Posts Tagged ‘Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta’

A Day of Atonement for Blasphemy in a Seminary, 40 Years Later

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Today, on the Eighth of December, for Catholics the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, memories bring me back to another December the Eighth forty years ago. For me, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception has become something of a day of atonement. Please let me explain why.

In a recent post I mentioned my unhappy college experience in the late 1960s and early 1970s at Niles College Seminary, the former college seminary (campus closed 1994) of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and specifically cited a beer party on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, which the students had given a mocking and vulgar name.

This name was the “Immaculate F_ _ _ Party,” and this party began on December 8, 1972 at one of the Niles College residence halls, Thomas Merton Hall. Chicago’s John Patrick Cardinal Cody learned of this party in 1979 due to a dispute among the clergy when someone leaked the word to him, and ended it.

But for a time this party drew a few from around the Chicago seminaries and the archdiocese to stage a beer blast at the college seminary on a rather theologically inappropriate night, a night intended for the mystery of faithful love, the feast of the Patroness of our country, Our Lady, as Vatican II called her, the Mother of the Church.

Drinking by seminarians and some priest faculty at Niles College was always problematic for me. The young priests in my own boyhood parish had “taken the pledge,” as did many newly ordained priests of the 1950s and early 1960s, not to drink alcohol until the age of thirty.

The multiplication of alcohol in rectories was one of the unacknowledged changes of the Vatican II era. Witness the account from Margery Frisbie’s biography of late Msgr. John J. “Jack” Egan, when he was assigned as pastor of Chicago’s Presentation Parish in 1966:

There were some surprises for Jack, even in himself. “I’ll never forget the first night. I went up to (Father) Jack Gilligan’s room. Father Tom Millea and Father Jack Hill were there. I can’t imagine myself doing this or saying this. They were having a drink and there was a bottle of Scotch on top of the dresser. Now, we’re on the third floor of the rectory and here’s the new pastor, saying, ‘Fellows, do you think we should have a bottle out in public like this?’ I turned them off. I remember them looking at one another, thinking who the hell let him in. They had just got rid of Monsignor McCarthy, an old conservative, and now this guy comes along, Jack Egan, whom they know!”

Jack describes his reversion to prototype domineering Irish tyrant as “a certain type of rigorism that did occupy my life when I was given positions of authority up to the time I was at Presentation. I think I’ve lost it. I hope I’ve lost it, he says now. He had exploded at his surprised young associates in their own rooms on their own time. “Here was a man trained in YCS, YCW, the Christian Family Movement, and in community organization all through the fifties and sixties. Now I go into that parish as a pastor. I practically forget all my training. Why? Because I was scared.” Jack admits. He was scared of the huge responsibility he’d been given. Driven by that fear and by his gut hankering to succeed, he momentarily parodied himself. But he didn’t please himself. His bona fide style was eliciting cooperation, not demanding conformity. Jack Hill, now resigned from the priesthod, doesn’t remember the Scotch story. He remembers Father Egan greeting his new associates, “Well, guys, I’m home.”

Margery Frisbie, An Alley in Chicago: The Ministry of a City Priest, 1991, Sheed and Ward, Kansas City, pp. 183-184.

The moral argument to allow the 1960s young priests to drink hard liquor seems to be, “Can’t a guy have a drink in peace on his own time at the end of the day?”

But imagine what the Church would be like if Mother Teresa gathered her nuns together each evening, not for an hour in the presence of the Holy Eucharist, but around a bottle of Scotch. This contrasting, non-liquor ridden ideal of holiness never seemed to have taken root among a certain number of Chicago clergy of the 1960s and 1970s: “Sometimes, a guy just needs a stiff drink.”

For some among the post-Vatican II clergy, being free to drink alcohol was an essential expression of independence and freedom.
But this freedom only went so far. One friend has told me that a priest close to him left the priesthood for the very reason that he tired of coming back to his room and drinking alone each night.

The anti-authoritarian attitude of a few of the faculty in control of Niles College in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was similar. Although officially there was not supposed to be liquor in Niles College seminarians’ rooms, this rule in time was ineffectively enforced, and in some cases, and at some times, a faculty member’s refrigerator might provide beer to whomever among the older students wished to pop open a can.

It is difficult to reconstruct, after the word “enabler” permeated the culture in the 1980s, the prior particular attitude of “concerned let-be” inspired by the work of psychologist Carl Rogers in the 1960s that would let alcohol and some drug abuse run rampant through a college seminary. When coupled with Niles College’s late 1960s idiosyncratic interpretation of the humanistic psychology of Abraham Maslow that assumed that young undergraduate men, left unimpeded by any significant authority structure or limits, would grow inevitably to maturity without any pathology, seems to us today as incredibly naive.

But the formations approach at Niles College during the late 1960s and early 1970s was inspired by the highest ideals then current on the freedom of the human spirit.

A close reading of Eugene Kennedy’s contemporaneous contribution to the 1970s “priest study” (Heckler, Victor J., and Eugene C. Kennedy. 1972. The Catholic priest in the United States: psychological investigations. Washington: United States Catholic Conference), reveals such a strong focus on maturity and self-actualization, that pathology, outside of immaturity, was hardly considered as a possibility. But pathology is precisely among those things that we would up inheriting from the 1960s and early 1970s Niles College.

It is true that no authority was just about the only authority that the Viet Nam era young man, even the seminary young man, would accept. Hindsight is indeed 20/20, so it is easy to compute now that, if one mixed dozens of young undergraduate men into a seminary that at the time offered a deferment from Viet Nam military draft (and did not ask young men who no longer intended to study for the priesthood to leave the seminary in any systematic way, but let them stay for four years during which a few did little else but party), coupled with the widespread availability of alcohol and drugs, in rooms that offered little privacy, among formations faculty some of whom were still in their young 30s, and placed very few limits on the young men, with some students obtaining liquor from the faculty themselves, that literally all hell would break loose.

