Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Should I Stay or Should I Go? : Wrestling With Pax Christi and the Roman Catholic Institution by Steve Clemens. July 16, 2010

It was the article in this morning’s paper that was the straw that broke the camels back. The Vatican announces new restrictions or threats against the scandal of pedophile priests but, in the same breath, announces that the attempts to ordain women as priests is as grave a sin as molesting children. When the hierarchy’s commitment to misogyny and patriarchy is so strong that it risks watering-down its defensive strategy to cover its shameful pedophilia, the entire religious institution must be condemned as woefully corrupt, morally bankrupt and socially insensitive. To identify itself with The Body of Christ is a blasphemy. Roy Bourgeois and Joan Chittister may be today’s Martin Luther but does it also herald another Reformation of the Church that boasts continuity to the time of Jesus?

Pax Christi is the international peace organization within the Roman Catholic Church. Over the decades it has vied for recognition from both the Vatican hierarchy as well as local diocesan leaders, hoping against hope that the church will recognize the moral vacuity of its silence and/or acquiescence (not to mention outright endorsement) of wars and instead embrace the Peace of Christ, a choice to follow the radical nonviolence of Jesus of Nazareth. Because of its desire to be heard on the subject of the morality of war and peace, it has often chosen to remain silent (or less militant) on other controversies surrounding other moral issues the church should address – immigration, the growing gap between the rich and poor, role of women in the church, acceptance of GLBT people, …

But peace can only be the product of justice; peace cannot come at the expense of silencing or marginalizing certain groups over others. We can’t really enjoy “the peace of Christ” if our gay brothers are excluded, if our immigrant sisters are threatened with deportation, if poor families find their homes foreclosed by greedy bankers and hedge fund criminals.

All of this could be a moot point. I’m not even Roman Catholic. I was asked to serve on the local Pax Christi Board as a non-Catholic representative – yet I find that many of my mentors and colleagues in my peacemaking endeavors are Catholics, some of whom are still priests and nuns under the jurisdiction of these Vatican mis-rulers. Several of my fellow Board Members are members of a congregation which has been excommunicated by Rome and now holds its own services without recognition of the Archbishop or the presence of a priest. Another has left the church and now attends a Quaker Meeting. So why should it bother me, a jack-legged Anabaptist to be associated with these other obvious rebels?

The problem, as I see it, is with its association with the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. Some of my friends who have remained within the church tell me that they are really the true church, not the pretenders in Rome or in the Bishop’s garb. But unless I see a wholesale exodus of the faithful from the pews, I can’t pretend that the Vatican doesn’t represent the realities of the institution. To continue with even a modicum of association with the present cabal in Rome and the Bishops it has steadily appointed over the past three decades to undue the reforms of the Vatican II Council is to send a message to the on-going victims that we are not on their side.

Work within or without?

There comes a time when one must chose to work within the system for change or to leave, hoping the shock of disassociation might motivate a change from without. Sometimes the choice is couched as remaining ideologically pure vs being effective. Others see a distinction between a prophetic witness vs coalition building where compromise or “agreeing to disagree” on other issues is central to building strength for the specific movement. When does the need for compromise quell the Spirit? Without the pull of an ideological pole, how does compromise move us closer to the goal of resembling the realm of God here on earth?

I seem to face a similar dilemma with my association with the Democratic Party in the political arena. I admire the courage and tenacity of Dennis Kucinich and Russ Feingold (most of the time) in a similar fashion to my respect for the outspoken leadership of Chittister and Bourgeois, Gumbleton, and Rohr. But I frankly cringe when I hear that Fr. John Dear considers acquiescing to the directive of his pro-nuke Bishop in New Mexico to stay away from prophetic witness at Loa Alamos so he can continue to say Mass for his mostly poor and marginalized parishioners. I no more want to countenance a Catholic Church that restrains a Franciscan priest from prophetic prayer at a nuclear weapons plant than identifying myself (when asked by a pollster) as a Democrat when President Obama and his accomplices in the Congress continue to wage wars of occupation in defense of empire.

Is there really any more hope for reforming the Roman Church than the Democratic Party? How does having one fewer non-Catholic members of Pax Christi help further the work of Jesus? But following one’s conscience is essential for being faithful over the long haul. We can’t be purist but we can be confessional. Some will confess their complicity and chose to remain within; others will hear a call to “come out from among them” – but to whom do we go? The disciples in their fear and uncertainty respond to Jesus, “To whom would we go? You are the one with the words of eternal life!”

