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Shaping a church in the postmodern age


Tom, how is it that the U.S. bishops, religious men, could fail for so many years to show compassion for the victims of sex-offending priests?”

As growing numbers of journalists entered the fray, many covering religion for the first time, this was the question that baffled them most. It was the question they often put to me and for which I had no simple answer.

Part of the problem, I found myself responding, was that the bishops had depended too much on the advice of their lawyers. But that answer never got to the heart of the question: How could the bishops coddle victimizers while treating victims as virtual inanimate objects?

This is a troubling one to answer. Making the effort takes us deep into a clerical psyche -- and I am not an expert. The issue, however, touches upon a host of other unresolved issues facing the church. It seems we see division everywhere.

To sort out these conflicts, we need to step way back and view the church across centuries. Doing so, we watch our church grappling with premodern, modern and postmodern times.

So what images help?

A glance at the premodern worldview reveals a pyramid-type structure down which authority and power is passed. At the top are religious leaders. They speak to God and divine his ways. They support and pass authority down the ranks to kings and courts that in turn keep empires intact by empowering male warriors. Meanwhile, the pyramid is supported at the bottom by the work of women and slaves. Neither has rights and both are treated as property.

The premodern worldview, which lasted for thousands of years, began to collapse in the West in the second half of the 17th century with the rise of science during the Enlightenment and Age of Reason. The modern age replaced religion with reason, bishops and priests with scientists, monarchs with civil governments. Men still fought the wars, which grew in size and intensity. Beneath them remained the women and children, as most slavery was slowly abolished.

The postmodern age took root in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and began to flourish as disillusionment in modernity and its promise of progress gained sway. Many have pointed to the world wars, the Holocaust and the atomic bomb as reasons leading to this disillusionment.

Further, modern science played an enormous role in reshaping our postmodern worldview. Heaven is no longer “up.” Indeed, there is no “up” at all. Instead, we live in a cosmos filled with infinitely complex galaxies. We float as specks in space. If pyramids represented the premodern and modern eras, then a giant galactic circle represents the eclectic postmodern age. If religious truth and reason were the dogmas of the premodern and modern ages, then pluralism is the dogma of this postmodern age.

Addressing the annual gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious this summer, School Sister of Notre Dame Mary V. Maher spoke of some of the challenges of postmodernism. She deftly noted that precisely when the Catholic church, by means of Vatican II, finally embraced the modern world, “modernity itself was already well on the way to collapsing.”

She addressed the needs of women religious, but, by extension, she spoke to all of Catholics. Said Maher: “We have been called upon to shift from a premodern to a modern to a postmodern worldview, stretching across all three worldviews in every aspect of our lives. … We still find ourselves stretching from one worldview to the other, going forward and backward, backward and forward, living in all three at once, as we try to find our way.”

This is a point worth stopping to ponder as we commemorate the 40th anniversary of Vatican II. An honest self-examination would find that most of us carry within us some premodern, modern and postmodern notions of church and these affect our attitudes toward life and religion. Our spirituality, our ideas about holiness and sin, and sense of church mission are all crafted and shaped by changing times.

Quite understandably, each of us reacts differently as we adjust. Catholics, like others, are at different points in the journey.

I will end this column by making three brief points, before returning to the question posed to me by my journalist colleagues. I suggest:

The conflicts we find in our church would have occurred with or without Vatican II. Our changing worldviews are the blessed culprits. I maintain that without the council, and its efforts at renewal, there would be far greater conflict in the church today.

Our children’s and grandchildren’s problems with Catholicism result from the increasingly postmodern environment in which they are growing up. They carry within them fewer of our premodern and modern anchors.

The next church council will need to address an array of postmodern issues, including religious pluralism, the feminist critique, authority and the growing gap between rich and very poor. In these arenas, the Asian Catholic leadership is out in front of other elements within the church.

Finally, to the perplexing question at the beginning of this column: Why did the bishops fail to empathize with victims of clergy sex abuse?

The answer might be found in the pyramid structures I mentioned above. In the premodern mindset that Vatican II attempted to change, the clergy were the church, which was viewed then primarily as an institution. Preservation of that institution was viewed as the first order of business. But Vatican II tried to teach us that the church is broader and that we are all “the people of God.”

The clergy abuse crisis, then, again reminds us, among other things, how difficult it is to break out of old ways of thinking.

It also suggests that enormous new energies will be required -- Holy Spirit, we need your guidance! -- for our church to recommit itself to renewal, as it must. Only in doing so can we effectively, as church, enter the postmodern age, as we must. Short of that, we will not develop the vocabulary, ideas and pathways to pass meaning and Christian values on to the next generations.

Imagination will be required. This new era requires us to work and share more with other religions -- indeed with all men and women of good will. And what do we offer the world? We offer the Paschal Mystery. We offer encouragement and hope as we witness, as Christians, our compassion and forgiveness. And we never stop working to build the reign of God on earth, to bring about justice and peace, as we have been challenged to do. We never break the sacred trust the Creator has bestowed upon us.

Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at tfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002