and its cardinals are divided into those who believe the church must change and those who believe it must remain true to its tradition. I suspect, like the practices and beliefs of individual Catholics, there are scores of nuance missed in that Augustinian characterization.

There's a jarring juxtaposition between the faith of the people and the politicking of its leaders. That cardinals are political animals is abundantly made clear as the stage is set for the conclave of 2005. Some, in particular Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger now Benedict XVI, have been politicking for the job for years in ways both subtle and not so subtle and with ramifications that reverberate in this country.

Kaiser traces the modern church's collective tin ear to Vatican II and the failure to uphold the spirit and letter of Vatican II. When the institutional church fails, people walk. They don't stop to ask why, they simply walk out of the church and don't return.

What does all this politicking and positioning mean for everyday Catholics? In reality, not much. Catholics don't have the sense the pope is running our lives, says Kaiser. Pope Benedict XVI doesn't seem to mind if people walk. He's positioned himself as God's defender and if that means a smaller church (after all it's not a democracy) then he's willing to pay that price.

The Catholic church's core theological beliefs were set—and closed—in 325 C.E. at the Council of Nicea. How the church governs itself has changed because the church is run by humans. As such, it will always be in need of reform.

How much will the Vatican be willing to reform to modern times? Can it balance a love of power with Christ's message of love?

Through the stories of six individuals—representing the Catholic church in America, Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia—Kaiser tells of the journey for the modern Catholic church. Where his sourcing seems vague in the beginning of the book, his individual stories are ripe with detail that only comes from confidence and access gained over time.

In between those chapters are theological discussions and synopses of major events surrounding the conclave. We learn about liberation theology, syncretism and enculturation. But we also see how the Vatican bristles at those words and hastens to silence those who dare to voice such concepts.

We learn just how complicated it would be to reform the priesthood. When John Paul II was asked whether he would think seriously about it, he said it reminded him of a song: "It's a long way to Tipperary," Kaiser writes.

"To map out the future of the priesthood, one first had to deal with its long, twisted past, a past that was immensely complicated by a clerical misogyny … that goes back to the fourth century," writes Kaiser.

Yes, well, we can't go there. So instead we take women out of the equation by making priests celibate and this way the church retains all property instead of it being passed on to families. Perhaps there would be value in "the wisdom of the crowds" approach to church reform. Instead the refusal to look at the situation at all results in a dying or at least decaying priesthood.

Sociologist Dean Hoge of the Catholic University of America told a Boston College conference on priesthood in 2005 that making celibacy optional would raise seminary enrollments 400 percent, says Kaiser.

But the church equates holiness with sexlessness, thanks in large part to St. Augustine's equation: sex=pleasure=women=evil. If celibacy becomes optional, "every pillar of Catholic teaching could be called into question."

Rather than hit the hard stuff head on, the Vatican uses one of the most effective weapons in its arsenal—silence. Its refusal to address the issues of voluntary celibacy, married priests or female priests speaks volumes.

Aloysius Pieris is Asia's leading liberation theologian and though he has been called before the Vatican on many occasions, he does not worry about the inquiries. "We have a great advantage here in Asia, because we work in languages that the men in the Holy Office do not understand."

We could all learn something from Pieris. Meaningful reform in the Catholic Church will not happen unless a groundswell of individual Catholics asks for change. We are not a group willing to question the authority of the church. While many of us have advanced degrees and knowledge is many subjects, we retain a second-grade education in our faith. We lack the maturity of faith and the basic education of the history of the church to understand that WE can ask for change.

Maybe that's a language the Vatican doesn't understand. But we have to start somewhere. Read through this book and then work on your own education. If you don't think it's important then I leave you with this excerpt from Kaiser's Epilogue:
"Since 2000, six American bishops have resigned, five of them for aberrations of a sexual nature that became public and one after he was charged (and later convicted) with leaving the scene of a fatal hit-and-run auto incident, a felony. In none of these cases did the pope intervene. He didn't have to. Local public opinion told the misbehaving bishops what to do.

A bishop who behaves himself, however, and remembers to pay a visit to Rome every five years with an envelope of cash for the pope can exercise a rule that is close to absolute, hardly diminished by his diocesan finance council, whose members he appoints and whose advice he need not follow, or by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, an organization he supports with annual contributions but whose resolutions he can, according to canon law, safely ignore.

If any wonder why the American Church is in such a parlous condition, they must, therefore, lay the blame on the bishops who have enjoyed such extraordinary control—and the pastors who support them. Some bishops say canon law blocks various initiatives recommended by the forces of reform, which quiets some reformers but should not, since canon law itself says a bishop need not follow those rules that in his judgment are overridden by his people's needs. If he insists on following the letter of Church law, one can only conclude that he is using it as an excuse to stave off cries for reform out of a simple, perverse desire to maintain his absolute power."

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