One of the most pressing challenges facing the Catholic Church in the U.S. today is the necessity of more adequate ministry to the many ethnic communities growing within our national borders. Among the impediments said to be operative against effective incorporation of ethnic communities into the Church in the U.S. are that these communities are enormously diverse and, therefore, present huge challenges to mainstream Catholicism. While these assertions are widely held among theorists of American Catholic multiculturalism, I suggest that they do not completely have the mature evidence of culture theory on their side.The notion that American ethnic communities are quite diverse seems at first sight well grounded. Native American, Hispanic, African-American, and Asian cultures can seem enormously different from each other. Clearly considerable differences do exist at the levels of cultural customs and practices. But at the level of what anthropologists call the “deep structures” of cultures, there are notable and striking similarities.Consider, for instance, that the cultures just mentioned hold in common many of the following characteristics: a pervasive sense of divine presence in ordinary life; an attachment to place and a closeness to the earth; a strong communal memory; a heroic attitude in the face of suffering and deprivation; a deep consciousness of the home as a holy place; reverence for parents, elders, and ancestors; a closely knit communal life; a well developed system of group festivity and celebration; and a ritualized response to birth, human transition, and death. I would call these cultures “traditional-communal.” I would argue that the Catholic cultures of Italy, Spain, Ireland, and Poland were historically traditional-communal, exhibiting the same features just outlined, and that they continued to be so after being transported to the U.S. in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Accordingly, it seems to me that the distance between the Native American, Hispanic, African-American, and Asians ethnic communities and traditional European-based Catholicism in the U.S. was historically not as great as many multicultural theorists suggest. However, just as the European-based Catholicism in the U.S. began to reach out to the Native American, Hispanic, and African, and Asian communities after the 1960s, it began to lose the ability to do so because it was fast adapting to the mainstream culture of the U.S., which I would describe as “liberal-individualistic.”Liberal-individualistic culture, which has its origins in some strands of Protestantism, is highly puritanical, pragmatic, rationalistic, and privatized; it separates God from public life and assumes a secularist mentality. It is non-communal and non-celebratory. The kind of American Catholicism which is liberal-individualistic is fundamentally incapable of dealing with ethnic and immigrant communities, especially the newer ones. It simply does not understand them and tries in vain to reach across the divide that separates liberal-individualistic cultures from traditional-communal ones.I suggest, then, that if mainstream Catholicism in the U.S. today were less a reflection of liberal-individualistic culture, it would be better positioned to minister to Catholic ethnic communities. The bottom line here is that the newer ethnic and immigrant communities are not the problem; mainstream U.S. Catholic culture is. While great efforts are being made in the Church to minister to ethnic communities, not enough attention is paid to the ability of these communities to teach mainstream American Catholicism how to be authentically Catholic—and less liberal-individualistic. Alongside diocesan offices reaching out to ethnic Catholic communities, I suggest that we need diocesan and parish programs in which Catholic ethnic communities can minister to and teach mainstream Catholicism in the U.S. how to recover its traditional-communal roots and become, therefore, more fully Catholic.
Considerable tension in present-day Catholicism centers on the Church’s moral teachings. Many regard the Catholic moral system as heartless and cold. This judgment is often based on the concrete experiences of Catholics in dealing with clergy who preach and practice moral orthodoxy at the expense of compassion.What I would call the orthodoxy-without-compassion approach sets out the moral demands of the Catholic tradition and insists that no one may call him or her self a Catholic who does not completely espouse and live by these ideals.This outlook was exemplified in an essay I came across some time ago by a “conservative” Catholic entitled “Shape Up OR Ship Out,” which argued that Catholics who do not fully accept and follow official teaching should simply leave the Church. This outlook is notable for its harshness, cold judgment, and lack of sympathy, and is, therefore, fundamentally flawed. It often assumes the worst about human motivations and exhibits a basic lack of charity,At the other end of the scale is the compassion-without orthodoxy approach. This view is committed to generous forgiveness, respect for individual situations, and the need to include all sincere believers in the life of the Church. It is slow to judge and quick to accept. It is strong on individual conscience and the priority of love over law.In its extreme form, this approach is known as “situation ethics” (named after a book of the same name by Episcopalian Joseph Fletcher published in the 1960s) which bases moral decision-making on conscience and subjective reasoning. However, it evades the pastoral responsibility of challenging believers to an engagement with the radical wisdom of the Gospel and the Catholic tradition.Both the orthodoxy-without-compassion and the compassion-without-orthodoxy approaches are inadequate expressions of the Catholic moral tradition. Authentic Catholicism offers a more coherent vision. It has long experience in holding principles and situations, idealism and imperfection, orthodoxy and compassion together. It rejects the view that struggling Catholics should “shape up or ship out.” But it does not compromise moral orthodoxy in the interests of the unqualified acceptance of persons.The example of Christ sets the tone for all compassionate Christian ministry. In his teaching and ministry, Christ combined uncompromising moral requirements with great compassion and care for those who struggled. Jesus warned the law-givers of his time: “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Lk.11:46).The Church which continues Christ’s ministry must act in the same manner. It both preaches the Gospel ideals embodied in its moral tradition, and offers love and support to those who for one reason or another do not measure up to the high ideals.The orthodox moral theologian or pastor acts improperly when his teaching or preaching leads people to walk away from the Church feeling rejected, abandoned, or defeated. He must preach and teach in a manner which establishes bonds of ongoing pastoral care for those in moral difficulty.Were compassion and orthodoxy held in complementary relationship in teaching, preaching, and pastoral practice, the official moral tradition of the Church would be more credible and ordinary Catholics would have less difficulty living with it. There would be less polarization in the Catholic community and the world of Catholic morality would be less painful, bitter, and divided.What I am proposing here is inspired in great part by the preaching and teaching of Pope Francis who, without ever compromising Catholic moral tradition, makes solidarity with people in their imperfections an urgent pastoral necessity.
The name of Matt Talbot is not well known outside of Ireland, but Talbot will likely be canonized in the not-too-distant future and become the patron saint of alcoholics. He was declared Venerable by Pope Paul VI in 1975.Matt Talbot was born in humble circumstances in Dublin in May 1856. At that time, Ireland was recovering from the devastating famine of the mid-1840s. This was an era of grinding poverty and appalling living conditions, especially in the larger cities. Heavy drinking and alcoholism were very severe problems in those years, and a deep-seated feature of Dublin life. Talbot’s father and older brothers were heavy drinkers. Alcohol provided one of the few means of escape from the harsh conditions of Dublin life, and it brought with it all the miseries of broken families and unfulfilled hopes.From his early years up to the age of twenty-four, Matt Talbot was a very heavy drinker, and clearly an alcoholic. This was a source of great distress to his mother. His pay check each week went primarily for alcohol. He frequented pubs every night, and when he ran out of money, he borrowed and scrounged among his fellow drinkers. To sustain his habit, he pawned his clothes and boots to get money for alcohol. On one occasion, he stole a violin from a street musician and sold it to buy drink. Most of his jobs in that early period were deliberately with liquor merchants, where he had easy access to alcohol. In 1884, however, Talbot stopped drinking and made a three-month pledge to refrain from alcohol. Having been successful in that attempt, he made a year-long and then a life-long pledge. Despite great temptations, he never took a drink again. For the rest of his life, however, abstinence was for him a fierce spiritual and psychological struggle.The remaining forty-one years were lived heroically with Matt attending daily Mass, praying fervently, helping the poor, and living out a strict spiritual life. He modeled himself on the early Irish monks, whose lives were extremely severe. He constantly read scripture, the lives of the saints, the writings of St. Francis de Sales, and works like the Confessions of St. Augustine. His spiritual director was a priest at the diocesan seminary, who gave him a chain to wear permanently around his waist as a sign of penance.Talbot dropped dead of a heart attack on a Dublin street on Trinity Sunday, June 7, 1925 on his way to Mass, and he was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.News of Talbot’s death, of his severe penitential life, the discovery of the chains he wore, and, not least, his triumph over alcohol spread rapidly among Dublin Catholics. He was popularly hailed as a saint. Within a few years of his death, Matt was regarded as a patron and protector of those suffering from alcoholism. In 1972, his remains were exhumed and brought to Our Lady of Lourdes Church, in the area where Matt had spent his life. Every day pilgrims came to pray at his tomb, and organized pilgrimages from all over Ireland became frequent.Since then, devotion to Talbot has spread among alcoholics and their families beyond Ireland, and many devotees look forward to his canonization.Not a lot has been published about Matt Talbot. Two of the books I would recommend are: Eddie Doherty, Matt Talbot (Combermere, Ontario: Madonna House Publications, 2001); and Tom Ryan, Comfort My People: Prayers and Reflections Inspired by the Venerable Matt Talbot (Dublin: Veritas, 2001).
Some time ago, I had a conversation with a lady who had attended the Oberammergau Passion Play in the south of Germany in 2004. The play, enacted every ten years since 1634, involves 2000 performers, musicians, and stage technicians, all of whom are residents of the town. The play, which runs for seven hours, acts out in a highly dramatic fashion the final events of Christ’s earthly life.She wondered why the Church does not incorporate the kind of vivid portrayal she saw at Oberammergau into its Holy Week liturgy. She thought a more dramatic liturgy might appeal to larger numbers of people, have a greater spiritual impact, and represent a more appropriate idiom for the Church’s worship in the twenty-first century.My response was that while passion plays have a valid place in Catholic life, the official liturgy of the Church has a purpose and significance far beyond dramatic reenactments.The Holy Week liturgy does not merely help the Church cast its mind back to Jerusalem and Calvary. The function of the liturgy of Holy Week is to celebrate what God in Christ is doing now, today among his people.Holy Week begins officially with Palm Sunday. The liturgy of this day calls to mind the Lord's entry into Jerusalem. But Palm Sunday also entails a living proclamation of Christ's lordship over the Church and its people here and now. We carry palms not merely for historical reasons, but as a sign of our present commitment to Christ.On Holy Thursday, the Church recalls the gathering of Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper, an event that inaugurated the Christian Eucharist. But on this day, the church celebrates more importantly its present identity as Christ's living Body, and it renews the centrality of Christ's sacrifice in its life.When the priest washes the feet of his parishioners, he is not merely repeating dramatically what Jesus did on the first Holy Thursday. He is expressing and renewing his own commitment to service of the people of his parish now. (This, incidentally, is why women should always be among those whose feet are washed--as Pope Francis did last year).On Good Friday, the liturgy calls to mind the terrible events of Christ's crucifixion. But the solemn Good Friday liturgy is infinitely richer and more significant than any passion play or historical drama. Its purpose is not only to call to mind the original event of Calvary, but to recognize and celebrate the Cross being lived out today in the church and in the world.In the vigil of Holy Saturday, the Church is not awaiting, as in a play, the original resurrection on the first Easter. It is awaiting the return of Christ in glory at the end of time, an event anticipated in a powerful way in the Easter Eucharist. Already in baptism, Christians share in the resurrection. This is renewed when new Christians are baptized at the vigil. In the Easter sacraments, we glory in Christ's resurrection as a present, living reality and we celebrate the promise of the great and eternal Easter.The need to dramatize and recapture the historical events of Christ's death and resurrection is an important feature of Christian life. However, in a passion play, the event of our attention remains in great part in the past, and we are spectators. In the Holy Week liturgy, the event stands in the present, and we are participants. Knowing the difference between the two is the basis of the profound and vital spirituality that is crucial to the fruitful celebration of Holy Week and Easter.
In his book titled, Images of the Church in the New Testament, the Lutheran theologian Paul Minear found that in the New Testament there are 96 images of the Church. In the area of the Christian moral life, I suggest, there are three principal images at work: the Church as judge, the Church as therapist, and the Church as mother.The notion of the Church as judge enshrines important values. Despite the professed cultural ideal of living non-judgmentally, no individual or institution can function without making judgments about people, ideas, and behaviors. The Church, like Christ, must unavoidably make judgments about right and wrong, virtue and sin.Yet, the image of the Church as judge can easily harden in a direction that compromises Christian compassion and mercy. Pastoral ministry in this scheme can become rigorous and unbending, holding that Catholics who do not follow the Church’s moral teaching completely must be dealt with sternly. This can leave the penitent after Confession, for instance, feeling that, while technically forgiven, at a fundamental level he or she remains in God’s bad books.At the other end of the spectrum is the image of the Church as therapist. Modern psychology generally views the therapist as non-intrusive facilitator of the process by which the individual sorts out personal problems and arrives at solutions. The therapist does not impose his or her moral system on the client. He or she remains painstakingly “non-judgmental,” avoiding words like “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad.”In the Church-as-therapist approach, adapting the Gospel and its moral demands to situations, circumstances, and individual motivations is paramount. In this view, personal conviction is the ultimate arbiter of moral action. The notion of moral objectivity is played down.The images of the Church as judge and as therapist enshrine important insights: The first in that it emphasizes moral objectivity, and the second in that it pays strong attention to conscience. Yet both only partially represent the Gospel of Christ and the moral tradition of the Church. While initially they appear very different, both approaches have one thing in common: They are perfectionistic and unable to tolerate failures and imperfections. They cannot bear tension, ambiguity, and the paradox that God can love the sinner.Catholics, whether priests or people, who live by the image of the Church as judge can be perfectionistic in the sense that they literally tolerate only perfection. They grasp inadequately the truth that the saint and the sinner can co-exist in the Christian at the same time.On the other hand, Catholics who think of the Church as therapist can easily close their eyes to the Church’s moral tradition, and are prone to establishing themselves in a very comfortable morality. They cannot live with the idea that they might be sinners.The more adequate and inclusive model of the Church is that of mother. The good mother holds high ideals, yet she can live with the sins of her children. She is principled and high-minded, yet has a tender heart when her children sin, wander away, and betray their training. The good mother never disowns her children, but grieves over their sins. She awaits the awakening in them of what she has taught them in their formative years.The Church as mother incorporates the best of the roles as judge and therapist. She knows that the tension between Christian ideals and the actual behavior of believers is part of the process of God’s children growing toward salvation and the full stature and maturity of Christ.
The Church continues to be at a loss as to how to advance the roles of women in its administrative structures. While the Church does not see its way to the priestly and episcopal ordination of women, some responsible scholars have argued that there exist no doctrinal reasons impeding women from being ordained to the diaconate. Likewise, the question of appointing women to the College of Cardinals – since this does not require holy orders – has been raised intermittently since the Second Vatican Council.Since the Council, women have become diocesan chancellors, and can do much of the work formally assigned to vicars general and moderators of the diocesan curia--positions currently tied to holy orders, but not necessarily so in the future. Women canon lawyers can informally coordinate the canonical affairs of a diocese, including the marriage tribunal, where their gifts would be most profitably employed. Women now chair many of the advisory commissions of dioceses. They also hold positions of considerable importance in the agencies of national bishops’ conferences.Some women already hold prominent positions in the offices of the Holy See. While there are presently canonical impediments (which could be changed, since they are man-made), the possibility of appointing women as prefects (heads) of some Roman congregations (departments) might be further explored. Were a woman to be appointed prefect of the Congregation for Religious, that gesture would surely be taken by women religious as a powerful gesture of goodwill and could reduce considerable tension in a very troubled area. (Women religious are now ultimately under the leadership of men!).Appointing women as presidents of the pontifical councils for the laity, the family, social communications, Christian unity, peace and justice, inter-religious dialogue, and culture – for which holy orders are not even now a prerequisite – seems highly desirable.In the opinion of some, there exists no fundamental theological impediment to the appointment of women as papal nuncios and apostolic delegates within the Church’s diplomatic corps. Such roles need not be tied to ordination.While the Holy See and bishops around the world would balk at the idea of having women play a central role in the appointment of bishops, perhaps the Church could separate out the role of apostolic nuncio (which deals in great part with the Vatican’s relations with governments) and assign it to lay persons, while the role of apostolic delegate (which deals primarily with matters like the relationship of the Holy See to local Churches and the appointment of bishops), could remain attached to holy orders.Could such new roles for women in the Church be institutionalized? I believe so, and history provides some useful precedents.For instance, soon after the fourth century, canonesses constituted an order of exemplary women dedicated to the Church. They were not nuns or sisters in the modern sense, but laywomen who owned property, lived in their own houses, did not wear religious insignia (except at formal ecclesiastical events), did not profess vows – and could be married.Such an office – restored and updated – could be for life, have a formal blessing by the bishop, and involve ceremonial insignia and dress, and the holder given a place of honor in the liturgies and gatherings of the Church.There is, I believe, nothing theologically radical or unorthodox in these proposals. They could be effected with profound respect for the Church’s hierarchical order and would involve no change in the fundamental doctrine of the Church. And they would go a long way toward showing that the Church is serious about advancing women’s roles – something to which Pope Francis has repeatedly committed himself.
The understanding of Ireland and Irish identity that many Irish-Americans labor under was set out memorably by Professor Thomas Corcoran of University College Dublin in an essay in the 1920s in which he wrote: “The Irish Nation is the Gaelic nation; its language and literature is the Gaelic language; its history is the history of the Gael. All other elements have no place in Irish national life, literature, and tradition.”F.S.L. Lyons, a distinguished historian at Trinity College Dublin, argued that it is precisely this understanding that stands as one of the roots of the political and cultural problems that plagues Northern Ireland. Not only have the Catholic and Protestant communities failed to live together harmoniously, but an excessively narrow understanding of Irish identity on the part of Catholics continues to define the Protestant majority as non-Irish.A version of the same problem continues to exist, albeit to a much lesser degree, in the Republic of Ireland. A small but significant portion of the population is Anglo-Irish. Many have strong cultural ties with Great Britain. However, the Catholic majority in the Republic generally refuses to acknowledge the great contribution of the Anglo-Irish tradition over the centuries. By the Anglo-Irish tradition, I mean that embodied in the homogenous, yet numerically small community in the southern provinces that originated with the Norman and Elizabethan invasions and forged for itself cultural, intellectual, and political achievements that were quite remarkable.This was the tradition that gave the literary world Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Lady (Augusta) Gregory, W.B. Yeats, and C.S Lewis.Among its most prominent intellectuals were George Berkeley and Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism. Some of the most distinguished scientists and business leaders of the day were members of this community.The Anglo-Irish community provided the United Kingdom with one of its greatest soldiers in the person of the Duke of Wellington, and a prime minister in the person of George Canning. Some very influential Irishmen were among its numbers, as were numerous members of the diplomatic corps, army, and navy.What sparked the remarkable phenomenon in which the Anglo-Irish tradition emerged so powerfully? In my opinion, it was the marriage of Gaelic mysticism and imagination with British order and efficiency. If the soul of the Gael is fiery and poetic, the English soul is sensible and disciplined. When the marriage of the two worked, it was magnificent, giving rise to what has rightly been recognized as one of history’s most brilliant minorities.The sad fact, of course, is that the marriage didn’t last. The tragedy of the English embrace of Ireland is that what began with the 12th century Norman invasions was only a half conquest, a failed experiment. As historian Fr. F.X. Martin has pointed out, if the conquest had been completed “a new nation would have emerged, combining the qualities of both peoples.”However, when most of Ireland achieved political separation from the United Kingdom in 1922, the Anglo-Irish tradition, for long an integral part of Ireland, was defined as non-Irish and alien, and the country was sucked into a bog of Gaelic romanticism.But the remnants of the Anglo-Irish tradition remain. They are there in the ruined and abandoned castles, in the remains of once-beautiful Dublin, and in the decaying gentility of provincial towns. They survive in the few fine institutions and academies allowed to retain the title “royal,” and in the tolerated excellence of Anglo-Irish culture.This tradition will, as usual, be overwhelmingly ignored on St. Patrick’s Day – which is why some Irish men and women are found to be not particularly amused on that day.