|Professor Leonard Swidler was a former teaching colleague with Pope Benedict at the University of Tubingen. Professor Swidler, like many people today who were excited and energized by the Second Vatican Council, has become increasingly disturbed in recent times by the endeavours to turn back the insights and reforms of that Council. Headlines over Easter generated by Pope Benedict have drive Dr Swidler to address this open letter to his former colleague.|
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part XI
This will be a fascinating commentary for readers seeking an overview of the character of Catholicism in the United States. The bulk of the commentary is an examination as to how the national character of Catholicism in that country was formed. Professor Swidler concludes with the particular arguments he placed to the audience he was addressing at Old St Mary's Church in Philadephia urging the adoption of a constitution in their parish.
Creating a "Constitution" for your Parish?
IV. THE THREE PHASES OF AMERICAN CATHOLICISM
I am grateful here to Dr. Anthony Padovano for his analysis of American Catholic history in a 2003 lecture he gave. He divided American Catholic history into three phases:
A. THE AMERICAN PHASE
After a voyage of four months, two ships, the Ark and the Dove, land in present day Maryland. It is March 5, 1634, fourteen years after the 1620 founding of Plymouth Plantation farther north. Catholics and Protestants crossed the ocean and together they created a colony where Catholics were free to worship. John Carroll will be born in that colony a century later in 1735. When Carroll becomes the first American bishop, in that same colony, in 1789, there will be 35,000 Catholics in a national population of four million (about 1%).
We have already seen something of this American Phase, which was characterized by an assimilation of democratic principles into Catholic life and structure under the leadership of John Carroll and John England, with lay responsibility exercised by the initially pervasive Trustee System. But by the middle of the nineteenth century this phase was passing.
B. THE ROMAN PHASE
The Roman Phase stressed 1) submissiveness, 2) a criticism of the democratic genius of America, and 3) at the same time a care for Catholic immigrants. In the latter, the clergy did yeoman service, but they insisted on total power and obedience. Our own Father John Hughes of Philadelphia, who became the Archbishop of New York, was a prime example of this Romanitá, who bragged that he destroyed the Trustee System, first at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, and went on to trumpet: "I made war on the whole system," adding that "Catholics did their duty when they obeyed their bishop.... I will suffer no man in my diocese that I cannot control." Later Pope Pius X re-confirmed this authoritarian style in his encyclical Vehemence Nos: "The one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led and, like a docile flock, to follow their pastors."
Obedience to the clergy was the prime virtue in this church now largely made up of swarms of immigrants from the oppressed lower classes of Ireland and southern and eastern Europe. Dissent was viewed as treason, as a pathology, and of course consequently lay initiative evaporated. Padovano wrote that "This Church gave safety to its compliant members but it filled them with a sense of paranoia and suspicion of everything that was not Catholic. It seemed a very long time ago, indeed, when democracy and open discussion were promoted in Catholic Church circles." Nevertheless, Catholic immigrants found safety in the ghetto built with their language, culture, and Catholicism. Within this ghetto, three objectives were paramount:
1) Education and building a massive private school system
There was a fear of American culture and public life, a distrust of American universities where secular atheism was taught, of non-Catholic writers, and "Protestant" movements such as the abolition of slavery, the women's suffrage movement, alcohol prohibition, birth control.... For many Protestants, Catholics seemed immoral, siding with slavery, alcohol, gambling, opposing women's suffrage, and seemingly all social reforms. Catholics used language against Margaret Sanger and birth control that was as flaming as language now used against legal abortion.
Of course, there was real Protestant prejudice, as we here in Philadelphia know from the attacks on priests, nuns, and Catholic buildings by the Know Nothing Party before the Civil War. However, Protestants were terrified of the pope, who now claimed to be infallible, and of the flood of Catholic immigrants obedient to him. Almost all U.S. bishops were trained in Rome, and went back there regularly. The huge St. Patrick's Day and Holy Name Society parades, international Eucharistic Congresses, all replete with extravagant clerical garb looking much like that of anti-democratic aristocrats of Europe frightened Protestants, and they reacted accordingly.
