When a Prophet Visits: Matthew Fox Sweeps through Berea

Matthew Fox came through my hometown, Berea Kentucky, a few weeks ago. I’m still energized by the experience. It showed me what happens when a prophet drops by.

Matt’s the ex-Dominican theologian and spiritual teacher who was hounded out of his Order by Pope Ratzinger (aka Benedict XVI). His offense? The same as that of the 101 theologians and pastoral leaders that Fox has posted on his “Wailing Wall of Silenced, Expelled, or Banished Theologians and Pastoral Leaders under Ratzinger.” (The names appear at the end of Fox’s book The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved.)  The names include giants like Karl Rahner, Ivone Gebara, Edward Schillebeeckx, and my former teacher in Rome, the great moral theologian Bernard Haring.

As Matt’s more than 30 books show, he, like the others, was censured by Pope Benedict XVI for being too good a theologian and spiritual guide; he tried too hard to implement the directives of the Second Vatican Council; he was too successful in connecting the Christian Tradition to our post-modern world. All of that our ex-Hitler Youth Pope finds extremely threatening to his overriding pre-Vatican II values: order and Group Think directed from above.

My wife, Peggy, had instigated Matthew Fox’s visit to Berea College. As Director of Women’s Studies she had invited him for her “Peanut Butter and Gender” series of luncheons. Over the years, the twice-monthly event has paralleled the College’s convocation program of speakers and artists.  At “PB&G,” Matt gave a dynamite talk on men’s spirituality. Later on in the afternoon, he spoke to the entire student body wowing everyone in the process.

Of course, I attended both events. But I was even more privileged because Fox visited our home the night before. Over Manhattans he, Peggy and I compared notes, were surprised by friendships we share with others, and spoke of the dismal state the Catholic Church has reached under the “leadership” of the last two and a half popes (Ratzinger, John Paul II, and the last half of Paul VI’s term in office). Additionally, I had an hour or so in the car with Matt as I drove him to the Lexington Blue Grass Airport the morning after his visit. We spoke of Ratzinger’s 1968 “conversion” to the Catholic rendition of religious fundamentalism, and of Matt’s work with the witch, Starhawk (whom he identified with evident admiration as a “genuine liberation theologian”).

However, the highlight of the entire experience was a potluck supper at our home. Peggy had organized that too – for members of our Berea parish, St. Clare’s. The idea was for the Peace and Justice Committee and other progressives to meet with Fox and discuss how to respond to the drabness and irrelevancy of what passes for worship and Christian community in our church.

After an extraordinary potluck supper, about twenty-five of us sat in a big circle in our living room. Everyone joined in with comments, complaints, questions and concerns. Matt took it all in, responded when appropriate, and then shared his insights.

His most telling observation was to reverse the common perception shared by most in the room. That’s the opinion that progressive Vatican II Catholics have somehow been marginalized by the church. Fox turned that notion on its head. He held instead that we are the ones who are orthodox, while the last two (anti-Vatican II) popes are actually schismatic. They and their Vatican Curia are the outsiders, while we are the faithful ones adhering to the official teaching of the Catholic Church which remains the doctrine of Vatican II.

What to do about it all? Fox was helpful there as well. In fact, at the end of The Pope’s War, he lists “Twenty-Five Concrete Steps to Take Christianity into the Future.”  All of those steps were thought- provoking. However in terms of Fox’s “schism” observation, here’s the one that hit hardest for me:

“Instead of ‘Vatican III’ or a so-called lay synod that is gerrymandered by clerical curialists, let the various lay leadership groups hold national and then international gatherings among themselves – synods that are worthy of the name. Let them give marching orders to church officials instead of the other way around. Let the church officials listen to the laity for a change. Let the laity choose the theologians they wish to be their periti at such synods (if any).”

Along those lines, next month the “Call to Action” Conference will be meeting in Cincinnati. A group from our parish will be attending that convocation of progressive Catholics. Matthew Fox will speak there. I’ll be in attendance with my friends.

Expect a report in this blog.