Sunday, May 24, 2009

How can the unchangeable change?

James Carroll makes this challenging historical assertion (among many) in Practicing Catholic:

The psychological mechanism was basic: group identity followed from group threat. Humans know who they are by whom they oppose. From tribalism to nationalism, this polarity shaped human responses, with the dynamic taking extreme form in Europe after Charlemagne. What began in the Crusades [Europe learning to define itself in opposition to Islam] reached a tragic pinnacle with the wars of the twentieth century. That Europe was both the instigator and victim of those wars was the precondition of its astounding conversion, begun at the end of World War II and continuing through the end of the Cold War -- a conversion that amounted to a recognition that the East-West battle was unwinnable.

Pope Benedict saw moral rot in the fact that the magnificent churches of Europe were mostly empty, without asking why the world-historic European renunciation of violence (including the abolition of the death penalty, the condemnation of the abuse in marriage, the final end of colonialism, not to mention the Soviet empire's refusal to save itself through war) was accomplished by the generation that walked away from religion. Did that generation walk away from religion, and from Christianity in particular, because it was necessary if violence was to be fully left behind?

There's lots to quibble with in this; I imagine millions of Indo-Chinese and Algerians might have some questions about it. I could easily make a case that Europe abandoned empire only from exhaustion, ceding global hegemony to rising American power most unwillingly. Still, the idea deserves exploration that clamorous religious (ideological?) identification had to recede before more peaceful civilization became possible.

Practicing Catholic is that sort of book: thought-provoking for a wide variety of readers and ultimately gentle. By way of his personal story, Carroll makes a case that U.S. Catholics, despite the vigorous resistance of their religious authorities, have allowed their faith to evolve into a contemporary form that affirms the goodness of creation, creatures, and God Godself. It's been a tough ride, what with the Church's ongoing degradation of women, condemnation of birth control, and the hierarchy covering up for priests who abused children. But many have found liberation from a sin-obsessed self-hatred into a sustaining faith. Carroll's insistence that U.S. Catholic laity have managed this transformation is confirmed by recent polling. Despite the pope,

Catholics are more likely than non-Catholics to say that homosexual relations, divorce, and heterosexual sex outside wedlock are morally acceptable, according to an analysis by Gallup pollsters ...

There's a live and let live spirit in this.

Somehow these Catholics have lived beyond the contradiction that churns all religions that claim to offer authoritative teaching:

How does a church that claims to be unchanging change?

That's an important question for a lot of us who are not now and never have been Roman Catholic.


Darlene said...

As a lapsed Protestant I am not qualified to comment on this. I can only say that my reason for leaving the church was the amount of hypocrisy I found there. I also got tired of checking my brain at the door.

My personal feeling is that the church must change or become irrelevant.

Kay Dennison said...

As a practicing Catholic, I can tell you that there are those who still follow the old party line (and are probably the reason there are still a lot of bigots out there who hate Catholics) but most of us have done as I was once exhorted by a very wise priest when I was having a serious crisis of faith. That is, I was told to prayerfully examine my conscience and the answer would come. I did and it did and has become for me a good way to make decisions on moral issues.

And the church -- maybe not in Rome but in the rest of the world -- relies more on teaching the love of Jesus and God for everyone than the old doctrinaire stance.

A priest friend once explained to me that the Church has matured over the centuries and Popes like John XXIII and John Paul II have helped that greatly.

Trust me when I tell you that it isn't the church I grew up with and to that I say "AMEN!" I just hope I said this right.

janinsanfran said...

Kay -- what you describe has long been my experience of most of the Catholics I know well.

I loved Carroll's book and recommend it highly, especially to Catholics. I found it helpful since I am working these days to help my church (Episcopal) understand that changes (in our case, fuller inclusion of all the baptized in all the sacraments) will make us better messengers of and participants in God's love than we have been. We're getting there...

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