Chapter 14: Autochthony
Robert Blair Kaiser's summary of last week's chapter: In Chapter Thirteen, Pike introduced Mahony to Ted Rackham, a Jew, and a former labor union and community organizer who got some of his best ideas from the social encyclicals of Leo XIII, Pius XI, John XXIII and Paul VI. Rackham has rugged good looks, a shaved head, a strong nose, a heavily muscled upper body. He gets around in a wheelchair. He has been a paraplegic from the age of seventeen, but that hasn't slowed him down. Now, in order to help Mahony, he needs to consult progressive theologians like Sean Sunnyhill who can teach him what is doable (and dreamable) in the Catholic Church. When Sunnyhill tells him about autochthony, he cannot pronounce the word, or, much less, spell it. Now here's Chapter Fourteen...
Chapter 14: Autochthony
RACKHAM NOT ONLY LEARNED how to spell autochthony. He also learned the history of the word. He found that there were (and are) twenty-one autochthonous Churches inside the Catholic Church, some of them very ancient, like the first-century Melkites of Lebanon, with a longer history than the Roman Church. They are all in communion with the pope, but they have their own governance, their own patriarch, their own priests (some married, some not), their own liturgies in their own languages.
All aflame, Rackham asked Pike when they could all meet with Mahony.
"You have something for him?"
"A complete solution to the cardinal's dilemma."
"That's all, huh? A complete solution. Tell me, what's the cardinal's dilemma?"
"He wants a people's Church in America. But he doesn't want to go into schism?"
"Well, he can take the American Church into autochthony."
"Sheesh," said Pike. "What's that? How do you spell it?"
A WEEK PASSED before Mahony and his A-team—Pike and Sunnyhill and Rackham and Juana Margarita Obregón—could get together. Mahony had been attending a meeting in Sacramento of the California bishops, where he found surprising (but not unanimous) support for his stand on Sister Phoebe's liturgical revolution. When he returned to la and met his team at a hamburger joint not far from Queen of Angels hospital, Mahony had to tell them—that at least two-thirds of California's bishops were quietly encouraging other Phoebes to follow Phoebe's lead. "No more Eucharistic famine, they say, in California."
"This is all under the Vatican's radar screen?" asked Rackham.
"So far. But it is only a matter of time—couple weeks maybe—before NCR does a story on this development. Or the LA Times. Or the CBS Evening News. Or all of them."
"So what are the California bishops prepared to do?" asked Juana Margarita Obregón.
Mahony frowned. "They're not sure. Except for Oakland and a few other sees, they're prepared to follow my lead. For now, that means do nothing to stop Phoebe, and all the other Phoebes in California. For the future, frankly, I don't know what I will do."
"You have to lead the American Church into autochthony," announced Rackham.
Mahony almost choked on his burger. After he recovered, he seemed amused at Rackham's naïve enthusiasm. "What makes you think, Ted, that we can become an autochthonous Church?" He snapped his fingers. "Just like that?"
The question caught Rackham with his mouth full. He held up his hand for a moment, then mumbled, "It's not an unthinkable idea."
"Well, I've never thought of it," said Mahony. He turned to Pike. "you ever thought of it, Nick?"
"Until a week ago, I never even heard of it. And I am Greek." A waiter hovered. "You guys want coffee?" Then, to the waiter, "Four coffees for them, one green tea for me."
Mahony said, "Juana? Autochthony?"
"I have heard the word before, but I never thought the American Church could go autochthonous."
As the waiter was filling their cups, Rackham said, "Well, you guys don't know your own Church history."
The four others laughed, their house Jew telling them things about the Church they'd never heard before. Pike admitted he had a lot to learn. Mahony told Rackham to get to the point.
Rackham turned to Sunnyhill. "Let the historian answer this," he said.
Sunnyhill wiped some mustard off his chin, taking a moment to marshal his thoughts. "Ted is trying to say that starting up a new autochthonous Church—one that would have a measure of autonomy, but still be fully Catholic—could well happen. In 1925, Cardinal D.J. Mercier of Malines-Brussels proposed an autochthonous Church in England."
Mahony knew of Mercier, an early leader in the ecumenical movement for Christian unity. He asked Sunnyhill, "What did Cardinal Mercier say about autochthony in 1925?"
"He gave a speech at the Malines Conversations called 'United Not Absorbed.' He proposed that the Anglicans come over to Rome 'whole and entire,' with their own patriarch, the Archbishop of Canterbury, their own English language liturgy, their own married priesthood. They'd be just like the Melkites and the Maronites, only different. They'd be English Catholics."
