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Fiery author calls for return to truth of gospels

by Joanna Manning
Crossroad, 176 pages, $16.95


“Abandon Vatican City!” suggests Joanna Manning in her list of modest proposals for the next pope. “Give away the Vatican museum!” is another. “Encourage diversity!” and “Incorporate women’s experience!” are two more. In other words, go back to the truth of the gospel, she tells us all. Everyone is called to it: to take back the truth. It’s a great title for a great book about a great idea.

Is she asking too much? Hardly. She just wants the church to be Catholic, but doesn’t expect that to happen. She admits up front -- in the fourth sentence of the book’s preface -- that she “has moved beyond denominational Christian boundaries.” Oops, has she now thought the unthinkable thought, out-daring the Man of LaMancha? (Her first book -- Is The Pope Catholic? -- was daring too.)

But should we not dare to take back the truth? Did someone take it away? Yes, those who convinced us that a “creed,” a list of sentences, could contain it. But Aquinas calls truth, among other things, a “transcendental,” something identical to being, to everything that is. It’s fuzzy and rainbow-colored and swift and beautiful. It’s all we experience. Whatever is not essentially beautiful is somehow false. The grotesquerie of the clergy scandals, for instance, speaks to us then of what is essentially false. Can we find a way to take back the truth in this case, too?

I suspect the church ends up with problem priests and bishops because we failed to follow St. Paul’s advice. We should never have let the leaders choose themselves, allowing them to claim they have a mysterious call from God. I may feel called to be a celebrity but I may also be mistaken. My young son’s first choice of a profession was to be “an expert.”

Obviously some of the wrong kind of folks have felt called to become priests and bishops. St. Paul eliminates that danger when he insists on leaders who already manage their own family and life affairs well (l Timothy 3). That’s still the only way out of the present crisis. Let the people in the pews decide who is called by God to lead, says Manning. That has been the truth since the beginning, and we have to take it back.

In this indexed and footnoted study, the award-winning author does just that, proceeding in excruciating detail through the destructive outrages of the long reign of John Paul II to the shining ideals of the gospels, above all that of solidarity with the poor and the lovely world of gender equality. Her vision is honest and angry. It is excruciating to walk with her through the cleverly paralleled arrogances of Joseph Ratzinger and Pat Robertson, through the shadowy ascendancy of vocation-rich cults like Opus Dei, through the accumulated disdain of women directly from the pope himself. But now that we are taking back the truth, she says, “The compassionate face of God, veiled for too long, is emerging from beneath the burqa of power and domination.” That’s her description of the Catholic reform movement of which she has been a fiery part for many years.

At times I’ve been tempted to dig through my old NCRs and make a list of the outrages of just the last several years, but that work has been done here by Manning. In a single paragraph, for instance, she details the mistreatment of Carmel McEnroy, Ivone Gebara, Barbara Fiand and Lavinia Byrne. Manning calls it “a form of fascism.” Calling a spade a spade is taking back the truth.

Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was fond of saying that we are all challenged to live gracefully with ambiguity, with “the tension of both having and not having the truth.” Theologian Walter Bruggemann claims that faithfulness is staying in the quarrel, keeping the tension alive as all continue to speak. I sometimes daydream that American Protestants, instead of insisting on their own turf claims, had called themselves from the beginning Lutheran Catholics, Congregational Catholics and Methodist Catholics, not accepting the pejorative “Protestants” as a fair title. Maybe then, when real protest is needed (like now), they’d be better companions in the quarrel we are all called to participate in, real partners in the attempt to change the church, and perhaps get the pope at last to abandon Vatican City.

William Cleary is the author of nine books, including Where the Wild Things Pray (Forest of Peace).

National Catholic Reporter, November 08, 2002