Deacons: Myths and Misperceptions

reeseHeadshotWebJesuit Father Thomas Reese has published an interesting piece over at NCRonline entitled “Women Deacons? Yes.  Deacons?  Maybe.”  I have a lot of respect for Fr. Tom, and I thank him for taking the time to highlight the diaconate at this most interesting time.  As the apostolic Commission prepares to assemble to discuss the question of the history of women in diaconal ministry, it is good for all to remember that none of this is happening in a vacuum.  IF women are eventually ordained as deacons in the contemporary Church, then they will be joining an Order of ministry that has developed much over the last fifty years.  Consider one simple fact: In January 1967 there were zero (0) “permanent” deacons in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church (the last two lived and died in the 19th Century).  Today there are well over 40,000 deacons serving worldwide.  By any numerical measure, this has to be seen as one of the great success stories of the Second Vatican Council.  Over the last fifty years, then, the Church has learned much about the nature of this renewed order, its exercise, formation, assignment and utilization.  The current question, therefore, rests upon a foundation of considerable depth, while admitting that much more needs to be done.

However, Father Reese’s column rests on some commonly-held misperceptions and errors of fact regarding the renewal of the diaconate.  Since these errors are often repeated without challenge or correction, I think we need to make sure this foundation is solid lest we build a building that is doomed to fall down.  So, I will address some of these fault lines in the order presented:

  1.  The“Disappearance” of Male Deacons  

exsultet1Father states that “[Women deacons] disappeared in the West around the same time as male deacons.”  On the contrary, male deacons remained a distinct order of ministry (and one not automatically destined for the presbyterate) until at least the 9th Century in the West.  This is attested to by a variety of sources.  Certainly, throughout these centuries, many deacons — the prime assistants to bishops — were elected to succeed their bishops.  Later in this period, as the Roman cursus honorum took hold more definitively, deacons were often ordained to the presbyterate, leading to what is incorrectly referred to as the “transitional” diaconate.  However, both in a “permanent” sense and a “transitional” sense, male deacons never disappeared.

  1.  The Renewal of Diaconate as Third World Proposal

1115_p12b500Father Tom writes that his hesitancy concerning the diaconate itself “is not with women deacons, but with the whole idea of deacons as currently practiced in the United States.” (I would suggest that this narrow focus misses the richness of the diaconate worldwide.)  He then turns to the Council to provide a foundation for what follows.  He writes, “The renewal of the diaconate was proposed at the Second Vatican Council as a solution to the shortage of native priests in missionary territories. In fact, the bishops of Africa said, no thank you. They preferred to use lay catechists rather than deacons.”  This statement simply is not true and does not reflect the history leading up to the Council or the discussions that took place during the Council on the question of the diaconate.

LocalsRebuildDresdenAs I and others have written extensively, the origins of the contemporary diaconate lie in the early 19th Century, especially in Germany and France.  In fact there is considerable linkage between the early liturgical movement (such as the Benedictine liturgical reforms at Solesmes) and the early discussions about a renewed diaconate: both stemmed from a desire to increase participation of the faithful in the life of the Church, both at liturgy and in life.  In Germany, frequent allusion was made to the gulf that existed between priests and bishops and their people.  Deacons were discussed as early as 1840 as a possible way to reconnect people with their pastoral leadership.  This discussion continued throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th.  It became a common topic of the Deutschercaritasberband (the German Caritas organization) before and during the early years of the Nazi regime, and it would recur in the conversations held by priest-prisoners in Dachau.  Following the war, these survivors wrote articles and books on the need for a renewed diaconate — NOT because of a priest shortage, but because of a desire to present a more complete image of Christ to the world: not only Christ the High Priest, but the kenotic Christ the Servant as well.  As Father Joseph Komonchak famously quipped, “Vatican II did not restore the diaconate because of a shortage of priests but because of a shortage of deacons.”

