During a mid-day prayer service with American bishops, on Wednesday September 23, at Washington’s St. Matthew Cathedral, Pope Francis told the U.S. bishops that they should not close in on themselves but engage in dialogue as promoters of a “culture of encounter.”
Good advice for all bishops, for all popes, and for all of us: building bridges, learning together through constructive dialogue, as we engage in and promote a culture of encounter.
Interested in trends and movements, I see at least four areas for a contemporary Roman Catholic cultural encounter: a polarized church, institutional discomfort with an historical-critical understanding of scripture and tradition, an institutional blindness toward women priests, and a questionable institutional environmental morality…..Of course there are many other areas for “encounter.”
A POLARIZED CHURCH
Writing in the Boston Globe on September 21 (“Pope Francis’ balancing act”), historian Gary Wills observed that there are now two Roman Catholic churches and each is in some degree alien to the other: “our church” which is people-oriented and “the other church” which is hierarchy-oriented.
Our church wants married priests (72 percent in a March 2014 Pew poll), wants women priests (68 percent), and uses contraceptives for family planning (77 percent). The “other church” remains opposed to these realities. Priests in “our church” know that their parishioners do not agree with the official positions of the “other church,” but they do their best to listen, support, and minister to them. Priests committed to “other church,” as Wills notes, “do not look around at their congregations. They look up at the hierarchical ladder they mean to climb. They are not pastors but careerists.”
AN INSTITUTION DISCOMFORT WITH HISTORICAL-CRITICAL UNDERSTANDING
Our religious knowledge, ideas, and beliefs are not static. One cannot correctly understand Sacred Scripture without an historical-critical understanding: how the culture, language, and life environment of people back then affected the meaning of the texts back then.
But this holds true as well for all official doctrinal pronouncements. They too need to be understood in their own historical contexts, over the centuries.
We do not have the same cosmology, philosophy, or cultural world view of the churchmen who wrote the Nicene Creed, for instance. We really could use a contemporary creed. (In one of my theology classes, I asked my students to write their own creeds. The results were wonderfully uplifting because they gave witness to genuine belief.)
When it comes to an historical-critical understanding of Catholic belief, “other church” people really need some in-service updating. I have often thought that bishops (including popes of course) should be required to take and satisfactorily pass a certain number of continuing education courses every couple years, in order to maintain their certification as trust-worthy and knowledgeable leaders in the church. If they don’t pass, they could be given a year’s leave of absence for further study, or be simply asked to retire.
All doctrinal formulations are provisional. They worked yesterday. Some work today. Others need to be reformulated in the light of contemporary theological understanding and the continuing growth in human understanding. Contemporary people, for instance, would not follow the advice of a medical doctor anchored in nineteenth century medical practice and understanding. Why then should it be good religious practice to follow the prescriptions of church leaders still anchored in an antiquated culture, language, theology, and world view?
AN INSTITUTIONAL BLINDNESS TOWARD WOMEN PRIESTS
In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis wrote: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.” Here of course we need a bit of historical-critical reflection.
Certainly the historical Jesus did not ordain any women. On the other hand, he didn’t ordain any men either. A man of his time, the idea of ordination probably never entered Jesus’ mind. We do know that in the early church those who presided at Eucharist were the leaders of small Christian communities. We know as well that among those leaders were men and women. Just as we know that among Jesus disciples were men and women; and among the early apostles there were men and women.
Of course women presided at Eucharist in the early church. And of course they do so today.
Women’s ordination is a contemporary reality, as it should be. It is a reality that institutional leadership needs to “encounter,” acknowledge, accept, and promote. With all due respect to those who still repeat it, asserting that women cannot be ordained ministers (priests) is an ignorant observation. And we all know that such ignorance is never bliss.
A QUESTIONABLE ENVIRONMENTAL MORALITY
Pope Francis has been a strong advocate for human responsibility for the environment. He regularly urges the world to phase out highly-polluting fossil fuels. In his encyclical Laudato si’ (dated 24 May 2015 but officially published on 18 June 2015) he stressed: “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels … needs to be progressively replaced without delay.” Some of his fellow U.S. bishops, however, are still not getting the message.
According to Reuters (see September 22, 2015, “In clash with pope’s climate call, U.S. Church leases drilling rights.”), in the very heart of U.S.A. oil country, several dioceses and other Roman Catholic institutions are leasing out drilling rights to oil and gas companies to bolster their finances. In the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, for instance, church officials have signed three new oil and gas leases – and this after Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical.
A Reuters review of county documents in Texas and Oklahoma has found 235 oil and gas leasing deals signed by Roman Catholic Church authorities since 2010. These two states, most recently, have been at the forefront of a boom in U.S. energy production. Church authorities receive a royalty ranging from 15 to 25 percent of the value of what is taken out of the ground. Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley signed the most recent deal on September 3, 2015, giving privately held oil company Comanche Resources rights to operate on 160 acres in Major County in exchange for 18.75 percent of the value of the oil and gas produced.
During his September 23 address to the group of about 300 U.S. bishops, Pope Francis told the bishops to dialogue fearlessly. Indeed, we must all do that if we will promote “encounter.”
Genuine dialogue only happens, however, when the dialogical partners accept two principles of co-operation:
(1) No one is excluded because of gender, sexual orientation, or theological stance.
(2) No one has all the truth.
We dialogue because we humbly acknowledge that we still have a lot to learn from the other, about the other, and about ourselves.