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Cardinal Levada and Catholic Apologetics in New Millennium: When Pastoral Leaders Become a Counter-Sign

Cardinal William Levada has just issued a call for a new Catholic apologetics.  This call occurred in an address that the cardinal gave recently to a conference on “A New Apologetics for a New Millennium” at the Legionaries of Christ’s university in Rome, Regina Apostolorum.

Among the points that Cardinal Levada makes is that if a new apologetics for a new millennium is to be credible, it must be rooted in “a sacramental vision of the world.”  I agree.

But in my view, to state this is to state the primary problem facing Catholic apologetics today, and not the solution to that problem.  The most profound problem the Catholic church faces at present in convincing both non-believers and many Catholics themselves of the legitimacy of the claims the church makes about itself and its teaching is the church itself: the church in its institutional life.  The church as a sacramental sign of God’s salvific love in the world.  Or, rather, the way in which the church’s institutional life utterly betrays the claims that the church makes about itself, in the view of many people of good will at this point in history.

At present, the church appears to many Catholics and those outside the church as a counter-sign to everything that it teaches about God, love, salvation, justice, and mercy.  It does so most of all because the behavior of the pastoral leaders of the church has, for some time now, not merely obscured but betrayed everything the church claims to stand for as a sacramental sign of God’s salvific love in the world.

To ignore this reality or pretend that it does not exist—to ignore the reality that the behavior of the church’s pastoral leaders at the highest levels has become a counter-sign to what the church’s sacramental presence in the world is meant to communicate—is to ignore the most fundamental problem to be addressed by Catholic apologetics at this point in history.

The church cannot effectively communicate its sacramental vision to the world without being the sacramental sign that it wishes to communicate.  This is not to deny that the church is, at every point in history, sinful as well as holy.

It is to say, however, that there are moments of epic crisis in the history of the church in which the church’s sinfulness becomes such an obstacle to many people seeking signs of God’s salvific love that one does a complete disservice to the church and its tradition when one speaks of apologetics without adverting to the obvious: to the fact that the church itself in its institutional face, with its pastoral leaders, has become the most significant problem that any credible apologetics has to face.

How have the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church become a stumbling block to those seeking sacramental signs of God’s loving and salvific presence in the world today?  I would argue that they have done so most precisely by failing to acknowledge the humanity of significant numbers of church members whose humanity has become inconvenient to the pastoral leaders of the church.

Chief among those whom our pastoral leaders have chosen to treat as non-persons—as if they are not there, as if they simply do not exist, as though their pain is negligible and something we can completely ignore while continuing to call ourselves merciful—are survivors of childhood sexual abuse by clergy.  The most damning indictment of our pastoral leaders at this difficult passage point in our history is their persistent and ongoing ability (for years now) to continue acting as though minors sexually molested by priests and adults reporting such abuse from their youth simply do not exist.

As if they do not represent the most serious possible claim on the church’s conscience at present, the most significant possible claim on the church’s pastoral ministry at this moment of history.

And then there are women, women called by the Spirit to ordained ministry, who have been told by the past two pontificates that the price they must pay to remain within the church is to become invisible.  To be totally silent about the Spirit’s presence in their lives.  To act as if they are not there in our midst, not hearing the Spirit’s call, and as if they are rebellious and unfaithful daughters of Eve when they ask for continued dialogue about the role of women in the church.

And there are also gay and lesbian persons, who continue to be told that we are welcome within Catholic communities only to the extent that we hide and apologize for our identity—that we hide our humanity itself, that we hide the sacramental sign of our own flesh through which God reveals God’s love most ineluctably in our lives and to those who know and love us.

Near the end of last year, Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, released a book of Catholic apologetics entitled The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture.  Cardinal George’s book focuses on the longstanding and venerable tradition that the church is called above all to exemplify mercy: to exemplify by its life and the behavior of its members mercy as a primary sign of God’s loving embrace of the world.  In Cardinal George’s view, the church will not credibly communicate its most fundamental teachings to contemporary society unless it accents mercy in all that it does.

Within only a matter of months following the publication of his book with its call for Catholics to live mercy as we demonstrate to the world what we are all about, Cardinal George issued a statement condemning New Ways Ministry, a Catholic ministry group that seeks to reach out in mercy to gay and lesbian persons.  Cardinal George’s statement about New Ways Ministry indicates that this ministry (and, implicitly, its merciful outreach to gay and lesbian persons) does not authentically represent Catholic teaching.

Various Catholic apologists and journalists of the center have been quick to praise Cardinal George’s book with its accent on mercy as the key sign of what Catholics must be all about in the new millennium.  These apologists and journalists have continued to praise Cardinal George’s book and its concept of mercy on the heels of his condemnation of a ministry offering merciful pastoral outreach to gay and lesbian persons.

For many Catholics and others of good will, Cardinal George’s actions have, however, become a new apologetic challenge.  One can praise the cardinal’s apologetic work and its stress on mercy after he has attacked New Ways Ministry only if one assumes that gay and lesbian persons are simply not there.

One can praise a work touting the virtue of mercy issued by a pastoral leader whose own behavior betrays mercy only if one decides to behave as though those being treated unmercifully by that leader do not exist.  Or that they are less human than other human beings.  Or that they deserve unmerciful treatment, simply by existing and claiming a right to their existence.

One can praise Cardinal George’s reflections about mercy in the aftermath of what he has done to New Ways Ministry only if one accepts that the church’s gay members have no claim on the church’s mercy or its pastoral outreach.  And only if one accepts that it is better that they vanish from our midst as long as they insist that their own gay flesh has been given to them by a loving and merciful God as the greatest sign of that God’s love for them as gay human beings.

Cardinal George has recently written to praise Pope Benedict for his “sensitive pastoral heart.”  In the view of Cardinal George, the pontificate of Benedict is, at the most fundamental levels possible, all about drawing together “all aspects of human life in the embrace of divine love.”

I confess that I cannot hear these words with anything but astonishment, given the way in which the Catholic church has, in its recent past and at present, chosen to treat its gay and lesbian members.  And women.  And survivors of childhood clerical sexual abuse.

There is something obscene about talking about love and mercy when one is conspicuously not practicing the love and mercy one seeks to communicate to others.  The sacramental vision of the church is first and foremost about doing rather than talking.  It is about being the sign that one seeks to communicate to others.

Until the church—until the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church, above all—decide to stop treating select groups of human beings as if we do not exist, as if our humanity and our pain make no claim on the church at all and have no significance for the church’s pastoral ministry, a new apologetics for the new millennium will fall flat on its face.

As thousands of Catholics in the developed nations of the world, whose consciences are now informed by wide reading in the information age, and who have become critically aware of the huge gap between what our pastoral leaders teach and how they live their teachings, continue to walk away, shaking their heads.

Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 6 May 2010.

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4 Responses

  1. The “something obscene” is simply that many prelates find it easier to “practice lives of hypocrisy” than to live lives of truth and honesty. To live the latter, rather than the former, requires the willingness to pay the “higher price,” not unlike that which Jesus paid. Archbishop Oscar Romero immediately comes to mind as a church leader who was willing to live a life of truth and integrity–not afraid to pay the “higher price.”

    • Thank you, SJS. I like the way you frame the discussion as a discussion about Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace/costly grace.

      I think you’re right: for all of us, the path of cheap grace is just plain easier. And then along come the saints to show us that even though it’s easier, it’s not the path in which we’re called to walk.

      I take great heart in the fact that Franz Jaeggerstaetter, for instance, an Austrian peasant and layman, chose the obviously right path in the Nazi period, when his bishop and the priests who advised him to join Hitler’s army did not choose that path. And so we will forever remember Jaeggerstaetter, while the names of those pastoral leaders have already fallen out of history.

  2. This is very good Bill, but I have to tell you that I was reading this and thought that it was Cardinal Levada’s words. However, when I got to the part about women called by the Spirit to ordained ministry, the light came on. This is a great article.

    • Mark, thanks for the positive feedback.

      I’m sorry if the article seemed initially somehow to be reproducing something Levada had written. I’m not sure where the confusion might enter in, since the second paragraph ends with me saying, “I agree”–but noting I’m agreeing with Levada. Maybe I didn’t make the point clear enough, though.

      It’s a bit amusing to hear that someone may have confused Cardinal Levada’s words and mine with each other. I doubt Cardinal Levada would be amused at the confusion or at having anyone think something I had written was his work!

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