Vatican IICertainly, there was some modest interest in this question by missionary bishops before the Council.  But it remained largely a European proposal.  Consider some statistics.  During the antepreparatory stage leading up to the Council (1960-1961), during which time close to 9,000 proposals were presented from the world’s bishops, deans of schools of theology, and heads of men’s religious congregations, 101 proposals concerned the possible renewal of the diaconate.  Eleven of these proposals were against the idea of having the diaconate (either as a transitional or as a permanent order), while 90 were in favor of a renewed, stable (“permanent”) diaconate.  Nearly 500 bishops from around the world supported some form of these 90 proposals, with only about 100 of them from Latin America and Africa.  Nearly 400 bishops, almost entirely from both Western and Eastern Europe, were the principal proponents of a renewed diaconate (by the way, the bishops of the United States, who had not had the benefit of the century-long conversation about the diaconate, were largely silent on the matter, and the handful who spoke were generally against the idea).  Notice how these statistics relate to Father Tom’s observation.  First, the renewed diaconate was largely a European proposal, not surprising given the history I’ve outlined above.  Second, notice that despite this fact, it is also wrong to say that “the African bishops said no thank you” to the idea.  Large numbers of them wanted a renewed diaconate, and even today, the diaconate has been renewed in a growing number of African dioceses.

One other observation on this point needs to be made.  No bishop whose diocese is suffering from a shortage of priests would suggest that deacons would be a suitable strategy.  After all, as we all know, deacons do not celebrate Mass, hear confessions or anoint the sick.  If a diocese needed more priests, they would not have turned to the diaconate.  Yes, there was some discussion at the Council that deacons could be of assistance to priests, but the presumption was that there were already priests to hand.

In short, the myth that “the diaconate was a third world initiative due to a shortage of priests” simply has never held up, despite its longstanding popularity.

  1.  Deacons as Part-Time Ministers

Father cites national statistics that point out that deacons are largely unpaid, “most of whom make a living doing secular work.”  “Why,” he asks, “are we ordaining part-time ministers and not full-time ministers?”

shutterstock_137696915-660x350Let’s break this down.  First, there never has been, nor will there ever be, a “part-time deacon.”  We’re all full-time ministers.  Here’s the problem: Because the Catholic Church did not have the advantage of the extensive conversation on diaconate that was held in other parts of the world, we have not fully accepted the notion that ministry extends BEYOND the boundaries of the institutional church itself.  Some of the rationale behind the renewal of the diaconate in the 19th Century and forward has been to place the Church’s sacred ministers in places where the clergy had previously not been able to go!  Consider the “worker-priest” movement in France.  This was based on a similar desire to extend the reach of the Church’s official ministry outside of the parish and outside of the sanctuary.  However, if we can only envision “ministry” as something that takes place within the sanctuary or within the parish, then we miss a huge point of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and, I would suggest, the papal magisterium of Pope Francis.  The point of the diaconate is to extend the reach of the bishop into places the bishop can’t normally be present.  That means that no matter what the deacon is doing, no matter where the deacon is working or serving, the deacon is ministering to those around him.

We seem to understand this when we speak about priests, but not about deacons.  When a priest is serving in some specialized work such as president of a university, or teaching history or social studies or science at a high school, we would never suggest that he is a “part-time” minister.  Rather, we would correctly say that it is ALL ministry.  Deacons take that even further, ministering in our various workplaces and professions.  It was exactly this kind of societal and cultural leavening that the Council desired with regard to the laity and to the ordained ministry of the deacon.  The bottom line is that we have to expand our view of what we mean by the term “ministry”!

  1.  “Laypersons can do everything a deacon can do

Father writes, “But the truth is that a layperson can do everything that a deacon can do.”  He then offers some examples.  Not so fast.

