Catholic Dissidents

Author: Mary Jo Anderson

Catholic Dissidents

Mary Jo Anderson

In May, following Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz's excommunication warning to the Diocese of Lincoln (see CRISIS, May 1996 issue), irate reformers held a national press conference in Washington, D.C., announcing that ARCC and fellow reform groups were demanding that members of the Church be permitted to choose their own bishops. "The pope has failed to live up to his own best democratic instincts," charged Mary Louise Hartman, president of ARCC.

Although a similar referendum is being circulated in Germany, Austria, Italy, and Australia, ARCC itself provides the strategic blueprint for We Are Church in its proposed Charter of Rights of Catholics in the Church. The worldwide referendum calls for the popular election of bishops, married priests, women priests, preservation of the environment, and the primacy of conscience in all moral decisions.

Frenzied over John Paul II's "dictatorial acts," such as the ordinary Magisterium's infallible teaching on the male priesthood, ARCC hopes its demands "will trigger a constitutional convention for the Church." ARCC believes American Catholics should offer their democratic heritage to the universal Church. Drafts of its constitution and bill of rights are circulating among various reform groups, including the Call to Action national conference. Its has been translated into French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, and Spanish. Believing the documents of Vatican II "resonate with the dreams of our democratic culture," ARCC works to implement structural reforms in the institutional church it describes as "repressive, inquisitional, and secretive."

Electing Church Leaders

The six-page constitution attempts to restructure the Church and remove its centralized authority: Legislative and juridical provisions are extensive. Loosely patterned in a combination parliament-federation model, elected representatives begin at the parish level, proceed through the diocesan, regional, national, and continental councils to the international level. "Each local, regional, and national community shall form its own body of governing regulations."

Women and minority quotas are imposed on positions of leadership; ecclesial leadership is elected by the representatives to the local, regional, and national councils; pastors and bishops are chosen by parish and diocesan councils; the pope, limited to one ten-year term, is elected by the delegates to the global General Council; delegates to the General Council are one-third bishops, one-third (non-episcopal) clergy, one-third laity.

This design for the universal Church is based upon the broader human rights movement: "This Charter of Rights of Catholics in the Church pre-supposes the rights expressed in the United Nations Charter." ARCC describes itself as the only Catholic organization "that takes a global view of the need for fundamental structural reform in the Church."

The pope is divested of any genuine power or authority by the following provision: "The General Council shall function as the main decision-making body of the universal Church. The Pope . . . and a layperson elected by the General Council shall be co-chairs of the General Council . . . The General Council . . . shall bear the ultimate responsibility for . . . governing the universal Church and setting policy concerning doctrine, morals, worship." Should it choose to do so, this provision would permit the General Council to abolish the papacy.

The fail-safe for an elected pope that still thwarts its design for third-millennium Catholicism is a Supreme Tribunal, which "shall hear cases charging illegal or un-constitutional actions by the Pope. There shall be no appeal from the judgments of the Supreme Tribunal." If this were to come about, the Church would be left with no spiritual or moral authority.

A Protege of Kung

The ARCC constitution and Charter of Rights is an elaborate construction with creative interpretations of both canon law and the documents of Vatican II. It is the project of Leonard Swidler, professor of Catholic Thought at Temple University. Swidler, a protege of Hans Kung and admirer of Haring, Rahner, and Schillebeeckx, saw his vision of Vatican II threatened by John Paul II.

ARCC was born in 1980 when Swidler rushed to the defense of his mentor, Kung, whom he believed the Vatican treated unfairly. Today, Swidler cites the action of Bishop Bruskewitz as a prime example of the need for a Catholic bill of rights: "I think our Bishop B. is an excellent example of an imperious acting out of an imperial structure."

Dissatisfied with the new Code of Canon Law (1983), Swidler edited Contributors included the "Who's Who" of dissent at the time: Charles Curran, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Hans Kung, and Anthony Padovano. Swidler attempts to ground his view of rights in Paul VI's discarded document, , which he believes was a constitution put before the Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law. According to the professor, the curia attacked the document, absorbing it into "preconcilliar notions of papal primacy and episcopal subservience." Paul VI's document was never completed nor ratified, yet Swidler refers to it as though it enjoyed the ecclesiastical status of a papal encyclical.

Swidler consistently applies a tortured reading to Church history and documents. Desperate to overturn papal primacy in an effort to reverse several difficult teachings (e.g., birth control, male priesthood, divorce), Swidler asserts that ecumenical councils, based on the decrees of the Council of Constance, had greater authority than the pope until Vatican I reestablished the Petrine primacy. An impartial and fuller reading of history, however, demonstrates that within the tradition of the Church the decrees of councils are not authoritative unless ratified by the pope.

