Lesson Three: Even the smallest actions make a difference.
Truth to tell, I will never be a star in any choral group, while my best friend is gifted with a delicious soprano voice that calls angels to mind. Still, singing in a large group has shown me that people listen to one other to get the sound right, and even humble voices contribute something to the big effort, however small.
Ordinary life seems to overflow with tiny gestures that can change the world. One morning I was in a decidedly melancholy mood at work, and when I spotted a student heading in my direction, I was tempted to pretend I hadn’t seen her. At the last second, however, I looked up and greeted her; and then she complimented me on my dress, and I asked her about an upcoming exam, and soon we were both lit up with smiles. My whole morning seemed brighter because of one small gesture.
THE WOMEN OF ROE V. WADE: Mary Ann Glendon gave a speech at Boston College on this topic a while back, which has now been published in First Things. She looks at the social changes that were occurring around the time of the Roe decision and whether more recent changes are leading Americans to take a second look at existing law and policy about abortion.
In order to make a sound evaluation of reform movements, it will be helpful to unpack the concept of reform itself. To reform is to give new and better form to a preexistent reality, while preserving the essentials. Unlike innovation, reform implies organic continuity; it does not add something foreign or extrinsic. Unlike revolution or transformation, reform respects and retains the substance that was previously there. Unlike development, it implies that something has gone wrong and needs to be corrected. The point of departure for reform is always an idea or institution that is affirmed but considered to have been imperfectly or defectively realized. The goal is to make persons or institutions more faithful to an ideal already accepted.
Dulles holds that the Church in the United States is, in fact, in need of reform, but his agenda is somewhat different than those who are advocating primarily for greater representation of lay people in the decision-making structures of the Church. Dulles is concerned about widespread religious illiteracy, dissent from central doctrines of the faith, the lack of a missionary impulse among Catholics, and the decline in religious practice, such as mass attendance and reception of the sacrament of reconciliation. He includes the sexual abuse scandal under a broader problem of immoral behavior by Catholics as a whole, including sex outside of marriage, abortion, divorce, alcoholism, the use and marketing of drugs, domestic violence, defamation, and financial scandals such as falsification of records and embezzlement.
For myself, I am willing to concede Dulles several of his points. But I wonder whether it is really true that, as he argues, that the existing structures for collaboration between laypeople and the ordained are adequate and that no new structures are needed. Several of the structures he refers to, "plenary councils, diocesan synods, diocesan and parish councils, and committees" are used inconsistently from parish to parish and diocese to diocese. Given that the existing structures were unable to adequately identify and respond to the problem of clerical sexual abuse, I wonder whether some reforms aimed at greater transparency--particularly at the diocesean level--may be necessary. But I think that Dulles is correct that this challenge is certainly not the only one the Church faces.
NEOS: Ken Pollack and Ronald Asmus have an interesting essay in the Washington Post about the differences between "neo-conservative" and "neo-liberal" approaches to American policy in the Middle-East. One of the things that both camps agree on, however, is the need for active engagement in the region. This contrasts to many of those on the left and right who are essentially peddling some version of traditional American isolationism. However, TNR's blog &c doesn't think much of Pollack's and Asmus' distinctions.
Scripture tells us that in heaven we will stand before the throne of God to "offer unending praise." That's going to be rather difficult if we had very little practice in praising anything or anybody on this side of eternity. Simply put, if I go through life habitually bitter, over-critical and resentful for the way things have turned out, how do I suddenly stop that anger of Cain inside me and begin to rejoice in the wonder and beauty of the other? How do I admire beauty rather than try to possess it? Difficult, but that's precisely the task.
TRANPARENCY: Interesting piece in the Tidings about the screening process for candidates to the priesthood in the Arcdiocese of Los Angeles. "For the sake of the people of God, applicants are asked to become "transparent" to the vocation team evaluating their application," writes Paula Doyle.
