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The voices of Catholic dissent.

The Voices of Catholic Dissent

There once was a time when it would have been unthinkable for a Roman Catholic to picket the Pope, a time when public disagreement with the Supreme Pontiff of the church constituted a reprehensible heresy in the eyes of most Catholics. Today the heretics are everywhere, in the highest reaches of Catholic and secular academia, in the leadership of religious orders and even among the churchgoing laity in parishes throughout the country.

The Catholic Church's most vocal internal critics, those who openly challenge the exclusion of women from the hierarchy and the church's ban on the practice of birth control and abortion, compose what the media call the dissent

movement. Their Christian values, say its members, compel them to challenge the injustices committed by the church. Some are hailing it as the second Reformation. Others yearn for the good old days, when it was so clear what it meant to be Catholic. But welcome or not, the dissent movement has entered its second decade.

At the time of Pope John Paul II's first papal visit to the United States, in 1979, the U.S. Catholic dissent movement was little more than a small pocket of disgruntled, vocal Catholics--the few feminist nuns and laywomen who convened for the first Women's Ordination Conference in 1974 and a smattering of priests and former priests who had been radicalized in the 1960s.

But when, in the course of that first visit, a nun chosen to address the Pope issued a plea for equality in the church, the dissent movement became more than a mere annoyance. In 1979, Sister Theresa Kane was president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and president of the Sisters of Mercy, one of the largest orders of nuns in the United States. Kane challenged John Paul to give women access to "all ministries in the church,' called upon Mary, the Blessed Mother, to be His Holiness's "source of inspiration, courage and hope,' and then spontaneously knelt before the Pope to receive his blessing. Her performance was carried live by television stations throughout the nation, and Sister Theresa became the dissent movement's first heroine.

Kane received no punishment from the Vatican for her actions, but that was eight years ago. Things are different now. In 1984 twenty-four nuns who signed a newspaper advertisement that called for a dialogue in the church on the subject of abortion were threatened with expulsion from their orders--menaning the loss of vocation, job, home and chosen family if they did not recant. (All but two of the sisters have had their cases closed by the Holy See.)

In 1986, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle was stripped of most of his powers as administrator of his archdiocese because of his ministry to gays and lesbians, and because of charges that he had allowed non-Catholics to receive communion. (Hunthausen is also an outspoken antinuclear activist and a tax resister. After publicly humiliating the Archbishop by its censure, the Vatican restored his full powers last summer.) Later in 1986, Father Charles Curran, a theologian at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., was forbidden to teach Catholic theology there because of his liberal views on issues of human sexuality, especially his contention that abortion is sometimes a moral choice. (Curran's appeal is under review within the university, and he has initiated an academic freedom suit against the institution.)

The most vocal Catholic dissidents--the ones who grab the headlines--are a rather small group. But the opinions they express often reflect those of the majority of U.S. Catholics: A 1985 New York Times/CBS poll showed that 79 percent of U.S. Catholics believe that one can disagree with the Pope and still be a "good Catholic.'

"It does not take a majority of people to bring about change,' Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, explains in Annie Lally Millhaven's recent book, The Inside Stories: 13 Valiant Women Challenging the Church. "It takes a minority of people acting with the acquiescence or even quiet support of the majority.' The real dissent movement is not confined to that minority; it is much larger than the one presented by the media. As I see it, the movement in the United States comes in three parts:

First, there is the noisy revolution, made up of people like Kissling, who found their political legs in the civil rights struggle, the antiwar protests and the secular women's movement. Many of the nuns involved in this part of the movement learned about politics in the post-Vatican II "renewal' of their religious orders as well, a time when many orders radically changed their internal structure from hierarchical to democratic. But whether nuns or not, the majority here are outspoken feminists who have taken on the church for its traditional oppression of women, particularly its rejection of reproductive freedom and its refusal to ordain women despite the fact that many other Christian churches do. But they are not looking merely to win a place in the hierarchy; they seek a "transformed church,' where, as has happened in the convents, the hierarchical model is replaced by a more participatory one. These are the people who have taken their fight to the news cameras, with their vigils and protest actions, their newspaper ads and television appearances.

The women-church movement, a loose network of Catholic feminists, forms the key component of this noisy revolution. "Women-church,' a name coined by theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, refers to women who create and participate in their own bread-breaking and winesharing liturgies, who advance the feminist cause in their theological and historical research and who advocate ecumenical rituals with women of other faiths.

"I don't even go to regular church anymore,' one nun said. "I just go to women-church.'

"You see, we say the church has left us,' Mary Hunt, theologian and coordinator of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER), told me two years ago. "The whole point of the women-church movement is to say that women as women cannot be full religious agents in the patriarchal church and, therefore, the only way we can be church is to be women-church.'

