Are You a “Had-It” Catholic? Are Retro-Priests Responsible?

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Readings for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: MAL 1-14B-2:2B, 8-10; PS 131:1-3; I THES 2-7B-9, 13; MT 23: 11-12

Today’s readings should make today’s retro-priests very uncomfortable.  I’m referring to members of the Catholic Clergy who long for the “good old days” before Vatican II.

In any case, both the first selection from Malachi and the third from Matthew take clergy in general to task. They’re not teaching the right things, Malachi charges. They’re too concerned with clothes and titles, says Jesus.  Meanwhile today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to his community in Thessalonia suggests remedies for such failings. Paul even gestures towards a female clergy and worker priests. See if you agree.

Begin with the prophet, Malachi. He threatens the priests in his time with a curse. Probably writing about 500 years before Jesus, the prophet says “You have turned aside from the way and caused many to falter by your instructions . . . I have therefore made you contemptible and base before all the people.”

“Contemptible?” “Base?” Pretty strong words for priests, wouldn’t you say?

Then in today’s Gospel selection, Jesus criticizes the religious leaders of his own day for attachment to distinctive religious dress and for insisting on special titles like “father.”

Reading those passages, do retro-priests feel their faces turning red?

Relative to titles and dress, I’m alluding to the fact that we still call our priests “father,” despite Jesus’ clear words. And then there’s this reversion on the part of many priests to pre-Vatican II garb. Some are now wearing dress-like cassocks again (I saw one in the airport the other day), and even birettas. (Birettas are these odd square caps with three or four peaks or horns, sometimes topped with a black tuft.)

Before Vatican II, priests used to dress like that. Now in 2017, retro-priests are doing the same. It makes you wonder what they’ve been learning in the seminary over the last 50 years.

And as for Malachi’s words about faulty instruction . . . Why are we still listening to pre-Vatican II sermons?

Just a few days ago, I was talking to a fellow parishioner about exclusion of non-Catholics receiving communion while attending Catholic Mass. My friend was defending the exclusivity. And his reasons were like something from my childhood – more than 70 years ago! It was as if the ecumenical movement had never taken place – as though Jesus were somehow contained inside the communion wafer, as though he still believed that Catholics have an inside track in “getting into heaven,” – you know: up there.

The point here is not to criticize my fellow parishioner; it’s not at all his fault. The fault lies with (in Malachi’s words) the “instruction” given by our priests – and, I guess, to our priests in the seminary.  What they’re telling us from the pulpit doesn’t nearly extend to us the benefits of inter-denominational dialog, the insights of the last 150 years of biblical study, or even the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

What’s up with all of that?

Again, in Malachi’s words, it’s causing people to “falter,” to see the meaninglessness and irrelevance of it all, and to “turn aside” from everything churchy as contemptible and base – or at least irrelevant to their lives as thinking people. No wonder “had-it” Catholics constitute the second largest denomination in the United States.

Priests today are not even following the instruction of the pope who gives every evidence of being a had-it Catholic himself.

Remember four years ago, when Pope Francis published his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel? Throughout the document, you could almost feel Francis’ frustration with the situation I’ve been describing here. Recall what he said. It’s amazing in its content. But what’s even more amazing is the failure of priests and bishops to implement its directives.

Recall that Pope Francis called explicitly for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church. Things cannot be left as they presently are, he asserted, but must include new ways of relating to God, new narratives and new paradigms (74). Changes should entail new customs and ways of doing things, with new times, schedules, and language (27). In short, Catholics must find, a new path in our world (JG 1, 25).

What part of “new” are priests and bishops not getting?  Why, has NOTHING changed? NOTHING AT ALL!

Pope Francis got more particular. Homilies, he said, have to be better prepared and delivered (135-159). (The pope devoted a whole section of his exhortation to this topic.) Women need more prominence. He referred to them as generally more sensitive than men – more intuitive, and otherwise more skilled (103, 104). In recognition that other denominations share many points of faith and practice with Catholics, there needs to be more outreach towards those communities (246).

Even more importantly, Francis called the church to be more involved in political life, joining people of all faiths and none in the struggle for social justice. He specifically identified that struggle as “a moral obligation” that is “inescapable” (220, 258). Here horizons must be widened, the pope urged, beyond simple concern for the “defense of unborn life” (213) to “each and every human right” including education, health care, and “above all” employment and a just wage (192). Catholics must completely reject war as incapable of combatting violence which is caused by “exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples” (59). Wars are caused by devotion to unfettered markets with their “trickle-down” ideologies which are homicidal (53), ineffective (54), and unjust at their roots (59).

That emphasis on social justice shows why today’s retro-priests and bishops are not merely quaint and irrelevant, but positively harmful – even deserving of that curse Malachi threatened. I say that because they’ve ignored Francis’ desperate calls for social justice – not to mention his warnings about climate change in his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’. I might even go so far as to say that neglectful priests and bishops are responsible for the election of Donald Trump and Republicans in general, whom (because of their position on climate change)Noam Chomsky has called the most dangerous organization in the history of the world.

After all, so many Catholic voters, possibly even a majority, chose Trump who in contradiction to the pope’s exhortation:

  • Denies human-caused climate change
  • Espouses trickle-down economics
  • Opposes living wages
  • Restricts access to health care
  • Loves the military
  • Threatens to annihilate an entire nation of 25 million people

What to do about all of this?

Here is where Paul provides direction. He suggests that priests are out-of-touch.

They need to get a job. Paul brags about how he worked day and night (as a tent-maker) so he wouldn’t represent a financial burden on his people. Can you imagine priests working at McDonalds and leading the campaign for $15 dollars an hour wages — and bringing that struggle into their sermons?

Like Pope Francis with his words about women’s unique gifts, Paul’s words even suggest a female clergy. He does that by comparing his dedication to his community in terms of “a nursing mother’s care for her children.”

Worker priests? Women priests? Now those changes truly represent a new path. That “New” no one could misunderstand. No more “father.” No raised eyebrows at clergy wearing dresses and fancy hats.

“Got-it” Catholics might replace the “Had-its.”

It’d work for me!  How about you?

And how might we get from here to there? (Discussion follows.)