Dr. Warren Carroll of Christendom College explains: "The Church and popes, subsequent to the Council of Trent, have all upheld the doctrine that the pope is superior over councils, and must approve the decrees of a council to make them binding. This position is firmly maintained by the great nineteenth-century German historian of the councils, Karl Joseph Hefele, and the great Austrian historian of the papacy, Ludwig von Pastor. It is denied by many twentieth-century scholars. The general case for the supreme authority of the pope over the last two thousand years is exceedingly strong beginning all the way back with the letter of Pope St. Clement I to the Corinthians in approximately 95 A.D."

The is similarly definitive in this regard. Citing 22, which traces the unhindered and universal teaching authority of the Roman pontiff through the ecclesiastical history of Eusebius back to apostolic times as relayed in Matthew's Gospel, "there is never an ecumenical council which is not confirmed or at least recognized as such by Peter's successor."

The Council of Constance, 1415-18, followed a difficult time of schism. Fearing to reignite the schism, Martin V ratified the work of the council regarding heresy, but withheld approval of and , which declared the council superior to the pope. What is Swidler's weak claim? That the council refused to allow Martin V to ratify the decrees, since that would appear to grant superior authority to the pope.

Scripture also suffers from the professor's tinkering. "Yeshua" is preferred to "Jesus (not Christ)" and suppositions about him include: "it would seem from a number of remarks by Yeshua that he shared the Pharisaical doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which is built on a holistic view of the human being . . . not completely satisfying ways to speak of this body-spirit being."

And, "As to whether Yeshua

was the Messiah, it has to be said that he did not fulfill the job description.... [F]or one, he didn't throw out the occupying Roman forces and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel. What happened, of course, is that Yeshua's followers 'spiritualized' the notion of Messiah with the result . . . Yeshua became the Christos for the Gentiles . . . the entryway to the love of Yahweh." The Virgin birth, Incarnation, and divinity of Jesus are likewise summarily dispatched.

That a professor of Catholic thought would publicly brand as fictitious the irreducible tenants of our faith clearly demonstrates the wisdom of Bishop Bruskewitz, who pointed out the hypocrisy of dissidents. The issue for these "exiles," as they refer to themselves, is that their censure of the creed and its doctrines is no grounds for episcopal action. Swidler reminds the disgruntled, "The Charter says that doctrinal truth is best formulated by a process of dialogue with his/her peers. It is obvious . . . that serious dialogue among theologians will much better preserve the heart of the doctrinal tradition than a heavy- handed authoritarian from the Holy office."

Leonard Swidler moderates a computer list server, Vatican II, where "rights" and the "abuse of rights" are debated tirelessly. Swidler sits at the center of Web links connecting other reformer groups worldwide. His ENI collects dissident news ("The bishop of Verona, Italy refuses to allow Referendum workers on Church property") and forwards it to other news groups worldwide.

The cyberforum permits instantaneous dissemination of the angry professor's personal theology: "If Jesus were bodily 'raised up' . . . why would he then not have made another vastly more triumphant entry than the Palm Sunday one? Why even Pontius Pilate would probably have joined his entourage! Judging from the way Jesus operated in Israel right up to his death, that would have been precisely the right sort Professor Swidler has abandoned his faith. He does not hide his ire with those who remain faithful: "Avery [Dulles], it seems, is bewitched-not into a toad but a toady"; Dulles supports the Vatican's declaration on the male priesthood. "One should not bother reading Malichi Martin. In two words: he is a liar and a crook." Nor do Church Doctors or the Apostles escape his bite: "As much as I admire Newman, . . . I find his statement . . . absolutely appalling- here we have an example of [St.] Matthew's Pharisee mentality.... I especially identified with the problem of God as Monster and after reading St. Augustine's attempt to explain evil, I seriously considered if it was possible to remain Christian. I as a Catholic theologian I [] am not persuaded by Augustine's egregious mistake in reading Original Sin and the Fall into Genesis. "

If the theology has changed, so must the liturgy be changed: "IT]he parish council with the pastor . . . shall bear ultimate responsibility for parish worship." The same provision is made for the diocese. The goal is "shared responsibility and corresponding freedom individually and communally," states the proposed constitution. The Charter of Rights provides a right to: "[w]orship which reflects the joy and concerns of the gathered community." There is no mention of praise and sacrifice offered to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In the first hours after Bishop Bruskewitz's excommunication warning, Swidler's Internet site was sizzling. "A Catholic Piltdown [sic]," scoffed the professor. "However, if it is authentic, I think that this is one bishop who has put his head in a miter-box and Rome is going to have to saw it off out of sheer embarrassment."

The good bishop's mitered head stands tall today, despite Swidler's subsequent tirade, "Why should I leave MY church because some C-type bishop got away from his keepers again? This sort of thing is bound to happen quite regularly until we can put an effective Constitution in place. That is a task that obviously the 'sign of the times' places on me."

