Discover more from Grift of the Holy Spirit
Call it Reverence or Whatever
Ugh we've got to do something about these little freaks.
"Whenever I read a Vatican document on the role of women, I pretend that I am an alien from space, and I got this document. I have no context: Roman Catholic church, or gender, or Earthlings. I have this total veil of ignorance. Starting from zero. Tabula rasa. What conclusions could I draw, knowing nothing else, about this community of women, based on this document? I've done this dozens of times, with different papal statements. Every single time, without fail, the conclusion that surfaces is: women are all exactly the same."
That was from a November panel discussion at Fordham on the ongoing multi-year synod in the Catholic church. The woman who said that thing about being an alien was Emory University theologian Susan Reynolds; she also just wrote a related essay for Commonweal that starts with a similar thought experiment, although she left out the totally baller alien reference in that version. She was speaking, specifically, about the new documents coming out of the first wave of the synod, which, for maybe the first time in the church’s history - at least for the first time in a few centuries - are actual real-life Vatican documents that don’t treat groups like Catholic women, or the laity more broadly, as a monolithic mass desperately needing to be told what to do and how to think. It’s not like everything, all of a sudden, has now been fixed in the church, but it’s one small promising sign that maybe the institutional church wants to take the laity a little more seriously. Great! Only took a few centuries to get to “one small promising sign.”
Now, hearing Reynolds say the “pretend I’m an alien” thing, at this time, was exactly what I needed in my life. Because the confluence of her chosen topic, the rhetorical device she used to explain it, and the timing of the panel all finally gave me an excuse to publish the essay I'd been drafting about women, aliens, and Christmas.
It's a not-uncommon convention in science fiction: a group of aliens looks at earth and says "ugh we've got to do something about these little freaks." The Day the Earth Stood Still is a classic film from the Cold War era about an alien emissary who comes to Earth to warn us about what we're risking with nuclear proliferation. A more recent example is 2017 Best Picture nominee Arrival, where aliens arrive on Earth trying to unify a seemingly hopeless planet in peace, with a message that Amy Adams attempts to decode using a Magna-Doodle. Gene Brewer's 1995 novel K-PAX centers on a psych ward patient who believes he's an alien and uses his therapy sessions to critique the harsh belligerent culture of Earth against the utopian society on his own planet; the book was adapted into a film in 2002 starring Kevin Spacey, and for obvious reasons it's not fun to watch today. Even Calvin of legendary 90s newspaper comic strip Calvin & Hobbes once sarcastically remarked, after seeing trash in his local park, that "the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us."
But my favorite entry from this genre is "All Seated on the Ground", a 2007 novella by Connie Willis. If I had to rank Willis among science fiction writers, I'd go with something like "maybe the best to ever do it"; Willis has more Hugo and Nebula awards for her writing than any other author, ever, and is consistently in high demand to speak at conventions since she's one of very few living science fiction writers to possess anything resembling public speaking skills or a sense of humor. She has written zero bad stories or novels and at least one stone-cold masterpiece with her two-part novel Blackout/All Clear. Willis’ novels and stories are charming and moving and witty and very human. Her most famous series of novels focuses on a group of grad students at Oxford experimenting with time travel and getting stuck in various dangerous eras of history; rather than intergalactic wars or dystopian regimes, Willis tends to write about people like us - stressed, bewildered, panicky, and occasionally pissy people - trying to navigate the vicious world that just happens to be a few steps ahead of us in technology.
"All Seated on the Ground" is a comedy, and it's a Christmas story, and as with many of Willis' works, the dialogue and jokes feel like they came out of a Frank Capra romcom. Here’s the premise: aliens - named the Altairi - have landed in Colorado. What do they want? What are they trying to do? Nobody knows. They refuse to speak to anyone, they won't react to anything, and the only thing they will do is look at the human race in front of them with absolute and utter contempt on their faces:
"If it hadn't been for the expressions on their faces, everybody would have assumed the Altairi were plants. But no plant ever glared like that. It was a look of utter, withering disapproval…it would wilt even the strongest person…the Altairi had the same effect on the dignitaries and scientists and politicians who came to see them. After the first time, the governor refused to meet with them again, and the president, whose polls were already in the low twenties and who couldn't afford any more pictures of irate citizens, refused to meet with them at all."
