Printer Friendly

In search of spiritual leadership.

Upon his retirement in 1981, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart lamented that his epitaph would probably be his oft-quoted phrase from a 1964 obscenity case: "I know it when I see it." (The "it" was pornography.)

He was right about the epitaph. His obituaries repeated that famous comment.

Justice Stewart regretted ever having made the remark because our cultural values had changed so dramatically in the meantime. What may have seemed to him "obviously" pornographic in 1964 is not so obviously pornographic today.

Compare the afternoon soap operas of the 1960s with those on television now or look at MTV, late-night cable talk shows, popular magazines and films. Times have changed, and so has our sense of limits.

But pornography isn't the only reality that defies the I-know-it-when-I-see-it test. Spirituality is another.

A few decades ago we had an abundance of Potter Stewarts in the church. They were unable to define spirituality, but they were sure that they could spot a holy person when they saw one.

They used what I would call a 3-P test: posture, pallor and physiognomy.

Holy people "looked" holy.

Posture: the head slightly tilted to the side, at about five minutes past 6 o'clock.

Pallor: drawn, with sepulchral gray hues.

Physiognomy: a facial map rarely disturbed by a smile; eyes cold and unfeeling; lips pursed; brows furrowed.

"Holy" persons looked like people who had just heard some bad news the rest of us hadn't been told yet. And they tended to prefer their own company, often in the back pew of a darkened church.

But times have indeed changed, and so has our understanding of spirituality.

Some of the types we once regarded as "holy," we now suspect were simply troubled - judgmental, self-righteous, isolated, ill-at-ease, uncommunicative, sexually conflicted people. And those were the sincere ones.

The others we called "pious frauds."

That old-fashioned term wasn't so harsh in its original context as it might sound today. A warm and witty auxiliary bishop once applied it, without rancor, to the ponderous cardinal-archbishop of a nearby diocese. (Both bishops are deceased and will remain nameless.)

A pious fraud was someone who affected a spiritual style and bearing. Many ordinary Catholics, having little or no direct contact with the person, were inclined to take the piety at face value. But those who knew the person well - friends, relatives, associates, or staff - did not.

The term is out of fashion today, but pious frauds still exist.

They constantly appeal to faith, to prayer, to humility, to sacrifice, to obedience and to the supernatural. They use many of the right words when they preach or write, but the words ring hollow.

It's as if they were drawing upon a script written by someone else - back in the 1950s.

They offer us a kind of boiler-plate spirituality, with little evidence of any personal appropriation.

We are given instead appeals to company loyalty: loyalty to the institutional church, loyalty to its rules and regulations or simply loyalty to the pope.

But to what extent is such a "spirituality" rooted in sacred scripture, in the teachings and ministry of Jesus himself or in the life of the spirit?

Jesus and sacred scripture have little or nothing to say about the issues that vex them most: abortion, ordination of women, homosexuality, birth control, priestly celibacy, doctrinal orthodoxy, papal authority.

And so we continue to search for spiritual leaders who can speak to the rest of us out of the depths of their own personal faith, ratified by the compelling witness of a life lived in accord with that faith, and permeated with an understanding and empathy for the problems and experiences of ordinary human beings.

Such spiritual leaders need not hold office in the church. Dorothy Day did not, nor does Mother Teresa. But many have, like Pope John XXIII and Cardinal John Dearden.

Spiritual leadership is among the most precious and urgently needed gifts God could bestow upon the church in 1993.

Pace Justice Stewart, I think we'll know it when we see it.

Father Richard McBrien is in the theology department at the University of Notre Dame.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Catholic Reporter
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Starting Point
Author:McBrien, Richard P.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 19, 1993
Previous Article:India Catholics see education system as agent for change.
Next Article:Interesting holes in the military mystique.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters