Thursday, March 20, 2008

On Eve of U.S. Visit, Pope’s Mind Is Made Up: And No One Will Confuse Him with Facts

Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to visit Washington D.C. and New York City in mid-April. An article in the March 21st edition of the National Catholic Reporter says it would be helpful if Benedict could take a crash course on how to speak to Americans before he arrives. But writer David Gibson, author of The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World, thinks the chances are slim.

He notes a famous effort 20 years ago, when John Paul II was visiting the U.S. and a popular Catholic priest tried politely to get him to listen to U.S. Catholics. John Paul sat patiently while the talk was interrupted 13 times by sustained applause, but he seemed to actually hear very little. There are no plans for Benedict to receive such input. Gibson’s article explains why. Here’s the second half of it.

Benedict is a paradox in that he relishes the clash of ideas -- he has been at the center of every significant church controversy in the last generation -- yet dislikes personal confrontation. Part of that can be traced to Benedict’s dual vocations as a churchman and an academic theologian who prefers the pulpit and lectern to noisy debate. He is an intellectual whose talks are informed by intensive study and conversations with other bishops; indeed, he is most at ease among fellow clerics, and as pope he often meets with Italian priests for conversations that are expansive and enlightening.

But these exchanges are not terribly challenging, nor does his network go far beyond the clerical ranks or conservative circles. And they are hardly in tune with an American culture that was born in rebellion, fed by competition, traumatized by civil war and energized by civil rights. Today’s culture, left and right, is a product of the 1960s just as today’s Catholic church -- left and right -- is a product of the Second Vatican Council. In America, as in the church, honest conversation and the free expression of ideas and, yes, emotions, messy as they are, remain central to our pilgrimage. And for a church racked by scandal and frustrated by institutional stonewalling, open communication is more important than ever. In fact, it could be argued that the lack of discourse has left the church polarized and enervated by a diminished civility. Catholic culture has assumed the worst aspects of American culture because the church could not accommodate the best of America’s traditions. No matter the venue, a straitened view of public discourse that lectures from on high can only be answered by shouts from below.

It should, and could, work the other way around, with the church as a model. In one of the most memorable yet rarely cited episodes in American church history, John Paul engaged in a “structured” dialogue with a representative of the nation’s priests during a 1987 visit to the United States. It was a particularly difficult era between Rome and America, and Fr. Frank McNulty, a widely respected priest from New Jersey, was delegated to address the pope. His talk was a model of sincere, measured, yet frank talk about the problems facing the priesthood and the church in the United States, and the need for reforms that would include a discussion of neuralgic topics such as mandatory celibacy.

“If priests could open up their hearts and tell you of their priesthood,” McNulty told John Paul, “they could not do so without some controversial questions surfacing. In our country there is an attitude toward questions; it comes from our heritage, those historical events which help make us the way we are. We treasure freedom -- freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of expression. Questions brought our nation into being. In such settings people do not run from questions about what they believe and how they live out those beliefs. Priests know well that there are no easy answers but want to face the questions with honesty.”

“Your Holiness,” he concluded, “our prayer is that today’s words will be the deepening of an honest, ongoing, heart-to-heart dialogue.” McNulty was interrupted 13 times by thunderous applause. John Paul responded by reasserting traditional teachings, and he added an enigmatic remark: “It’s a long way to Tipperary.” Whatever that meant, the plea for dialogue was a non-starter, and the problems McNulty spoke of have only worsened.

When I called McNulty recently to reminisce about that talk, he told me that the New Jersey parish where he helps out on Sundays arranged to show a video of his exchange with the pope on the 20th anniversary of the event. The church hall was packed, and when the video ended, the gathering gave McNulty a standing ovation. People were shocked to see such an exchange, and some asked for the tape so they could show their children, who would be even more surprised. “It was a fascinating experience,” McNulty said. “It just shows that such a thing is still very much needed.”

Don’t expect a repeat during Benedict’s visit. The job of a pope, like any bishop, is to teach, to sanctify and to govern. Benedict enjoys the first two, but (like John Paul) he has never billed himself as an administrator. He prefers to leave the grunt work to his bishops, but they could certainly use the visit as a steppingstone to broader conversations. The venues and models already exist, in forums that grew out of the sexual abuse crisis, like the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management or university-based initiatives like Boston College’s “Church in the 21st Century” program. There is also the more venerable -- and viable -- Common Ground Initiative, an effort to address what Fr. Donald Cozzens aptly calls the “sacred silence” of denial in the church.

Then there was the 2002 meeting in Dallas, when in the white heat of scandal, the bishops invited lay leaders, abuse victims and outside experts to speak to the hierarchy. That was historic, but it was dialogue at the point of a gun (and without the voice of a single priest) and never repeated. Sadly, it seems to take an acute crisis to create a small opening, and that is quickly filled with anger that has been pent up for too long. To do something similar under less trying circumstances, and on a regular basis, would be true to Benedict’s personal, pastoral core, and to the rule of the pope’s namesake, St. Benedict of Nursia, who said the entire community should be called together to discuss anything of importance, because the youngest often display the greater wisdom.

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