A delegation of humans - including our narrator, a newspaper columnist who basically gets looped in by mistake - take the aliens to all of the natural wonders of Colorado, take them to all of the man-made wonders of Colorado, read them poetry, show them science experiments, tour marvels of art and architecture. Nothing. So, with no other options, they take the aliens to the mall during the Christmas rush, and something finally happens. The aliens suddenly sit down.
They get up after a minute, but the entire Earth delegation is desperate to figure out what the aliens actually reacted to. A choir director, passing by with his school singers doing a gig at the mall, lets the narrator know that the aliens were probably reacting to the piped-in Christmas carols, since they sat down right at the line "all seated on the ground".
The narrator drafts the choir director into the delegation, and the two of them covertly start playing every Christmas song they can find for the aliens, to try and get any sort of similar response from them. But there's no pattern to what the aliens will react to, nobody knows how long the aliens are going to stay before they give up on us, and the choir director is overwhelmed anyways because he is also getting ready to direct the big all-Denver Christmas concert; he has to coordinate every church choir in the city to sing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and the “Hallelujah Chorus” and it’s a logistical nightmare, and anyone who has ever sung in a church choir would expect.
It's not until the last minute, right before the big concert, that these two characters finally figure it out: the aliens are responding to choral singing, because that coming together is the only sign we’ve given the aliens that we are at all civilized:
"Civilized behavior. That was it. The Altairi, like Aunt Judith sitting in our living room glaring, had been waiting for a sign that we were civilized. And singing - correction, group singing - was that sign. But was it an arbitrary rule of etiquette, like white shoes and engraved invitations, or was it a symbol of something else? I thought of Calvin telling his chattering seventh-graders to line up, and the milling, giggling, chaotic muddle of girls coming together in an organized, beautifully behaved, civilized line. Coming together. That was the civilized behavior the Altairi had been waiting for a sign of. And they'd seen precious little of it in the nine months they'd been here."
Except Calvin the choir director figures out one extra step: the aliens are specifically responding to choral singing about choral singing.
"'It wasn't just that 'While Shepherds Watched' was sung by a choir. It was that it was a song about choirs singing. And not just singing, but what they're singing.' He thrust the song in front of me, pointing to the last verse. 'Goodwill, henceforth from heaven to men.' That's what they've been trying to communicate to us."
So in a last-ditch effort, the two of them bring the aliens in to watch the concert, to watch this jam-packed stage of forty-some choirs shoving and tripping over each other, finally straighten up and sing "O Come All Ye Faithful". And, stunning everyone, the aliens hear “sing all ye citizens of Heaven above” and float up into the sky in obvious ecstacy. After the song, the aliens return to the ground and tell the narrator - I'm sorry, this first line still brings me to tears:
"We welcome you into the company of citizens of the heavens, and reciprocate your offers of goodwill, peace on earth, and chestnuts…We had begun to think we had erred on our assessment of your world. We doubted your species was fully sentient. We also doubted you understood the concept of accord."
The proof of civilization - no, the proof of sentience, the proof that humanity even possesses self-awareness - was the choir. Not the brilliant scientists, not the political leaders, not the inventive artists, not the admittedly heavy-handed caricature of a Bush-era megachurch pastor that tries to convert the aliens. It was a large messy group of people coming together to sing, all at the same time, about an ideal of goodwill and peace on earth. And chestnuts.
If a group of aliens landed on Earth and observed the Catholic church in America, would they just continuously glare at us with disdain and contempt? When I first started drawing up this essay, my answer was ‘obviously yes’, but with some time to think about it, believe it or not, I don't think that anymore. I actually think that those aliens could find a lot of good things, things that would start to convince them that we actually understood the “concept of accord”. They’d see teachers who had next to no resources, still showing up every day and trying hard to take care of their students. They’d see communities at Catholic Worker houses and with Catholic charitable organizations, pooling resources to give material help to refugees, to the homeless, to women fleeing domestic violence, to countless others. They’d see people raising loving families and teaching their children to be good and compassionate people who care about others. And they would, yes, see us occasionally singing with each other about goodwill and peace. They would see a broken and often failing community that can, on very rare occasions, get its shit together, and I would hope that those rare occasions might score some points for our church in the eyes of an alien observer.
