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Let's rein in church rage: you've heard of road rage? Well, the same kind of verbal abuse--and even threats of physical violence--are becoming increasingly common in the church. It's time to adopt a zero-tolerance policy to stop this bad behavior. (sounding board).

NEITHER HIS DIMINUTIVE SIZE NOR HIS AGE NOR his ecclesiastical rank stopped them. Nine women, voices raised and fingers jabbing at his face, swarmed the retired archbishop as he was leaving the auditorium after his presentation on the liturgical vision of Vatican II. "You're responsible for homosexuality," one yelled. "And abortion," added another. "You're destroying the church," another shouted.

"In all my days," the archbishop commented later, "I've never experienced anything like that."

Just as the priest started down the steps to distribute the Body and Blood of Christ, the occupants of the first two rows rose and blocked the entrance to the sanctuary of the late-19th-century church. When the priest tried to move through them to distribute Communion, the protesters refused to move. They were furious because another priest, whose ultra-conservative liturgical practices they had been following, had been transferred out of their parish and diocese.

I can still see the rage on her face as she spat her words at me: "What are you, stupid or something? This is disgusting. Imagine, you asked people to bring food to church on Holy Thursday." Other parishioners, busy filling the baskets in which the food would be carried to the eucharistic table during the procession with the gifts, glanced over at us, startled. I tried to explain; the woman angrily interrupted me: "Do you even believe in the Blessed Sacrament? I've never seen anything so gross."

You've heard of road rage, that violent behavior inflicted by one motorist on another deemed guilty of some offense? I call the kind of behavior in these examples "church rage"--verbal abuse, sometimes accompanied by physical threats, heaped on one person or several people, usually those exercising some kind of public ministry, by other members of the community.

In the past 10 years, verbal violence in the church has been on the rise. Attacks are becoming more venomous. These attacks, be they in the right-wing press (less frequently in the left-wing), in letter-writing campaigns, at parish meetings, or in casual encounters with members of parish staffs, spare no one. If you're a public figure--be you bishop, cardinal, pastoral council chair, or pastor--you're fair game. People will attack you, pillory you, lie about you; and you have no right to defense.

Sometimes what the attackers spout--for example, that liturgical renewal promotes abortion or sexual abuse or homosexuality--is just so nonsensical that attempting to respond is useless. These folks are in such a rage that they can't hear. Therefore, goes the conventional wisdom, responding gives the attackers the attention they seek. So just ignore it.

I CAN'T AGREE WITH THAT WISDOM ANY MORE. IGNORING such behavior, like ignoring other forms of inappropriate or violent behavior, only lets it escalate. We don't expect that our children will never be angry. But most parents try to teach their kids appropriate ways of expressing that anger. If a teenager refuses to comply with such basics, parents may eventually have to exercise tough love: "This behavior is off-limits. Here are the boundaries, and if you violate them, you can't live here anymore."

The law says the same thing to the person with a case of road rage. No matter what the external or internal pressures, the law still says you don't have the right to put your baseball bat through the other driver's window.

People might be angry at how an issue was addressed or be grieving the loss of a devotion--and they have a right to raise these issues with their pastors. But they don't have the right to plant bloody-minded insults in his gut ... or anywhere else on the Body of Christ. The anger, contempt, calumny, and vengefulness exhibited by those in a full-blown case of church rage cannot be tolerated.

If we must not ignore them, how can we respond?

First and last, charity from all, for all. The Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, speaks of full members of the Roman Catholic Church: "A person who does not persevere in charity, however, is not saved, even though incorporated into the church." I may feel betrayed by the removal of the communion rail. I may hate the musicians' choices of music. I have the right to express my disagreement and to express my feelings--appropriately. I don't have the right to call those who removed it heretics or publicly humiliate the musicians.

THE LAW OF CHARITY DEMANDS THAT EACH OF US MAKE such choices about our behaviors. And it also demands that parishes and dioceses find ways to help people move through overwhelming feelings--as through a grieving process, for instance. If we haven't done this, then we need to team up with professionals skilled in getting people "unstuck" from these emotions that hold them captive, and with spiritual directors who can help people tap the words and gestures of our renewed rites for meaning that enriches their lives.

Second, let's learn to live our rhetoric of dialogue. Perhaps no pope has called so frequently for dialogue as Pope John Paul II. Yet, do we practice what he preaches? In his 1997 address to the Synod of the Americas, Bishop Raymond Lahey of the Diocese of St. George's, Newfoundland outlined the characteristics of dialogue: "The `dialogue of salvation' is not simply stating truths or telling people what to do. Instead, it begins with listening. It respects the truth, value, and dignity already within the other partner. To make the gospel heard, it uses the language and culture of the hearer. True dialogue is honest: In this kind of discourse the church must admit its mistakes, and no issue, however painful, can stay closed to discussion."

When I see the lackadaisical, even slipshod approaches to Eucharist in some parishes, I share the outrage that some people feel. This sense of Eucharist as our most sacred action also precludes any kind of disruption of that action by protests or protesters. When gay-bashing invaded a homily on the feast of the Holy Family, I protested--after Mass rather than on the spot, as I was tempted to do. When a homilist painted women as stupid, I spoke up again--afterwards. I was direct, not abusive. As an alternative and effective approach to verbal violence, we must work hard to undertake real dialogue, particularly about difficult issues and with difficult people.

Finally, we must address the abusive behavior proactively. The moment a conversation degenerates into verbal abuse, terminate it, but offer a promise of dialogue, provided the conversation is respectful. Those who receive printed verbal violence in letters or publications can return the material to the sender, indicating that the material violates the law of charity. Insist on being scratched from future mailings.

In comparison with the toll such violence takes on individuals or communities, the cost of responding is insignificant. Someone who verbally abuses parish staff members or other parishioners should be warned firmly and clearly by the pastor that this behavior is unacceptable--and objectively sinful. We who work in the Catholic press, no matter what our political stripes, need to examine our publications from the same perspective.

To promote these actions, bishops' conferences and dioceses should adopt policies of zero tolerance of verbal violence and, most important, make these policies a matter of public record. Both divine law and canon law provide the foundation for this stance. In extreme cases, where people refuse to stop their abuse, canonical penalties should be considered.

"Love your enemies." Tough love, yes, when the enemy shares your pew. If we who are members of the Body of Christ and receive his Body and Blood are not prepared to act accordingly, then theological and liturgical disagreements are the least of our worries.

Advance copies of Sounding Board are mailed to a sample of U.S. CATHOLIC subscribers. Their answers to questions on the topic of this Sounding Board article and a representative selection of their comments follow in Feedback.

By BERNADETTE GASSLEIN, editor of Celebrate!, a liturgical journal published by Novalis, Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Canada, and coordinator of liturgical life at St. Charles Parish, Edmonton, Alberta.
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Author:Gasslein, Bernadette
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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