Reaffirming Vatican II: We are the Shepherds

After writing earlier this week about Bishop Robinson's book on power and abuse in the church, with its reflections on the attempts at Vatican II to re-balance the power structures, I was interested to find in quick succession two items which between them shed some light on the problem.  And the answer, I suspect, lies not with 'them', but with  'us'.

First,the more seemingly frivolous item:  a report in New Catholic Times (sensus fidelium) on a novel, "Waiting for Mozart", by Chuck Pilon, set in a Catholic parish 25 years after the conclusion of Vatican II. "Less than and somewhat more than" a review,  it is John Quinn's reflections that I found particularly insightful.  Let me quote from  Quinn's review /reflection:


"In Chapter 2 of Waiting for Mozart, Fr. Joe Burns is described thus
"A  fine priest...Ordained before Vatican II but known for aggressive application of its directives.

In those couple of sentences we have the story of Waiting for Mozart captured.

"Ordained before Vatican II", so socialized by a Catholic world-view radically different from that articulated by the council.
Joe was "known for aggressive application of its directives." His was the responsibility of ‘applying" the directives of the council. This he would do "aggressively."

And it was "directives", that is something given him to implement, to put into operation.


Quinn goes on to describe an incident from his own parish experience,

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Holy Spirit at Work? - James Alison

In a penetrating article on his website, noted theologian James Alison examines the recent furores in the Church over matters gay, and reaches what he calls a 'suprising' conclusion.    There is a huge amount of meat in here, which requires long and deliberate chewing (as always with Alison), so I cannot attempt to cover it all, certainly not after just one read.  It is though, an important and hopeful post,

Church, Power &; Abuse

Depressing church news over the past two months has led me to pick up and start reading a book which has been on my shelves some time, but which I have previously only dipped into.  The removal of  excommunication of SPXX  members has received wide and ongoing publicity; clerical sexual abuse is again in the news with the FBI reopening old investigations in LA Diocese, and fresh revelations over   Fr Marcial Maarciel Delgado of the Legionnaires of Christ.  Meanwhile, on the progressive wing of the church, there has been less coverage in the MSM of the silencing or excommunication of the priests  Fr Roger Haight,  Geoffrey Farrow and Roy  Bourgeois, or of bizarre goings-on in the parishes of St Mary's, Brisbane and St Stephen's, Minneapolis, where attempts to muzzle complete parishes have led to resistance (St Mary's) or exodus (St Stephen's).

What all these have in common is that they are concerned with power in the church - its extension, its abuse, or attempts to defy or resist it.  so I picked up again  "Confronting Power & Sex in the Catholic Church", by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson.  I am pleased that I did.  Published in 2007, this book has much to say that is directly relevant to current events. Although I have not yet finished reading, and this is far from a formal review, I have already found much of value that I thought would be worth sharing.

Bishop Robinson was Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney from 1984, and in 1994 was appointed by the Australian Bishops to a position of leadership in the Australian church's response to revelations of sexual abuse.  Following his retirement in 2004, he felt freer in speaking his mind, leading to the publication of this valuable book.

Even in his introduction, he wastes no time in setting out immediately his key thesis, that there are three interlinked causal factors which can lead to sexually abusive behaviour:  an unhealthy psychological state, unhealthy ideas about power and sexuality, and an unhealthy environment or community.  In its institutional structures, argues Robinson, too easily and too often reinforces or even creates conditions that reinforce these unhealthy conditions.  It is easy enough to see the broad argument as it applies to sexual abuse, about which many others have written, and which I do not intend to elaborate.  But it is the central section of the book where he spells out the nature and expansion of church institutional power, that fascinated me.

In a very brief summary of the history of the papacy, he shows how an institution which began as just one Bishop of a single diocese, albeit a most important one, moved from a position of 'first among equals' to one of dominance.  Even then, for most of two millenia, the role of the Pope was one of guidance and co-ordination, not one of control.  Not until Pius X and the First Vatican Council, with its promulgation of the doctrine of infallibility, did 'the doctrine of universal jurisdiction of of the Pope over every aspect of the Church' become established.    It is against this longer term view of Church history that we need to evaluate Vatican II, which is now attracting so much welcome attention.  Quite contrary to the view of the Lefevbrists and other conservatives in the church,  Vatican II was significant not for overturning tradition, but for seeking to re-establish it.  (This same point was made last week on Bilgrimage, where  William D Lindsay wrote his own helpful piece on the meaning of Church and tradition in the context of the two Vatican Councils.  It is unfortunate that most of us are so conscious of Vatican II and its upheavals, that we lose sight of Vatican I and the many councils before it.)  Helpfully for Pius X and his successors, his attempts to establish universal control were greatly enhanced by the advances in communication technology, enabing him to be quickly informed of events in far flung parts of the world - and to communicate his response, desires and commands as quickly.

What Robinson recommends is not the abolition or destruction of Papal power - he notes that the Protestant faiths which have eliminated central authority ahve seen endless continuing fission within themselves - but a restoration of balance.  A partnership between Pope, the college of Bishops, and laity not only reflects the (unfilled) promise of Vatican II, it also restores the earliest traditions of the Church, reflects established  constitutional principles in secular democracies of a balance of power. The challenge in achieving this restoration in balance is that teh excessive power structures that have been built up are not simply the work of mischievous individual Popes and scheming officials. Rather, tehy have become institutionalised, built right into the 'systme' of Church governance, so that it is unremarkable that the autocratic structures began to re-establish themselves after the immediate enthusiasm following Vatican II.  I have yet to read Bishop's Robinson's views on how this re-establishment of balance is to achieved, but have one thought of my own.

I find it striking that Luther's first great challenge to the abuse of power in the Church, and the unfolding Reformation that followed, were greatly aided and fuelled by the expansion of literacy and publishing, with the demand of the laity for access to the scriptures.  In the preceding centuries, with limited access to literacy, manuscripts and a common literary language, it was inevitable that the Church would retain a virtual monopoly on knowledge in all its forms.  With the widening of access to the tools of learning, it was natural that a widening circle of  laity would demand access to at least some of that.  The church's intransigence led to rebellion, and the the Protestant churches immediately were characterised by an emphasis on reading of scripture by all.

The Catholic Church eventually backed down on this, but still restricted higher studies in theology to priests.  That too has now gone, and today there  are more lay people studying formal theology than seminarians.    The information age, and its rapid expansion of the tools of learning, has now taken access to theology outside the formal classroom.   Knowledge is power.  The expanding blogosphere empowers us all to extend our own knowledge.  The more obvious it becomes that the officials of the curia do not have a monopoly on truth, the more we use the media available to us to voice our response to abuses (as we have witnessed over the last two months), the more obvious it will becomes to those at the top of the power  structures that their 'power' is not after all as absolute as they might imagine.  Then, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, they may at last begin listening as well as pronouncing, and they may again acquire Authority to accompany their power.

The Church's Changing Tradition.

The CDF famous (or infamous) letter "On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons"  makes the claim "Thus, the Church's teaching today is in organic continuity with the Scriptural perspective and with her own constant Tradition" , and later states "Scripture bids us speak the truth in love".  This is the image that the established church so likes to proote - of an authoritative, unchanging tradition "speaking the truth" for all time.  The image favoured by the church, howeer, is a false one.

In the context of current arguments about the papacy and its authority, it is worth recalling

"Sex As God Intended" (Book Review)

John McNeill, Lethe Press 2008.

I have just two small niggles about this book, so let me get them out of the way now. First, I was initally disappointed to find that this is not all new wrting by McNeill.  Only half the book is by McNeill, and the rest is a collection of celebratory articles, a "Festchrift", by others. This Festschrift is welcome, but even his own writing is not all new.  I have not read all the previous works, but even so I recognised large chunks of the material as not just a restatement, but verbatim reprints, of  sections of  "Taking a Chance of God." So big chunks of this are not new material.

Also irritating was the poor editing.  McNeill appears to have gone to a new publisher, who have clearly made good use of a spell-checker - but paid insufficient attention to grammar.  There were many instances  where the flow of the text was interrupted by obvious missing words, with important parts of speech simply not present, leading to incomplete sentences or clauses that just did not hang together.

Celebrating John McNeill

But these were irritations only.  It does not matter that this is not all new writing by McNeill, and should not be treated as such.  The Festchrift is the clue: this is not a continuation, but a celebration, of the earlier work.  Just running down the contributors, all of whom have made major contributions of their own to the continuing struggle of LGBT Catholics, is testimony to the importances of McNeill's work as theologian, as writer, and as therapist. (One of the contributions is titled  "You saved My Life"  this is intended to be taken quite literally). Amongst the contributors, I was already familiar with the work of  Toby Johnson, Mark Jordan, Robert Goss, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Daniel Helminiak.  The contributions of others has left me wanting to explore their work too.

So what is this life work of McNeill, and why should we celebrate it?