But I’d also hope that those alien observers might take a minute to ask why the community was “broken and often failing” in the first place. And I would think that they might notice that there were some people in the church that seemed to be pretty consistent obstacles to our community occasionally getting its shit together, people who had the power to make things worse and who were choosing to make things worse, and that a lot of those people seemed to be wearing matching pointy hats.
A few weeks ago, the USCCB held their annual meeting in Baltimore. I didn’t write about it this time around because, bluntly, I didn’t think it was all that interesting this time around. The bishops did elect new officers, but their choices in officers, notably new conference president Timothy Broglio, seem to indicate that there are no planned changes to the USCCB’s relationship to American politics, the abuse crisis, or the laity more generally.
Here’s something that’s much more interesting to me: there are, believe it or not, some bishops that do think those relationships should change, bishops that tend to be pretty vocal about that need for change. Several of those guys were bishops either appointed by Pope Francis or elevated to Cardinal by him, basically for that reason. None of those guys were elected to a USCCB office this year, because barely any of them were even interested in running. That should make you think a little bit; in a strikingly candid interview with America magazine, Lexington bishop John Stowe said it out loud: the bishops that would be considered Francis’ closer allies in the States basically consider the USCCB, as a conference, to be a waste of time.
“The conference itself is not following the agenda of Pope Francis. We still don’t have ‘Laudato Si’’ or anything on the environment in our priorities. There’s been no talk of ‘Fratelli Tutti.’ Today, we’re going to talk about ‘Faithful Citizenship’ and reissuing an old document that has no mention of ‘Fratelli Tutti.’ There must not be a will and that’s what’s taking so long…I think the conference is becoming more and more irrelevant to average Catholics.”
This is a broad statement, but it makes sense. For at least the past three years, the USCCB’s public work as a conference has all been tied up in presidential politics, and specifically in supporting Donald Trump. For the two years before that, the USSCB’s public work was all tied up in trying to salvage their reputation and authority after multiple sexual abuse crises broke. The impact of the conference’s work on the 2020 presidential election, where the bishops used strong language and immediate and visceral means of communication to pretty clearly pick sides, was…well, not really there at all. Additional Catholic voters were not driven to Donald Trump in 2020, and while abortion policy may have been the “preeminent” issue for the bishops’s conference, it certainly wasn’t for Catholic voters. When the bishops spent all of 2021 trying to publicly rebuke Joe Biden, nobody cared, least of all anyone close to Joe Biden; in the most recent USCCB meeting, outgoing conference president Jose Gomez noted that he couldn’t even get a meeting with the White House at any point in Biden’s presidency so far. When abortion policy did become a preeminent issue for voters in 2022, the bishops had no plan for how to talk about it or what policies to pursue, and voters in many states decided they would prefer to continue accessing health care over whatever the bishops were proposing. The faithful, and the media, and the voting public at large, has gotten very good at rolling our eyes every time the USCCB speaks as a conference. Good for us.
But that doesn’t change the fact that these men do things that have material consequences. Yes, we can roll our eyes when bishops say homophobic things, but they can still fire their employees for being gay. We can laugh at them when they ineptly play politics on abortion, but “playing politics” for them includes spending millions of dollars of collection-basket money on elections they’ve already lost. They can believe internet bullshit about vaccines, but when they tell the faithful not to get vaccinated, they endanger everyone. They can say all the wrong things about the sexual abuse crisis, as their new president has already started doing, but they’re also the only people with the meaningful power to do anything about it as the church is currently structured. The bishops have lost relevance as communicators and political influencers, but they’re still employers, and educators, and guys who make decisions about where the resources go.
This is all to say that I feel, very strongly, that I have to be a Catholic, but I can’t be the kind of Catholic who rolls my eyes and just tries to ignore the people who run the church. The Catholic church has the same problem as plenty of other institutions: they concentrated too much power in the hands of too few men. And because that power is material - it affects peoples’ employment, and education, and aid, and safety, and whether or not others are allowed to sexually abuse them and get away with it - and because some of the guys who have that power are assholes who don’t think anybody can tell them what to do, the church isn’t doing all that it can to address the suffering right in front of it, and an awful lot of the time, it sure seems like it’s causing more suffering. If you want to be Catholic, if you think being Catholic is important, if you think Catholicism actually has some of the tools needed to fix this stupid broken world, you have to reckon with your relationship to the bishops and the church hierarchy. Saying "I'm Catholic but I haven't given a lot of thought to what the bishops do" is not, to me, a coherent option; it's an option that ignores the suffering right in front of us. There are, in my opinion, two coherent options. The first option, which is not my preferred one, is to get as far away from these guys as we possibly can.