Catholic gay groups have joined the noisy revolution in recent years. While gay and lesbian issues have long been part of the women-church agenda, groups like Dignity and New Ways Ministries once focused their efforts mostly on ministering to lesbian and gay flocks. But since many bishops, in the wake of Vatican action against liberal colleagues like Hunthausen, have barred groups like Dignity from using church facilities for their meetings and worship services, the protests of homosexual Catholics have become increasingly dramatic. (Several weeks ago, Dignity members who refused to sit during a mass in New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral were arrested.)

Dissent, however, belongs not only to the noisy ones. The rapidly growing second element of the movement is posing its own threat to the near omnipotence of the hierarchy. These are the practicing Catholics who still belong to neighborhood parishes but who also put their disagreement with the Pope into practice in their churches by allowing women to grace the altar and altering the Vatican's prescribed liturgy. And in their homes as well they defy the Pontiff: The shrinking size of the American Catholic family is testament to the flock's disregard for Humanae Vitae, the papel instruction forbidding the use of "artificial' birth control issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968, a teaching frequently repeated by John Paul II.

Then there's the problem of the empty confessional. U.S. Catholics have long been ignoring the sacrament of penance as an antiquated rite and an invasion of privacy. This sits none too well with the Holy Father, who in the text of his address to U.S. bishops in Los Angeles this past fall warned Catholics who had not been to confession recently to think twice before lining up for communion, the central rite of the mass, on Sunday. Confession-skipping illustrates the problem of what Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati calls "grocery-store Catholics,' those who think they have the right to pick and choose what doctrines they will and will not accept.

Indeed, there is a kind of quiet anarchism in the U.S. church. Entire parishes are defying papal edicts by allowing girls to serve at the altar in the same way boys have for centuries, and some have even allowed women to preach an occasional homily, the sermon that follows the rite of communion. Most priests, overworked due to a lack of priestly brethren, prefer to grant a general absolution to their congregations during the mass rather than to hear the individual confessions of each churchgoer. At the 1983 synod of bishops in Rome, John Paul presented an instruction that called for the use of general absolution only in emergencies, but the instruction has been largely disregarded in the United States.

In some archdioceses, women have been elected to offices traditioally held by men. In the Archdiocese of Detroit, Anne Flaherty, a divorced woman who earned a master's degree in divinity from a Catholic seminary, was elected to the vicariate, an office that serves as a liaison between priests and their archbishop. Two years later, Flaherty's election is still not recognized by Archbishop Edmund Szoka, who has forbidden Flaherty to attend the vicars' monthly meetings.

The third segment of the dissent movement is one that is often not even figured into the equation--the millions of "lapsed' Catholics who have simply stopped going to church but refuse to renounce their membership.

Combined, the three segments of the dissent movement encompass a multitude of U.S. Catholics, and their numerousness raises the question, To whom does the Church belong? To the hierarchy or to the people of God?

So the Pope came to America to set the record straight, to give the last infallible word on the church's most disputed doctrines and to dazzle non-Catholics in his self-appointed role as the global conscience. It was a tightly run, elaborately choreographed show that ran for nine days last September.

The Pope's press men went to great lengths to craft a papal schedule that would include "meetings' with members of groups that have long felt snubbed, or at best neglected, by the church. Along with leaders of other religions, the list included talks with black Catholics (who make up less than 3 percent of the U.S. Catholic population), Native American Catholics, Catholic deacons (lay ministers who do nearly everything a priest does, without the pay and prestige) and their wives and Hispanic community leaders throughout the South and Southwest. Nowhere on the Pontiff's schedule, though, was there a meeting specifically geared to Catholic women, even nuns.

Perhaps it was because the Vatican had not forgotten the sting of Sister Theresa Kane's dramatic on-camera appeal to the Pope in 1979 that these meetings took the form of what the press office of the Holy See calls "structured dialogues'--Vaticanspeak for the exchange of speeches that have been approved ahead of time by the Pope's men.

Media access to these nonpublic events was as restricted as the guest lists. The media were divided into press pools, meaning that the fifty or so journalists admitted to a given event were supposed to share some of their information, video clips, audio tape or photographs with those of us who sat in a press center in some hotel watching the event on television. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops chose who went and who stayed behind. I had received my press credentials as a reporter for Ms. I did not get admitted to any pool event that I had requested and began to feel that the letters "MS' that appeared on my press tags were scarlet.

During the Pope's tour, I caught up with Archbishop Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston, the prelate often described as "the Pope's man' by the press, the day after the Pontiff had told the bishops that God does not want women priests. Cardinal Law was in the front row of the first-class section of Shepherd II, one of two L-1011s that served as papal press planes. I introduced myself as a reporter for Ms. and asked him for comment on the Pope's remarks. He was most obliging and gracious, and as I eased into the seat next to his, he leaned toward me as if he was taking me into his confidence.