"The Church and The Homosexual", published back in 1976, was groundbreaking.  Many writers since have testified to the liberating impact it has had on their own lives, and it has become a staple in the exploding bibliographies on the subject ever since.  It was originally published with the blessing and 'imprimi potest' of his Jesuit order, but soon attracted the displeasure of the Vatican.  Ordered to refrain from publication and teaching on the subject, McNeill initially complied, and fell silent for some years.  In conscience though, he felt compelled to continue to write and to speak out. Like so many others, he left the priesthood and embarked on a precarious career as writer and psychotherapist. Subsequent books included "Freedom, Glorious Freedom", "Taking a Chance on God", and "Both Feet Planted Firmly in Midair."

"Sex as God Intended"

In the current book, McNeill examines systematically the treatment of sexuality, particularly in same sex relationships, and finds conclusions rather different to those usually used against us.  As he and others have done before, he dismisses the old interpretation of the story of Sodom as a gross misinterpretation  The sin of Sodom was not that of sexual relationships between men, but the failure to offer hospitality to guests - an important traditional obligation in a desert society.  Where McNeill differs from so many other writers who have made the same point, is that he is not content to simply argue against the old 'clobber texts'.  Rather, he goes further, arguing for the positive place of sexuality in the Old Testament.  Highlighting Genesis 2 (the older version) rather than the more usual creation story in Genesis 1, he shows how Eve was created because Adam needed a companion, not just a mother for his children. This balances the procreative nature of marriage, so beloved by our opponents, with that of love and companionship.

An important piece of new writing in the book is a celebration of the Song of Songs, as a scriptural basis for sex as play. He also presents evidence that this may have been written to celebrate love been men.  The gender of the protagonists, though is ultimately not important.  The passion and ardour expressed is sufficiently powerful that the Song can be read with any interpretation you choose - but impossible to come away with the idea that sex is only about procreation.

Similarly, in examining the New Testament, McNeill's focus is on the positive messages for LGBT Christians, rather than a repetition of arguments against the clobber texts.  He shows for instance, that in his family of choice, Jesus is associating with same sex groups rather than with 'traditional' family groups. His analysis of the healing of the (male) 'servant' of the Roman centurion shows how this servant was almost certainly a sexual partner, even  lover, of the centruiion.  He also draws attention to the special attentions paid to John  the Evangelist as "the apostle whom Jesus loved."  It has often been noted how Jesus in the Gospels has absolutely nothing to say about homosexuality.  John McNeill has shown clearly that in His actions, the Lord goes much further than words in acknowledging and accepting such relationships.

Joy and the Holy Spirit.

The joy of McNeill's writing is always his emphasis on the positive.  His recurring refrains are a quotation from St Irenaus "The glory of God is humans fully alive",  an insistence that healthy psychology and healthy theology go hand in hand (and healthy psychology requires in turn healthy sexuality), and  a strong underpinning of Ignatian Spirituality, in which we find God in all things - even in persecution and exclusion by the church.   You can take McNeill out of the Jesuits, but you cannot take the Jesuits out of McNeill, and I thank the Lord for that.

Central to this thinking is that the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in our lives and in the world.  In a context where official teaching on sexuality out of Rome is so obviously misplaced and psychologically unhealthy, it is too easy too lose one's spiritual bearings.  McNeill reminds us that where Rome fails, the Holy Spirit is permanently at hand for guidance  - we need  only ask.

He goes further. In an important address to Dignity, reprinted in this book, he speculates on the active participation of the Holy Spirit in the church of today,  directly intervening in a 'Kairos Moment ' to restore a proper balance between what has been the unbridled power of the papacy and the rest of the Church.  (I am delighted that I have secured permission from McNeill to post this address in full  on this blog, here.) At the time of writing, it was prescient.  Given the turmoil in the church in recent weeks, and the resistance of so many to the series of Vatican fiascoes, I suspect we may now be seeing signs of just this intervention.  As evidence, just see how Benedict has been forced to react to outrage over the most recent disaster concerning the SSPX by completing a nearly complete turnaround. What at one time appeared to be a slap in the face for the spirit of Vatican II has now become a firm endorsement of it!

This book may not contain significant new writing by John McNeill, but no matter.  If you have not yet had the benefit of enjoying his exuberance, this will be an excellent introduction.  If you have read the earlier books, then you should still buy it, read it, and circulate it, to join the celebration.

John McNeill, thank you.

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The Value of Experience as Spiritual Self-Defence

I referred yesterday to a post on Nihil Obstat in which Ned O'Gorman paints quite a depressing picture of the difficult position in which the established church puts us LGBT Catholics. He refers specifically to how some people enter heterosxual marriage to maintian some form of acceptance. As this goes directly to my own experience,