Fr. Roy Bourgeois, former Maryknoll priest and peace activist, left his religious community this week.
Fr. Bourgeois got in some trouble in recent years because he acted against the Church’s teaching on ordination. He preached that women should be able to be ordained as priests and went so far as to participate in an ordination of women himself.
This week, Fr. Bourgeois decided he could no longer belong to a religious order that demanded he recant his views on a teaching that conflicted so deeply with his own conscience.
Some found this courageous and prophetic. Fr. Bourgeois listened to his conscience and stood against a long tradition of injustice committed by the Church against women.
Others thought this was egotistical and confusing. His pride made him believe that his personal opinion outweighed Church teaching. The women in whose ordination he participated, and many Catholics who heard about them, were misled into thinking that they were actually ordained into ministry for the Catholic Church.
The question of women’s ordination is very contentious within our generation and I have spent many a long evening, especially in college, in the thick of the debate.
But the dilemma that Fr. Bourgeois’ removal raised for me was not about the ordination debate itself, but about how Catholics who disagree about this issue (and others) treat each other.
I read a chain of literally over a hundred Facebook comments responding to a post about Fr. Bourgeois. The comments derailed into name-calling about who is a “Real Catholic” and who is a “Cafeteria Catholic.” Some commenters asked rhetorically why folks who didn’t accept Church teaching on women’s ordination even wanted to be Catholic at all. I signed out of facebook much less affected by the issue of women’s ordination and Fr. Bourgeois’ letter than by the Catholic civil war that had erupted in cyberspace.
I admit that there have been plenty of times when I have quickly chimed in with claims that some Catholics were more Catholic than others. It took a bit of life experience for me to realize how harmful and unproductive these comments were. Through parish ministry, which gave me opportunities to walk together with a fifth grade Religious Education class, high schoolers, folks in RCIA, and peers who were committed Catholics who struggled with Church teaching, I realized that we’re all on journeys of doubt and belief — journeys full of confusion and grace and frustration and transformative power.
How many Catholics have believed for every moment of their Catholic life that the Eucharist is the real presence of Jesus Christ? Do they stop being “real Catholics” in the moments when they question these teachings? No, they don’t. Catholics who aren’t always sure about the Eucharist, or who don’t really think about it at all, are still “real Catholics.”
We all have some things that we struggle to believe, take seriously, or live out well. I do at least. While I am at peace with the Church’s teaching on women’s ordination, there are plenty of teachings I struggle to live well, and I still like to think I’m a “real Catholic.” Do we always believe God loves us? Do we listen to Christ’s mandate to care for the least of his people? We each need to cultivate a place of compassion for others, keeping in mind that we all struggle to believe and live our own faith.
So many of my peers and I — and many who have gone before us — have grown up valuing equal rights for women. Many of my peers view the question of women’s ordination through this lens. It makes sense to me that if we’re really trying to integrate faith into our daily life that these types of questions come up. It is through grappling with these tough questions that we make authentic claims about what we believe.
This makes me think of “Of God’s and Men,” a French film recently released. It’s a story of Trappist monks in Algeria who are in danger of being attacked by radical Islamists. When it becomes clear that the monks are in danger, they sit around a table and each cast their vote about whether to leave their monastery for safety or stay where they are. The superior of the community never forces them to accept his choice to stay, the choice that he clearly believes is in line with their faith tradition. The rest of the film follows the beautiful journey of different monks as they wrestle with the different options as the danger grows.
We have to ask the questions, even if they challenge centuries of Tradition, and we have to allow ourselves to sit in the tension and uncertainty for however much time we need. Wrestling with the questions doesn’t mean we’ll always understand the answers we come up with. But allowing ourselves and others the freedom to struggle with the things that don’t make sense is essential to authentic believing.
What happens when Catholics who struggle through questions about Church teaching decide that they don’t agree with the Church and yet still want to be Catholic?
They’re still “real Catholics.”
I have a deep respect for Catholics who disagree with Church teaching, specifically with teachings that mandate that they take a personal actions opposed to what they believe, and remain in the Church. This is very brave. It means that they choose to continue to belong to a community that will tell them that what they believe, and very possibly what they are doing, is wrong. And they will hear this message often and without much compassion.
The discussion surrounding the situation with Fr. Bourgeois is an opportunity for each of us to ask ourselves what we believe and why we believe it. It’s also a chance to recommit to being a people of faith who walk together on the journey.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced on Tuesday that 21 priests were suspended because of possible involvement in sexual abuse.
This week was also our monthly Contemplative Leaders in Action meeting in Philadelphia. We always do a “check in” to kick off each meeting. Several “check ins” included reactions to the priest suspensions.
On Ash Wednesday, one of the members of the group who serves as a Eucharistic Minister had been given ashes to distribute to someone who wasn’t able to make the service.
She works a second job in retail, where she went later that night. The ashes were in a Ziplock bag in her purse. When she got to her job she asked her sister, who was also there, if she wanted ashes.
Someone else saw her distributing ashes and came over and asked if she could have some too. A third woman from across the store saw what was happening and came over and said she had wanted to make a service, but couldn’t, and asked if she could also be signed with ashes.
