(Reprinted, with permission, from the November
1997, issue of Catholic World Report,
which is published monthly except bimonthly Aug./Sept. by Ignatius Press, 2515 McAlister Street, San Francisco, CA 94118. Subscription: $29.95 per annum.)
Most of us who are "cradle Catholics," and remember the days before Vatican II, have experienced some form of dispute within our own parishes--a dispute which was the outgrowth of changes wrought in the wake of that Council. Just as it has been said that "all politics is local," it is natural that great theoretical problems often find expression in particular communities. Through such local disputes, then, we can witness one small portion of a much larger drama.
The recent book by Washington journalist Jim Naughton, Catholics In Crisis: An American Parish Fights For Its Soul, attempts to tie together the particular and the general. Naughton describes the controversy surrounding one man decision to protest against "sexism" in the Church by standing throughout the entire Mass, one Sunday after the next, for what was, at the time the book was written, nearly three years.
Holy Trinity Church, administered by the Jesuits in the Georgetown section of Washington, DC, has long been associated with contention and controversy, and has attracted a huge following from both sides of the Potomac River. It is small wonder, then, that as absurd as this one man's protest may appear, it drew enormous attention. We read as parishioners find their friendships strained to the breaking point, as witnesses to the controversy take up sides. We are invited to observe the inner workings of the local Church, as parish clergy and archdiocesan officials struggle to contain the attention spawned by the protest, while at the same time undertaking the selection of a new pastor. We are treated to various slice-of-life vignettes of various souls engaged in spiritual struggles of their own. Some are involved in the crisis generated by the protest, while others just passing through. One special struggle is that of the incumbent pastor, who must come to grips with his own conscience and the faith he has been called to proclaim. His struggle is at the heart of parish life, and therefore the heart of Naughton's book.
Naughton's work does have something to teach us--about how we as Catholics have dealt with a contemporary crisis of faith, both individually and collectively, as we approach the third millennium. The book cannot be dismissed, but to learn its true lessons, it must be read from a perspective that the author surely never intended.
Holy Trinity is the oldest Catholic parish in what is now the nation's capital, with a history that stretches back for over two hundred years. It is nestled in the heart of Georgetown, a fashionable section of Washington that has a life and pace all its own--truly a city within a city. Like many urban parishes in recent years, especially those run by orders like the Jesuits, Holy Trinity has lost the dominance of those few residents left in its vicinity, and has attracted others from the suburbs and beyond. Naughton describes the parish as "the place where alienated Catholics take their first steps back into the Church." It might more accurately be considered a haven for those who do not quite fit in anywhere else. This category *can* include those who neither left, nor rebelled against, the Church.
Naughton describes his own role as less of a participant than "strictly journalistic." This is less than completely honest. Throughout the story, most supporters of Church teaching are depicted as fanatical or unreasonable, if not as outright buffoons. Most of those who dissent from the Church are shown as kind and compassionate souls, engaged in an angry yet honest show of indignation, in the face of their cruel and heartless shepherds. As to those shepherds--the archbishop and his auxiliary bishop--they are portrayed as being entirely out of touch with the situation. Naughton may never have served on a parish committee, but certain elements within the parish could not have arranged for more effective propaganda than this work.
The story begins with a parishioner named Ray McGovern, who attends the "Family Mass" at 9:15 on Sunday morning. His daughter takes exception to a catechism lesson on Holy Orders. If women cannot be admitted to Holy Orders, she reasons, she wants no part of the lesson. The rest of the class, if she can help it, will have no part of it either. The father is so moved by his daughter's presumption of heroism that he takes it upon himself to take up her cause--right in front of everyone. So begins what becomes known as "The Standing." Eventually other parishioners join him, either by standing in their pews during the entire liturgy or by wearing "stoles" fashioned out of long blue ribbon. These actions draw an immediate reaction from laity and clergy alike. Most members of Holy Trinity parish, we are led to believe, actually support the ordination of women, if not the method by which McGovern chooses to make his point.
McGovern does not appear answerable to anyone. The priests, on the other hand, know that insofar as the protest calls public attention to the parish, sooner or later they will have to deal with this latest episode. That does not stop one young associate pastor from calling McGovern up to the sanctuary to join him during a homily. Naughton describes what followed:
When he was a little boy, Ray began, mommies weren't allowed to be doctors. He spoke in a chipper tone, trying to let the children know he was talking to them. Mommies weren't allowed to be lawyers and they weren't allowed to do a lot of the jobs that they do today.
Now, how many of you think it is wrong for mommies to be doctors? he asked, his eyes scanning the church. No hands went up.