The high ideals of the seminary faculty, formed amidst a deep and resentful reaction against their own authoritarian pre-Vatican II training, were contradicted regularly by the disordered reality of the seminary they shaped.

I prefer not to recall how many times at the college seminary that I found a classmate retching with his arms wrapped around a toilet, or passed out on the floor near his own vomit or pee, or hovering at the door of another student in a state of buzzed obsession, or stiff and stupefied unable to walk, or crouched weeping in a stairwell in inebriated panic, or worse, in a state of soused rampage seeking to beat another student. Indeed, our only Latino classmate was driven from the seminary by the relentless, intoxicated vendetta of a bully whom to my knowledge was evidently never disciplined, because, apparently, he was one of the “boys.” I recall first meeting a noted theologian as he collapsed, “drunk on his arse,” on a nearby couch in the seminary rectory. I remember hearing of one fellow so drunk–perhaps this is apocryphal–that he could not find a part of his anatomy–“It’s gone!”–and who broke down in grateful tears when someone helped him “find” it. I particularly remember the “crying in his beer” soliloquy of a student whom decades later was jailed for pedophilia–not the misnamed abuse of a teen or a young adult–but real pedophilia with young children. How he was ever ordained I will never know.

When the press picked up on the “Woodstock” or “blame the 1960s” aspect of the John Jay study, Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM, of the USCCB reacted strongly against this analysis. Fortunately, Sr. Walsh cannot be expected to know even a fraction of what went on at the late 1960s/early 1970s Niles College, which did at times did indeed vie to out-Woodstock Woodstock.

One night working at an apostolate for troubled teens, I cleaned up a drunken young man’s vomit off the floor, and returned to Niles College only to find the dorm faculty on vacation and the dormitory filled with drunken and carousing seminary students and female guests.

I recall in particular one Spring day in 1970 when no priest appeared to say the morning Mass at Niles College, and a number of us enlisted our holy teacher of dear memory, the late David J. Hassel, SJ, who walked at our request directly from teaching us in his classroom to the chapel and celebrated Mass. (I highly recommend Fr. Hassel’s book, Radical Prayer: Creating a Welcome for God, ourselves, other people, and the world.)

Perhaps the most infamous “prayer service” at Niles College of that era was the Easy Rider-inspired ritual, which culminated with a motorcycle barreling up the aisle. I remember opening the windows to release the fumes from the chapel. At Niles College, aggiornamento apparently meant opening the windows of the church to let the smoke out.

Niles College of the late 1960s and early 1970s was in many ways a social experiment in the establishment of a free, permissive environment, an experiment–based upon an incorrect reading of John Henry Newman and a probably correct reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau–that not only failed, but that had terrible and costly later consequences in the number of abusers who arose from that environment.

Theoretically, it appeared that the students were expected to develop leadership by being cast into a chaotic and disordered maelstrom. In reality, some forms of order were never established, and great damage was done to some. (By the grace of God, a few other amazingly holy priests somehow survived Niles College). While many of the academic faculty of Niles College were proven, scholarly, and holy men, the formations faculty included men just a few years older than the students, some of whose perplexed attitude toward authority and alcohol mirrored that of the late Monsignor Egan in 1966.

One of the most difficult decisions I made was to remain at Niles College after my first week in the Fall of 1969, a week of what seemed endless carousing and partying by the students long into the night, making study all but impossible unless one hid in a remote corner of the seminary.

I remember sitting in the yard a few hundred feet opposite my dormitory and praying for a long time about my decision, since the college I had chosen was the most contradictory of seminaries. (One of my dear friends, now a missionary priest, was actively discouraged by his father from entering Niles College because of its reputation, so a number of us had advanced warning about what we called “The Niles Experience.”)

During my time of prayer, I reasoned that if I was called to be a priest in Chicago, and if Niles College was the pathway, and if the Devil himself had scrambled the seminary, I would ask God for the strength to persist and to live on to change the seminary for the better. (I was indeed blessed to return to much quieter though still troubled Niles College as a lay faculty member years later, 1992-94, until the day it finally closed and moved to another location under a new name.) I coped at Niles College during my own college days by throwing myself into volunteer work at mental hospitals, and at child care and correctional institutions.

Although it was in many ways unfortunate for me that I decided to remain at Niles College in 1969, by three years later, in the week of early December, 1972 when I had the opportunity to graduate early in the upcoming January, and I had made the decision to leave the Chicago seminary, I remember finding a flyer announcing the December 8, 1972 beer party and showing it to a friend. I debated with myself whether I should throw away the flyer, and simply purge myself of the memory. I first threw the flyer out, but later retrieved and archived it. I have never been able to purge myself of the memory, because of what such a beer party on such a holy feast represented for a seminary.

The Immaculate F_ _ _ Party served as a metaphor for me of how a seminary could go almost completely awry, and dishonor its very purpose and the source of its integrity.

With the passing years I came to view the choice of the evening of the feast of the Immaculate Conception for a beer party as an intentional “poisoning of the well” within the seminaries, a not so subtle rejection of Marian devotion and the place of Our Lady in Catholicism, part of a vain attempt by change agents within the seminary to form the illusive “unclerical clergy.”

By attempting to wipe out traditional “clericalism,” which included certain lifestyle practices meant to sustain clerical virtue, seminary change agents opened the doors to clerical vice.

