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.

In Memoriam: Fr. Norbert Feld

This evening I received the very sad news that Father Norbert Feld (Society of St. Columban ordination class of 1949) died today at the age of 87. Fr. Feld was my philosophy professor in the early ‘60s when he was in his mid-thirties. Norbie was one of my most memorable teachers at the major seminary level in Milton, MA, which I attended from 1960 to 1967.

In fact, each morning I remember him in my prayers as one of my three most influential professors at that level along with Eamonn O’Doherty and John Marley. From Eamonn I learned the science and art of scriptural interpretation. His impact on me can’t be measured. From Fr. Marley I learned about liturgy; he also introduced me to theological giants like Hans Kung, Teilhard de Chardin and Edward Schillebeeckx. Not insignificantly, Fr. Marley was my spiritual director who sympathetically helped me through the crises involved in exiting the priesthood after so many years of preparing to enter it.

I’m not sure how to characterize what I learned from Fr. Feld. I don’t remember much of what he taught me about philosophy – except that he once said that Rene Descartes “didn’t know his head from his elbow.” But I think Fr. Feld woke me up to politics and the art of independent thinking. That, I think, is why I remember him as so influential.

Hearing that from me might surprise some of my seminary colleagues, since Norbie was an extreme conservative, while I’ve become the polar opposite. William Buckley and the editors of The National Review were his heroes. Norbie disliked the Kennedys, and had little sympathy for the anti-war protestors. I don’t remember what he thought of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement.

As for his philosophy classes, they were memorable for his avoidance of the topic. I mean Fr. Feld would devote half to three-quarters of almost every class to discussing “current events” rather than the Scholastics, Enlightenment thinkers, or Existentialists. We’d always encourage my classmate, Frank Hynes, to egg Norbie on. “Hynie” (who later became a Boston politician himself) was much more politically literate than the rest of us who had been cooped up in the seminary since puberty. He was also more liberal than Fr. Feld. So he knew how to “get Norbie going.” It worked every time, and we all loved it.

Fr. Feld was also an athlete. He played football with us, and always hit hard; he was good about taking hard hits too. He’d play baseball with us as well. However, his best sport was hockey. He was as good as any of us. And “he didn’t need no stinkin’ shin guards” either. Instead he’d protect his legs with folded cardboard cartons tucked into his hockey socks. I remember one time he led us all in the building of an outdoor hockey rink in the seminary quadrangle. He was really serious about it. And each evening in the coldest weather while we were in “study hall,” we could see him out there sprinkling the rink’s surface to make it smooth for the next day’s play.

When we weren’t studying, he’d be after us to work on the rink with him. “Holy Honk!” he’d say, “you all want to play hockey. But you gotta to do the work. ‘Criminetley,’ get out here and help!” Maybe I learned that from him too – the expectation of hard work, and how to ‘swear’ like a priest.

Along with others, I’ve told Eamonn how much I appreciated what I learned from him. I’ve also thanked Fr. Marley for what he taught me about liturgy and theology, and for the help he gave me when I needed it most. I regret that I never expressed my gratitude to Fr. Feld for all he gave me.

Again, I’m not quite sure how to name his gift. But it was real. And whatever it was, I’ll remain eternally grateful to him for it.

Thank you, Father Feld. Please rest in peace!

Why I Left the Priesthood: Pt. 2 Intellectual Influences

I didn’t have much of an intellectual life when I was in the seminary. True, I studied hard and got good grades. I learned what I was expected to know on tests. But the intellectual curiosity just wasn’t there. Why should it have been? As Catholics we had the whole truth; there was nothing new to learn. There was no salvation outside the Church. The pope, at least, knew all the answers. There was no need to think much, except to “defend the faith.” 

Beyond that, thinking critically wasn’t much encouraged at all. In fact, from my high school seminary days till half-way through the major seminary (when I was about 23) a palpable anti-intellectualism pervaded the curriculum. For instance, I remember being taught in my first or second year as a philosophy major that Descartes “didn’t know his head from his elbow.” We never read Descartes, nor anybody of much consequence as far as “the world” was concerned, apart from snippets in the various manuals – and then only as parts of refutations. These quotes, followed quickly by rebuttal, did after all give the distinct impression that Descartes, Kant, Marx, Freud – not to mention the “Modernists” and Protestants in general – were clueless. So why be concerned about them or their writings?

In 1962, of course, things started to change, when John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council. I was a senior in college then. And some of our professors started encouraging us to actually read books, and to discover what was happening in the world. I resisted. I had well internalized the passivity which the seminary curriculum had encouraged in terms of not thinking for myself, at least theologically.

I had the good fortune, however, of having classmates and friends who were less gullible than me. They were excited by the prospect of the Council. After a bit of a struggle, one of them even got our library to subscribe to the National Catholic Reporter. In class and outside, others voiced criticisms of a whole host of things I considered sacred. I remember, for instance, a spirited seminary-wide discussion about the worth of continuing to regard The Imitation of Christ as a source of spiritual wisdom. I resisted that too. I remember writing something “learned” defending The Imitation’s author, Thomas a Kempis.