How many of you think it is wrong for mommies to be lawyers? Again, no hands.
"Mommies aren't allowed to be priests," Ray continued. [original emphasis] And the people who don't want mommies to be priests use the same worn-out reasons that people used when I was a boy to keep mommies from being doctors and lawyers and all kinds of other things.
Now, how many of you think it would be wrong if mommies and sisters could become priests?
Let us put aside for the moment the question of whether this view of the history of the American workplace is accurate. Far more important, for our purposes, is the fact that this theological controversy is being played out for an assembly composed primarily of young children. The parents sit back and watch as their youngsters are manipulated by an effete and articulate minority. No doubt these children will grow up believing that their faith is not a way of life, nor a way to heaven, but rather a succession of ideological harangues. It would be no wonder if they left the Church when they became adults.
Recently the Catholic press has reported an initiative entitled We Are Church, which has launched a petition drive among dissident Catholics to collect a million signatures in an effort to influence Rome on a number of moral and sacramental issues. This campaign has adopted the tactic of collecting signatures from children in parochial schools, in return for donations to their schools. Some people might wonder where the dissidents got the nerve to use children in such a way. Those who read Naughton's book do not have to wonder.
McGovern's protest gives rise within the parish to the so-called "Working Groups on Sexism." In the rectory, there is some concern that the Archdiocese of Washington will come down hard on the parish--that perhaps the chancery will even take the parish away from the Jesuit order, which has cared for it from its inception. Yet despite this clear and justifiable concern, it is only late in the story that any attempt is made, at an authoritative level, to present the Church's own position on the ordination of women. (A theologian from Catholic University is invited to give such a presentation. Naughton's summation of his position is preceded by some juvenile commentary on the man's physical appearance and personal mannerisms.) By that time, of course, most people's minds had been made up.
The parishioners who are actively involved in all this turmoil constitute a very small group, and the protests are in evidence at only one of the seven parish Masses every weekend. The overwhelming majority of parishioners are too busy to enter into the controversy. Naughton offers us a look at some of these "ordinary" members of the parish community.
There is, for example, a young man coming of age who, having drifted away from the faith, hopes to find it again at Holy Trinity. As he deals with temptations against sexual purity, the faith seems to function for him less as a guide than as something one must work around. So he rationalizes his behavior, going from one affair to another ("The principle that guided him was...he did not make love until he was in love.") There are occasions when he is moved to pious talk of how God created us as sexual beings, but the reader never sees a word about the moral demands that accompany that gift of creation. Eventually the book details the consequences of this same mentality in other parishioners, such as women who choose to have abortions. We do not read of any men owning up to any responsibilities here; the poor woman fends for herself. In reading these sad stories one is reminded of what Bishop Fulton Sheen once said: that there is nothing worse than wasted suffering. Here we find a whole chapter's worth.
Throughout Naughton's account, he makes it clear that in the Holy Trinity community there are few boundaries to behavior, and few indications that people should adhere to their proper roles or acknowledge their true calling. The problem can be traced to the rectory itself. A young associate discovers that he cannot remain true to the celibate life. His departure from the priesthood is celebrated at the parish with a party, to which he is accompanied by the woman he eventually marries. The incumbent pastor faces the truth of his homosexual orientation, and leaves the priesthood to embrace the homosexual lifestyle in California. Those responsible for preparing for parish worship drew, in Naughton's words, "quiet satisfaction" from rewriting the official prayers of the Church. Their power extended even to changing the Word of God itself, as masculine pronouns and other terminology in Scripture were altered to suit their agenda.
We do meet those who are genuinely interested in the spiritual life, but in Georgetown in the 1990s, as throughout the history of the Church, the only effective reform began with personal reform. Naughton fails to make that connection. For most of the crusaders at Holy Trinity, the task at hand is less one of reforming oneself than of reforming the institution.
Naughton goes to some lengths to have us believe that, if only the Church would loosen her teachings and liberalize her practices, her faithful would be better off. Yet throughout the book, it is just such a loosening that is the cause of their sufferings. Surely our maker would know what is good or bad for us, and his laws would reflect this. But Naughton's explanations of theology, Church history, and ecclesiology, are less a reflection of the teachings of Christ revealed through his Church, than merely of one school of thought competing with another. This lack of certainty, this absense of absolutes, is reflected in the main characters of the story. It is not surprising that everyone involved, from the top down, has lost his moorings.
Eventually a new pastor is chosen, from among those associates already in residence. He is a renowned liturgist, an advisor to bishops on matters of worship, and an astute adminstrator. He is also, according to Naughton, a self-confessed, card-carrying member of the Women's Ordination Conference. He is the most tenacious of all the priests in confronting McGovern and his protest. Yet his affiliations lead the reader to wonder how persuasive he could really be.
For all the display of pomp and circumstance displayed at the installation of the new pastor, any authority exercised by the Archdiocese of Washington appears to lag behind developments within the parish. As this account draws to a close, McGovern is still standing, and life goes on. On the other hand, Naughton's portrayal of a tepid response by Church officals could in fact be a sign that the story is just beginning as the book ends. That this in fact is true can be seen from what has happened at the parish during the year since the publication of Naughton's account.
In January 1997, during the Week of Christian Unity, two female Protestant ministers--one Episcopalian, the other Lutheran--were guest homilists for the some of the Sunday Masses. At those Masses where they appeared, they were allowed to receive and to distribute Communion. The following April the pastor, Father Lawrence Madden, and two associates involved in the action, Fathers Paul McCarren and Douglas Peduti, issued a statement in the parish bulletin, to "apologize for any confusion these actions might have caused."
But the stage had been set. In the parish newsletter it was reported that Father Madden was summoned to the chancery for a series of what were officially described as "structured conversations." In June Father Madden received a letter from the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal James Hickey, ordering changes in pastoral practice. Among other things, the cardinal forbade alterations to the Lectionary, and prohibited preaching by the laity either at Mass or on other occasions of communal public prayer. A visitation to the parish by Auxiliary Bishop William Lori was scheduled for the fall. During that time, it was to be determined whether the various problems in the parish had been effectively addressed. Then the cardinal would determine the future needs of the parish. If necessary, the cardinal made it clear that he is (in his words) "prepared to bring about necessary changes."
To those who complain that their particular parish may be "too conservative," Naughton's work may serve as a warning: a scenario of what happens when the lines are not drawn well in advance. If you can change the Word of God in the readings at Mass, you can change the Law of God as it applies to your life. Jesus taught us to call God our Father; should he have he run it by a parish committee first? In her entire history the Church has learned many lessons, including lessons about the consequences of error and the necessity of being certain where she stands, even when it hurts. Many of her teachings are not easy to accept, even when they come from the mouth of Christ Himself--as for example in the sixth chapter of John's Gospel.
For those who would challenge Church teaching within a parish--those who call for more open debate--it is necessary to exercise more clarity. In any ordinary debate, the burden of proof is on those who promote innovation, rather than on defenders of the status quo. Today within many academic institutions, and in parishes like Holy Trinity, things are the other way around. Perhaps the problem lies in the debate itself, but in the fact that this debate it is not an honest one.
Then there is a need to understand what authority is, and what it is not. It is not merely the holding of power and ordering people around. That is a lesson for those at either end of its use; those who abuse power make it something to be envied, and something to be coveted. It is not surprising, then, that some women want to be priests. In point of fact women already have authority in the Church, but we rarely consider it as such. Mary exercised her authority in saying "yes" to God. Monica exercised hers when she told her son Augustine, with her dying breath, "Remember me at the altar of God." Macrina the Younger exercised hers in giving spiritual counsel to her brothers Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, both of whom are now acknowledged as Fathers of the Eastern Church. Catherine of Siena exercised hers in her stern letters to a Pope exiled in Avignon. In our own time, the late Mother Teresa exercised her authority at a National Prayer Breakfast, chastising the leaders of the free world for the slaughter of the innocent unborn. The list is endless, yet the recognition of that healthy sort of authority seems elusive to those whose darker motives lead them in different directions.
Finally, there is the need to understand the actions of the Ray McGoverns in the Church for what they truly are. Over the course of Naughton's story, McGovern gains the attention of those around him, and a book is written about him. This may be its own reward. Yet as he stands alone amidst the assembly, he resembles Holy Trinity Parish as a whole, standing out amid the Church in Washington. His gesture is not unlike that of Shakespeare's Hamlet, who reenacts the crime to "catch the conscience of the king." Perhaps that is why his fellow parishioners are so disturbed: they see McGovern as a reflection of themselves, and it frightens them. Their activism within the parish used to be a harmless intellectual exercise, until McGovern took the fun out of impertinence. Now everyone is watching, including those who still have the power to call them into account. They may have to explain themselves to a skeptical audience, intelligently answer a challenge, or even (gasp!) suffer for their beliefs.
But most of all, they must eventually make a choice--not unlike the choice Joshua gave to Israel in the face of their errant ways: "If you be unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve...but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."