Although the Catholic school system never became as large as the hierarchy wanted, so that the majority of Catholic children in fact went to public schools, the Catholic school system became the largest private educational enterprise in the history of the world. It trained five million elementary students at its height. This system was complemented with thousands of high schools and hundreds of colleges and universities. To see to it that this all happened, the American bishops meeting in the Baltimore Councils threatened Catholic parents with the denial of sacraments if they did not send their children to Catholic schools! Certainly, the Catholic school system did much good, but it was under the rigid control of the priest and bishop, and this frightened non-Catholics. It pulled thousands of Catholic teachers and millions of students out of the public school system where they would have had to contend with greater diversity, and it trained both Catholic teachers and students not to ask questions, but to repeat the answers provided.
2) Development of a sentimental, at times superstitious, always submissive piety
A second paramount element of this Roman phase of U.S. Catholicism was the development of a sentimental, at times superstitious, but always submissive piety. As before, not everything was bad about this element of Romanitá. Life for the Catholic immigrants was harsh, and it was only persons of great courage came to America, leaving their families and homes forever, facing a strange language, culture, accepting menial jobs, experiencing unfair class and religious discrimination. Hence, understandably a sentimental kind of piety provided comfort, and semi-superstitious practices in the form of relics, scapulars, St. Christopher medals, signs of the cross before a key free-throw at high school basketball games, gave a sense of security. In this context, submissiveness seemed fitting. That is, give us a church, a school, a network of Catholic friends, a priest and bishop (and pope) who could answer all our questions, and we will follow their lead!
Consequently this piety fostered the centralizing authoritarian politics of the hierarchy, preventing Catholics from organizing independent national lay organizations, eliminating the last remnants of the previous flourishing democratic trustee system; it suppressed any dissent and "took away the will and the desire for democracy in the Church," and "gave the hierarchy legions of docile voters who could be marshaled against political adversaries." It gave the bishops massive amounts of money to use as they wished, with no accountability whatsoever, as well as huge enormous economic clout which allowed them to boycott and censure films and books they did not like. Only now are some Catholics beginning to ask where all the money goes, when over two billion dollars (!) of their money has been spent on clerical pedophilia court cases-and still counting!
3) Recruitment to Priesthood and Religious Life
The third paramount objective was recruitment for institutional ministry. At its high point in the early1960s, the American Catholic Church had over 300,000 women religious, priests, and seminarians. Today there are only about 100,000, one-third the number of priests and religious, and a vastly larger Catholic population to serve. Every Irish-American Catholic mother had a vocation to the priesthood through her oldest son. If you wanted to be a real Catholic, you became a priest or nun. I know that personally, as I entered religious life in 1950 and left before ordination in 1954. Marriage was thought an inferior vocation, and lay life was a second class way to be a Catholic. The powerhouse of the Catholic educational system, a submissive piety, and a second-class status of marriage made the Catholic laity feel that they in general were second-class, that the Church belonged to the priests, bishops and pope.
Of course, the success of institutional Catholicism was amazing. No other national Church in modern times could match the power, wealth, and organization of the American Catholic Church. It accomplished much good through its schools, hospitals, its rituals of healing, its parishes with their sense of belonging, its demand of better working conditions, and especially its insistence that Catholics must be American and must not press for the union of Church and State. However, there were heavy costs, and as Catholics became educated and autonomous, they were increasingly less willing to pay them. It was an incredible system, but it favored an aristocratic few and it slowly destroyed the freedom and dignity of the very people it was educating, so that it assured its demise. The recent Philadelphia Grand Jury Report (only one of many) was another nail in the coffin of American Catholic Romanitá.
C. THE CATHOLIC PHASE
Let me begin what Padovano calls the Catholic Phase with his own words:
The American Catholic Church works best with revolutions. Two key revolutions define where the American Catholic Church is today. We have seen how the American Revolution itself shaped Catholicism in this country. I suggest it would have given this nation and the world a brilliant model of creative theology for the modern era had it not been crushed. The second revolution came in our time and we are its heirs and witnesses. This was, of course, Vatican II. It has shaped the American Catholic Church perhaps more profoundly than any other national Church. Indeed, it has both moved us forward and brought us back to our revolutionary roots.
Vatican II changed Rome itself and moved Rome closer to American Catholicism than anyone might have expected. Rome is now more defined by the American Declaration of Independence than it is by the papal Syllabus of Errors; it is more powerfully influenced by the Declaration on Religious Freedom, a Vatican II document Americans crafted, than it is by its own condemnation of Modernism; its present Code of Canon Law resonates with the language of the Bill of Rights and affirms equality, free speech, due process, freedom of association, freedom of inquiry and the right of privacy (this is very different from Pius X's insistence that the laity must be "led like a docile flock, to follow their pastor"). Rome realizes that the ideas and the language of American culture create a far more credible vocabulary for modern discourse than its own monarchical system. Rome, I suggest, has no choice now except to move in an American direction.