Pike said, "Pius XI must have loved that."
"Hated it," said Sunnyhill. "In fact, when the pope found out the speech was ghosted for Mercier by a Belgian Benedictine named Dom Lambert Beauduin, he had Beauduin kicked out of the Benedictines. For the rest of his life, this monk wandered Europe, effectively homeless."
"How could the pope get away with that?" asked Pike.
"It doesn't matter," said Sunnyhill. "Twentieth-century popes did just about anything they wanted. The point is this: Cardinal Mercier was onto something. He saw that Rome—with all that the word 'Rome' implied back in 1925—was an obstacle to Anglicans and Catholics getting together. And it shouldn't have been."
"But," said Pike, "the idea went nowhere in 1925. What makes it more viable today?"
Sunnyhill said, "It was an idea that seemed to make sense again, in 1998, when the Indonesian bishops came to Rome for the Asian Synod and proposed an autochthonous Church in Indonesia."
"What happened to that proposal? Pope John Paul approve it?"
"No. He also ignored another proposal for autochthony in another synod in 2001. Again from Indonesia."
"Why did the Indonesian bishops keep asking?"
"The Indonesian bishops wanted a measure of independence from Rome's rules because they had made formal requests, at least twice, for permission to ordain married men, and they were turned down."
Pike was intrigued with all this, but, like the good lawyer he was, he needed to take a devil's advocate position. "So Rome said no. That only proves one thing: bishops can propose anything they want. But if the pope doesn't buy it, so what?"
Sunnyhill said, "In an autochthonous Church, they wouldn't have to ask Rome's permission to do that. Not if it's simply a matter of discipline."
Juana Margarita Obregón sat up straighter and announced, "If it is only a matter of discipline, then, in an autochthonous American Church, we would not have to ask the pope's permission to ordain women either."
Mahony said he wasn't so sure about that. "Three popes have said women cannot be ordained. To them, this is a matter of doctrine."
Juana Margarita Obregón turned to Sunnyhill. "Is it doctrine—the kind of doctrine that can never change? Or is it a manmade Church rule that can easily change, like they changed the no-meat-on-Friday rule? Or change in some parts of the world, and not in others?"
Sunnyhill said, "It's a manmade rule, made for all the usual reasons that men make rules: control. Most popes like power. They exercise it most effectively in a Church with a male, celibate priesthood."
"You mean with male eunuchs," interjected Pike. Mahony stiffened. "Sorry, Roger, but it's true isn't it? Men without balls?"
Mahony said. "Some celibates have very little courage. I admit that. But maybe it's just easier for a bishop to order a man around if he doesn't have a wife and family. I suspect I'd have a hard time moving a married priest with a family from Beverly Hills to Pear Blossom if he has a wife and kids who do not want to move to the Mojave Desert. And women priests!" He rolled his eyes. "I do not have the slightest idea how I'd handle them."
Juana Margarita Obregón said, "I have seen you working with Sister Edith at the education congress in Anaheim. you have no problem working with her."
"Right," he said. "I just let her do what she wants. And she does a great job."
"Did I not once hear you say you would ordain her tomorrow if you could?"
Rackham demanded, "And don't you already have married men in the priesthood, Roger?"
Mahony said, "Well, uh, of course we do. We've got these converts from Lutheranism and Episcopal priests who have come over, with their wives and kids. But that's an exception. This pope—and his predecessors—have made their position on mandatory celibacy very clear. I just don't think we will see married priests in my lifetime. Or women priests either."
Sunnyhill drew some laughter with an old clerical joke. "We won't see married priests in our lifetime. But our kids will."
Rackham broke through the merriment, all frowns. "Roger, aren't you assuming you need Rome's approval on everything? A people's Church in America that made its own rules could change that celibacy thing in a New York minute."
"Which is why," said Mahony with some finality, "Rome would never give us permission to have a people's Church."
"Why do we need permission to have a people's Church?" asked Rackham.
"Huh?" They were all startled at the suggestion.
"I mean," said Rackham, "if you just declared autochthony, you'd be autochthonous, wouldn't you?"
They sat in silence. Rackham's proposal seemed too simple. Then, finally, Pike got it. He said, "you mean, like, the Founding Fathers declared independence from England on the Fourth of July 1776? They didn't need to ask George III's permission. They just told Thomas Jefferson to write a draft, made a few fixes in it, and signed it."