ANSA-John23Hospital-255x318Not unlike the previous point, this is a common misperception.  However, it is only made if one reduces “being a deacon” to the functions one performs.  Let’s ponder that a moment.  We live in a sacramental Church.  This means that there’s more to things than outward appearances.  Consider the sacrament of matrimony.  Those of us who are married know that there is much, much more to “being married” than simply the sum of the functions associated with marriage.  Those who are priests or bishops know that there is more to who they are as priests and bishops than simply the sum of what they do.  So, why can’t they see that about deacons?  There is more to “being deacon” than simply the sum of what we do.  And, frankly, do we want priests to stop visiting the sick in hospitals or the incarcerated in prisons simply because a lay person can (and should!) be doing that?  Shall we have Father stop being a college professor because now we have lay people who can do that?  Shall we simply reduce Father to the sacraments over which he presides?  What a sacramentally arid Church we would become!

The fact is, there IS a difference when a person does something as an ordained person.  Thomas Aquinas observed that an ordained person acts in persona Christi et in nomine Ecclesiae — in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church.  There is a public and permanent dimension to all ordained ministry that provides the sacramental foundation for all that we try to do in the name of the Church.  We are more than the sum of our parts, we are more than the sum of our functions.

  1.  “We have deacons. . . because they get more respect”

francis-washing-feetWith all respect to a man I deeply admire, I expect that most deacons who read this part of the column are still chuckling.  Yes, I have been treated with great respect by most of the people with whom I’ve served, including laity, religious, priests and bishops.  On the other hand, the experience of most deacons does not sustain Father’s observation.  The fact is, most people, especially if they’re not used to the ministry of deacons, don’t associate deacons with ordination.  I can’t tell the number of times that I’ve been asked by someone, “When will you be ordained?” — meaning ordination to the priesthood.  They know I am a deacon, but, as some people will say, “but that one really doesn’t count, does it?”  I had another priest once tell me, “Being a deacon isn’t a real vocation like the priesthood.”  If it’s respect a person is after “beyond their competence” (to quote Father Reese), then it’s best to avoid the diaconate.

No, the truth is that we have deacons because the Church herself is called to be deacon to the world (cf. Paul VI).  Just as we are a priestly people who nonetheless have ministerial priests to help us actualize our priestly identity, so too we have ministerial deacons to help us actualize our ecclesial identity as servants to and in the world.  To suggest that we have deacons simply because of issues of “respect” simply misses the point of 150 years of theological and pastoral reflection on the nature of the Church and on the diaconate.

In all sincerity, I thank Father Reese for his column on the diaconate, and I look forward to the ongoing conversation about this exciting renewed order of ministry of our Church.

 

 

 

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When Passion Goes Too Far: Crossing the Line

voris on dolanIt is nothing new for many people to be passionate about the Catholic Church, whether that passion is directed against the Church or for the Church.  However, passion should be balanced with compassion. As a theologian whose special interest is ecclesiology — the theology of church — I try to be aware of what’s going on in and around the church.  I try to avoid extreme positions on either side of the spectrum, firmly believing the ancient maxim “in medio stat virtus“, “virtue stands in the middle.”  Presuming the truth of that claim, then, we might conclude that “at the extremes stand weakness,” and perhaps even sin.  As one approaches the extremes, then, it becomes important to know where the boundaries are, the lines that one must not cross if it is truly truth and virtue that is sought.  For this reason I think it is important for us to consider the recent activities of a supposedly Catholic commentator by the name of Michael Voris.  I would not normally pay much attention to his work since in the several times I’ve reviewed it, I have found it consistently unbalanced and “over the top.”  But I was recently directed to a couple of his most recent broadcasts which seem even more so, and in my opinion, can give us a good example of how passion brought to the extreme crosses the line.  So, while I am loath to draw attention to his work on the one hand, I think that we also have a responsibility to challenge such extremism so we can all avoid it in the future.  Simply hoping that this kind of thing will just disappear if we ignore it is simplistic, dangerous and naive.

Mr. Voris has recently targeted for particular attention the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan.  (For full disclosure: I have known Cardinal Dolan for many years, first meeting him briefly when we were both in the seminary, and again more closely during the years I served on the senior staff of the USCCB.)  While there may be more videos like these out there, these two will give a sense of what is going on.  Watch them here and here.  