We have already in an earlier lecture investigated the five-fold Copernican turns of Vatican II: 1) The Turn Toward Freedom, 2) The Turn Toward the Historic-Dynamic, 3) The Turn Toward This World, 4) The Turn Toward Inner Church Reform, 5) The Turn Toward Dialogue.
Pope John Paul II tried mightily to put the geni of Vatican II back in the bottle, but for the American Catholic Church the tsunami of the clergy pedophilia scandal, and the even worse cover up by so many bishops, has burst the bottle!
So, here we are in 2006 in America, in the land which practically invented modern Democracy, with the idea of governing an institution not by the decisions of some elite leaders, but whose leaders are elected by the members of the institution, who are guided by Law, as expressed in a written Constitution, which contains a list of the rights of the members spelled out in a Bill of Rights, which are enforced by a separate judiciary, under a due process of law. We know the blessings of freedom and responsibility, of the rule of law, for our ancestors fled from authoritarian rules of all sorts to where they could be free and responsible. We also know that we all must struggle every day to win freedom again, and again, and again, endlessly, for if we do not, it will suffocate and die.
If we are the beneficiaries of this freedom and responsibility with its Constitution, Bill of Rights, Freedom and Responsibility, and Law in the civil sphere, why do we not see the need for their blessings in the most important dimension of our lives, in our spirituality, in our religion? Oh, we all know that we have been told that the Catholic Church is not a democracy, and this false sensibility has seeped deep into our Catholic bones, but we have now begun to learn that that claim is false. We now know that the Catholic Church has a long tradition with large elements of democracy as part of its warp and woof.
Let me quote Anthony Padovano once more:
The fact that Americans cannot bring democracy or these miracles to the Catholic Church at large is the single greatest failure of American Catholicism … Democracy is not only the key to all ecclesial reform but the essential ingredient in global social justice.
No less a figure than Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel laureate in economics, insists on two observations of paramount importance. In Democracy as Freedom (1989), he writes: "No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy". Sen argues that the openness of a democracy, its accountability and its freedom of the press make it impossible for governments to tolerate famines. Famines are the legacy of monarchical systems. Indeed, we know that free markets are also crucial. It is impossible to have free markets and not to have a democracy. Once the economic sphere is removed from government control, the government is not strong enough to maintain totalitarianism. A Church that is proud it is not a democracy is a model for totalitarianism systems. Sen argues, at a later date, that no multi partied democracy has ever waged war on another democracy.
If Sen is right and if democracy restricts famine and war, then a democratic world will be one in which social justice and peace may be possible on a scale greater than we have heretofore imagined. This is not a time for the Church to boast that it will never be a democracy.
We also know that when we sleep the sleep, not of the innocent, but of the passive, of the non-responsible, that bad things do happen to real people. We here in Philadelphia, as in many other cities, are still stinging under the blows of the Grand Jury Report on Clergy Sexual Misconduct. Terrible things have happened to our brothers and sisters, and we did nothing to protect them. We can say that we knew nothing about it. Fair enough. But we can no longer say that! We here at Old St. Mary's Church have an extraordinary opportunity to take up our responsibilities that not many parishes in this diocese are given. We are extraordinarily blessed with a pastor who has the vision, self-confidence, and courage to call for us to come forth and take up our responsibilities, to be mature Catholics. With this blessing comes a corresponding responsibility, that is, to whom much is given, much is expected.
There are endless things that this parish can do that will be of immense value to the members and to many individuals and groups outside it. We have a beautiful church building. In fact, we have two! Each has a fantastic historic tradition that ought to be mined, taught, and harnessed. Our location in the center of the city, a stone's throw from the Freedom shrines, puts us in a unique situation to do creative things. With a carefully thought through and written Constitution and live participation in those areas that are vital to a parish, like a finance committee, a liturgy committee, a music committee, an outreach committee, lawyers committee, education committee.... St. Mary's should become a model which will both draw to itself those Catholics starving for spiritual vitality, and will inspire others to imitate our structured dynamism.
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