I recall the mockery at the time that both students and faculty had for things Marian, such as the rosary, the color “Blessed Mother Blue,” Marian hymns, prayers, novenas, the Pilgrim Virgin, Lourdes and Fatima, and such organizations as the Blue Army. Seminary students in the early 1970s, unless they were Latino or Polish, where overt piety was tolerated as ethnic heritage, were mocked if they prayed the rosary. Earlier, one pious one close to me was purged from the seminary because of his “authoritarian personality” and Marian devotion by a priest who was finally almost 50 years later revealed as an abuser.

Niles College was quite a change from our early high school days in 1965 at Quigley Seminary North in Chicago, where as freshman (called “Bennies” because Benjamin was the twelfth son of Jacob, and the cycle of high school seminary in Chicago to priesthood took twelve years), we were encouraged to pray the rosary at least once a day. Quigley even had a club called the Beadsmen, who prayed the rosary after school or in between classes.

A seminary friend from that era of the 1970s tells the story of how he placed a statue of the Blessed Mother five separate times in an empty niche in the hallway near his room at the then St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, IL, the major seminary of Chicago, and five times it was removed, despite his public pleas to the contrary. He finally painted Mary’s image in the niche, where it reputedly remains to this day.

As a student at Niles College of the late 1960s and early 1970s, I like other students served as subject, whether witting or unwitting, in someone else’s social experiment: the construction of an experimental seminary “without rules” in which the students had to form their own social order.

A long-time and holy faculty member at Niles College, Fr. Stanley R. Rudcki, penned in 1995 an article on Niles College in the New Oxford Review entitled, The Tale of a Dead Seminary. I recommend this first-person account by a man of prayer, music, and culture who taught at Niles College from its beginning in the early 1960s to its end in 1994.

In an “Catholic samizdat” article entitled “Deconstructing the Seminary” on the Chicago seminaries that I privately circulated in 1996 and 1997 after years of reflection and after my own return to teach at a later (1992-4) Niles College when I interviewed key witnesses, I wrote:

If it is not an old proverb, it should be–that you should never poison a well, because one day you may desperately desire to drink from it. This adage brings to mind something of a Prometheus in reverse: while it takes a powerful titan to steal fire from the heavens and free humanity from the gods, any trickster can poison a well and sicken a village. In [recent] decades, a number of American seminaries have seen their wells poisoned–by intent, by neglect, by hubris, or by circumstance–and have become for a time sickened villages. These sickened villages have contributed to the many problems besetting the Church. During these decades, some unfortunate American seminaries have been run by faculties including titans and tricksters: titans who sincerely and tragically embraced bad ideas, and tricksters bent on the eradication of a lifestyle which they hated. From year to year bright-eyed young men called to priesthood by the example of Jesus of Nazareth have been forced to maneuver their way through the subtleties and hidden agendas of sickened seminaries. For the sake of these young people, one task of our age is to rebuild the sickened, deconstructed seminary. . . .

What happened? Nothing less than the continual deconstruction of what once was the largest and arguably the finest Roman Catholic seminary system in North America. This deconstruction, far from being the solely the result of demographic and cultural change, was also the result of conscious change-agency in Chicago seminary education. This change-agency included a reduction of the perennial or classical tradition and the by-passing of canonical requirements for seminary activity and conduct. This reduction was accomplished by a subtle dialing down of the thermostat of seminary tradition. . . .

Enough. I now take a big step back from my 1996 words above, and consider, with the perspective of the aging grandfather that I now am–and I never wish to claim to be anything other than a sinner–that while the Catholic seminaries of Chicago have in many ways been reformed thanks in great part to Francis Cardinal George, OMI, Archbishop of Chicago–and thankfully Our Blessed Mother is honored again in the Chicago seminaries–we as a culture have still not learned the “sobering” lesson of the corrupting effects of alcohol abuse on both the young and the old, and the importance of confronting this deadly disease as the public health challenge that it is.

Alcohol abuse provides a turbulent gateway to violence, to sexual abuse in particular–the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that each year “97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape”–to injury to hundreds of thousands of young adults and to death for over 1,800 young adults in the USA annually, with 25% of college students reporting that alcohol abuse interferes with their studies.

The scope and scale of the college-age alcohol abuse statistics today are dumbfounding. See them again here.

Alcohol and other drug abuse has not changed greatly over the past decades among the young. Alcohol and drug abuse helped lead to the wild late 1960s, early 1970s days of buzzed stupidity at Niles College Seminary. It was in this environment that a few ill–later to be abusive–men were educated and later unfortunately ordained. The Catholic generation of today, and the generations of tomorrow, will continue to pay the price.

While others debate many of the liturgical or doctrinal changes of Vatican II, few concentrate on the cultural changes, like the proliferation of useless meetings, or the introduction of microphones and sound systems, or especially the impact of alcohol abuse among the clergy and in seminaries.

Much has happened in the seminaries since the 1970s that led these church institutions to come to terms with alcohol abuse among seminarians and clergy. But the damage has been done.

So I agree in this respect with Sr. Walsh: The problem with Niles College during my years there, 1969-1973, was not so much the Woodstock culture. It was the alcohol abuse culture, one of the most powerful forces in human civilization, that still directly today affects by illness about one in thirteen adults and about one in four college students. Think of the wasted energy, resources, and all those student loans taken on by those with this terrible affliction. . .

Forty-some years ago, an idealistic group of change agents shaped, for what they were convinced were the best of reasons, a seminary without rules, but they instead succeeded in releasing one of the most familiar scourges known to man and to woman.

Although colleges and universities still struggle with widespread alcohol abuse to this day, seminaries are among the few institutions, if properly led and structured, that can minimize it.

Earlier this year, we buried a seminary friend from those days, who died, fifteen years earlier than his life expectancy, from the damage that the disease of alcoholism did to his internal organs. Binge drinking sneaked up on him in his later years, in a familiar progression for lifetime drinkers.

