Published in the Bay View Compass, May 2005
A clergy convention opens and the participants gather for an evening reception. A Methodist minister and a Catholic priest chat about the promise of the convention when a wait-person arrives with martinis. The priest takes one and invites the minister to drink with him. The minister sniffs “I would rather commit adultery than allow alcohol to pass over my lips.”
Putting his martini back on the tray, the priest asks the server, “Do we get a choice?”
Our American Catholics are known as “cafeteria” Catholics, having a reputation for selecting those items of the Catholic faith that suit themselves. The Vatican has always had a suspicion about American individualism, and Pope John Paul II preached passionately against unrestrained individualism. But when the ugly truth of priestly sex abuse emerged, and the Vatican would have had an occasion to condemn flagrant individualism, the pope and the bishops seemed frozen like captains at the helm, unable to right the boat.
John Paul’s captainship floundered between grand language about the “sanctity” of married sex and reluctance to confront priests about sex. He labeled “grave moral evil” some kinds of intimate contact between spouses, but gave abuse victims his silence.
Catholic abortion rules aside, I never understood what the Church was trying to do in writing rules to control the sexual behavior of married couples, nor were American seminary studies any help.
Seminaries had no women. Half the world was not on hand to rock St. Peter’s boat. We men questioned doctrines, but not the sexual assumptions of our environment. Our confessors even advised us to avoid thoughts of sex. We never studied sex. And so, unchallenged sexually, we remained children toddling into leadership and awesome responsibilities.
Given the hothouse, the learning curve in parish assignments was steep; for some priests, tragic. Individual parish priests are expected to be front-line moral leaders. Individuals do this better than groups. Consider Joan of Arc, Gandhi and Mandela — individuals who were on fire with a burning issue that took hold of their lives. They changed the world.
Good organizations develop leaders. But is Peter’s boat, the Church, too centralized to navigate the fast-moving waters of the 21st century? — this question is raised by John Paul’s inaction.
Pope Benedict XVI is believed to want a smaller Church. This is a refreshing insight into his limited powers. He may already understand that small organizations can be powerful.
Milwaukee’s own School Sisters of St. Francis — with fewer than 1400 members — fostered heroic virtue; their martyrs in Central America are a credit to the Church. Instead of traveling in a John-Paul bubble, he might spend a week in Milwaukee studying what these sisters did to nourish a community with spiritual heroes.
Church as Corporation
And so, as I reflected on the funeral of one pope and the solemn enthronement of the new one, I saw both men surrounded by red-capped heads of large corporations from all over the world.
I wondered, is an international corporation too much of a cruise ship to be a moral teacher?
American corporations enjoy human rights articulated in the 1st, 4th, and 6th Amendments to the Constitution, but do not need a conscience, cannot be baptized or receive communion. They float only in the sea of profits. Some damage the environment to get investors. Corporations do not vote but they control elections.
Corporations in Iraq now have their own soldiers, but corporations do not die as we do. If a sinking corporation can no longer pay its bills, the courts turns the papers over to another corporation which carries on the business.
Who gives Catholic corporations spiritual advice? Who mentors the infallible man that has the power to hire and fire the mentor? Can the Church wrestle with its own devil?
A new pope is a fresh start, but that boat of St. Peter’s is large. Can he steer it? Can he spot the killer corporation devouring our lives and our souls? Or will he sleep his papacy away below deck, sharing his bed with the corporations of the world?
You can reach Bill Sell at the author’s eMailbox .