In June 2019, The Atlantic ran a much-talked-about cover story titled “Abolish the Priesthood”, by former priest James Carroll. I don’t think Carroll picked the title for his essay: my understanding is that magazine writers don’t normally get to pick titles for their essays, and more importantly, Carroll’s piece doesn’t argue for abolishing the priesthood, certainly not directly. Carroll was writing in response to two massive sex abuse scandals that had kicked up the prior year, scandals that Catholics everywhere thought were behind them, only to find out that, no, the guys in charge had learned nothing from the last time, and were still covering up criminal behavior, and it did not feel like anything, ever, was going to change for Catholics.
So Carroll proposed what he called “institutional detachment”, or the idea that Catholics who are fed up with the sins of the hierarchy should just leave, make their own church, and call it Catholic:
“Replacing the diseased model of the Church with something healthy may involve, for a time, intentional absence from services or life on the margins—less in the pews than in the rearmost shadows…In what way, one might ask, can such institutional detachment square with actual Catholic identity? Through devotions and prayers and rituals that perpetuate the Catholic tradition in diverse forms, undertaken by a wide range of commonsensical believers, all insisting on the Catholic character of what they are doing. Their ranks would include ad hoc organizers of priestless parishes; parents who band together for the sake of the religious instruction of youngsters; social activists who take on injustice in the name of Jesus; and even social-media wizards launching, say, #ChurchResist. As ever, the Church’s principal organizing event will be the communal experience of the Mass, the structure of which—reading the Word, breaking the bread—will remain universal; it will not need to be celebrated by a member of some sacerdotal caste. The gradual ascendance of lay leaders in the Church is in any case becoming a fact of life, driven by shortages of personnel and expertise. Now is the time to make this ascendance intentional, and to accelerate it. The pillars of Catholicism—gatherings around the book and the bread; traditional prayers and songs; retreats centered on the wisdom of the saints; an understanding of life as a form of discipleship—will be unshaken…The choice comes with no asterisk. We will be Catholics, full stop. We do not need anyone’s permission. Our “fasting and abstaining” from officially ordered practice will go on for as long as the Church’s rebirth requires, whether we live to see it finished or not.”
As you can see, this isn’t about abolishing the existing church structure, but rather withdrawing from it; there are still priests in Carroll’s world, but nobody’s at their services because the real Catholics are off taking care of themselves, they’re putting together their own services, they’re practicing the corporal works of mercy, they’re building their own parallel institutions. Carroll’s piece is very personal and very ambitious, and I appreciate all of the ideas that he has - and I certainly don't begrudge any individual who wants to leave the church - but I personally have to reject his approach, and not just because I automatically hate any proposal that includes the phrase “social media wizards”.
First, leaving the church is a very easy way to leave the vulnerable behind. Abandoning the church-run institutions - parishes, schools, missions, charities, shelters, hospitals - and not sticking around to speak out when you see injustice causes more harm to be done to the people that the bishops are always happy to target: gay and trans people, women, anyone who isn’t white or rich. I can't accept a Catholicism that allows me to say "alright I'm out of here, but that really sucks for those people." My responsibility is to respond to the suffering in front of me, to encounter those on the margins. I see plenty of that suffering and marginalization in my church, and I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to run from it.
The second reason is related to that: leaving the church makes us all weaker and leaves us less able to address suffering, which is most effectively done collectively. Pope Francis even talked about this in Fratelli Tutti, that the things we need to accomplish are big enough that we can only accomplish them together:
“It is extremely difficult to carry out a long-term project unless it becomes a collective aspiration…To be part of a people is to be part of a shared identity arising from social and cultural bonds. And that is not something automatic, but rather a slow, difficult process…of advancing towards a common project.”
We don't make things better by breaking off into splinter groups, certainly not permanently. The only way we solve problems that big is if we all do it together. Put another way: if we want to impress those aliens, if we want to show that we understand “the concept of accord”, we're going to need a very big choir.
The final reason why I have to reject Carroll’s proposal to build institutions to replace the Catholic church is that those institutions are already right there and we should just use those. As an example Carroll talks about "parents who band together for the sake of the religious instruction of youngsters", okay but there are already schools! Schools that can be great tools for helping people and forming communities and serving the poor! The buildings are already built and the teachers have already filled out their I-9s! What we need is a different structure for our leadership, what we need is to keep the existing infrastructure but change some other things around a homophobic old man can't make decisions by fiat on who can be hired, educated, protected, baptized, on how little to pay the teachers, on what statements get made to the media. And in order to create some pressure for things to change in that direction, we need to stay.
In other words, I can’t go with the approach “I’m still Catholic, but I’m no longer a member of the formal church”. There is another option, though, which is best summarized as “I am Catholic, and so are you, and now you have to deal with me. Encounter this, asshole." This happens to be my preferred approach.
Here's Susan Reynolds again at the same Fordham panel discussion:
“Unless there’s a relationship of trust with that institution, then how do you expect anybody to go out and be missionary disciples?...We talk a lot about this crisis of trust in the church. And when we say that, what we typically mean is that there’s a perception that laity do not trust the leadership of the institutional church. But I think there’s also a simultaneous crisis of trust in the church, which is that laity don’t feel that the institution trusts them. If you think about it, I can’t think of another tradition in which such a large proportion of adherents self-identify as “bad”, right? Think about how many people you know, even like church-going Catholics, who identify as “bad Catholics”, right? If we have a large number of folks in the church self-identifying as bad Catholics, that is not a group of people who see themselves as protagonists, as trusted in the eyes of the church. In fact, it’s just the opposite, right? I think most people understand themselves in some way as caught in this, if not antagonist or adversarial, at least very suspicion-oriented relationship with the church. ‘I don’t feel like the church trusts me as an agent of my own moral decision making.’”
This happens all of the time; I know plenty of people who describe themselves as Bad Catholics and I've described myself that way. I may have even done it earlier in this piece, but I'm too lazy to go back and check (it sounds like something I would do). We know exactly what Reynolds is talking about: the bishops say or do something we don't like, and we disagree with them, possibly because the lives we live and the people we encounter have shown us something different, and as a result we just kind of concede that we’re the ones who don’t fit in the church. Why is that where we always end up? We're the bad ones because we disagree, but it's not like the men we're disagreeing with are especially impressive, or give us any indication that they have any clue what they're doing. Why don’t we trust ourselves enough to call ourselves good Catholics? The bishops have the titles and the condemnatory tone, so we just assume that part of the job of being a “good Catholic” is having to agree with what they say and do, and if we don’t, we’re automatically “bad”. Even if we personally feel fine about being “bad”, that is still giving up a little of our own authority, and we do have authority here. We were baptized as priests, prophets, and kings, same as they were; there’s a synod going on right now where the institutional church might actually be showing signs that they’re realizing this. We don’t have to back off at every point of conflict and say “well, I think these bishops are wrong, but they’re saying it, so I suppose this is what the Catholic church does actually stand for, I do have to give them that.”
This is so hardwired into all of us - myself included, certainly - this idea that because the bishops said it, it is rooted in something true and absolute and holy and we just kind of have to give up a little bit of our identity if we’re not ready to go along with it. I don’t have a name for this specific mental block; for lack of a better term, call it reverence or whatever. It is so difficult, so counterintuitive if you have spent a long time in the Catholic church, to push yourself past this “reverence” and realize that sometimes bishops say and do things not because their judgment is rooted in something true and absolute and holy, but because they are old men who say and do stupid things. Jesus commissioned the Apostles and their successors, but I'm pretty sure He didn't say they had to be in charge of payroll and expelling gay students and spending the church's money on political campaigns and botching abuse investigations. It is possible that you might actually be a good Catholic even if you disagree with what those old men do with those powers, specifcally. To put it very directly: those men should not have those powers. Those powers should be taken away from them.
So what if thought this and we did still accept ourselves as good Catholics? What if, when we disagreed with something the bishops were saying or doing, we explained why, and fought for what we wanted, and while doing this, refused to cede our authority as faithful baptized Catholics? What if you stood up and said “no” to your bishop? And what if you said “no, and I’m a good Catholic?”