"Yes,"said Juana Margarita Obregón."'Autochthonous' and'permission' are two things that do not quite go together do they?"
Rackham said, "I think this is why the move by the Indonesian bishops failed. They thought they needed the pope's permission. When they didn't get it, they rolled over and played dead. They should have made a declaration of autochthony and gone ahead with the ordination of married men. And done other things to help them inculturate the gospel in Indonesia." Rackham smiled at his own words. He was the Chameleon Man in Woody Allen's Zelig. Hang out with Catholic theologians, you begin to talk like a Catholic theologian.
Mahony said, "I hear you saying that's what we would do if—" He paused.
Pike completed his statement for him. "If we had balls." "Or if we were a people's Church," said Rackham.
"What do you mean, 'we,' Jew man?'" joshed Pike.
Rackham's usually severe features cracked into a smile. "I said, 'We.' Now you know: I have joined your revolution."
"I like your spirit," said Mahony. "But, what revolution? I wish we were as ready as you are—to fight."
"Why do you say 'fight?'" asked Juana Margarita Obregón.
Mahony said, "Well, if we're going to follow in the footsteps of the American Founding Fathers, we have to expect a fight. After the Founding Fathers signed their Declaration of Independence, they had to fight a war with the British to make it stick."
"So," said Pike, "are you ready to fight a war?"
"That's not the question," said Mahony. "Whether I am ready. The question is, are American Catholics ready? Most of them identify with Rome, and most of them take all their cues from Rome. They think the Church is the pope and the pope is the Church."
Pike was a quick study. It had taken only one pointed question from Rackham, and, to him, the course of action was clear. "That's why we need you, Roger. We need your leadership. If I tried to lead the American Church into autochthony, the people would say, 'Who do you think you are?' But leadership by an American cardinal?"
"Nick, I don't have the guts to lead that charge. Do you know what those guys in the Vatican would do to me?
"What could they do?" asked Rackham.
"They'd slap me down. Depose me. Send me to a nuthouse."
Pike grunted. Juana Margarita Obregón studied Mahony's features, then looked at Rackham, then Pike, then Sunnyhill, as they tried to process what the cardinal had said. Finally, Rackham asked Mahony, "Does the Vatican ever do that?"
"In 1990, they did it to Archbishop Eugene Marino of Atlanta."
"Deposed him and sent him to a nuthouse?"
Mahony took a long sip of his coffee. "Yes, I'm afraid so. They told him he had to quit. And he did. I will never forget Eugene's resignation statement. He said he needed an extended period of spiritual renewal, psychological therapy, and medical supervision. He signed himself in to a psychiatric hospital. He was a beaten man. Not many years later, he died a premature death."
Rackham clucked. "What was his sin?"
"He was living with—probably married to—a beautiful young woman from his cathedral choir. Supposed to be a secret. But the secret didn't last long."
"Sex!" said Pike, slamming his fist on the table. "In this damn Church, it always comes down to sex."
Mahony smiled. "Afraid so. A half dozen American bishops have had to resign in the last few years."
"Because they had girlfriends?" asked Rackham.
"Yes," said Mahony. "Or boyfriends."
"But they weren't fired," said Rackham, "for wanting to make the Church more, uh, more American?"
Pike said, "The Vatican faced that question more than a hundred years ago." He turned to Sunnyhill. "Right, Sean?"
Sunnyhill smiled. "In 1899, Pope Leo XIII wrote a letter condemning something he called 'Americanism.' He was really condemning democracy."
Rackham asked, "What set him off?"
"The pope got all excited when he read the Paulists' official life of their founder Isaac Hecker. To Leo XIII, it looked like Hecker was advocating an American Catholic Church—one that the pope said (with an air of complete disapproval) was 'different from the Catholic Church in the rest of the world.' The pope could hardly object to the way Americans wanted to run their country, democratically. He was just afraid that American Catholics wanted to run their Church in the same way."
"Democratically?" asked Rackham.
Sunnyhill laughed. "Rome has been fighting off democracy ever since the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. For most of the nineteenth century, it was engaged in a process of centralizing all Church power in Rome, under an absolute ruler. The American experiment was a threat to that process. Pius IX once told Hecker there is 'too much freedom in America.' He thought this American idea—the very notion of freedom— might infect Catholics everywhere."
"Leo XIII felt the same way," said Sunnyhill, "He accused the Paulists, or, to be more precise, their founder, Isaac Hecker, of heresy."
"What heresy?" asked Rackham.