As he lay dying and we prayed at his side, I had time to reflect on the past five decades of his life, from a young, bright, promising teen, to an aged and broken physical wreck. His drinking habits were laid down, quite early in his life, in the Chicago seminaries.

“Albert,” he asked me, when he woke from a prolonged sleep, “Am I dying?”

“Yes, (his name), you are,” I said. “We’re here with you (and will pray with you, I thought).”

The disease of alcoholism and alcohol abuse is an attribute of the culture of death. This culture, and its effects, must be systematically eliminated from seminary and priestly life, for the sake of the bright and idealistic young men who begin the journey to priesthood, and for those whom they will serve.

The Immaculate F_ _ _ Party at Niles College Seminary on 12/8/1972 came but a few months after Pope Paul VI stated on 6/29/1972, “Da qualche fessura sia entrato il fumo di Satana nel tempio di Dio (The smoke of Satan has penetrated the Temple of God through some crack),” and expanded upon his remarks on November 15, 1972. But a few of us in 1972 were not then prepared to “put on the armor of God” because we had not yet learned our struggle was not with mere “flesh and blood” but with “Principalities and Powers,” as St. Paul warned the Ephesians (6:10-17). We were confronted then not only with the culture of death, but with the power of sin and evil.

So indeed, December 8 will again be for me, a sinner, a day of prayer and atonement, and also a day in which I am happy to report that Chicago seminarians can honor Our Lady once again, and learn from her who is so filled with grace that her “yes” to God helped promise us eternal life. May seminarians especially continue to turn to Our Lady as a paradigm of grace!

And may the Lord forgive our sins from the old, now dead, Niles College. . .

PS: Here is a link to the Office of Readings second reading for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, by St. Anselm. It was these truths that were denied to many of the seminarians 40 years ago —

From a sermon by Saint Anselm, bishop
(Oratio 52: PL 158, 955-956)

Blessed Lady, sky and stars, earth and rivers, day and night – everything that is subject to the power or use of man – rejoice that through you they are in some sense restored to their lost beauty and are endowed with inexpressible new grace. All creatures were dead, as it were, useless for men or for the praise of God, who made them. The world, contrary to its true destiny, was corrupted and tainted by the acts of men who served idols. Now all creation has been restored to life and rejoices that it is controlled and given splendor by men who believe in God. The universe rejoices with new and indefinable loveliness. Not only does it feel the unseen presence of God himself, its Creator, it sees him openly, working and making it holy. These great blessings spring from the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb.

Through the fullness of the grace that was given you, dead things rejoice in their freedom, and those in heaven are glad to be made new. Through the Son who was the glorious fruit of your virgin womb, just souls who died before his life-giving death rejoice as they are freed from captivity, and the angels are glad at the restoration of their shattered domain.

Lady, full and overflowing with grace, all creation receives new life from your abundance. Virgin, blessed above all creatures, through your blessing all creation is blessed, not only creation from its Creator, but the Creator himself has been blessed by creation.

To Mary God gave his only-begotten Son, whom he loved as himself. Through Mary God made himself a Son, not different but the same, by nature Son of God and Son of Mary. The whole universe was created by God, and God was born of Mary. God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God. The God who made all things gave himself form through Mary, and thus he made his own creation. He who could create all things from nothing would not remake his ruined creation without Mary.

God, then, is the Father of the created world and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life. For God begot the Son, through whom all things were made, and Mary gave birth to him as the Savior of the world. Without God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed.

Truly the Lord is with you, to whom the Lord granted that all nature should owe as much to you as to himself.

Amen!

© Copyright 2012, 2013, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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The Fr. Pfleger – Cardinal George Controversy: A Guide for the Theologically Perplexed

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Writers and the Christian faithful have been perplexed since the Archbishop of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George, OMI, suspended Fr. Michael Pfleger late on April 27, 2011.

Responses have ranged in a mix beginning with “Why would the Cardinal ‘go to the wall’ over this?” to “Can’t we all just get along?” to “Why suspend this priest and not suspend others?” to “A plague on both their houses.”

This article attempts to describe, for the sake of both the initiated and the non-initiated, a number of the theological issues at stake in this controversy.


Why was there such quick and decisive action by the Cardinal on Fr. Pfleger’s comment about looking outside the Church?

Basically, after years of theological training, it is less likely that a priest will make an off-handed, throwaway remark about theology that has no significance. When a priest publicly makes a theological statement about his belief or his own vocation, it is presumed that he means it.

Early Christian writers who considered the fall of Satan reasoned that because of Satan’s high intelligence and angelic nature, Satan’s rejection of God, even for an instant, was a rejection for all eternity. While priests are definitely not angels, or Satan, their statements about belief are taken seriously by both bishops and the faithful.

Because the faithful may have wondered what Pfleger meant about looking elsewhere, and the unity of the Church was in question, the Cardinal suspended Fr. Pfleger and asked him to take time to reflect, and then to state his intentions.

Isn’t Fr. Pfleger a good priest? Why not suspend the bad priests?

Bad priests are not the only priests removed from ministry. Some very good men who no longer wish to remain Catholic or priests, but who do not wish to leave their parishioners, can also be suspended.


Hasn’t Fr. Pfleger done a lot of good? Doesn’t that count for anything?

Fr. Pfleger and his parishioners at St. Sabina undoubtedly perform many Christian good works, following Christ’s teaching in Matthew 25:35-36, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, etc. Fr. Pfleger also has defended many human rights. He and St. Sabina parish have worked to advance education and community development, and to reduce urban violence.

But the question Cardinal George is asking Fr. Pfleger is not whether he is a Christian, but whether he is a Catholic, and whether he will remain a Catholic priest.