What a powerful image. People she didn’t know were coming forward and asking to be marked with the sign of the cross in a retail store.
As this was happening, she received a text from a friend that said that the priest they grew up with was one of the 21 priests suspended.
Moments later, she was on the phone with her siblings and mother. The siblings were reassuring their mother that they hadn’t been abused. Her sister had been baptized by the priest, and her mother was concerned that the baptism didn’t really count.
These are questions and conversations that should never have to happen.
I heard her story hours ago and I still can’t shake it. How confusing that in the same moment, she experienced the best and worst things about church?
What does it mean that there are bad things and good things in the Church? Does the good make the bad less bad? Does the bad make the good less good?
I read Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Revelation,” on retreat a few years ago. The story is about a disgusting woman, Mrs. Turpin, who treats people awfully. Someone finally says to Mrs. Turpin’s face that she’s “a hog from hell.” These words gnaw at Mrs. Turpin, until in a moment of self-revelation, she cries out, “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?”
This realization of our simultaneous sinfulness and goodness seems very Lenten. I am a hog. And I am me, a me who is deeply good, at the very same time.
Is it possible that the Church is a hog AND that the Church is the things we love about the Church?
It’s completely understandable that people have left the Church, and continue to leave her, because of the abuse scandals.
It’s harder to believe that people stay.
Why do they?
What keeps me in is to hear that even with the news of the suspended priests, people were lining up to be signed with ashes in a retail store in Philadelphia.
From the “Surveys I Wish I Could Conduct” department: Poll every self-identifying American Catholic aged 18-35. Ask them to enumerate the Catholic Church’s five most important teachings. I know folks like Christian Smith have done neat longitudinal studies with American millennials across diverse religious backgrounds to look at faith trends in the generation. But I just want Catholics, and I want the Top 5.
So, for the comments section:
1) Does something like this already exist? Any Catholic stat nerds out there who could point the way?
2) What do you think the Top 5 would be for the generation?
3) What are your own Top 5?
I’ll chip in my own answers to (2) and (3) in a few days. I’m interested in the implications the results would have for the church; what they’d tell us about our formational efforts, including areas where we’re good and areas that need improvement; and what they’d say about this generation of Catholics at large. We might not be able to conduct a study, but I was an English major anyway, so let’s toss around some anecdotes and conjectures.
UPDATE (2/16/11): Before I take a crack at my answers, I thought I’d give a bit of background. The question emerges from my work in professional catechetical ministry the past 2.5 years. I’m afraid millennial Catholics’ understanding of the central teachings of the faith is generally impoverished. There’s most definitely plenty of blame to go around there, but I’m not as interested in that game as in learning where we stand and how we could improve our strategies and reinvigorate the message.
1) Abortion is wrong.
2) Sex before marriage is wrong.
3) Gay marriage is wrong.
4) Go to Mass every Sunday.
5) Christianity is primarily about being a good person.
These are clearly glib and overly simplistic, but I think that’s what it often boils down to.
My own responses to follow.
Gen and I G-chatted some final thoughts on the LOST? Conference. Check ‘em out after the jump. And please, please: contribute. It’s silly to think our voices are representative of an entire generation. So mix it up in the comments section, but go gently.
Gen and I are heading up to NYC tomorrow for Fordham’s LOST? Conference on young adults in the Catholic Church. Right up our alley. Lots of great speakers on tap, so if you can’t be there yourself, check back here throughout the weekend for updates and reactions from us and others.
And use this post as an open thread on the impossibly wide topic of twenty-somethings and the Church. Any questions for conference attendees/heavy-hitters Peter Steinfels or Jim Martin, SJ (or others)? Post ‘em in the comments section and we’ll see what we can do!
UPDATE 1/29/11: Live, from New York, it’s Saturday morning at a Catholic conference. Will be here throughout the day with some highlights and questions, after the jump. Please hit the comments section to chip in!
UPDATE (10:00 pm): Back in South Jersey after a long, rich day in NYC. My battery gave way around 2:45, and the only outlets to speak of were way off on the side of the auditorium, so I was left in the dark the last few hours. The 3:00 pm session started with a video of young adult New Yorker Catholics (and lapsed Catholics and non-Catholics) being interviewed on the street about their faith and the church. A lot of the same things conference panelists had been talking about on behalf of twentysomethings all day long, but it was nice to hear it straight from the horses’ mouths. Panelists followed up the video by speaking about an incredibly wide range of issues (conversion, martyrdom, campus ministry, psychoanalysis, intro theology courses, etc…phew!).
The conference’s final session was a wrap-up “where do we go from here?” discussion. I loved the way the panel’s moderator, Jim Martin, phrased his final question. I might/will steal it down the road. He had one question, he said, that he wanted to ask three ways. First, in business language: What are some best practices we can take back with us to help improve our company? Next, in academic language: Based on the data and our experiences, what have we learned? And finally, in theological language: Where is the Holy Spirit leading us from here?
Gen and I will offer our two cents on that question and toss up some final thoughts later on. And be on the look-out for a video with some reflections from twentysomething conference attendees themselves! What a thought!