Vatican II: Beyond Pietism

The Gospel reading from Matthew about building our houses on rock is about building our lives on sound doctrine. Today in the church various factions babble like Pilate, “What is truth?” What is sound doctrine? What exactly IS the Gospel of Jesus the Christ?

Vatican II Catholics feel more and more alienated from the church they have come to love—a church that is built on the Gospel of Nonviolence and justice. Many are voting with their feet. They just walk away and tell no one because they do not believe anyone cares or will listen. Knowing that pious practices are not sufficient for building a firm foundation, they seek a church that practices justice—right relationships—both within the church and in the larger world they embrace as Christians.

Conservative Catholics are reveling in their new found hold on doctrine and practice. Seeking certitude in a very uncertain world, they retreat to the pietism which characterized pre-Vatican “spirituality.” They are joyful to the point of ecstasy that the New Missal will restore dignity and mystery to the Mass. If they had their druthers they would have us all “worshipping” in Latin.

The rich promise and legacy of Vatican II has been stripped away from Vatican II Catholics slowly but surely over the last 30 years. John Paul II did many things to advance the church in the modern world—travel, connecting with youth, and apologizing for the sins of the church. His blatant neglect in the abuse scandal tarnishes his reputation; however, his followers say that it is his personal piety that counts when it comes to beatification. His outright condemnation of liberation theology belied to his call for justice. Personal piety run amok builds on the quicksand of pietism and will not withstand the tempests of life.

In a lecture which highlights the challenges facing the church, theologian Richard Gaillardetz gives rich insight into developments in the church in the wake of Vatican II Basically, John Paul II dismantled Vatican II by narrowing his interpretation of the Council. Catholics are leaving the church of their birth in droves. The sex abuse scandal has opened deep wounds which continue to fester. Once again patriarchs are abusing their authority by closing out the faithful.

The new Pietism is characterized by cassocks, birettas, altar rails, a focus on pelvic morality—abortion and same sex marriage, the New Missal, and clericalism. The pietistic framework narrows belief and practice to abortion and same sex marriage when a whole plethora of social issues—poverty, racism, and genocide—confront believers daily.

My own scenario of what has happened goes like this. The conservative Roman Curia suffered stunning defeats at the Council. Their efforts to maintain worship in Latin were soundly rebuffed by the assembled bishops acting collegially. Cardinal Ottaviani, leader of the curial forces, was nowhere to be found for weeks after his proposal to keep the Mass in Latin went down in flames.

The Council ended and the bishops went home to exercise their new found collegial authority and solidarity. Powerful teaching emerged from the national bishops’ conferences. In America, bold new documents, with input from listening sessions, were published—The Challenge of Peace and Economic Justice for All. Collegiality and solidarity have now gone the way of the Edsel.

Back at the Vatican ranch, the curial forces emboldened by Pope John Paul II and his Rottweiler, Cardinal Ratzinger now Pope Benedict XVI, were hard at work. They may have been down and out but they dug in their heels and worked diligently to dismantle Vatican II because, in their opinion, the Council led to aberrations in theology and abuses in liturgical practice. They sought to reclaim the warped and abusive Constantinian power and authority that had Balkanized the pre-Vatican II church against the world. No longer would the church seek to embrace the joys and hopes and sorrows of humankind. Rather, the church set out to counter “the culture of death” (John Paul II) and to re-Christianize (re-Roman catholicize) Europe (Benedict XVI) while trying to cover up sex abuse. Personal piety trumped social action.

The reductionistic theology of Benedict XVI sees the church more as mystery than as the people of God. I learned long ago in a philosophy class that it is both-and not either–or. The church is mystery. The church is the People of God sharing in the kingly, prophetic and priestly mission of Jesus the Christ. Like his predecessor and mentor, he is intent on distancing then church from the modern world and continuing the attack on modernism. Pope Leo XIII condemned the heresy of Americanism, the belief that the church could accommodate to the democratic ideals found in the Constitution; however, the debate over the participation of the People of God in the life and governance of the church is at the core of the current debates. Ever since the loss of the Papal state late in the 19th century the church has been very wary of democracy. “Look what it wrought. We lost our earthly kingdom.”

The wagons have circled. Rome is ensconced once again in battling the evils of modernism even though the rest of the world now lives by largely post-modern values—participation, belonging, having a voice, meaning, and living in community. The Vatican, intent on maintaining domination and control, has its ladder against the wrong wall in a participative and wired world.

