If we want to see real change in the church, Catholics need a Rosa Parks moment.
Thousands fill St. Peter’s Square for the final blessing. A gleaming helicopter whisks the Pope off to his summer palace, Castel Gandolfo. He tells the world he will now become just a “humble pilgrim.” But this humble pilgrim will be housed in an apartment behind the “Apostolic Palace,” be addressed as “His Holiness,” share a secretary with the new Pope, carry the newly created title of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and continue to wear his white cassock. Sound like a humble pilgrim to you?
Speaking with Tavis Smiley recently, theologian Gina Messina-Dysert pointed to the resignation of this pope as probably the most progressive sign in the recent history of the Catholic church. She argued that an act so singular, it has not happened in more than 600 years, suggests that the church can also break with other traditions.
She is right. This radical act should beget other radical acts. We are at a time in church history when we might end the destructive practice of celibacy that has led to so much hypocrisy and abuse. The church might finally be ready to attest to the equality of women and ordain women as priests. The church might find the will and courage to welcome LGBT Catholics to full communion at the Eucharistic table and to full access to marriage and family life that heterosexual Catholics enjoy. The church might, but it is unlikely the church will. The theater of the Pope’s departure and his plans for how he will live the life of a pilgrim suggest otherwise.
When asked why she remained a practicing Catholic despite the pain of the still unfolding sexual abuse and discrimination, Dr. Messina-Dysert gave the only answer I think possible for those for whom Catholicism will forever be a part of their life force. To be deeply angered by those who have clung to power while forgetting their duty to people is to be angry at a man-made institution that has allowed the rot to set in. It does not diminish the radiance of the Gospel. It does not silence the Gospel’s call to stand in solidarity with those who have been pushed to the margins. If anything, anger and a sense of betrayal fuel the desire of dissident Catholics to reclaim the church that Jesus gave us.
Can what happened in the Middle East happen in the Catholic church? Tavis Smiley asked Dr. Messina-Dysert the question that Kung says the whole world is asking: “Might the next pope, despite everything, inaugurate a new spring for the Catholic Church?” Perhaps we should ask, “Will we–in the face of the obstructionism of a decaying institution—will WE inaugurate a new spring?”
It really is up to us. The more voices from the pews make themselves heard, the more likely are we to cause such reverberations that the walls of prejudice might eventually come tumbling down. I share Dr. Messina-Dysert’s belief that the chorus of voices is growing stronger every day. And it will help ensure that the monarchical edifices of rules and pledges of obedience that stifled conscience will crumble and be thrown out the way Christ drove the traders out of the temple.
In the face of all the pomp and power, all ordinary Catholics have at their disposal is their presence in the pews. If we want to see real change in the church, Catholics need a Rosa Parks moment.
Will it happen? E.J. Dionne made public the private hopes of many a Catholic when he suggested that the next pope be a nun. But he was quick to call this “the longest of long shots.” Dr. Messina Dysert expressed the same longing in her conversation with Tavis Smiley but also added that “it’s not going to happen in my lifetime.”
I have to ask, “Why not?” Why should it be such a long shot in 2013? If it is so, don’t we lay Catholics have ourselves to blame? Why do we fill the pews when half the church at least has the status of second class citizens? Why do we accept within the church what we refuse to accept in other spheres of civic or professional life?
We sing hymns to Mary for her obedience, but didn’t Mary intervene in the face of impending catastrophe at the marriage feast at Cana?
Dionne reminds us that Pope John XXIII recognized in 1963 that women “are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.” Fifty years should be long enough for his successors to act on that recognition.
Dawn Morais Webster is the mother of two young adults, wife of a man with Quaker and Episcopalian roots, was raised in a strongly, pragmatically Catholic family in Malaysia and was educated by Franciscan nuns whom she loved and admired. She currently spends a good deal of time talking back to the neanderthal leadership of the Catholic church in hopes of reclaiming the faith from the stranglehold of its institutional perversions. Her blog at http://freecatholic808 is a small voice–but she believes she is part of a much larger community of dissident voices. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii, Mānoa in 2008. Hawaii has been her home for the past twelve years–and the homage that the islands and the Hawaiian culture pay to the voices of its kupuna (elders) as well as the strong sense of spirituality and rootedness in place and people are healing and allow the soul to sing.