What’s the difference?

While the Catholic faith is difficult to definitively capture in a few words, I offer the following:

A Catholic–

  • is a Christian baptized by water and the Spirit in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who, after the example of Jesus’ mother, the Immaculate Virgin Mary, in union with the Pope and the Catholic bishops as successors to the Apostles, recognizes the same Pope and bishops as representatives of Jesus Christ;
  • follows Christ in union with the Trinity by living the Christian life of both faith and good works adhering to the whole of the Creed, the Tradition, and the Scriptures as continuously taught by the Pope and the bishops;
  • receives the seven sacraments at the hands of the bishops and delegated clergy, recognizing in the Eucharist–this Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in which Christ is offered and by which we offer ourselves in a sacrificial faith–the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ;
  • intellectually follows the path of both faith and reason, of faith seeking understanding, while holding the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas in a place of honor, nevertheless holds no official philosophy or ideology, continuing to recognize the truth wherever it may be found, because the Way, the Truth and the Life is Jesus Christ Himself; and
  • while stating a preferential option for the poor as an expression of human unity with the least of our brothers and sisters in whom we find Christ, and taking a general approach of subsidiarity and solidarity in addressing social questions, remains critical of both capitalist and socialist forms of civic organization, recognizing that the reality of love is not an idea, but is embodied in the living, resurrected person, Jesus, with whom we are called to become one.
  • As St. Ignatius of Antioch stated about the year 110, “Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, even as where Jesus may be, there is the universal [katholike] Church.” One of the earliest statements about the catholicity of the Church therefore strongly linked the Church to the bishops. This teaching was also strongly affirmed in Chapter III of the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution of of the Church, Lumen Gentium.

    The Catholic Church is not a congregational church formed around a community, but a sacramental Church–a sacrament being an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace (the original meaning of “sacrament” meant, “oath to the death”)–formed around Jesus Christ, with a bishop-successor to the Apostles serving as head.

    In his book The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, Cardinal George described a “Catholic sense of the Church” that both liberal and conservative traditions miss:

    “. . . a Catholic sense of the Church as mediator of God’s life and teacher of God’s truth, the Church as a hierarchical communion, an organic body that comes into being as the gifts of Christ are shared, a body to which one is joined in order to be changed, to be converted, so that, with the help of God’s grace, one can accept Christ’s mission to preach the Gospel to all peoples and transform the world.”
    Francis Cardinal George, OMI, The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, Crossroad, 2009, p. 159.

    A Catholic not in hierarchical communion, not in union, that is, instead in schism with his or her bishop, is on the path to break permanently with the Church.

    But aren’t the hierarchy themselves the problem? Why must there be a Pope and the bishops for a person to be a Catholic?

    Hierarchy has come to mean, in modern parlance, “top-down,” even “authoritarian and bureaucratic,” but its first meaning, from the Greek hieros, and the Greek archein, pertains to what is sacred and holy, and to one who serves as head. A hier-arch is a holy head of a church. The Catholic Church is hierarchical because Jesus, the very Head of the Church, is sacred and holy, and it is one of the missions of the Church to become holy, that is, absolutely good like God.

    In the Nicene Creed, Catholics recognize the Holy nature of the Church. To strive for a non-hierarchical church would therefore in a sense be attempting a church that did not seek holiness. A church cannot be holy if both its clergy and its laity were not called to be holy. And the clerical abuse scandals are scandals precisely because clergy were not holy as we expected them to be.

    Churches inevitably have those who exercise the role of “head.” If these heads are not holy, it is difficult for the Church to remain holy. It is the role of the bishop to call other Catholics to holiness.

    But isn’t the hierarchical, institutional Church still the Church’s root problem, and isn’t the non-hierarchical, egalitarian Church the solution?

    A friend and also fellow Niles College Seminary alumnus, the Wednesday Journal’s Ken Trainor, has in his 5/3/11 column described the theological viewpoint of some Catholics who are drawn to Fr. Pfleger:

    The beatification of John Paul II highlights the fact that the Catholic Church is, in actuality, two churches (at least): a John XXIII Church and a John Paul II Church. One is pastoral, the other hierarchical — horizontal vs. vertical. It was the hierarchical Church of John Paul II, concerned primarily with protecting the institution and defending its moral authority against perceived threats, that perpetrated the widespread cover-up of the sex abuse scandal, which, ironically, undermined that very authority.

    Fast-tracking John Paul II to sainthood at the very least looks like a desperate attempt to shore up that highly centralized, top-down, bunker-mentality Church. As Sunday’s ceremony demonstrated, this view of Church has many devoted followers.

    The John XXIII Church, on the other hand, is concerned first and foremost with living the gospel and bringing it alive in the modern world. According to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of human beings. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the kingdom of their Father, and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for everyone. That is why this community realizes it is truly and intimately linked with mankind and its history.” In other words, Church defined as “the people of God.”

    All the people of God.

    Ken Trainor does a good job of describing the popular preference of socially-progressive Catholics for a horizontal, non-hierarchical Church. But this view of the Catholic Church is incomplete, just as is the view of a hierarchy-only church.

    For starters, the Vatican II document to which Ken Trainor refers, Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, has a companion document, Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Both of these important documents address what is called theologically the Mystery of the Church, an awesome and transcendent topic requiring a lifetime of reflection. Both of these two Vatican II constitutions demand to be read and studied by adults claiming to be Roman Catholic.

    The Church defies complete and definitive description structured in one “direction” such as verticality and horizontality. It would therefore be difficult to sustain a credible view that there is a free-standing progressive church of John XXIII separate from a hierarchical church of John Paul II, who earlier as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was himself one of the very drafters of Gaudium et Spes. Some of the most stirring statements ever made from a Christian standpoint about social justice and working people were made by John Paul II. When one fights for justice for workers, one often unknowingly quotes John Paul II. So rejecting the “church of John Paul II” leads nowhere sustainable.

