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Beyond fear and formulas, just imagine

We’re an amazing saga. If Hollywood made our true story, it would be too farfetched and flop at the box office. We are, for one thing, hurtling through space on a pocked little planet that produced life against all the odds. We are also, in a movie season dominated by boats, sailing our own big barque, St. Peter up front and a string of popes behind him: saints, sinners and everything in between.

Hollywood could handle all that, the big picture, especially in this age of special effects. More daunting are the details: ourselves and our tics and ambitions and fears -- we’re miracles, every one of us, not to mention mysteries.

So forget Hollywood. Our churches have taken on the onus of interpreting us to ourselves, of cheerleading, of keeping us in line and then chugging some day into that happy harbor in the sky.

It’s a wonderful vision, so many of us in that boat together, with a leader who, though old and infirm, is an inspiration to the world, preaching hope and better times from Rome to Poland to Cuba. While world leadership has grown puny, John Paul II has tons of charisma and a big, engaging message that people hungry for meaning and peace and even prosperity are eager to hear.

If only we could leave it at that. But another reality tarnishes the vision: occasional bad news that this paper is pledged to report. For example, that Hispanic Catholics are leaving the church in unprecedented numbers (NCR, Dec. 26). That others opt out without bothering to “leave.” That the barque, in short, is leaking at the back while growing barnacles up front.

NCR has for years reported a litany of individuals and groups harassed by the Vatican because their expression of reality does not match each jot and tittle of the Roman curia’s. This is not a tale of heretics and outlaws, but of Catholics who often suffer hardship to work within the system while keeping their consciences clear.

Vendettas and power plays cast ugly shadows across the life of the church. Yet again, a Jesuit priest has been denied approval by the Vatican, this time as president of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley (NCR, Dec. 26). At least four other Jesuits were similarly rejected in recent years. In such cases, the immense heritage of the church has been reduced to a few litmus tests you could count on the fingers of the pope’s right hand: Presumably the Christians in question did not trot out the approved formulas on abortion, women priests and such. But life is much wider and deeper than these litmus tests. There is grace everywhere, as Bernanos’ country priest found out.

Were it not for the suffering, some of these shenanigans might be comic. Even as this rigor holds sway, there is the rare phenomenon of Mother Angelica, a nun with a TV station but no mandate from anyone, in effect calling a leading U.S. cardinal a heretic. Then the nun’s bishop in effect agrees with her. Not a single churchman comes out openly to defend the cardinal. The kindest word for this silence is timidity. The nun, a non-theologian with a comic turn, is said to have influence in Rome. For millions she has become the voice, and her TV station the public expression, of Catholicism in America two thousand years after the birth of Christ.

Silence is the most ominous symptom of today’s sickness. Another theological watchdog, Adoremus, has taken further swipes at the same Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles. There is no public outcry. Mahony meanwhile was in Rome at the Synod for America where an impressive list of prelates from the length and breath of this influential continent, men with minds of their own, with amazing experiences in their very varied lifetimes, were invited to parrot wish lists before experts from the Roman curia cut and paste the whole and issue it in the pope’s name as things to do to keep the wayward American church obedient to the Holy Father.

Most frightening about these trends is that they have become the accepted thing, the status quo, until in the end people are too numb to say this is not what Catholicism was meant to be.

It’s hard to believe this is the kind of church Karol Wojtyla had in mind when he leaped the Iron Curtain from Kraków to Rome. Philosopher and poet, he surely heard some more lyrical, less dour drummer, read in the faces of the expectant crowds the hope for an idealized life, not utopian but upbeat as Jesus Christ, who loved a good dinner or a wedding and was more at home breaking old rules than forging new ones.

Wojtyla, who had wrestled with stifling totalitarianism, surely relished the freedom of thought and expression the rest of the world had achieved. In 1979 the flame of Vatican II still danced brightly. As a participant he surely felt ownership of its aggiornamento. And he was offered the world’s best pulpit to promulgate it.

But as the new pope spread his wings and enthused the wide world, the same old voices whispered doomsday in his ear. The whole Catholic church examined its conscience, looked back at its roots and ran to meet renewal -- except for the Vatican, convinced of the rightness of the old ways, including itself.

