In just a couple weeks we will have the second anniversary of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as Bishop of Rome. The Tablet calls him the “Root and Branch Reformer,” while many hail the “Francis effect.” Certainly Pope Francis’ style and bearing are a welcomed change after decades of exaggerated Renaissance papal grandeur, so out of sync with our contemporary world. Even when we are often left wondering just exactly what his words mean in contemporary pastoral practice, Francis drops good sound bites, thanks to his former Fox News, high-level Opus Dei, PR guru.
I have nothing against Pope Francis. His style is far better than that of his last two predecessors (with all due respect to emeritus Benedictus who is still with us) but I often feel that people today focus far too much attention on the leader making grand symbolic gestures and ignore life in the local church.
The local church scene still suffers from what I call persistent paradigm paralysis (PPP) — a religious and theological disease that gets transmitted in closed static environments where there is little fresh thought, vision becomes tunnel vision, and anxiety replaces imagination.
We saw it last month again in San Francisco……..
At the Star of the Sea school, whose pastor has already banned girls from acting as altar servers, copies of “The Examination of Conscience and Catholic Doctrine” were given to students in second through sixth grades. Part of their preparation for Lent. In that examination of conscience, little children were asked questions like, “Did I perform impure acts by myself (masturbation) or with another (adultery, fornication and sodomy)?” and, “Did I practice artificial birth control or was I or my spouse prematurely sterilized (tubal ligation or vasectomy)?” as well as, “Have I had or advised anyone to have an abortion?” Maybe San Francisco has unusual grade school children?
PPP flourishes wherever people are unable or unwilling to a knowledge that we grow in our understanding of Christian belief, that our human life is a pilgrimage through time, and (nostalgia aside) that the good old days were not always that great.
Persistent paradigm paralysis is really fundamentalism. It is a serious disease: a form of malignant religion that ignores human dignity and particularly denigrates contemporary women. The recently concluded Vatican Conference On “Women’s Cultures: Equality And Difference” that never progressed much beyond its rocky start is a good example. Women in our church are still officially considered lower than men and innately incapable of priestly ordination. All those Catholic women currently exercising ordained ministry (very effectively by the way) are considered defective, invalid, and excommunicated.
PPP of course is the problem we see in Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism. We easily see it in them, however, but often ignore it in ourselves. Jesus says it best in the Luke’s Gospel: “Why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” Some people find it convenient to ignore or reject paradigm shifts because shifting paradigms threaten their own power structures and personal authority. Many years ago, when I completed my doctoral studies in theology, a bishop acquaintance told me “Guys like you scare me. You know too much.”
For Roman Catholics the biggest paradigm shifts in the past fifty years have been: (1) the shift in theological understanding from an outsider-God to an insider-God, and (2) the shift from understanding the church as an institution run by ordained men to the church as God’s people: a community of faith in which all men and women are equal members. The insider-God of course is the God who journeys with us, who is part of human history and discovery, and who is the intimate spirit animating our lives. These two paradigm shifts are connected of course and they underpin the theology of the Second Vatican Council.
Fifty years after the council, some people are still locked in their antiquated fundamentalist viewpoint. This past September, in my former parish for instance, the new director of religious education announced that for guidance in sacramental preparation and formation programs he would be relying on the teachings of the (sixteenth century) Council of Trent! What a contemporary guy! What absolute nonsense!
Lots of people within the Vatican’s walls are still very uncomfortable with paradigm shifts in the church. In the days of the Francis effect their PPP anxiety may be a bit muted but it remains just as poisonous.
New Ways Ministry, a ministry of advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics, sponsored a pilgrimage to Rome two weeks ago for nearly fifty people. To their joy and great surprise they were given VIP seats for the papal Ash Wednesday liturgy and were led by Loreto Sister Jeannine Gramick, who co-founded the organization. Pope Francis, however, completely ignored them and they were introduced as simply “a group of lay people accompanied by a Sister of Loreto.” As Robert Mickens observed in Commonweal, another example of ecclesiastical “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Ironic when it is well-known that a large number of bishops inside and outside the Vatican’s walls are gay.
Today, in far too many dioceses, teachers in Catholic schools and lay ministers in parishes are being fired because they have expressed an openness to women’s ordination, have questioned official church teaching about birth control, or because they are gay or have committed the offence of expressing openness or support for gay marriage.
An antidote for persistent paradigm paralysis? Like combating HIV or EBOLA it will take concerted efforts and it will take time. There are three steps we can take right now:
(1) When it appears in our parishes or schools, denounce it as nonsense and unacceptable. Non-violent protest may be necessary.
(2) Insist on well-rounded and high-quality education in our parishes, in catechetical programs, in schools, and in adult ongoing education programs.
(3) Do a personal ongoing education check-up. What is our understanding of our tradition, our history? Is our understanding of biblical research, for example, truly up to date?
There are some very big paradigm shifts on the way. Many connected with the rise of the Millennial generation. Exciting times ahead…… Being on the inside track will be much more fun.