BOSTON: Here is a link to the Boston Globe's extensive coverage of the report released yesterday by the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office on the clerical sexual abuse scandal in Boston. The AG's office concluded that 250 priests and other archdiocesean employees are alleged to have abused 789 children since 1940. If you want to read the Executive Summary or the full report, click here to go to the Massachusett AG's web site.
A PYRRHIC VICTORY? Villanova professor Eugene McCarraher reviews David Gibson's The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful are Shaping A New American Catholicism. Gibson's book argues that a lay-led "revolution from below" is transforming American Catholicism and advocates for a number of structural changes in Church governance, including more power and oversight for lay parish councils and diocesan review boards; lay participation in the selection of bishops; a "careful reimagining of the Catholic priesthood" that would include the ordination of women and the revocation of mandatory celibacy. McCarraher is generally supportive of these proposed changes, but raises some challenging questions:
I would also challenge the standard liberal faith in that darling "laity." One question that remains unanswered—and even unasked—is a simple but (I'd wager) disconcerting one: "Who are these people?" My view (based on my own research and on recent studies of religious culture such as Michael Budde and Robert Brimlow's brilliant Christianity Incorporated) is that "the laity" turn out to be the very upper-middle-class Catholics whose therapeutic, consumerist ethos Gibson derides. Indeed, Gibson himself asserts that the revolution arises from a laity "who lead busy lives in a world that is busier than ever."
Doesn't this frenetic pace stem from a devotion to accumulation? Would lay power really augur an epoch of openness and honesty? Under cover of shibboleths like "revolution from below," might Catholics be trading one managerialist culture for another—one which, given Gibson's generational observations, may be even less informed and coherent than its predecessor? My own answers to these questions would not be reassuring, and Gibson's book does little to assuage my fear that, without a theology and practice that upholds a "sign of contradiction" to the venality of American culture, the victory of the laity will be as pyrrhic as it is inexorable.
A RESPONSE: A few days ago I posted a link to a comment made by Dennis De Florville--the webmaster of Catholic Nexus-- about the film The Passion that I felt crossed the line into anti-Semitism. Dennis offered a comment on my post, and then posted something of a response below his original comment on Catholic Nexus. The text, unedited and in its entirety, follows:
As I said the clip is very very graphic and not sanitized by the Israeli people who own Hollywood. Our Lord died, a horrible death! For US, and they do not want this to be told. There is no racial hated nor anti-semitism ... the truth and the facts are what they are. It should give jewish people a chance to think and even they have been saved!. No one is responsible for the people that have gone before them, each one is his own person! A whole race cannot be condemned for what one of theirs has done.... the Jewish-Nazis should understand this.... by that I mean the Jewish/Israelis that control life in the US and in the global frame of things.....Dennis, Webmaster / email@example.com
Suffice to say that Mr. De Florville and I have something of a disagreement on this matter. The Catholic Nexus website has considerable merits and it is, to say the least, saddening to see it being employed to spread the vilest kind of anti-Semitic propaganda.
JUST WAR: In the Tablet, Michael Quinlan takes another look at the application of the just war criteria to Iraq. Quinlan looks how the argument for the war seems to be shifting from the imminent threat of WMDs to the evils inflicted by the Hussein regime on its own people. This raises the broader issue as to the circumstances under which "humanitarian" intervention can be justified:
The awfulness [of the Hussein regime] has never been in doubt. What is debatable is whether it is proper ground for regime-changing invasion on the say-so of (effectively) a few distant countries. The 1999 Kosovo intervention is not a parallel. That was undertaken to stop an enormous humanitarian outrage which, because of the displacement of refugees into neighbours with grave problems of their own, entailed – as the United Nations secretary-general had stressed beforehand – a threat to international peace and security. It had moreover the backing of the great majority of countries in the region.
Maybe the global community ought to be ready to undertake or sanction the use of force against rulers who grossly violate the human rights of their own people; but that is not an accepted concept now in international law or practice. It would be both objectionable in principle and dangerous in practice that the decision of virtually a single dominant power should establish a major new rule for such intervention and judge what regimes should be viewed as awful enough to be caught by it and determine what corrective action should be taken.