A series of lectures put together by the Paulist Fathers in downtown Boston was especially instrumental challenging my defensiveness. First of all it was a relief to be outside the seminary walls to attend the series. Most importantly though John L. McKenzie, Harvey Cox, Andrew Greeley and others gave powerful lectures as part of the program. Particularly memorable for me, however, was a talk by Barnabas Ahern. As a scripture scholar, he spoke of the human Jesus, and of the way the Gospels had gradually elevated the historical Jesus almost beyond recognition.

Our faith, Ahern reminded us, is that Jesus was a divine person who is fully God and fully human. We believe the first part with all our hearts, he said, but pay only lip service to the second. Ahern’s words made such profound impression on me that the next day I wrote out from memory virtually everything that he had said. His approach showed me what demythologizing in its best sense is all about. I resolved that I wanted to think and speak that way. That represented a tiny step towards adopting as my own a motto suggested to me by one of my mentors years later in Rome: “No more bullshit.”  

Eamonn O’Doherty, one of my scripture professors in the major seminary also moved me in that direction. The beginning of the Council coincided with my class’ entry into our four-year theology program in Milton. Central to it all was Eamonn’s introduction to modern scripture scholarship. Eamonn insisted on dealing exclusively with primary sources. His own notes and lectures provided the commentary. His approach was contextual. And with that I was introduced to genuine critical thinking for the first time. In Eamonn’s class (unlike Moral Theology of all places), questions were encouraged. I especially remember two colleagues (both a couple of years ahead of me) raising many questions I found interesting. Even more intriguing was the fact that they could actually ask them.

I wondered what they were reading. One of them gave me a list of three books – two by Hans Kung. Meanwhile our Liturgy professor acquainted us with Edward Schillebeeckx, and had us read Christ: the Sacrament of the Encounter with God. Soon I was delving into James Kavanaugh’s A Catholic Priest Looks at His Outdated Church. I was on my way.

I didn’t realize it then, but even before my ordination, I was starting my exit from the priesthood. I was beginning to recognize that what I was aspiring to – its rationale, its way of life, its theological justification – just couldn’t stand up to the evidence, not scriptural, nor historical nor theological.

By the time ordination came, I was secretly hoping I’d be sent to do graduate work instead of to the “foreign missions.” I wanted to know more. So I was delighted when my first appointment was to Rome and the Academia Alfonsiana to “do” Moral Theology. Evidently, my superiors planned for me to teach in the seminary following my years in Rome. (My intellectual development there however soon had them rethinking that idea.)

I knew Bernard Haring, the great Catholic moral theologian, taught at the Alfonsiana, and looked forward to studying under him. However, before beginning that three-year program, I had to get a degree in Systematic Theology. (Even after four years of theology in Milton, we had no corresponding degree to show for it.) So I enrolled in the Benedictine Atheneum Anselmianum.

Rome was still electric in the aftermath of Vatican II. After each day’s lectures at the Anselmo, I remember coming home on fire. I really admired Swiss Professor Magnus Lohrer. I can still see him smiling enthusiastically as he explained some fine point of the Council, Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth – in Latin. Raphael Schulte wasn’t far behind in my estimation. Their excitement about theology, their engagement with the world, their scholarship shook my world and drove me to make up for all that “lost time” at Milton. I read voraciously – everything I could by Rahner, along with books by Congar, Schillebeeckx, Dewart, Cox, Tillich, Moltmann, and (later) by liberation theologians, especially Franz Hinkelammert of Costa Rica. Meal times in the Columban residence on Corso Trieste were spent in hot debate. I remember those discussions so well: liberals versus conservatives – and all the time enduring our rector’s dark scowls.

It was at this point that news started trickling in about seminary colleagues who were leaving the priesthood. The huge post-conciliar exodus from the priesthood had begun. Table talk on Corso Trieste refocused to that topic. Was the priesthood really forever? And what about celibacy? By now everyone knew that renunciation of marriage was quite late coming along as a requisite for ordination. Its imposition and defence had a lot to do with protecting church property from the heirs of priests. Besides all of that, Vatican II had changed the very ideas of priesthood and church. The priesthood of the faithful had been emphasized. And the church itself was primarily understood as a People of God, not as a top-down clerical hierarchy. Clerics were less important. So, what harm if ordained priests realized all of that and acted accordingly?

Such insights and insistent questions spilled over into the General Chapter of the Society of St. Columban, which I attended in Ireland in the early ‘70s. There I and an Irish and Australian colleague were specially elected “youth” delegates – even though all of us were over 30. Because we were such youngsters, we had voice at the Chapter, but no vote. I remember being disappointed, but not surprised at how closed older delegates tended to be to new ideas expressed not only by the three of us (who were literally “back benchers” in the Chapter hall), but to those expressed by forward-looking priests I had come to admire.

We were impatient for change, and for addressing big questions such as the purpose of missionary activity in an ecumenical world, and even priestly celibacy. Lack of serious response had an alienating effect, at least on me. Additionally, personal observation of the way my order worked, of its members’ basic fear of change, of stonewalling, machismo, and denial intensified the impression that those in charge didn’t really know what they were talking about.

But then, of course, alienation of youth was a “sign of the times” in the early ‘70s. Estrangement of young priests from church structures was part of all that.

It was also part of my story.

 Next Week: Personal Steps away from the Priesthood