    Unlike the blood libel trying to pin blame for the Holocaust on Pius XII, which unfortunately stuck for decades and is only now dissolving in the face of overwhelming historic evidence, efforts to pin the priest scandals on the aged and Parkinson’s disease-ridden John Paul II are not about to stick.

    The closer one looks at Gaudium et Spes, the more it is incompatible with the modern progressive point of view. Many progressive Gaudium et Spes-only Catholics pass over the fact that Gaudium et Spes itself called abortion and infanticide an “unspeakable crime.”

    Then there is the inconvenient fact that “Good Pope” John XXIII himself authorized a document on 2/2/1961, Religiosorum Instituto, forbidding the ordination of homosexuals to the Roman Catholic priesthood, a predecessor document to a similar instruction issued under Benedict XVI in 2005, an act certainly not compatible with the views of progressives claiming to be Catholic. So the separate church of John XXIII is an imaginary church of an imaginary John XXIII.

    In a way I am happy that Ken Trainor also brought up the charge that the “top-down” church is principally responsible for perpetrating “the widespread cover-up of the sex abuse scandal,” because it allows me to point out that, in perhaps the wide majority of cases, it was the theological progressives themselves who ran (in some places, into the ground) the seminaries of the 1960s to the 1990s and who approved some of the worst miscreants in the history of the Roman Catholic clergy for ordination, in some cases ignoring strong warning signals that there might have been things very, very wrong with given candidates. One need only trace back to the seminary careers of convicted-felon priest-abusers actually jailed, and one might find some of the most lionized liberals among the clergy who did not stand in the way of priesthood or authority within the Church for these felons.

    Hierarchical cover-ups were more than matched in the Church by the naivete and perhaps worse of progressive seminary educators and their colleagues serving in clergy personnel. Both bishops and the seminary educators–and a few lay leaders in the Church–have much for which to answer. But we Catholics cannot step away, and pretend that the burden of healing, seeking forgiveness for, and even forgiving these scandals doesn’t belong to all of us.

    Both the “horizontal church” and the “vertical church” got it wrong in ordaining and in retaining the bad priests. All we Catholics are responsible for cleaning up the mess, because there was always only one Church, not several severed “directional” Catholic churches.

    Which brings me to the salient point of this section: that the very nature of the Roman Catholic Church as revealed by dual teachings of Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium prevents the Catholic faith from being “bracketed” and parsed like one might bracket and parse his or her politics, setting aside positions or agendas or leaders so that each person can have their own special political brand unique to themselves.

    In medicine and politics, we can take a personalized, designer approach to our DNA or our political allegiances. But in Catholicism, we must attempt to accept and believe the whole faith as taught through the ages from the Apostles to the Pope and bishops today.

    (See the modern theological summa by a graduate of Fenwick High School in Ken Trainor’s Oak Park, IL, Fr. Robert Barron, The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism, for a thorough walk through the concept of bracketing).

    In politics, one has the luxury of self-segmentation, in which one can disclaim the faults and mistakes of others, and therefore claim some form of plausible separation and therefore moral superiority, as is often done by partisans of many stripes. But in the Church, because of its organic, corporal unity, one cannot. One cannot step outside one’s body, and blame one’s body, claiming to be better than one’s body. One is one’s body. To Catholics, the Church is also our own body, shared as the Mystical Body of Christ.

    When one becomes a Roman Catholic, one joins in unity with both the Communion of Saints and the multitude of sinners, with both the City of God and the City of Man. One is linked by an eternal sacrament of Baptism to the whole Church and the Kingdom of God: to Jesus, to His Mother Mary, to St. John, to St. Augustine, to St. Francis of Assisi, to St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, to the Little Flower, to Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, to Blessed John XXIII, to Blessed John Paul II, and to all the saints, as well as to Constantine, to the Crusades, to the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, all the way to the vicious Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, and to all the sinners (among whom we also include all the saints, with the exception, perhaps, of the Blessed Virgin Mary). As has been attributed to the Irish novelist James Joyce, the Catholic Church can partially be described by the phrase, “Here comes everybody.” In politics, we bracket. In the Communion of Saints, we can’t.

    When one becomes a Roman Catholic, one embraces the best and comes to terms with–more precisely, forgives and seeks forgiveness for–the worst in human nature. That is why John Paul II’s concept of the healing and purification of memory and Benedict XVI’s theme of the hermeneutic of continuity are so important. Jesus Himself spoke in several parables of a Kingdom of wholeness that could not be separated: the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32), the yeast (Matthew 13:33), the drag net (Matthew 13:47-50), the wheat and the tares, or weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).

    In his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm noted that fanatics like Nazis had no place in their worldview or structure within their social order for forgiveness. Forgiveness is the first antidote to demagogy posing as true patriotism or as true religion.

    OK, but what’s all this have to do with Fr. Michael Pfleger?

    The daily, oppressive beat of violence in certain urban neighborhoods has awakened in some places a suffering church that struggles to face urban despair on a daily basis. This suffering church faces particular challenges, not the least of which for the integrity of its ministry is the temptation of demagogy. This demagogy or demagoguery is a deceptive mimicry of authentic Christian, and especially, authentic Catholic faith.

    Wherever there is poverty, misery, and/or profound unhappiness in a large group of people, demagoguery is never far behind.

    Modern demagoguery often builds upon a central cluster of myth that combines aspects of victim-hood with themes of superiority. This myth not only sets and strengthens the boundary for the demagogue’s group, but also reinforces the illusion that the demagogue is indispensable.