One of my first reactions when I watched them for the first time was what I would do if someone said such things about me in such a public forum!  Certainly I would be consulting an attorney about whether such videos might constitute slander or libel.  But the legality of these videos, at least under US law, is a matter far beyond my qualifications or competence.  I can only examine them as a theologian, so let’s begin by highlighting just a few of the claims Mr. Voris makes in the videos above.

Cardinal-DolanCardinal Dolan is accused of being “a wicked bishop”, of being “under the grip of the devil.”  He is accused of not caring for or loving the Church, and that he apparently no longer believes in Hell.  He is accused of “giving your blessing to a group publicly celebrating their sin,” and that “you give your approval to mortal sin. . . You give active homosexuality a free pass in your Archdiocese.”  Then Mr. Voris expands his list of complaints, accusing Cardinal Dolan of not supporting “faithful Catholics.”  He has, according to Voris, never publicly condemned Islam as “a heresy and a false religion that does not have supernatural faith.”  The Cardinal, he claims “has been a non-stop source of scandal” and is “not fit to be a bishop.”  Voris wants the Cardinal and any other bishops who agree with him (the Cardinal) to repent their sins and resign their office.

Where to begin?  While reasonable people might certainly disagree with the actions of any bishop, just as one might with any leader, one must certainly stop there, without going on to try to infer motivation or motive.  I am sure that if Cardinal Dolan were asked about these things, he would completely and fully reject all of these assertions, and with good reason. To lump together, as Mr. Voris does, sexual orientation and sexual activity is to miss an important distinction made in the teaching of the church.  Nowhere has Cardinal Dolan ever sanctioned sinful behavior by anyone, nor does the record indicate that he has ever given anyone a “free pass” on sin of any kind.  There is no substantiation of any kind for a claim that the Cardinal has lost his faith, or that he is not striving to provide for the cura animarum of the people of New York — all the people.  To spring from a criticism of certain decisions into a full blown attempt to characterize another person’s intentions and motivations — much less that state of that person’s soul — is not only fatally flawed logic, it is seriously deficient in Catholic morality.

But perhaps most disturbing is the challenge offered by Mr. Voris toward the end of the first video: “Do not think that the punishment visited on you will not be the most severe when you die, perhaps even before you die, if you do not change.”  He then cries, “Now is the time for an authentic Catholic uprising.”  For me, these statements are most disturbing and downright frightening. I suppose coming from a person whose website is called “Church Militant,” this should not be surprising.  Still, couched in such militaristic tones and context, one could easily infer a call to physical violence against the Cardinal and other bishops.

The last point I wish to highlight is the claim made in the crawler at the bottom of the video.  It is an advertisement for a paid subscription to the site, which professes to be “100% faithful to the Magisterium.”  I must confess that when I first saw that claim, while watching the video and its assertions about Cardinal Dolan and other “wicked bishops,” I laughed out loud.  How a person could claim to be completely faithful to the teaching authority of the Church while at the same time denigrating those men whose ministry includes being authoritative teachers of that Magisterium is simply nonsensical.

What are we to make of all of this?  Let’s review some basics.

PentecostThe Magisterium is not simply a “who”; it is a “what.”  Magisterium refers to the teaching authority of the Church, a Church we believe guided by the Holy Spirit.  Every person, in some way or another, and in the broadest sense of the term, participates in this teaching authority, constantly learning and sharing this faith.  Think of parents, for example, teaching and forming their children in faith, as they are charged at baptism; they are part of the magisterium in this broad sense.  But in a very specific and particular way, the highest human teachers in the Church are the College of Bishops, always in communion with each other and with the head of the College, the Pope.  Unless and until an authoritative judgment is made by the College (always in communion with the Pope), or by the Pope himself, that a bishop is no longer part of that College, then the bishop in question remains an authoritative teacher.  It is not within the competence of someone else (like Mr. Voris, or myself) to judge when a bishop is no longer teaching authentic or faithful doctrine.  In fact, I will go further and suggest that, if there should be a presumption of veracity and accuracy in presenting the Church’s teaching, that presumption goes to the bishops, not to anyone else.  Put simply, Mr. Voris is neither qualified nor competent to make the judgments he is attempting to make.

