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Wounded from family fight over a cathedral


We have climbed to the top of his towers. We have occupied his bulldozer and thwarted his groundbreaking, and, according to some insider sources, robbed the newly finished Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels of $10 million in donations. We have gone to jail, walked picket lines, disturbed star-studded brunches. We have been put on probation, threatened with fines, had our arms twisted by private security guards, been scolded by the deputy district attorney, praised by the city’s leading rabbi, and secretly endowed with $10,000 by a local Catholic bishop.

We have even had a few fights among ourselves about how this thing should go. And I am glad our opposition to the cathedral is over. It has not been a fight like any other fight we have ever had, not like fighting with bureaucrats or police or corporate or government entities.

Fighting with the church is more like fighting with your family. Part of the reason that I find myself in opposition to Cardinal Roger Mahony is because he symbolizes blatant patriarchy and I, like many others in my generation, have a few “father issues.”

I can’t stand the guy! I find him pretentious, pompous, authoritarian, overeager to manipulate the gospels for purposes of fundraising and civic boosterism. And I suspect that he has similar feelings, finding me pretentious, self-righteous, reflexively anti-authoritarian and overeager to manipulate the gospels for purposes of embarrassing the father figure.

Despite all of my built-in rancor at hierarchy and father figures, as well as my shock and outright disgust at the current church sex scandal, I still find myself thrown off balance by this intimate familial struggle. Not unlike Jacob wrestling with the angel, I have been wounded in this conflict.

Unlike other opponents who occupy distant seats of power, the cardinal, though powerful, is available: His office has always been open to us; he has come to the soup kitchen to say Mass; he has written to me in jail; he greets us at church events and speaks glowingly of us in the press.

Now I do not for a minute delude myself into thinking this is anything less than a calculated gesture. But it is still a reflection of the intimate nature of the struggle. A bit too intimate for me, because to oppose the church, one must reflect on the church more closely than one might otherwise choose to do, causing me to ask how I can even belong to an organization so at odds with my own vision. And further, in the intimate embrace of this struggle, I am constantly forced to reflect upon my own conflicted motivations and inner demons.

Some years ago in the midst of communal strife, Sr. Kathy, our facilitator, told us that we must always remember that it is not flawed human beings, but the Holy Spirit that calls communities together. And that each community has a special gift to give to the church and to the world. It was quite a bold insight for me at the time and it still is: that the Holy Spirit had called us directly and specifically, and that God actually had a mission for this tiny ragtag operation that couldn’t even pay its bills on time.

Our community gives to the church, and to the world, a somewhat dubious gift. Dubious in the sense that it is neither graciously appreciated nor well received. It is the gift of prophecy.

Our vocation is to prophetically critique the world from the perspective of the poorest of the poor. We are required by God and the Holy Spirit and the suffering presence of the poor, daily and directly in our faces, to ask of each and every project proposed by church, state or private entrepreneur: “Will this relieve the hunger of the people in our soup line? Will this project get a blanket, a pillow, a room for the night for our friends who sleep on cardboard? Will this project provide a pair of shoes and a clean pair of socks?” Basic needs that most projects, including the $195 million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, do not ever satisfy, because most projects begin from the top down, and the biblical vision is always from the bottom up.

Even the cathedral is premised on this worldly assumption, which presumes that the poor will be cared for once the wealthy have gotten an expensive dose of aesthetic and religious adrenaline from cathedral spirituality. And thus we continue to be perceived, like some of those irascible guys in the Hebrew Scriptures, as unreasonable, outspoken and deeply suspicious of grandiose architectural projects.

Like Jacob, I am wounded from this struggle. I walk slower now because the pain makes me more aware that my strength is my weakness. I have come to recognize not only the flaws of Mahony and all the church patriarchs, but I have also begun to perceive my own flaws as well. I recognize that I am compulsively drawn to combative situations with authority figures, that I seek public adulation by positioning myself as the “Heroic Underdog-Advocate for the Poor.”

I recognize that Mahony is not a bad person. I believe that he desires to do God’s will and is fully convinced that building a cathedral is the best way to do that. But he is also someone who is a functionary within an enormous top-down institutional structure, a corporate executive who sometimes makes spurious decisions in favor of the institutions that often do not favor the poor or victims or the gospels.

And I believe that he needs to be harassed by the gifts and prophetic questions of this community. I don’t delude myself into thinking that we have too often troubled his conscience or his sleep. I assume we are nothing more than pesky little mosquitoes to him. And I can only hope the church has been infected with the holy prophetic gift of this community that transcends my own flaws and brokenness, and unites me in conflict, opposition and struggle in the same family with the cardinal.

Jeff Dietrich is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002