To be on the way to discipleship, we need to travel with like-minded travelers. Maybe we don’t have to ask to see what other identity cards each other carries with them and be satisfied that we are journeying toward the same Shalom, the holistic peace-with-justice of the Bible.

Addendum - July 22, 2010:

Less than 5 days after writing this I was informed that the disease emanating from the Vatican is spreading and metastasizing, infecting even what was formerly healthy within the church. The Maryknoll Order had been quietly supporting Fr. Roy Bourgeois despite his differences with the Church hierarchy. However, they just informed the School of the Americas Watch organization that they would no continue to contribute the $17,000/year for the annual commemoration/protest at the gates of Ft. Benning, GA as they have in the past Novembers. Why? Because of Roy’s outspokenness on the justice of women’s ordination.

So, this once great missionary order will “cut off its nose to spite its face”. There is no better a recruiting tool today for Catholic young people to see the relevance of the church and religious ethics than the movement to close the School of the Americas/WHINSEC. For the past dozen years it has attracted a growing number of both high school and college youth – from primarily Catholic schools – to the 20,000 + people of conscience gathering calling for an end to this school of assassins. There those young people meet seasoned activists in a truly inter-generational gathering that is filled with hope, compassion, and power. Now Maryknoll wants to tell young Catholics that hanging on to a system of patriarchic domination is more important than the call of the Gospel to do justice and stand for the marginalized and oppressed. Good luck with that when they send their missionaries back to Central and South America and have to explain their new-found silence about a military-run school designed to continue their oppression.

The Vatican has its charges scared. Threats of withdraw of pensions goes a long way to keep priests and nuns from leaving their orders (and the Church). Closing schools and parishes due to a combination of dropping attendance and lack of funds due to massive pay-offs to the victims of sexual abuse by priests does not bode well for the future. Instead, a “hunker down” mentality has been adopted, thinking that all these problems arose from the “liberalism” of the Vatican II Council. Fear among so many who have donated their entire lives to the Church is both tragic and sad. Maybe out of this turmoil can another reformation (or revolution) arise.

May it be so.


Steve Clemens said...

Comment from Corinna Moncada:

On the 30th of June I heard for the first time on MN Public Radio that my former pastor was a know pedophile who had abused young boys at two other churches before the bishop assigned him to lead our church and school community. Believe me it made those statistics on sexual abuse by the clergy quite real.

I talked to a woman in the parish who felt that there would be more cases of victims stemming from this priest’s five years as pastor of my church (1980-85). His history of abuse was known at the time to one of the mothers in the parish who refused to let her son be an altar server.

Despite the current public notice in the secular press of lawsuits by some of the victims. No mention has been made at my parish of any of this. It seems incomprehensible to me that a bishop would have placed such an individual in a position of leadership over a large congregation. I would think that every successor of that bishop would want to actively discover whether other young people were victimized.

As a child, I experienced my father’s rages against the Catholic church. He had been taught by the Jesuits in a boarding school from the age of 5 through post-secondary. He had gotten into trouble for reading books on the Index of Forbidden Books! I think my father was right in thinking that the church in Latin America sided with the rich against the poor. I realized over time, however, that much is lost if one focuses only on what is wrong with the church. I have chosen to remain a Catholic.

Steve Clemens said...

Corinna's comment made me realize that I should have disclosed my own experience which informs my views. I had been sexually abused by my (non-Catholic) Sixth Grade Public School teacher for close to a year. After repressing those memories for close to 2 decades, when I finally was ready to confront him, he had retired and died. The school closed some years after my abuse and to this day I wonder who else had been victimized (and is now hopefully a survivor like me) of Mr. John Stark, my teacher?

John said...

Hi Steve, as always, I admire your witness and appreciate the thoughtfulness of your posts. You raise good questions that many of us who are Catholic wrestle with day in and day out. As a long-time Catholic Worker and a member of the staff of Pax Christi USA, questions about the institutional church are ever-present in both my personal life and work life. Regardless of your decision (and mine, and others too), I respect the directions that good people of faith choose, knowing that as with almost every movement I have ever admired or been a part of, pressure and witness from both inside and outside--i.e. both inside and outside strategies--were needed for change. Thanks for all your work, and know you have my admiration and respect whichever route you take.

Johnny Z