I mean, realistically, nobody would care, you’re just one person. So let's take it a little further. What if there was a group of so-called "bad Catholics" who loudly and publicly disagreed with a very prominent church teaching, who took great pains to point out why that teaching didn't make any sense, and who openly conducted themselves in contradiction to that teaching, and who refused to cede any part of their identity as faithful Catholics, who insisted that actually we were the good ones and it was incumbent on the church leadership to defend themselves, to prove that they weren’t the bad Catholics? How would other Catholics respond? How would their local bishop respond? Personally, I think if the local bishop was smart, he would ignore these “bad Catholics” or try to address them privately; he would certainly avoid drawing any public attention to the conflict.
But now imagine that this already happened in 2007 and that the bishop in question wasn't very smart at all.
Before we really get rolling: this is the official church teaching on why women can’t be Catholic priests, as articulated in the 1976 Vatican document Inter Insigniores. Pretend you’re an alien and read this:
“The priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognise with ease. The whole sacramental economy is in fact based upon natural signs, on symbols imprinted on the human psychology: “Sacramental signs,” says Saint Thomas, “represent what they signify by natural resemblance.” The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ's role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this “natural resemblance” which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man."
Look, if an alien reads that, they’re going to have a lot of followup questions, and it’s going to be difficult for me to answer them. Even imagining my responses to this hypothetical alien gets me bogged down in stupidity. Yes, they’re saying that only men can be priests because only men physically look like Jesus. Yes, they mean Jesus the man, as in the Jewish preacher who lived in Palestine a few thousand years ago. No, my priest is not Palestinian, or Jewish. No, he looks nothing like Jesus would have looked. No, neither does my bishop. No, neither does the Pope. No, neither do most priests. See, men look all kinds of different ways, there are all kinds of different ways to live and look like a man. Yes, they’re saying every man looks like Jesus enough to be a priest. Yes, they’re saying every woman does not look like Jesus enough to be a priest. No, women look all kinds of different ways, there are actually all kinds of different ways to live and look like a woman. Yes, only men were involved in the writing of this document. No, they never came up with anything better than this. No, believe me, alien friend, I think it’s dumb as shit.
The church really did never come up with anything better than that. Perhaps that makes you chafe. Now, pretend you’re the same alien and read this passage from the 1994 Vatican document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis:
“Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church's judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force. Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."
Yes, alien friend, that man wrote a document to tell millions and millions of people what they were required to think in order to be considered a good Catholic. That’s correct, the takeaway was that we couldn’t ever question this or really ever discuss it again if we wanted to call ourselves good Catholics. That’s correct, only men were involved in the writing of this document, too, that’s how most of these documents work. Well, the man who wrote this document was named John Paul II. No, alien friend, we don’t exactly remember him today for having flawless moral judgment.
Not only is this what the church teaches about how women are not fit for the priesthood, but the church maintains that this must be the only way that we can ever think about it, otherwise we are not fully members of the faithful; Pope Francis reinforced this as late as last week. Does this line up with anything resembling reality as you have experienced it? Does this sound like the work of an institution fully equipped to be a field hospital for the world and help the human race “advance toward a common project?” Is this teaching at all defensible? Could a bishop, a member of the church’s formal teaching authority, actually defend this if he were forced to? One way to find out, of course, would be to actually force him to.
One of the more interesting case studies of recent attempts to reform the church hierarchy is the movement of Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP), due to their open defiance of church authority and refusal to cede their explicit identity as Roman Catholic. RCWP - whose history is detailed in Jill Peterfeso's 2020 study Womanpriest: Tradition and Transgression in the Contemporary Roman Catholic Church - is not a group lobbying or petitioning for eventual changes in canon law to allow for the ordination of women sometime in the future. They have just been ordaining women as deacons, priests, and bishops since 2002, those ordained women have been performing the sacraments for anyone who wants them, and fuck you if you don't like it (RCWP uses more pastoral language to express this theory).
Not that this has automatically fixed everything, or really anything: RCWP is still very small, there are different regional branches with different forms of governance, and the entire project, which started with mostly white boomer women getting ordained, has a lot of work to do in order to develop a more diverse pipeline of womenpriests. But these are women who feel called to the priesthood, to serving the church, and they are formally barred from it for the dumbest of theological reasons, so they decided that they were just going to do it, and they were still going to be good Catholics.
Small groups of womenpriests have been ordained throughout the world - including women bishops, which allows RCWP to keep ordaining more clergy without a male bishop present - and small Catholic communities have sprung up to support them. All of the ordained members of RCWP are formally and automatically excommunicated from the Catholic church per Vatican teaching, but they don’t care: the womenpriests continue celebrating the sacraments, and importantly, they do not shy away from conflicts with the formal hierarchy. An instructive example comes from Saint Louis in the late 2000s, when RCWP members were ordained, to the outrage of the local archbishop, the archconservative Raymond Burke. Burke's best bet was probably to ignore this whole thing, but because he's an idiot, he kept picking public fights with the RCWP, accidentally making anti-Semitic remarks about the synagogue that hosted their first ordination ceremony, and very publicly turning all of the media and popular opinion of the city against him. He should have shut up, but he could not help himself, so he threw himself into a fight that he was not set up to win. The city, including the Catholics in his own archdiocese, did not take his side, and it has affected the public perception of his authority, and his overall relevance ever since. Professionally, Burke went on to get publicly humiliated by Pope Francis twice, once when he was publicly demoted to an obscure ceremonial role, and once when he caught COVID and almost died because he refused to get vaccinated and Pope Francis laughed at his wheezing ass during a press conference.
Some of this wouldn't have happened if RCWP was some sort of secret society. But they are open about what they're doing and why they're doing it, and in their defiance, they dare the hierarchy to act against them, knowing there's a good chance that the hierarchy will shoot themselves in the foot. It's their open defiance that I find so interesting. They are not leaving, they are not abolishing the priesthood, they are not detaching from institutions unless someone else forces them out, and even then they haven’t really left. They're still Roman Catholics! It's right in the name! As Peterfeso writes:
"Womenpriests live in twenty-first-century social and political contexts where religious identity is a choice: they could leave Roman Catholicism altogether for a different religion. And indeed, some have tried—but have come back to their Catholic roots. The womenpriests' self-understanding is unequivocally Roman Catholic. They believe they should not have to abandon their faith tradition in order to live in a right and robust relationship with God and their Roman Catholic faith."
This is the closest theological approximation to the scene in Office Space where office drone Michael Bolton says "why should I change my name when he's the one who sucks?" RCWP is openly defiant, and that defiance drew out action from the local archbishop - partly because that archbishop was not very intelligent - which in turn drew attention to RCWP's cause, got public opinion on their side, and permanently damaged Burke's image and career. RCWP is still around in St. Louis (and elsewhere), and Burke is not. He's still a bishop, but nobody works for him, he doesn't have any money or resources to allocate, he isn't responsible for any education networks or sexual abuse investigations, and the only thing he does all pay is blog on his shitty website nobody reads. This is the correct amount of material power that most bishops should have.
This isn’t to say that RCWP has grown exponentially and taken over the church - you probably don't go to a regular Mass said by a womanpriest - but a story like this makes me wonder what the combination of "collective defiance towards the hierarchy" and "not shying away from Catholic identity" can really accomplish if it were to grow in scale, and if it could accomplish some good things slightly faster than the centuries-long process that has recently delivered “one small promising sign” for laity being given slightly more say in what happens in their church and with their church’s resources.
And this isn’t about picking fights for no reason, it’s about collectively standing up and loudly saying something is wrong and doesn’t make sense when people get hurt or excluded. It’s about not walking away or backing off when people get hurt and excluded, because if you stay, and you say that hurt and exclusion are wrong, and if you refuse to call yourself a “bad Catholic” or give up part of your identity when you do that, there is some power there, power that can comfort those on the margins and pressure the people in charge to act differently towards them. I would fully expect bishops in our country to do everything they can to stop us from even thinking about this kind of power, and that would be scary if the bishops were powerful strategic masterminds who were also brilliant and persuasive communicators. But I think you know what I’m about to say next.
The first G.O.T.H.S. piece I wrote in 2022 was about San Francisco archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who picked a fight with his teacher’s union and lost, picked a fight with vaccine mandates and lost, picked a fight with “the general concept of DUI enforcement” and lost. Second piece was about the USCCB picking a fight with Joe Biden, which they lost when they couldn’t even get a strongly worded letter together. I wrote about the bishops deciding what was best for diocesan employees, only to have the employees turn around and show them who does the real work in the dioceses. I wrote about the time that Joseph Naumann saw a chance to launch a new anti-abortion crusade in Kansas, lost yet another fight because he got out-messaged and out-organized, and got stuck with a $2.5 million tab. I wrote about Robert Barron, who aspires to be the next G.K. Chesterton but the only thing those two have in common is their generally spherical shape. Jose Gomez denounces Black Lives Matter but doesn’t do his homework. Rembert Weakland covered up abuse everywhere he saw it, embezzled half a million dollars to pay off his own boyfriend, and thankfully still found a way to get metaphorically tarred and feathered both during his lifetime and after his death.
I think you see the common threads here. The bishops will pick a fight if they see Catholics being publicly defiant of their authority, of their power over resources and employment and education. But the bishops lose a lot of fights, because most of them are not very smart. If they somehow avoid shooting themselves in the foot, most of them still snap like breadsticks when faced with the slightest bit of pressure from even a modest number of people. The bishops are obstacles to having a better church, a church that we can be proud to be “good Catholics” in, a church that we have a say in running as the priests, prophets, and kings that we are through our baptism. They are obstacles, but they are not politicians who came into office with a groundswell of support, they are not the state with a violent police force, they don’t even really have very much money or respect as successful institutional leaders. So they are not obstacles that are impossible, or perhaps even especially difficult, to overcome.
In order to do the work of building a better church in which the laity have more material power over things like employment and education and resources, we must push ourselves past the inertia of what I called “reverence or whatever”. Again, this is so hardwired into all of us, this idea that because the bishops said it, it is rooted in something true and absolute and we just kind of have to give up a little bit of our identity if we’re not ready to go along with it. We don’t have to. We don’t have to prove we’re “good Catholics”. When we disagree, we don’t have to say “I guess I’m a bad Catholic now”, we don’t have to say “I guess this is just how the church works and I have to discern whether I really have a place in it”, we don’t have to say “well I think I’m faithful to the magisterium but maybe I disagree with just some sort of small technical issue”, we don’t have to be afraid to say that these men are wrong, they are wrong because they are causing material harm to people, and they should not be in charge of our church, and I am saying this as a good Catholic who cares about my church. And we should say that loudly, and force the bishops to defend their Catholicism, to tell us why we’re the bad ones and they’re not, because I’m pretty sure they don’t have good answers. It’s why my writing in 2022 focused less on the usual gang of white nationalist idiots and more on the bishops, because I was just riveted, couldn’t get enough of the stories that hammered home the same two points over and over, two points that I’ve understood better and hope I’ve been able to help you understand better this year:
We can’t ignore the bishops because their power is material - it affects real people’s employment and education and access to resources.
When faced with even the smallest amount of coordinated, collective opposition, the bishops tend to lose power struggles, often by responding to this opposition in the most inept ways imaginable.
Now, I don’t have any sort of concrete plan for what to do with this information, nor do I expect that any of it will be easy or quick (Dr. Reynolds had some good thoughts about that too). It’s just where I am at the end of 2022; I just can’t stop thinking about these two things. I can’t stop thinking about Connie Willis’ aliens observing us from outside, and how the thing that finally convinced them that we were sentient was not the pastor but the choir, a large mass of tired people coming together to sing a Christmas carol. And I can’t stop thinking that I’m done calling myself a bad Catholic, that I’m done being reverent. Or whatever.
I should disclose at this point that I watched the video and read the column because Dr. Reynolds happens to be a friend of mine from college; in spite of her being my friend, she is also a very brilliant Catholic theologian, and the video and column are worth your time if you’re interested in the topic. I'll also mention that Dr. Reynolds did not know I was going to write this, is unlikely to endorse any of the things I say in the rest of the essay, and hopefully will not suffer any damage to her professional reputation because I used this footnote to mention that we know each other.
Cardinal Joseph “The Good Tobin” Tobin ran for secretary, but I believe he was the only one; people like Cupich, Gregory, or McElroy didn’t bother.