"Of this thing called Americanism. Can you believe it? Hecker was already ten years in the grave. But the Paulists didn't want to fight the pope. They withdrew their book about Hecker."
"But this all happened more than a hundred years ago," protested Rackham. "Does the current pope think there's 'too much freedom' in the American Church now?"
Pike and Mahony traded glances. "He did before he became pope," said Mahony. "We're not too sure now. We have to wait and see."
"My Jesuit friends are lying low," said Pike. "They have important things to say about freedom in the Church. But they won't publish anything that would test the pope's patience. Right, Sean?"
Sunnyhill said, "He who shoots and runs away lives to shoot another day."
"Exactly," said Mahony, "And I won't do anything that would test him either."
"Maybe," said Rackham, "you already have. When you set out on this new course of yours, you had to know you'd collide with Rome. Some men have greatness thrust upon them, Roger."
Mahony smiled. He recognized the allusion to Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." Was Rackham implying he was another Malvolio? Playing to his pride?
He banished the thought when Rackham added an ominous afterthought, "But it will cost you."
MAHONY LEARNED THE COST only three nights later. Shortly after midnight on January 28, Mahony opened his browser's in-box and found an e-mail message from the Rome bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. "Vatican preparing to put California under interdict. What would that mean in LA?"
Grimly, he hit the Reply button, typed four words—"Please tell me more," addressed a blind copy of his reply to Kowalski at Notre Dame, and hit Send. He'd expected some action from Rome. Perhaps a summons, to come speak to the pope. But not this. Not an interdict. Indeed, what would an interdict mean in 2009? Medieval popes used interdicts to punish entire nations. Was it Innocent III in the thirteenth century who put King John's England under interdict? And California—with 10 percent of the U.S. population and a GNP that surpassed all but five nations in the world—was very much like a nation.
He paced the floor for ten anxious minutes. Too late to phone anyone in California, too early to phone Kowalski in the Midwest. He tried to pray, but his prayers gave him no comfort, only questions. Maybe a midnight walk? Yes. He donned a navy blue jogging suit and laced up his Nikes, then strode out into the corridor. Deserted. No one in the elevator either. Emerging from the hospital unseen, he did a slow jog east on Sixth Street. Five minutes later, he found himself outside the apartment of Juana Margarita Obregón. Not sure why he was even there, he found himself hitting the call button on her apartment's intercom.
After a half-minute, he heard her puzzled voice. "Yes?"
"Come on!" he said. "It's Roger!"
Long pause. "Okay," she said. "You remember? Take the elevator to the third floor. Three C." yes, he remembered. He'd been there once before, when Juana Margarita Obregón had invited the A-team over for a Mexican buffet.
When she ushered him in, she was wearing a white cotton sleep-shirt, no shoes, no slippers. No makeup. Flawless olive complexion. Nice bosom. He couldn't help thinking she looked sexy—sexy at sixty. He tamped down the thought. What did that have to do with anything? "I just got an e-mail from the Times in Rome," he announced. "An interdict is headed our way."
"Dio mio! Interdict. Is that something like excommunication?"
"Something like that. It's a kind of sacramental freeze. The people will be denied the sacraments, as long as the interdict is in place."
"I am not sure I get the point. Is this like a teacher makes the whole class stay after school until the kid who threw the eraser owns up—"
"That seems extreme." She was in the kitchen pouring them both a glass of sherry.
"Uh huh. In medieval Europe, popes used the interdict to make rulers do what they wanted. It was a political move. Under an interdict, the people were supposed to put the pressure on their rulers to knuckle under."
"Who is the ruler here?"
"Good question. In the American Church, it wouldn't be the president of the United States. We have separation of Church and State."
"And in medieval times, did they knuckle under?"
"Apparently so, in Catholic Europe. Those were the days when popes could assert their power over kings and princes. And when the kings and princes let them."
"But today? An interdict laid on the whole U.S.?"
"My e-mail note from the Times' reporter in Rome said only California."
"Why the whole state?"
"Earlier this week, most of the California bishops voted to support me in the Sister Phoebe matter. They've all got some Sister Phoebes in their midst. And they like what these Phoebes are doing. They've solved the priest shortage and ended the Eucharistic famine. In the long run, that could mean no more priests for the pope to order about. I imagine he is saying, 'Today, California. Tomorrow, the world.' Maybe he wants to cut off this revolt with as much force as he can?"
She made a face. "Sounds like the pope thinks he has the Eucharistic franchise for the whole world. No one can make Jesus without his permission?"
