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object lesson

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Oct 06, 2003

Just Good Company is an online magazine edited by ex-Jesuit Robert Blair Kaiser, and sounds a note of wistful, mildly cranky nostalgia for the lost causes of 1960s Kumbaya Catholicism -- i.e., the laments concern contraception and married priests rather than women's ordination and gay rights. For the most part, the contributors whinge rather than shout. The current issue includes a reflection by Orbis Books editor Bill Burrows on the predicament of the present:

Too many of us Catholics, perhaps especially on the left, where I still put myself in spite of what I've been writing, have lost touch with the mystery of God-within-among-and-between-us. It's become a matter of causes. I once wrote somewhere that there are strands of OT literature that indicate God was withdrawing his blessing from Israel because of its unfaithfulness. The Exile in Jeremiah's theology was such a chastisement. Of course, the withdrawal was not an abandonment of the covenant. Just a bit of tough love. Christians reading that, especially Catholics, think of NT promises of Jesus to be always with the church. It couldn't happen to us. I think it may be happening. Or that it could happen.

As I read Burrows, the "it" that we used to think "couldn't happen to us" is that Jesus might cease to be with the Church, and I take it that Burrows believes Jesus may be withdrawing himself from the Church -- or at least that the possibility is a conceivable one.

Burrows comes across as an honest and thoughtful man, expressing his convictions and hesitations with sincerity and candor. Yet his reflection provides a perfect demonstration of the futility of efforts like the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, which purport to be a means of reconciliation between liberals and conservatives. He's no polemical street-fighter; he admits that something valuable has been lost; he wants a closer relationship to God -- and yet it's an open question for him whether Christ is with the Church.

Perhaps it seems to Burrows (and company) that this is an admission of no great importance, but to orthodox Catholics it's fatal. And final. It means that Common Ground-style dialogue between conservatives and liberals of Burrows's camp is, in reality, on the same order as Christian-Muslim dialogue and must remain so. Yes, we can agree to tone down the language of our polemics; yes, we can agree to look for shared convictions and foreground them at a press conference. But among Catholics the one thing that can't be up for grabs is whether or not Christ is with his Church to protect her (under all the relevant Vatican I conditions) from error. If you say, "Jesus wasn't guiding the Church in her teaching about contraception but he does guide her in her teaching about most other things," you have stepped outside the Church's teaching about herself, and you can't get back in again by adding exclamation marks (so to speak) after your protestations of loyalty to the 90%, or 95%, or 99% of the Catholic teaching that you happen to agree with.

Now a complicating factor is that most bishops agree with Burrows and Kaiser about the Church -- not surprising, considering they were educated in the same places and in large measure by the same teachers. As good company men, most bishops are more discreet that Burrows in saying publicly what they believe, and they often hint that the desired changes in teaching will take longer to develop than Call to Action and more impatient liberals would like, but if they disagree with Burrows and Kaiser it concerns means rather than ends.

The paradox is that most Catholics are governed by bishops who themselves are non-Catholic or only functionally Catholic: obedient to Rome, their allegiance is a managerial expedient rather than a conviction of mind, will, and heart. In the language of Athanasius, they are schismatics; in the language of Cardinal Maida, "team players." It is in the worst possible taste to point this out.

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