The Dissident Trajectory

Leonard Swidler was raised in Catholic schools where he was attracted to the religious and scholarly examples of the Norbertines. He studied for the priesthood, but before ordination was advised that "[He] was too intense for them. 'Try the Trappists,' they said." The Trappists suggested he become a diocesan priest. "They blew it. I didn't want to be a parish priest, I wanted the scholarly life." The laity were not accepted as candidates for theological degrees during the 1950s in the United States. Dr. Swidler earned a degree in intellectual history before traveling to Tubingen to study theology with Kung and Haring. Swidler, fleeing in frustration and disappointment, learned protest in the hotbed of German dissent.

For many dissidents the authentic Catholic liturgy is devoid of meaning. They no longer believe in the real presence. Yeshua, the pacifist Jew, is not God Incarnate-a real, bodily resurrected Jesus. For them this liturgy is outdated and irrelevant, the product of an unenlightened theology. That anyone would wish to retain this ossified liturgy is merely an authoritarian attempt to control the expressions of the people. Similarly, the priesthood of this liturgy is no longer germane. The demand to permit married men, women, homosexuals, indeed, all who feel called to be ordained, is a logical corollary. Democratically elected bishops and a magisterium drawn from modern theologians would ensure liturgical as well as theological freedom.

The lack of faith in the reality of the mystery that occurs in the eucharistic liturgy makes rational their demand for liturgies and priests that "reflect the community that has gathered." They see the words and rituals of the Mass as arbitrary-at best a magical incantation-where any words substituted would be equally efficacious in communicating the communal needs. Lost to these exiles is the understanding that the ritual of the eucharistic liturgy is not arbitrary, not a pagan concoction, but the very act of God incarnate. God has given no permission for man to change the mode of his coming among his people in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Is it any wonder that exiles who cannot accept the incarnation of God in human flesh are unable to accept God's coming among us in the bread and wine?

Dissidents teach one another that in the liturgies of their faith communities they are to activate themselves as sacraments of God's love to one another. For this reason they struggle mightily against the "authoritative church" and seek freedom to institute a liturgy that reflects their theology. Newly designed "relevant" liturgies may legitimately differ from group to group, in pursuit of a meaning that reflects the particular needs of "the gathered." This embodies their catch phrase "Unity in Diversity." The unity they strive to achieve is a total acceptance and affirmation of all persons, behaviors, and belief systems, provided that love characterizes their motives. A "gathered community" of lesbians is free to celebrate goddess liturgies; a community of eco-spiritists may consecrate seedling trees in celebration of Earth Day, a practice that has replaced the celebration of May Crowning in several Catholic schools.

Freedom to be a "catholic according to the dictates of conscience" is then assured. The resulting design-as-you-go religion is the Enlightenment apogee of a forever-relevant worship of man as self- created.

A question looms large: Why do dissenters stay in the Church? Why desire membership in an institution whose doctrines and liturgies are irrelevant and whose structure is restrictive? What remains for them once faith is lost? Swidler's comoderator Ingrid Shafer answers: "it is MY Church; I am part of the process; NO ONE can tell me to get out!"

Some deposit Church paychecks and leaving the Church would invite financial uncertainty.

And many a theologian's rise to prominence was built on "loyal dissent" rather than solid scholarship. Catholic professors who profess scandalous beliefs find themselves the darlings of the talk-show circuit. Exiles understand that once outside the Catholic fold, they hold no sway with the media. To leave the Church is to forfeit their platform. Recall the fate of Rev. Gene Stallings; and where would Andrew Greeley's silly steamies be without his Catholic priesthood? Would Swidler's new , calling for a constitutional convention of the Church, be published unless he were a professor of "Catholic thought?"

For a dissenting idealist, sheer numbers and the weight of history make the Church the preeminent Christian expression in the world- sinful as her structures may be. The cynical covet the vast influence of the Church, despite her two thousand-year-old machinery, which they plan to seize in order to drive mankind toward Teilhard's numinous omega point- the convergence of all that is conscious into a "unique universal ultimate."

Others see their Catholicism much as nonreligious Jews see Judaism-a cultural inheritance too deeply embedded in their identity to sever without loss. This sentiment is a vague consciousness of the indelible mark received at baptism and confirmation-a spiritual strand of DNA forever defining the organism. Their rebellion notwithstanding, the Church claims them as her own.

The history of the Church reveals that heresy and betrayal come from within. The Bride of Christ is attacked by her own brightest sons and daughters. For two thousand years she has absorbed their error and anger. The Church holds them all in preserving prayer: "In mercy and love unite all your children, wherever they may be."

MARY TO ANDERSON writes from Orlando, Florida.

This article was taken from the September 1996 issue of "Crisis" magazine. To subscribe please write: Box 1006, Notre Dame, IN 46556 or call 1-800-852-9962. Subscriptions are $25.00 per year. Editorial correspondence should be sent to 1511 K Street, N.W., Ste. 525, Washington, D.C., 20005, 202-347-7411; E-mail: