“Many Catholics console themselves with this warm and cozy vision of ‘Holy, Mother Church,’ as kind and benevolent, forgiving all, welcoming and loving everyone who walks through its doors… That vision, however, is a day dream…” for too many!
“A Vision of the Church” by Eileen DiFranco, published with the author’s permission.
While campaigning for mayor of Atlanta, candidate Kassem Reed visited an elderly woman and took great pains to highlight the wonderful, gentrified Atlanta that he wanted to improve even more once he was elected. He excitedly told her about the new restaurants, the improved train service, and the upgraded airport. His vision of Atlanta was that of a world class city.
Reed expected the woman to share in his excitement, but she was distinctly unimpressed. Instead, she took Reed outside to show him her Atlanta, a place where grown men gambled in unfilled swimming pools and sold drugs from gazebos where families used to picnic. She didn’t take the train because she feared riding the bus that took her to the train station. And, she didn’t fly.
The woman completely deflated Reed’s ego, but he listened to her side of the story. He saw her vision and felt her pain and fear. Once elected, Reed acted on the woman’s vision of Atlanta. He filled those pools and got rid of the drug dealers so kids could swim and eat their lunch peacefully in the gazebo with their parents. Reed said that the woman’s vision changed his life.
Like the mayor of Atlanta the Catholic hierarchy also has a vision. Pope Francis would have us believe that the church’s vision is one of mercy. He can, indeed, point to hospitals and schools and missionary activity that help the poor as examples of the church’s goodness and lovingkindness. Many Catholics console themselves with this warm and cozy vision of “Holy, Mother Church,” a kind and benevolent institution, forgiving all, that welcomes and loves everyone who walks through their doors, an institution that behaves just like your own mother.
That vision, however, is a day dream, a pretty picture that takes an institution with a proven addiction to pomp and power and papers over it with fluff and nonsense. Allow me, an “excommunicated” woman priest to take you on a guided tour of what the Catholic Church really is to far too many people.
Rather than a kind, loving, sacrificing mother, the Catholic Church is, in fact, the Church Triumphant that prides itself on adherence to undemocratic principles because it claims to know the mind of God and thus follows divine will. To prove this point, the princes ( yes, they regard themselves as princes and are addressed with the title of “Your Eminence”) of the church assemble in massive cathedrals or in well -appointed hotels wearing elaborate vestments and huge crowns or watered silk cassocks with red silk cummerbunds- paid for by the laity -in order to impress the non-ordained with their power and circumstance. From these positions of power, they make life-altering decisions about the laity who live in a very different plane of existence.
Unlike the people over whom they rule, they live like the 1% in huge mansions with a staff that makes their dinners, cleans their homes, and washes their clothes. They have comprehensive health insurance, very generous vacation time, and a well-stocked wine cellar. They are neither hungry nor cold. Although different in degree from his predecessors, Pope Francis lives the life of the rich and famous. He hardly “smells” like his sheep.
Unlike Kasseem Reed, neither the pope nor the princes or the majority of their obedient underling clerics make much of an effort to engage the faithful in anything that resembles a meaningful conversation about the latter’s role in the church or the world. If an honest conversation does occur, it ultimately returns to the institutional party line which few clerics are willing to breach, at least in public, lest they lose their clerical privilege which sets them apart and above their lay counterparts. A comfy lifestyle with many perks is difficult to replace in a lay world where ability rather than caste is rewarded. It is easier to talk around the edges and pretend that the church is a kind and holy mother who really loves her children.
Rather than conversations, members of the hierarchy as well as many clerics preach and threaten and condemn. Far too many use the Eucharist as a weapon to bludgeon people for daring to be different. Even at funeral masses, traumatized people are directed by too many clerics NOT to receive the Eucharist.
Many bishops hunt people down who disagree with them like dogs. Some fire people and take away their pensions, in spite of the command of the pope to act with mercy. Sadly, very few either within or without the ranks stand up for the rights of those condemned.
Dr. Patricia Fresen of South Africa exemplifies this practice. Fresen was summarily kicked out of the Dominicans on a directive by the Vatican after serving God and her order for over forty years. With no job, no money, no pension, no health insurance, and no support, she was forced to move to Germany and begin her life all over again at age 65. Not one Dominican raised her voice in protest. Nor did any of the priests or seminarians she taught. They were all afraid. Not one has sent a penny to support her. What did Dr. Fresen do to deserve such a punishment? She was ordained a priest. Contrast her treatment with the kid glove care extended to pedophile priests.
The institutional church would also have the rest of us believe that it is the spotless bride of Christ who is incapable of error and holds her robes far above a culture that might soil her. It is, then, a perfect society. Thus, there is no need to listen to anyone except the members of the club. Nor is there any need to change or grow or adapt to a society it basically disdains (even as that society pays for the church’s extravagant lifestyle) and whose legitimate concerns are rejected as petty or sinful. Those members of the clerical club who disagree are shunned or kicked out of the brotherhood. Women like me get “excommunicated.”
No one is safe in this church in spite of its call to mercy; neither the ordained nor the laity and certainly not gay people, the divorced or women who raise their voices. Institutional spies comb web sites, marriage registries, and even Facebook for traitors to the faith. They attend allegedly dissident liturgies and report all discrepancies back to their bishops. All must conform their consciences to that of their bishop or else. Those who have lived blameless lives and worked for the church in love and faithfulness get kicked to the curb for not following official policy.
Yet, the faithful continues to support them and pay for their ongoing and unapologetic acts of intimidation and willful blindness because of a sense of community or ownership or in the hope that the church will change in the distant future. This support has unintended consequences that causes collateral damage to the most vulnerable.
Yes, the institution might run hospitals. But it fails to provide medically necessary health care for pregnant women and to women in general. The bishops’ guidelines would allow a pregnant woman to die rather than perform a medically necessary abortion to save her life. It refuses to recognize the value and necessity of contraception and sterilization as a means of family survival. In addition, it refuses to listen to the voices of women or recognize the difficulties many families experience. Meanwhile, the bishops live in the veritable lap of luxury where need, want, and job security have no meaning.
Money donated by the laity also supports some very bad habits: frequent junkets to Rome for ambitious bishops, outfits for Cardinal Burke that cost far more than any starlet’s Oscar night evening gown, lobbyists who work to stop extensions to statutes of limitations, and lawyers to protect clerics and bishops who engaged pedophilia and its cover up.
Of course, every institution has a good side and a bad side. However, the church refuses to recognize its shadow side and hides behind the very secular idea of a religious freedom that it does not practice so it can continue to engage in discriminatory and ultimately, sinful behavior. Criticism is, therefore, defined as persecution.
Those on the other side of the delineated altar must discuss the dark heart of the church in hushed whispers lest the “Fathers” hear and act. They must make endless allowances for bad clerical behavior. They must pretend that that they are being fed when they are really being annoyed by bad homilies, bad liturgies, and bad translations of liturgical prayer.
The hierarchy turns a blind eye to what is the “real” church to far too many people. They would rather conscientious objectors just leave and take their concerns elsewhere so that they can keep their own faulty vision intact.
The truth is that the institutional Catholic Church is, was and will be corrupted by power until the People of God put an end to it all. No one else within the institution will do it. Each one has far too much to lose. The People of God must cease to pay for their own persecution and realize that God is not the church, but rather the people of the church. It is up to the People of God to develop a kinder, gentler church that resembles the forgiving, merciful Jesus rather than the arrogant, unjust, unmerciful Casesar.
This is a vision worth working for.
Eileen McCafferty DiFranco