"There are two principles that need to be borne in mind,' Cardinal Law told me, looking me square in the eye. "First, the fundamental equality of all persons. Secondly, the specific equality of . . . feminine humanity. He didn't say [this] but I think this is what the Holy Father meant: that the price of that equality must not come at the expense of what it means to be feminine.'

"And what would you say that was?' I asked. "How would you define that?'

"I don't know,' he replied. "That's something that needs to be understood and experienced more deeply.'

Having got the standard separate-but-equal Vatican response, I thanked him for his time. But as I stood up, he asked me what I had felt while following the Pope. I was rather surprised by the question.

Well, I admitted, I was often quite moved by the pageantry and, yes, my heartbeat did quicken at the sight of the Pope. "But often I was angry,' I said, "especially about the ordination issue.'

"Oh, I know, I understand,' he said, showing all outward signs of compassion. "It must be very hard for you.' That is why it is so important for us to define the feminine, he contended. The seatbelt sign was on by now, so I shook his hand. "God bless you,' he said to me.

"God bless you, Your Eminence,' I replied, eager to return to the tourist-class world of the press corps, where I was more equal than separate.

Some of the journalists with whom I traveled seemed disappointed by the lack of heated protest throughout the journey, at least until we got to the West Coast. Many apparently missed the significance of a peculiar kind of broad protest that John Paul confronted in every city he went to-- apathy. Everywhere the Pope went, hundreds of thousands of people--those who were supposed to be joyously lining the route of the papal motorcade--were absent. In Miami, 300,000 were expected but only 25,000 showed up. In Columbia, South Carolina, one-fifth the number expected turned out. In Los Angeles, only 200,000 of the 2 million expected made it to the parade. Crowed projections in San Antonio were at least 200,000 over the mark.

Local television stations were quick to take the blame. Newscasters either apologized for scaring people away with their advance reports of anticipated traffic tie-ups or boasted that their coverage of the papal visit was so good that viewers opted to stay home in front of the tube, where they could see more of the Pontiff than they could in person. (I found the latter excuse rather doubtful. You can probably get a better view of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade from your Trinitron than you would standing on Broadway, but the crowds still turn out for Bullwinkle.)

The lack of papal groupies must have astounded the men from the Vatican and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops who had prepared the Pontiff's itinerary so carefully. Most of the cities visited by the Pope were targeted for their large Hispanic populations. Since Hispanics will make up more than half the U.S. Catholic population by the turn of the century, they are the great brown hope of the Vatican, which is counting on them to set the church back on course by bringing their fervent piety and ethic of machismo into the mainstream of American Catholicism-- assuming that they've left their progressive liberation theology at the border as they enter the land of opportunity.

Admittedly, activist protest was subdued in most cities on the papal itinerary, but it was there. In Columbia, feminists tacked a series of Women's These (modeled on Martin Luther's 95 Theses) to the doors of Catholic churches throughout the archdiocese. In New Orleans, 200 protesters staged an alternative service to the papal mass. In Los Angeles, about the same number gathered at City Hall on the night of the Pope's arrival for a rally and vigil. And in San Francisco, the Pope was met with widespread demonstrations against his condemnation of practicing homosexuals and the church's weak and belated response to the AIDS crisis.

Several weeks after the Pope's departure, eight U.S. bishops joined some 200 of their colleagues from around the world in Rome for a synod devoted to the role of the laity in the church. Two of the American representatives, Archbishops Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee and John May of St. Louis, came armed with a number of proposals for expanding the role of women in the church, including a suggestion for accepting women as permanent deacons. Although midway through the synod May declared that there was "strong consensus' among the bishops that the nonordained ministries should be opened to women, the proposal only made it into the first draft of the document that resulted from the synod. All that remained of the Americans' proposals in the final version was a blanket condemnation of discrimination against women and a suggestion for less gender-specific liturgical language.

As May and Weakland returned home to the United States virtually empty-handed, other bishops were at work on a pastoral letter on the role of women in the church, a document due for release sometime this year. The committee drafting the letter includes no women, a sore point with feminists but typical of the prelates.

At about the same time the bishops were meeting in Rome, a crowd of 3,000 gathered in Cincinnati for the largest Women-Church Convergence gathering ever. C.F.F.C. director Frances Kissling explained to me the "two complementary strategies' employed by women-church in its struggle for a transformed church.

"One is the strategy of confrontation and challenge--you know, directing one's attention to the hierarchy,' Kissling said. "But the other, in [holding] a meeting like this, is ignoring the hierarchy. The name of the conference, Women-Church: Claiming Our Power, is just women taking their power and going with it--not worrying what the bishops have to say, not worrying about what the Pope thinks-- in essence, taking their own vision of church and making it a reality.'
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Author:Stan, Adelle-Marie
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jan 9, 1988
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