e-mail us

Inside NCR

The church suffers from cautious prayer

We are forever hearing from people in letters or other modes that don’t fit any neat slot in the paper. Sometimes some of them elbow their way into this page. When Joseph Nabi from Leonardtown, Md., begins a letter by pointing to “the astonishing, near-total absence of regular prayer in church about issues of basic concern to the Catholic church,” he gets our attention.

Nabi surmises, for starters, that putting tricky issues into words can be a liability of which the Roman curia is all too aware. “Praying together leads to communion and dialogue, both of which tend to subvert authority.” On the other hand, he contends, it is “anti-church” to refuse to pray about things that matter, even at the risk of so-called scandal.

What is he talking about?

“A very obvious example is the important status of families, and women, in the Catholic church and their complete absence in the Vatican organization, a stark difference that cannot be reconciled without shared prayer, nor explained, defended or continued with such prayer.” Another issue, he writes, is the encyclical Ex Corde Ecclesiae, designed to keep Vatican restraints on who teaches what, which Nabi, who has done his homework, describes as “the latest imposition of a curial strategy first seen in Dominus ac Redemptor Noster of 1773” and never mentioned in 227 years of prayers of the faithful.

“Failure to understand, identify or agree about contentious issues is the most logical reason to pray together in church about them,” observes Nabi. “Communal prayer uses peaceful, kind and courteous words,” so if it does not solve the differences it might facilitate living together in the meantime.

Our correspondent moves along: “The selection of the next pope is an obvious issue that now concerns the entire Catholic church and ought to be prayed for fervently at every Sunday Mass.” But how does a church do this without taking sides and maybe getting downright uncharitable about various papabili and what makes a good pope in the first place?

“Further, all Catholics of every rank should prayerfully urge that the next conclave of cardinals not be secret.” And Nabi brings classical historian Tacitus to bear: Secret government is “government by corruption.” Nabi follows with a plea to end the selection of popes from among the cardinals, and to separate the notions of pope and pontiff: “No man can successfully be a supreme ruler and simultaneously a truly Christian pastor.”

Not only the prayers of the faithful but your typical Sunday homily follow a narrow and predictable -- and cautious -- range of themes, for example, pro-life issues and the equally generic, disembodied charity that does not insist we take a stand on anything in particular. Seldom is there mention of women priests, for example, even if only to pray against the idea, seldom a homily about married priests, either pro or con. If the church isn’t praying about it, concludes Nabi, it can hardly be important and is therefore going nowhere.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2000