    In a sense, the more idiosyncratic and even false the demagogue’s myth is, the more useful it is in setting boundaries and establishing cohesion among those who follow the demagogue (see, the Big Lie).

    Both the myth and the demagogue tap into a profound need or longing in their followers. Typically, the myth explains to the followers why they are victims, not failures, why their victim status makes them morally superior, and how they can reclaim other forms of superiority.

    To the Nazi partisans in the 1920s and into the 1940s, antisemitism explained why the Nazis were not failures, but victims of a vast conspiracy. This racist, antisemitic myth promised the Nazi common man and woman the status of supermen previously denied their true legacy. A similar myth bound together the Ku Klux Klan, and also drives the antisemitic rants of Louis Farrakhan Muhammad.

    To the initial followers of Rev. Al Sharpton, the Twana Brawley allegations had to be true, despite the fact that a court of law found Sharpton liable for seven defamatory statements, and fined him substantially.

    To the fans of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., his HIV-US government conspiracy theory explained too much about the world and Rev. Wright’s essential place in it, despite the fact that the myth, as demonstrated by science, itself hurts public health by discouraging HIV sufferers from seeking treatment. To his credit, President Obama abandoned Wright in 2008 over this wacky, but still widely-held, conspiracy theory.

    Each of these three recent demagogues, Farrakhan, Sharpton, and Wright, have found solidarity in Fr. Michael Pfleger. The reason for this solidarity is not that demagogues naturally stick together–although demagogues are sometimes mutually useful to each other, if not used by each other–but that each of them have joined, in their own particular way and style, in serving an even greater myth, the myth of transcendent nationhood, one of the most powerful themes in African American culture. More precisely, this is the myth of the return of the lost nation, denied to generations of persons of African descent by the cruel oppressions of slavery, war, and discrimination.

    The demagogue promises a worldview that attempts to sum together all aspects of life, and also offers a public platform on which to celebrate this coherence, but with a difference–the demagogue offers a myth defining its own reality that ultimately cannot be sustained or realized.

    The demagogue takes the short-cut path of outrageousness to fame, rather than the steady climb to truth and authenticity, which is based upon good works complemented both by faith and reason.

    In many urban ministries this myth of the lost nation has converged with themes of the Kingdom of God, of Dr. King’s “beloved community,” of the Civil Rights movement, of the American Dream, and of music and cultural activity, to make religion, politics, and the arts all of one piece. This convergence of mythology and activity provides a basis for public unity. In such a worldview, an ostensibly Roman Catholic parish such as Fr. Pfleger’s St. Sabina can be offering a talk for purchase on its web page by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. But it is precisely this mythic convergence that conflicts with true Catholic religion, the Kingdom of God realized first in the person of Jesus Christ. A mythic convergence borders upon the “peace the world cannot give” (John 14:27).

    It would have been astounding thirty years ago to imagine Catholics on the socially progressive side of the aisle finding a hero in a man who did not speak out publicly against the antisemitism of a Farrakhan, did not strongly differ with the pro-abortion pandering of a Sharpton, or did not openly smack down the malicious HIV conspiracy theories of a Wright, and who himself publicly insulted a female presidential candidate, but that is precisely what these Catholics have done in rallying to Fr. Michael Pfleger.

    So this controversy is actually about defining “true Catholic religion”?

    In part. This controversy is fundamentally about whether Fr. Pfleger is a Catholic, and whether he decides to remain a Catholic priest.

    A secondary question, not spoken of directly by Cardinal George in this instance, remains whether Fr. Pfleger’s pastoral ministry has been compromised by his general silence on moral topics important to the Catholic tradition.

    Pastors face very serious challenges, especially about their own purpose and motivation for ministry. At the beginning of his ministry, Christ Himself was tempted in the desert:

    Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry.

    The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.”

    He said in reply, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.'”

    Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'”

    Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.'”

    Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”

    At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.'”

    Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.
    Matthew 4:1-11

    Like Jesus in the desert, the religious leader is tempted by appetite, by self-serving fame and glory, and by power. Over the centuries, the “evangelical counsels” of poverty, chastity, and obedience arose in Catholicism as a partial antidote to these three temptations.

    But to the modern, post-Enlightenment and post-Reformation mind, the most difficult of these Catholic counsels or traditions to accept is obedience.

    Thirty-six years ago this very day, 5/14/75, I was present in the back end of the chapel of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, IL on ordination day, when Michael Pfleger knelt before his bishop, placed his hands in those of John Patrick Cardinal Cody, looked directly into his eyes, and responded positively when Cardinal Cody asked, “Do you promise me and my successors obedience and respect?”

    At the moment of these promises at this and perhaps other ordinations of the era, “Priests shouldn’t lie,” in stage whisper came from a wiseacre priest among the group packed in the back of the chapel, followed by a few cackles from the clerical peanut gallery.

    This cynicism was typical of many Chicago clergy then, and to a lesser extent now. This very act of obedience to Cardinal Cody in particular I, a child of the times, earlier couldn’t imagine myself doing, and by 1975, I had taken another path, being already married and a young father.

    But Michael Pfleger indeed made this promise of obedience, in public, on his knees, thirty-six years ago to the day of this writing. I was there to see it. So what, indeed, does such a promise of obedience mean?

    For many at the time, this act of obedience was simply an empty formula spoken so that ordination could continue, something of a Promethean act of stealing fire from the heavens for the good of others. Once ordained, the “real” work of the priesthood, the “building of the Kingdom of God” on earth through acts of social justice could move forward.