Mahony frowned and emptied his glass. "I cannot imagine this pope saying anything like that. Or even implying it. He may be cruel. Or may have been cruel at times—when he was running the Holy Office. But he's not running the Holy Office any longer. He's got a different job now."
"Yes," she said. "He is the pope of all the people. More than a billion people. And he is not stupid. But this does not make any sense in America. Who is going to enforce a sacramental freeze in this country?"
"Good question," he said.
"I mean," she said, "the pope does not have any power here unless we give it to him. Do we intend to do that? Do we intend to close down all of our churches?"
"If we don't, I guess I will soon be an ex-cardinal."
Her eyes widened. "Then we would be in schism?"
"I'm not so sure about that. Rackham keeps telling us this is the time for us to just declare our independence."
"You mean our autochthony!"
"Uh huh. But I think I will need some guidance on this. If I can just get my favorite canon lawyer on the phone."
"Kowalski? Why him?
"Yes. So he can tell me what the Vatican is actually saying."
"How will he know?"
"He has the nuncio's ear in Washington. He can phone him, see whether the nuncio has any solid information for him. Then I can tell you—and the Los Angeles Times—what I think it all means and what we are going to do about it." He said no more, caught up in his own thoughts, rose, strolled to the kitchen and asked her if he could pour himself another sherry.
"Of course," she said, holding up her own glass. "I will have another drop, too." After he poured for her, Juana Margarita Obregón gave the conversation a personal spin. "Are you scared, Roger?"
He paused. "A little."
She took his right hand and looked directly into his eyes. "you should be. But are you not simply living out the sentence you accepted in Chiapas?"
He nodded. "I cannot see any bishop who is a real Christian locking his people out of their own churches."
They drifted back to the couch. "you still want to be a Christian?"
"Yes," he said. "I just never imagined what it might cost me. I never thought it would come to this."
"Come to what?" she asked. "We still do not know what will happen. your boat is sailing along in uncharted waters. But you will not run aground if you pay attention to your helmsman. And your navigators."
"Who? Pike? Sunnyhill? Rackham?"
"Yes," she said. "They are the guys who can think outside the box. But Sister Phoebe and I can help, too. Do you not need women on the bridge?"
Mahony nodded. He wondered if the Church would be in the fix it was in if women had had some say in how it was run. They sat in silence. Finally, Juana Margarita Obregón said to him, "What? What are you thinking?"
He said, "I wonder if the pope realizes how the American press will handle this story?"
Juana Margarita Obregón said, "Does the pope really care what the American press says about anything?"
He shook his head. "He pretends not to. But I do."
She laughed. "Roger, Roger, Roger. you are incorrigible."
He laughed. "Incorrigible?"
"Always so worried over what the press will say."
He looked at her with some puzzlement. "As far as I know," he said, "all the politicos in the land—every city councilman, every mayor, every governor, even the president of the United States—they all consult the press to see how they are coming across to the people. They're all trying to frame their stories. If they frame them right, they get what they call 'the consent of the governed.'"
"And you need that?"
He laughed. "The consent of the governed? You bet I do. And I can only get it if I serve the people with what they need."
"What do they need the most—from you?"
He reflected for some long moments. Finally, he said, "They need to know it is all right to have a voice and a vote in their own Church."
She said, "It is clear the pope doesn't want to give them that. If it is clear that you do, then he will be the villain. And you will be a new kind of hero."
Mahony wasn't at all sure he wanted to be that kind of a hero. But he allowed, "Pike and Rackham would be proud of you, my dear."
"For framing this conflict in a way that the Catholics in America can understand—and support." He added with a frown, "But I don't want to be on a collision course with the pope."
She said, "He is not God, you know."
That gave him some pause. He shook his head. "But I've been—my whole life—I've been acting as if he were. Jesus, what do I do now?"
"Yes," she said. "You are on the right track now."
"What do you mean?"
"You just said an honest prayer. 'Jesus, what do I do now?'"
"Yes, I guess I did."
Juana Margarita Obregón said, "Then he will be sure to answer you."
"I'm sure he will," he said. "you have any good guesses what his answer will be?"
She shrugged. "I have always believed the Holy Spirit speaks to us through history. Including contemporary history."
"Contemporary history? You mean the day's news?"
"Yes. We just have to pay attention to what John XXIII called 'the signs of the times.' That is where we find the Holy Spirit. And where we will find Jesus, too, I think."
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