NO FENCES LEFT TO SIT ON
At a time of humanitarian and environmental disasters and political crises, overshadowed by the threat of nuclear war, it is hard to believe that the Catholic hierarchy is engaged in vicious in-fighting over Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia and his leadership of the Church. This is less a case of Nero fiddling while Rome burns, as of Rome fiddling while the world burns.
Yet these alarming signs of the times may not be entirely unrelated. It’s important to avoid over-simplification, but there is a particular kind of Catholic who seems to have been emboldened by the election of President Trump in the US and the result of the Brexit referendum in the UK, when the British voted by a small majority to leave the EU. The success of both these campaigns has fuelled a rise in extremism, and Catholic far right alliances are proliferating in the blogosphere. Opposition to Pope Francis runs high in these groups, whose members often show a nostalgic yearning for the more doctrinally rigid era of Pope Benedict XVI.
The problem is that the political silence and ecclesial in-fighting of the hierarchy at times such as these gives free rein to those who conduct campaigns of censorship and divisiveness within the Church, so that the poison of hatred begins to ooze through all levels of Catholic life. The most famous recent case has been the outcry against Father James Martin SJ’s book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity, which has unleashed a wave of homophobia against institutions associated with him.
Yet Fr Martin enjoys powerful support and, while it is distressing to be the target of such hostility, his high profile accords him a certain security in terms of his livelihood and status. The same is not true for women theologians and activists who experience similar attacks, but who are often left to struggle on in isolation and obscurity.
Last month, the Catholic Women Speak Network (CWS) released a statement on extremism and social media in support of one of its members, Rebecca Bratten Weiss, who was told in August that her contract with the Franciscan University of Steubenville would not be renewed, even though she had a busy schedule of work for the autumn semester. She was shown screenshots of conversations she had participated in on social media, as evidence for why she was no longer employable by a Catholic institution. None of the evidence used against her was doctrinally heterodox, but unlike the far better known case of James Martin, no member of the hierarchy has spoken up in her defence. The CWS statement also refers to the voluntary cancellation of a lecture that Professor M. Shawn Copeland was due to give at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan, after an attack by a group called Church Militant. Like the Lifesite News website which launched a scurrilous attack on Bratten Weiss, these groups represent very small minorities which are in no way representative of the exuberant vitality and diversity of the worldwide Church. Nevertheless, the Catholic hierarchy seems more ready to clamp down on educated and faithful women theologians than to resist pressure from these minority factions with their few episcopal supporters. No wonder women are leaving the Church in droves, and taking the next generation with them.
We are living through a dangerous era – inside and outside the Church – when there are no fences left to sit on. Each of us has to decide where we stand, and why. That is not to deny the need to seek dialogue and engagement with those who are on a different side, but in times of rapid and unpredictable change which has devastating implications for the poorest and most marginalised people, and indeed for life itself on Planet Earth, we cannot prevaricate on fundamental issues of human dignity, social justice and care for creation. Perhaps, in finding himself pushed to the margins by a self-serving clerical elite, Pope Francis is exactly where he needs to be, and that is a situation which asks each of us to decide in turn where we need to be.
I have always been puzzled by the apparent self-contradiction in Jesus telling his disciples that ‘whoever is not against us is for us’ (Mk 9:40; Lk 9:50), and then also saying ‘whoever is not with me is against me (Matt 12:30, Lk 11:23). Perhaps we need to be discerning in how we interpret these sayings in different contexts. There are harmonious and peaceful times when the former may be true and support for a cause can be silent and implicit, but there are violent and divisive times when one must make a decisive choice as to who one stands with and why. St Paul cautions us to avoid personality cults among the followers of Christ, but that does not exempt us from having to ask which leaders best empower and enable us to hear Christ’s call and to follow him in the free, risk-taking and joyful adventure of our Catholic faith.