Do bishops disagree with one another?  Of course they do, but not about the fundamentals of the faith.  They may disagree over pastoral strategies, over how a particular situation will be dealt with in their diocese, and they will be certainly be judged on the exercise of their ministry when they stand before God.  But disagreement in practice does not necessarily mean a break in communion.

God as JudgeAm I saying that bishops never make mistakes?  Of course not!  Bishops make mistakes just like the rest of us, and they also deserve the benefit of fraternal correction.  Some bishops commit crimes and should be held accountable under civil, criminal and canon law.  But no one has appointed any of us to take the place of God in judging us all for our sins.  Alone we will stand before God and take responsibility for the way we’ve lived our lives.

Let’s take just one example from the litany of complaints made by Mr. Voris, and analyze just how wrong he is.  He condemns Cardinal Dolan for not publicly condemning Islam as “a heresy and a false religion”.  While this may be what he believes, it is NOT what the Catholic Church teaches (remember the claim that he is 100% faithful to the Magisterium?).  What DOES the Magisterium of the Church teach about Islam?

IslamHere’s some truly authentic magisterial teaching, found in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution [please note that well — it is a DOGMATIC text, dealing with the most fundamental issues of faith and church] on the Church (Lumen gentium), #16:

But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator.  In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.

Later, this thought is developed in the same Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), #3:

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and
subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has
spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as
Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though
they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His
virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of
judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead.
Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual
understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

Vatican IIIn fact, even earlier — when talking about religion in general, the bishops of the Council (that “episcopal college” mentioned above) taught at #2:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.

When a person claims to speak with complete faithfulness to the Magisterium, then, we should expect that this person would be echoing these teachings, which Cardinal Dolan has certainly done.  The Church does NOT teach what Mr. Voris teaches: that Islam is “a heresy and a false religion.”

Finally, I want to return to the threatening language used by Mr. Voris when he refers to punishment that he thinks may happen to Cardinal Dolan after he dies, “or even before you die,” and when he issues his call for an “authentic Catholic uprising.  I would refer Mr. Voris and anyone else who is interested to the following canons from the Code of Canon Law:

Can. 1372 A person who makes recourse against an act of the Roman Pontiff to an ecumenical council [note: such as Vatican II]  or the college of bishops is to be punished with a censure.

Can. 1373 A person who publicly incites among subjects animosities or hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary [note: such as Cardinal Dolan] because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry or provokes subjects to disobey them is to be punished by an interdict or other just penalties.

It would be interesting to hear the opinion of a canon lawyer with regard to these canons as they might apply in this instance.

Many lines have been crossed in these ranting diatribes by Mr. Voris against Cardinal Dolan and any other bishops Mr. Voris decides to condemn.  Lines of civility, lines of Christian charity, and lines of faithful adherence to what the Church actually teaches have all been overstepped..  One would hope that Mr. Voris will himself be open to fraternal correction.  We just heard about this in the Gospel last Sunday.  As Christ taught his disciples 2,000 years ago, as well as his disciples today:

 If your brother sins against you,
go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.
If he does not listen,
take one or two others along with you,
so that ‘every fact may be established
on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’
If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.
If he refuses to listen even to the church,
then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.

voris on dolan 2Mr. Voris is entitled and free to make his own judgments about things.  However, he is not free to play fast and loose with the truths of our faith or to challenge and mock the legitimate and authoritative exercise of servant-leadership by a bishop in communion with the Church, regardless of his own personal disagreement with those teachings or that bishop.  Yes, Cardinal Dolan will someday give an accounting of his stewardship; so, too, will Mr. Voris and the rest of us.