Gaillardetz calls for a moral authority with pastoral dimensions. He references Dorothy Day. I would add Oscar Romero, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Daniel Berrigan, Roy Bourgeois, Franz Jagerstatter, Hans Küng, Charlie Curran, Daniel Maguire, Matt Fox, Thomas Merton—my anam cara—and many lesser known counter-cultural Christians to the list.

Sound doctrine begins with the fact that that Jesus of Nazareth combined personal piety by going aside to pray with outspoken counter-cultural critique of Roman oppression and priestly collaboration. As one African theologian put it, he challenged “the establishment.” Unfortunately, pietistic Christians—Catholic and evangelical—do not challenge the values of the establishment, the empire; they embrace them without question.

A brief excursus on the prosperity gospel is in order at this point. Many evangelicals and Catholics embrace empire and wrap it in credibility to maintain a lifestyle that is often counter to the mandates of Jesus. In a recent discussion, I tried to make the point that we need “entitlement” programs in America because we have an obligation to honor biblical values—care for the widows, orphans, and poor and the least among us. One woman with fire in her eyes told me, “There is a difference between doing for people because you want to and doing for people because they expect it.” I knew I had challenged her values. Jesus put no such parameters on his mandate in Matthew 25. I have not read, “Feed the hungry if you want to.” Individualism supports the cultural value that I worked for what I got and others can do the same regardless of whether social structures made it much much easier for privileged whites to “work for” what they have. Pietistic practice provides the Snoopy blanket.

The Gospel of Jesus, Good News for everybody, including the poor, challenges us to go beyond capitalism, consumerism and greed. It challenges us to change societal structures which result in gross unjust inequities among the people if God. Every person is created in the image of God. God wants every person to have life and what he/she needs (John 10:10). Catholic social teaching which came into its own with Vatican II exhorts us to create just societal and cultural structures. It  moves us beyond pious practice to justice making.

The new clergy and episcopacy, imbued with a strong sense of Father knows best, are returning the church to a focus on pietistic practices and condemning abortion and same sex marriage. Any discussion of social justice is labeled “librealism.”

I was told that the Archdiocese of Baltimore studied the characteristics of and practices of men who entered the seminary. The most common practice among these men was adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Hence, they mounted a diocesan-wide program to have adoration in every parish every week to encourage vocations. Pietistic practices such as adoration are what matters; however, sound doctrine built on rock requires something more.

Having watched Cool Hand Luke recently I am reminded of Paul Newman’s famous (pietistic) line, “I don’t care if it rains or freezes as long as I have my plastic Jesus.” Jesus is plastic when sound doctrine stops short of efforts to restore right relationships—JUSTICE. Jesus is plastic when all morality is boiled down to condemning abortion and same sex marriage.

I am reading Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. He is an Asian American evangelical pastor who takes to task church’s capitulation to Western European culture. The ghost of Constantine still rules. Rugged individualism holds the Gospel of sound doctrine captive. The prosperity Gospel, based on capitalistic values, rains down from pulpits every Sunday. It is the C’s (my formula)—Constantine + capitalism + consumerism = life. Christ and his Good news for the least among us is the “C” that is missing from the formula. Pastors succeed when they comfort the comfortable.

Merton, among others, offers the proper formula for post-modern Christians who choose to live in the world with all its joys and hopes—contemplation and action. This is why he is so timely even today. Merton, the dissolute sinner who morphed into a solitudinal critic, challenges us to pray and work—the Benedictine ora et labora. [I think I just invented a word here—solitudinal. That is OK because I just learned that Merton and his friend, Robert Lax, enjoyed James Joyce and vied with one another to craft new words and sentences.]

Contemplation is nothing more than entering into silence to listen to the word God is speaking to us. Our labor is the labor of justice—the restoration of right relationship to God, one another, and creation. From the depths of his solitudinal prayer life—his piety—Merton cried out against racial injustice, war and nuclear weapons.

We cannot allow power-driven patriarchs to dismantle Vatican II. We live and pray and work in a world that values contemplation, collegiality, dialogue, justice, ecumenism, primacy of conscience, and participation. Espousing these values, Merton was critical and outspoken about abuses of church authority. He chastised the institutional church for giving primacy to institutional values over the value of individuals living and loving in communio. He called the institutional church a collective—the very same term that was applied to Communist dictatorships. Strong prophetic words in deed! He believed that the patriarchs in control of the church were intent upon building monumental tombstones over the church’s own grave.

We must interrupt the funeral procession of the church. In my wildest dreams, I imagine a scene like Tahrir Squre in the piazza of St. Peter’s—millions of Vatican II Catholics camping out and nonviolently protesting until the pope and his minions recognize the priesthood of the people of God. If we camp out long enough, we can even delay the beatification of JPII!



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