Beginning his New York Times column with a citation from a column in The National Catholic Reporter (“Just days before Christians celebrated Christmas, Jesus got evicted”), Nicholas Kristof takes a look at the state of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States today. At least he takes a closer look at a recent issue centered on Catholic ethics and the recent battle of abortion, excommunication and un-Catholicisizing of hospitals in the South West.
You know what I’m talking about. Last year, Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix, after hearing about an emergency decision a local Catholic hospital made to terminate the pregnancy of a 27-year-old mother of four because of the imminent chance of death, declared the excommunication of a nun who served on the hospital’s ethics committee and approved the final decision.
Subsequently, Bishop Olmstead has revoked the hospital’s “Catholic status,” the effect of which is nearly indecipherable (Kristof says Mass cannot be celebrated in the hospital’s chapel now, although ordained Catholic chaplains celebrate mass in secular, Jewish and protestant hospitals all over the country every day! So that can’t be correct). At the same time, St. Joseph’s Hospital remains a member in good standing of the prestigious Catholic Health Association (CHA).
There are things about Kristof’s assessment with which I agree and others that I find troubling, superficial or simply misguided (to borrow a theme from Clay Naff’s Huffington Post column, most people today — NYT columnists and Catholic Bishops a like — simply do not take theology into consideration when discussing matter for which such analysis is necessary).
Here’s an insight from Kristof’s column that I think is indeed on target:
The thought that keeps nagging at me is this: If you look at Bishop Olmsted and Sister Margaret as the protagonists in this battle, one of them truly seems to me to have emulated the life of Jesus. And it’s not the bishop, who has spent much of his adult life as a Vatican bureaucrat climbing the career ladder. It’s Sister Margaret, who like so many nuns has toiled for decades on behalf of the neediest and sickest among us.
Then along comes Bishop Olmsted to excommunicate the Christ-like figure in our story. If Jesus were around today, he might sue the bishop for defamation.
Absolutely. This is almost a universal truth, although, to be fair, there have been some very holy and service-oriented bishops and some careerist nuns. But the sentiment seems to be hitting the mark, at least in part. Who is doing the work of the Gospel in this case? In any case of Church-related controversies? These are questions that are so often overlooked for the sake of authority or jurisdiction: as in, “I am the one who makes the calls in this place!”
While Kristof has a point about who most closely embodies the call of Christ to serve the least among us and most clearly resembles Jesus’s own words and deeds (healing the sick, forgiving the sinners, living and serving the outcast), Kristof also partly misses the point.
Alluding to the classic beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Kristof writes:
Yet in this battle, it’s fascinating how much support St. Joseph’s Hospital has had and how firmly it has pushed back — in effect, pounding 95 theses on the bishop’s door…
Anne Rice, the author and a commentator on Catholicism, sees a potential turning point. “St. Joseph’s refusal to knuckle under to the bishop is huge,” she told me, adding: “Maybe rank-and-file Catholics are finally talking back to a hierarchy that long ago deserted them.”
With the Vatican seemingly as deaf and remote as it was in 1517, some Catholics at the grass roots are pushing to recover their faith.
Hmm… Not exactly.
First of all, when did the vampire novelist and expressly disaffected Roman Catholic Anne Rice become an authority on Catholicism in the United States or ecclesiology? I like Rice a lot and have written about her spiritual journey elsewhere on this blog, but she would not be top on my list for authoritative or expert voices on the subject. It’s just weird.
Second, it is richly hyperbolic to suggest that the disputes over labeling this or that ministry or organization “Catholic” is akin to the 16th-Century Reformation. That said, I do believe that these disputes raise some serious questions and concerns that need to be addressed in light of sound academic theology and the Church’s tradition.
Olmstead and bishops like him do a disservice to the Church when division over conceivably reconcilable issues takes priority over reconcilation and dialogue. And commentators like Kristof (and Rice) do a disservice to the Church when such division is stoked and the ecclesial protagonists are provoked. The tone of ecclesial discourse in the U.S. today, much like in the nation’s political discussions, has become all too vitriolic, partisan and divisive.
In retrospect, the eventual theological disputes — as well as the disciplinary concerns that prompted Luther’s theses — that have defined the divide between Catholic and Protestant communities have since all but been reconciled. The heated discourse, the rush to defend one’s territory and authority, which always diminishes level-headedness, was the real cause of the Church’s fracture.
In that regard, Kristof may be correct to sound an alarm. We are due for some civility and dialogue within the Church rooted in love and modeled after Jesus’s own example, not of pushing people away, but of embracing the other in a way that transforms both sides.