    This theory that the church of social justice was the real church was as alive then as it is now. First, a man needed to get the power of the priesthood, in order to leverage that power to do good. So, you say a few meaningless words in front of “the Man,” so what? This rationale still remains strong among some in the Chicago presbyterate, who hold that social justice transcends all. The church of Matthew 25, of the Corporal Works of Mercy, appeared to be the “real” church.

    But I wonder. There is also the church of John 6, of Jesus’ teaching that his Body was real food without which one could not have eternal life, a teaching for which he was willing to endure many of the crowd and of his followers to walk away from him. Remaining at his side was Cephas, Peter, the rock, who said, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God. (John 6:68).” Note again here the theme of the holiness of God.

    Would Jesus have spent three years teaching about all manner of things besides social justice, would he have called the Twelve to Him and taught them about His own Body and Blood as being essential for eternal life, and stress these points to the degree that people walked away from Him, if His only priority was to establish a Church based upon Matthew 25 alone? Not likely at all.

    Cardinal George’s 4/27/11 letter to Fr. Pfleger was such a “walk-away moment,” for which the Cardinal was willing to endure many levels of controversy in order to appeal to the faith of a pastor, Fr. Pfleger, to ask him in a sense to recognize that the Catholic Church is both a “Matthew 25” Church and a “John 6” Church, and to see that obedience to one’s calling, in the person of one’s bishop, is a moment both of grace and virtue, consistent with Christ’s own rejection of the temptations of ministry.

    This is the “Catholic difference” from Protestant traditions: that there is a person, a bishop, acting in the tradition of the Apostles, responsible for calling Fr. Pfleger back to the Church, and reminding him that his promise to obey and respect back on 5/14/75 was not meant for pro-forma, perfidy, or perdition, but for his own salvation, and thus the salvation of those whom he serves. Fr. Pfleger’s unity with his bishop has very much to do with not only the connection between the St. Sabina’s parishioners and the Kingdom of God, but with their connection with the Communion of Saints.

    The bishop’s calling is to anchor others to the faith. Without such an anchor and authority, it is anyone’s guess whether one is acting out of the temptation of human ambition, or out of faith. Thousands upon thousands of Protestant pastors have split away their congregations from others over individual interpretations of the Scriptures. Catholicism answers the question, “By what authority? (Luke 20; John 5:30-32)” by pointing to Christ’s obedience to the Father, and to the bishop’s, and our, obedience to Christ.

    To politicians and political Christians who see a churches like St. Sabina as institutions of social stability and the kind of church they can understand, the Cardinal’s stance is a puzzle and an irritant. Imagine, a bishop actually acting like, well, a bishop, as if theological questions really mattered, when we have gun violence and poverty to fight!

    Much could be said about the social, political, and factional forces that have aligned in the Fr. Pfleger-Cardinal George controversy, but I will refrain for now, as interesting as they may be, because they are secondary to the question of Fr. Pfleger’s faith.

    What we have here, therefore, is not “a failure to communicate,” but a Catholic priest who needs to have a bishop in order to claim to be Catholic, being confronted by this same bishop asking him to do something that he apparently doesn’t want to do.

    So, whither Fr. Pfleger?

    Fr. Pfleger has a decision to make, and the major choices involve either becoming a Protestant, a marginal Catholic, or remaining Catholic and deepening his Catholic commitment.

    Fr. Pfleger could become a Protestant or a marginal (Vatican I schism, Utrecht) Catholic, but then he would be like any other inner-city pastor, dependent on political “preacher money” from whatever politician he can convince that he and his congregation are important. He may go the way of Rev. George Augustus Stallings, Jr. and Imani Temple, and lose national notoriety, upon which his national status as a Catholic exception depends.

    Or Fr. Pfleger can reconfirm his commitment to being a Roman Catholic. To do so, he will not have to do anything like the scene in Superman II, in which Superman must “Kneel before Zod.” But he will have to accept another Church assignment as other pastors do, perhaps after a sabbatical, as other pastors do.

    Such a departure will not be the end of St. Sabina’s parish or school, or Fr. Pfleger. If the work of the parish and school are truly grounded in God the Trinity as taught by the Catholic faith, they will continue. The work of Fr. Pfleger to be transmitted to memory and tradition, as the work of so many great pastors has been transferred. If Jesus had to “go away” in order that his disciples could be led by the Spirit, so much more so should Fr. Pfleger. If what he has given to the parish has been of the true faith, the Spirit will lead his people on. The longer he stays, at this point, the more the true spirit, and purpose, of his ministry comes into question.

    Here follows also my own suggestion for Fr. Pfleger: During his time of reflection, he might consider clarifying, as St. Augustine did near the end of his life, some of his earlier statements. But this writing should be in Fr. Pfleger’s own words, and not edited by theological partisans, such as his recent biographers.

    The following statement might be among those that Fr. Pfleger might consider, and clarify in terms of his own position: A Catholicism that does not clearly, unequivocally, and publicly reject evils like antisemitism, abortion, and destructive HIV-conspiracy-theory demagogy, especially when spoken by one’s friends, is compromised Catholicism. For example, the pro-life efforts of the National Black Catholic Congress have been notably absent from Fr. Pfleger’s public work.

    The prophet Ezekiel spoke of the duty of a prophet:

    If a virtuous man turns away from virtue and does wrong when I place a stumbling block before him, he shall die. He shall die for his sin, and his virtuous deeds shall not be remembered; but I will hold you responsible for his death if you did not warn him.

    When, on the other hand, you have warned a virtuous man not to sin, and he has in fact not sinned, he shall surely live because of the warning, and you shall save your own life.
    (Ezekiel 3:20-21)

    In this case, Cardinal George, the archbishop, has prophesied to Fr. Pfleger.

    I have been praying for Fr. Pfleger, that he may choose well, and live forever!

    © Copyright 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
    All Rights Reserved

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