The council dream that pope and bishops would collegially guide the church gave way again to the centralized curia with its distrust of any and all innovation to meet new needs in a mesmerizing, changing world. Perhaps it’s unfair to blame the world’s hierarchy for such easy capitulation, yet there are a great many bishops and cardinals of substance and good will whose raised voices could surely have gotten the attention of the pope. But they were not trained to be courageous or to swim against the ecclesial tide.

In the name of orthodoxy the curia has, its critics say, reinstated thought control that smothers theology and sends a cold chill through the church that is now floundering in discouragement.

In the fall 1997 issue of Cross Currents, pastor Scott Holland, a member of the Church of the Brethren from suburban Pittsburgh, invites readers to join the real world: “We now live east of Eden and its pure and perfect foundations. The safely detached ‘observation towers’ where men once sat to colonize reason, homogenize language, unify ethics and thus domesticate the divine have forever fallen.”

People are less impressed than of yore by the “self-validating revelation” of theologically stagnant institutions. The catechism as a funnel through which religion is poured into heads and hearts is no longer adequate, Holland suggests. Instead, something more lively stirs: “Theology is a kind of writing ... a poiesis: an inventive, imaginative act of composition performed by authors.”

If this man were a Catholic, the watchdogs would be chewing him up. Ironic that, so late in the game, we should be taught to fear grasping the holy in any but the iron claws of formulas and definitions -- we who were weaned on the downright irrational paradox of the Trinity and a Bible full of poetry that equates God with everything from a mighty wind to a child in a manger.

Writes Holland: “After centuries of unproductive dualisms in Western thought, which pried apart reason and emotion, body and soul, ethics and esthetics, poetry and prose, Desire has again returned poetry to the republic of philosophy and its theological territories. With the return of Desire comes the postmodern return of God, and how could it be otherwise. For Emmanuel Levinas reminds us that the relationship to the infinite is not a knowledge but a desire.”

This is just one probing theologian; one more wrinkle added to the long debate. We may be sure that in their quiet studies other theologians -- and perhaps even bishops -- are probing too, and waiting for the moment when seekers can again risk untried formulas. The history of our race tells us there is a hunger in people’s hearts to do just that.

Alfred Kazin’s God and the American Writer attracted wide attention this past year, spotlighting the ongoing hankering of our allegedly jaded literati for transcendence or some promising port in the 20th century storm.

One of Kazin’s favorites is Emily Dickinson, who was struck by how ho-hum God had become. In Kazin’s words, “[God] had been around so long that doubting his existence or justifying it had the same resonance in words.” But if that’s the god in question, then why bother? If God is reduced to a formula or a bone of contention, don’t search for passionate belief or sacrifice or ecstasy. Orthodoxy will do. Some Protestant once called our bluff: “If we Protestants believed what you Catholics say you believe about the Eucharist, we would never be off our knees.” We must stand on the shoulders of imagination to get a hint of God’s truth and glory.

The world is at least half full of reasons for optimism and hope. Many Christians lived Vatican II sublimely. Most inspired were those who started by reforming themselves. Religious orders, especially, did this, often amid much suffering. Millions of others are looking at their own invisible souls.

There is much goodness in ordinary lives, though it gets scant media attention. There are martyrs year in, year out, though not all of them get killed. In an article in the 1996 book Martyrs, Dana Gioia writes: “Persecution and death are only the by-products of the martyr’s true role: to witness the truth uncompromised. ... The etymological root of martyr contains no hint of death or suffering; martyr simply means witness.”

The lure of hope is eternal. The current silent acquiescence of theologians and church leaders may be hiding a multitude of new ideas and aspirations. Every day, opinions and attitudes are being formed that will find expression and life only when this pope has passed to his reward. This is not to say Catholicism is relative, a menu that changes, or that each pope founds a new religion. But history shows how tantalizingly the church has evolved from one papacy to the next.

History also shows that Christianity has an amazing -- one might say divine -- capacity to renew itself. This makes it a great refuge for optimists.

National Catholic Reporter, January 30, 1998