Saturday, April 01, 2006

Heading Down the Old Schism Trail

In an earlier blog entry I expressed my belief that the Catholic Church in the United States is likely to face increasing harrassment from the media, hostile interest groups and organizations, and eventually government, at least at the state level, which could in time even amount to what might be characterized as a mild persecution. A good deal of this is likely to be led by persons who were once Catholics themselves and now feel, for various reasons, angry and hostile toward the institution whose teachings they have come to reject. But the Church in this country should perhaps also steel itself against a second, distinct though related threat: a formal schismatic movement on the part of people who will maintain that they are still faithful Catholics — indeed, that they represent "true" American Catholicism.

I am inclined to agree with those who have maintained over the last few years that there is already a de facto schism in the Church in this country, but one which has been resisting the temptation to formalize itself and even refutes any attempt to point out that it exists. This informal schism that dare not speak its name, often flying the false flag of "fidelity to the spirit of Vatican II," is centered in the groups belonging to the coalition called "Catholic Organizations for Renewal." Whether in fact this "coalition" consists of anything more than a Web site full of links, some of them dead, is not at all evident; but the organizations listed, including both US and Canadian branches of Frances Kissling's "Catholics for a Free Choice,"
— a rogues' gallery indeed! — pretty much define the contours and the content of the general movement I have in mind.

Over the last several months, even in the secular press, there have been ever more frequent references (most recently in connection with the gay adoption flap) about the possibility of "catholic" institutions or agencies without the capital "C," or about the fact that "American Catholics" are not just Catholic Americans, but rather constitute a special breed, apart from and to a great extent opposed to "Roman" Catholics, that is, those who remain loyal to such distant, oblivious, anachronistic, and irrelevant figures as the Pope and his power-hungry (indeed, probably crypto-fascist) Vatican. I wish that what I have just written were a caricature, but I am afraid that it is not.

Now comes Robert Blair Kaiser, who began his career as a Jesuit scholastic with a somewhat different name, then left the Society and changed his handle at around the time he became Time magazine's man in Rome for the Second Vatican Council. In this capacity, Kaiser was, perhaps, after the pseudonymous "Xavier Rynne," the person most responsible for the popular impression of the Second Vatican Council as a titanic political struggle for control of the Church between "Liberals" (cheers) and "Conservatives" (boos). Presently he seems to be making a rather desperate bid to re-launch himself yet again as the catalyst for the formation of something he describes as an "autochthonous" Catholic church in America.
(The term "autochthonous" is derived from Greek roots meaning "pertaining to or derived from one's own soil; indigenous, native.") Or perhaps he is really only trying to flog his recently (14 March 2006) published book, A Church in Search of Itself: Benedict XVI and the Battle for the Future (Knopf, $25.950).

That title gives away the general tone of what is going on here,
which is an extension of the "good guys vs. bad guys" version of church politics which he helped to establish as a cliché forty years ago. It would be easy to dismiss it as dated and almost silly except that it has gained wide popular currency and is supported by a certain number of people (whose names Kaiser loves to drop) who are taken for intelligent and inflential. Hence, I am afraid that the sort of thinking that Kaiser's notions represent may have very serious implications for the future of the Church in the United States and for the unity of the Church universal. (Anyone inclined to doubt this might perhaps check out the text of an e-mail that Kaiser posted this March 27 to a Yahoo group he had formed for ex-Jesuits in 2002.)

What Kaiser seems to be promoting under cover of the word "autochthonous" is an American branch of the Catholic Church remodeled along the lines suggested by the constitutional forms and prevalent cultural norms of the United States and whose relation to the See of Rome would be analogous to that of the Eastern Rites, which are also sometimes described as "autochthonous" churches (although I think the term is much more usually applied to those larger, parallel religious bodies not in communion with Rome). This notion reflects an increasingly common idea among Catholic Americans that what is wrong with the universal Church is that it is not sufficiently in harmony with
contemporary American values, attitudes, and ways of doing things. This, it seems to me, is a sure-fire formula for schism. (Those with firm faith, steady nerves, and a nagging curiosity about what Kaiser and his associates are really up to might want to take a look at this Web site they have recently put up.)

Indeed, what Kaiser seems blithely to overlook is that most of these historically "autochthonous" churches were rooted in ancient, geographically distant and genetically distinct cultures and that for a long time they fell out of touch with one another and out of communion with Rome. In fact, the present Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church are for the most part minority groups from within these ancient Churches which at various times and for various reasons
once again acknowledged the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, while at the same time the majorities in their ecclesial communities remained separated, often bitterly so. Thus, the actual history of "autochthonous" churches, from the perspective of Church unity, is not a happy one.

But the idea that the "American Catholic Church" has become so significantly different from the "Roman Catholic" — and potentially so superior to it in its modernity of thought and degree of popular appeal — that it could and should rightfully claim a kind of special autonomy has become
widespread, it seems to me, at least in those parts of this country where the bulk of the Catholic population is thoroughly Americanized. It has certainly emerged with increasing frequency in my own private conversations with "cradle" Catholics in the northeastern United States. It often takes the form of assuming that the fundamental political principles enshrined in America's founding documents are so self-evident and axiomatic that they must always trump the doctrines and practices of the universal Church in situations of apparent conflict. This is another way of saying that these people are now more certain of their political convictions than of their religious beliefs.

At the moment the conflict of this sort most frequently cited is that between popular notions of the equality of the sexes and the Church's insistence that it cannot ordain women to Holy Orders. But usually discussion of this or other disharmonies between "American" and "Catholic" principles leads quickly to the question of the hierarchical structure of the Church. (The newly annointed King James I dimly perceived the problem when, explaining why he had no intention of introducing his Scottish presbyterian church policy into England, he uttered the famous maxim, "No bishop, no king." I wonder if he realized that it also perhaps works the other way around: No king, no bishop.) What is at stake, ultimately, in the very nature of the sacramental institution/community which Christ left behind him as the ordinary means of salvation.

[More on this topic next week.]


3 Comments:

Anonymous Oengus Moonbones said...

Today I just happened to come across Robert Blair Kaiser's book "A Church in Search of Itself" on the local public library's "New Book Shelf", and having never heard before of Robert Kaiser, I checked it out and started to peruse it out of curiosity.

It became obvious, and I recognized it almost immediately, that the book contained nothing more than the same old, self-important, Liberal Modernist twaddle that I have seen elsewhere.

But I at least now know who Robert Blair Kaiser is.

Sat May 06, 06:57:00 PM PDT  
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Tue Apr 24, 05:57:00 PM PDT  
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