When Cardinals Dance

Cardinal_RodriguezSome folks in the blogosphere were upset recently when Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and ArchbishopMuller-255x283moderator of the Pope’s “Gang of Eight” board of cardinal-advisors, publicly took to task soon-to-be Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).  In an interview with a German newspaper, Cardinal Rodriguez referred to recent comments by the Prefect which were directed to German bishops pushing for more openness to finding possible pastoral approaches for people who have divorced and remarried without annulments.  While the German bishops are open to finding ways to permit people in this situation to receive the Sacraments (especially Communion), the Prefect has essentially closed the door on such a possibility.  Cardinal Rodriguez responded, referring to Archbishop Mueller: “He’s a German – yes, I have to say it – and above all he’s a professor, a German theology professor. In his mentality there is only true or false. But I say: The world, my brother, the world is not like that. You should be a little flexible, if you hear other voices, so as not to only hear them and say, no, here is the wall.”  Rodriguez Maradiaga, of course, is a Salesian and was himself a professor, with earned doctorates in philosophy, theology and moral theology; he also holds graduate certificates in clinical psychology and psychotherapy.

It is, of course, most interesting when two public figures debate publicly!  However, a quick review of various media finds that many people were highly incensed by the Cardinal’s public criticism of the Prefect of the CDF, finding it unseemly in the extreme.  However, I would suggest that this is not unusual at all in the Church’s tradition; in fact, we have a venerable history of battling heavyweights.  Let me just cite a few examples.

Paul confronting PeterLet’s start with two guys named Paul and Cephas (the fisherman who later got the new name of Peter).  While they made up  later, St. Paul doesn’t sugarcoat his own public and heated disagreement with Peter over the issue of the evangelization of non-Jewish converts to Christianity.  Consider just Galatians 2: 11-13

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned;  for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.

In the verses prior to these, Paul made several references about the “acknowledged leaders” of the Jerusalem church — including Peter, James and John — and at one point adds, “what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality”.

Here’s another example, drawn from the early days of the Second Vatican Council.  There has always been tension for centuries between the world’s diocesan bishops and the Roman Curia.  This was certainly in evidence during the antepreparatory and preparatory phases leading up to the Council, as preliminary draft documents were crafted and prepared for eventual debate during the Council.  But perhaps nowhere was this tension for evident than in the dramatic confrontation on November 8, 1963, when Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne confronted Cardinal Ottaviani over the conduct of the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), of which Ottaviani was Prefect. Cardinal Frings [whose theological advisor was a young theologian named Joseph Ratzinger] criticized the Holy Office, “whose methods and behavior do not conform to the modern era and are a source of scandal to the world.”  Archbishop Thomas Connolly of Seattle wrote to his archdiocesan newspaper that:Ratzinger with Frings

It all started more or less on Friday when Joseph Cardinal Frings, the Archbishop of Cologne, took the floor and flayed the Congregation of the Holy Office, declaring its procedures unjust, unfair, and completely out of harmony with modern times. He called for a complete revision of its status and its rights and privileges, saying that it was grossly unfair for the Holy Office to accuse, condemn, and judge any individual without having the opportunity of defending himself at a hearing. He declared further that the number of bishops in the curia should be reduced and many of the posts taken over by laymen. He minced no words in his denunciation.

ottavianiHe was immediately challenged by Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, secretary [now, Prefect] of the Holy Office. To use the parlance of the prize ring, the Cardinal had been taking it on the chin so often during the past few weeks that he had reached the limit of his patience. He picked himself up off the canvas; he lashed out at all his critics, swinging freely right and left. In a voice shaking with emotion and pent-up anger, he declared that criticisms of the Holy Office were criticisms of the Pope himself, that the German Cardinal’s words were spoken out of ignorance, if not worse. . . . It was the hottest exchange yet but of course, such things are to be expected for this council is not a sodality meeting.

