AN OPEN LETTER TO THE PEOPLE OF GOD
It is amazing how similar the battle for national rights parallels the battle for church rights. This morning I received an email from civil rights activist and Georgia house representative, John Lewis. He was an ally of Martin Luther King and was brutally beaten by police in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 while marching for civil rights. In his email, he said: “While we have made progress toward a vision of a more fair, just and open country, the majority of Americans are afraid this country is headed in the wrong direction….Some leaders reject decades of progress and want to return to the dark past, when the power of law was used to deny the freedoms protected by the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and its Amendments.”
Does that sound familiar for those of us who are working steadily for the reform of our Church? Could we not utter these very same words? “While we have made progress toward a vision of a more fair, just and open [church] , the majority of [people] are afraid this [church] is headed in the wrong direction….Some [church] leaders reject decades of progress and want to return to the dark past, when the power of law was used to deny [the message of Jesus that is recorded in the Gospels.”
Lewis went on to say: “It took massive, well-organized, non-violent dissent and criticism of this great nation and its laws to move toward a greater sense of equality in America….Often, the only way we could demonstrate that a law on the books violated a higher law was by challenging that law. By putting our bodies on the line and showing the world the unholy price we had to pay for dignity and respect.”
It makes me wonder if the time has not come for us, who are fighting for equality in the church, for a more just, inclusive and welcoming church, to do the same. In addition, this week, a man whom I greatly admire gave his farewell speech to America as he leaves the office of President of the United States. Whether you agree with his politics or not, so much of what he said about our country could also apply to our work in the Catholic Church. I want to adapt some of his words now in order that we might learn from his wisdom in our work to move the Church away from past entrenchments and forward into the 21st century. All quotes below in bold are those of President Barack Obama.
“Change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.” Is this not the essence of what Pope Francis is seeking? And of what we who are working toward the reform of our Church are striving for? But how do we move people out of their comfort level to be motivated to show up and speak up? It is only when we feel oppressed enough that the spirit will rise up in us.
“Only if all of us, regardless of our particular interests, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.” Sr. Joan Chittister reached out to reformers in her letter back in August 2013 making a similar point: “The question is: what can we do at this time to bring this need and urgency to consciousness at the level of the papacy itself?” And her answer was simple: “Until we raise a common voice we will not only not be heard, we will not even be listened to in the light of larger issues and larger groups, all clamoring for attention.” Joan was right. And Barack Obama is right. So as reform organizations, we must ask ourselves: What is holding our various groups back from coming together to demand the change we want and know is right for our Church? Fear of losing our unique cause or individual integrity? Fear of someone or some other group usurping our power? Fear of losing our financial resources? Joan anticipated these fears when she said: “Nor do I think that we should sacrifice the leadership of each group to some kind of Uber-group…But I do think that our leaders should model together another way of being church…without competition, without distrust, without control.”
Hasn’t the time come when, if any reform is to come about, we must do this – model a new way of being church among ourselves? With Francis, the one thing we all hold in common is that we are seeking a decentralized church – one in which the people have a deliberative voice in its governance. “Democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we're all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.” If we could truly come together, our motivation would be, as the President said, “not to score points or take credit, but to make people's lives better.” One of our Advisors, Ed Schreurs from the Netherlands, recently wrote: “Attending services is showing adherence to the vision of Jesus and sharing [the liturgy with those] who, along with you, surely want to fight discrimination, poverty, and injustice. [But don’t] we show the opposite when we go forward and accept communion, communication with the meal of the elites, [when others are told if they are not Catholic, or divorced and remarried, or not in a state of grace, that they are not welcomed to the table?]. The time has come to show our disagreement. From now on I will stay at the back and go forward only in alternative services.” Ed has me thinking. Perhaps the time has come when we should stop putting money into the basket, which only demonstrates our allegiance for a church that discriminates against women, against gays, against those whose lives do not comply with the moral standards set by the church hierarchy. But how would we ever get people to act with such boldness?
So many people are “convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their [Church] government only serves the interests of the powerful.” So they sit in their pews week after week submitting themselves to clerical power. Our job as leaders of the reform movement is to activate and strengthen the voices of the People reminding them that “they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful (Canon 212 §3).
“But there are no quick fixes to this long-term trend. We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can't be complacent about the goals themselves.” We know this from our own experience. We can look back at how far we’ve gotten since Vatican II by going it alone or even going it alone with our own organization, or even a few groups joining together. But what if we could all come together? Sr. Joan raises this same issue: “We need to raise a common voice on a single issue—the immediate need for the genuine renewal of the church. The problem is that we can't get anyone to take seriously the most serious issues in the church because they have yet to take the Reform of the institution itself seriously. And so we go on as if transparency, lay participation, finances, the women's issue, authority, sexual abuse, the genderization of the church, the nature of the episcopacy, the right to the sacraments and a host of others will not eventually destroy the church no matter how much good work we do. A church that refuses to take the Gospel as its guide on these topics rather than canons that are designed to prop up the structures that spawn them cannot possibly really preach Jesus.”
“Laws alone won't be enough. Hearts must change.” Besides just coming together, if we want to change hearts, what is it that we must do differently than we’ve done in the past? We know what Pope Francis wants. He has asked the bishops to dialogue with their people, reach a consensus, and bring that proposal to him so that he can bless it. But, sadly, that isn’t happening. President Obama suggests that “each one of us needs to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction —Atticus Finch — who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Wow! What a lot to ask! But what does that mean for us? “It means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this [Church] country face. We can’t speak for everyone. Nor can we change the hearts of everyone. But we can put ourselves in the place of the oppressed, the marginalized, immigrants driven from their homes by tyranny or poverty or the dream of a better life. I know what it means to be an oppressed woman in the Church. But understanding another person whose life experiences are different from my own means tying my own struggles for justice to a group who have experiences different from my own, such as the LGBT community. “When they wage peaceful protest, they're not demanding special treatment but equal treatment.”
Being realistic, we know we can’t expect Pope Francis to listen to only our side and, one day, believe the Spirit will guide him to listen to us and us alone and enact the reforms for which we are dedicating ourselves. He represents every member of the Church – the conservatives as well as the progressives, those who hold power and those who have none. If we are to move the Church forward, we need to be talking and listening to members of the Church who don’t agree with us. We need to be doing some of the hard work to find compromise between our point of view and theirs. By entering into these kinds of dialogues ourselves, we can only strengthen the values that make us who we are.
President Obama reminds us: “In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point,…then we're going to keep talking past each other, and we'll make common ground and compromise impossible.”One possible way to enter into these kinds of discussions – traditionalists and progressives – is by getting Catholics and former Catholics of all age groups to gather in small groups in homes or parish halls and speak up about what they feel they need from the church, what drove them away, what would bring them back. Invite conservatives holding on to “the way things have always been” and explore with progressives how “things could be.” This means, while the other is speaking, we are actually listening with heart and soul to what he or she is saying. To consider this possibility, go to www.ThePeopleSpeakOut.org. There you can make your views known:
- By joining in the discussion on our blog.
- By gathering people together in your community and exploring the changes you want to see in the Church. Click hereto help you get started.
- And most importantly, by sharing the outcomes of your discussionsso that they can become part of the agenda of the various Forums.
All of this will be shared with the Global Council Network to help set the agenda for the series of People’s Forums being scheduled in various places around the world between this year and 2021.
“All of us…should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our Church institutions. When trust in our institutions is low, we should reduce the corrosive influence of money in our [church] politics, and insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service. When Church hierarchy is dysfunctional, we should draw our parish districts to encourage pastors to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.
But remember, none of this happens on its own. All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship [in our Church], regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.
Like Pope Francis, as President Obama closed his speech, he turns to young people as our hope for the future. “This generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I've seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America. You are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You'll soon outnumber all of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.
Another area where we could all come together is with young people supporting the Synod on Youth scheduled for 2018. What if we all worked cooperatively to stir up all the young people within our reach, encouraged them to complete the questionnaire being released March 1st [www.sinodogiovane2018.va] and to “make some noise” that will be heard all the way to Rome!
There is much we can accomplish but only if we are truly in this together. We invite you to visit the blog now and share your thoughts with one another: http://www.ThePeopleSpeakOut.org/blog.