And then there was the running public debate concerning the relationship of the universal Church to the diocesan Churches between then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Cardinal Walter Kasper.  The pair exchanged a series of articles which raised point and counterpoint on this critical issue.  Far from simply an academic exchange between theologians, the debate raised issues of episcopal authority between bishop and the Roman curia.  Kasper, basing his arguments on his experiences as diocesan bishop, continued the “Frings critique” of curial procedure.Kasper

Here’s my point, and it’s the same one made by Pope St. John XXIII during his opening address to the Second Vatican Council.  Following his criticism of the “prophets of gloom”, he concluded that “Everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.”  Those who find the Rodriguez Maradiaga-Mueller exchange problematic should probably calm down and appreciate the fact that our church has a venerable history of public disagreements that will ultimately lead to positive results.

We seek unity in faith, not uniformity.

“Da mihi, Domine, fortitudem Tuam”

prayerI recently responded to a posting on another blog.  The experience, on a human level, was not pleasant in the least; on a spiritual level, it was good because it brought me to prayer.  “Give me, O Lord, your strength!”  Always a good thing.

It also reminded me of the internet resolutions I made earlier this month.  Read them here.  Other bloggers have offered excellent tools for reflection, such as my friend and brother deacon, Greg Kandra, who offers a great Examination of Conscience, here, and, through Greg, I’ve found another resource by Cara Joyner, here.

In addition to my own earlier list, and drawn from this most recent experience, I want to build on Cara’s five points:

Before posting, she asks:

  1. Am I seeking approval?
  2. Am I boasting?
  3. Am I discontent?
  4. Is this a moment to protect?
  5. Is it kind?

competence1These are wonderful and appropriate questions.  I would like to add two more, to make a “holy seven”:

6.  Am I competent to address the issue?  Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but not all opinions carry the same weight or value.  I might have an opinion about the latest influenza strain.  How nice for me!  But a medical doctor who posts her professional opinion on the same subject gets the nod!  I’m not saying folks have to have a degree in order to comment or to have an opinion.  But what I see so often is that if a person has an opinion, they presume that it must be the final word and that their opinion is the only one that is true or that matters!  I have frequently taught logic and critical thinking courses.  As we find out in class, when two people disagree on something, we may conclude any number of things: a) one is correct and the other is wrong; or, b) both are correct but in different ways; or, c) both are wrong.  All a disagreement tells us is that there is a disagreement; the veracity of one position over another is something else again.  That is where “competence” comes into play, along with an ability to think critically and honestly.  So, when sharing my opinion, I must be brutally honest with myself: What is my level of competence or incompetence in writing on an issue?  The anonymity of the internet often communicates a false confidence and competence: a person can claim many things which can not always be verified in fact: that a person is a priest or deacon, for example, or that he or she holds this or that academic degree, or that they were just talking about this very issue with the Pope last week!  That’s why it can be very helpful, when offering opinions, to provide verifiable information which supports one’s position.  There are any number of blogs for example in which the blogger claims certain ecclesiastical status (priesthood, for example) but then proceeds to act in ways which would cast serious doubt on the veracity of such a claim.

angryatcomputer7. Do I know when to exit the field grace-fully?  When discussing contentious subjects online (or anywhere else, for that matter), do I know when to shut up?  Not only that, can I do that with the grace and gentility of spirit and discourse that should mark a disciple of Christ?  Or, as Cara asks, “Is it kind?”  Again, the anonymity of the internet not only grants an inflated sense of self, it adds a perceived level of protection which permits a person to say anything they like; things they would never dare say in person.  Sometimes it’s just better to walk away, as Christ did, with sadness of heart, than to remain and escalate into un-Christian behavior.

 

It simply seems that many people have simply forgotten — or have never known — how to discuss, analyze and even argue with respect, civility, docility and humility.  One may argue passionately without rudeness; emotionally, without nastiness; critically, without condescension.

civility

“Give me, O Lord, your strength!”