The Working Catholic: Silence

by Bill Droel

Martin Scorsese was vaccinated with “a Catholic imagination,” writes Fr. Andrew Greeley (1928-2013). For Scorsese this means that the use of Catholic images and themes in many of his films is “not a matter of choice but of necessity.” The Catholicism of the films, Greeley emphasizes, is not churchy. Sorrow for sins plus redemption “is worked out not in church.” The quest for holiness occurs in the messy world itself. For Scorsese and for others with a Catholic imagination, it is down-to-earth ordinary life that “hints of what God is like.”
The Catholic imagination also means that people are entangled with and obligated to their extended families, neighborhoods, religious orders and the like. This worldview is different from the dominant creed of libertarian individualism that equates freedom with maximum options. Catholicism says that it is precisely within constraining bonds that genuine though complicated freedom is found.
Two clarifications: 1.) Not all Catholics use a sacramental imagination and likewise a non-Catholic might have an analogical or sacramental take on the world and on God. 2.) To have a Catholic squint on things, a filmmaker or another type of artist, or any other worker might not be exemplary in every way, on every day. Scorsese, for example, has been married even more times than Donald Trump (who, by the way, is representative of the individualistic worldview). Scorsese admits he has sinned. But, he says, “I am a Roman Catholic; there’s no way out of it.”

Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, is a historical drama set in 17th century Japan. It is based on a 1966 novel of the same name, written by Shusaku Endo. Paul Elie, writing in New York Times Magazine (11/27/16), summarizes the plot, details the production process and connects the new film with Scorsese’s Catholic imagination.
Two Portuguese priests undertake a mission to Japan. They happen to be Jesuits, which accounts for the meeting Scorsese had with Pope Francis in late November. The missionaries are persecuted. As the plot develops, the tormentors present a choice: Continue to assert your foreign creed and face martyrdom or deny your creed and save other people. Thus the film asks: Do intentions count when determining morality? One interpretation of the film, as Elie writes, can be that “a seeming act of profanation can be an act of devotion if done out of an underlying faith.”
On the surface the film is about Jesuit missionaries. But its lesson is not churchy, just as its setting is not inside church institutions. Further, the film’s protagonist does not work things out by rising above the entanglements and obligations around him. Instead, he moves deeper into the limitations and only thereby—as some moviegoers might conclude—does he experience freedom.

Elie tells us that in 1988 Most Rev. Paul Moore (1919-2003), Episcopal bishop of New York, recommended Endo’s novel to Scorsese. From then until now, almost 28 years later, it was Scorsese’s passion to put the story onto the screen. Despite financial, legal and technical complications, Scorsese felt obligated (or more accurately, felt called) to complete the project.

A new edition of Endo’s novel is available from Acta (4848 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60640; www.actapublications.com) for $16. The same publisher has two reflections on the novel: Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura ($26) and Faith Stripped to Its Essence by Patrick Reardon ($12.95).

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free printed newsletter. Its next edition will feature a reflection on Silence by Greg Pierce.

Go Home

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, OP of Peru is rightly receiving awards these days for his role in developing liberation theology. His 1973 book, A Theology of Liberation, signaled the end within Catholicism of the Western European theological monopoly. It is also now worthwhile to recall Ivan Illich (1926-2002). In early 1964 he gathered several Latin American theologians and church leaders in Brazil. It was there that the methodology and major themes of what would become libration theology took shape. Thus, Illich “played a major role in fostering liberation theology” and subsequently in its propagation, writes Todd Hartch in The Prophet of Cuernavaca (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Illich was born in Austria and was ordained to the priesthood in 1951. Later that year he was sent to Princeton University to do research. He served among Puerto Ricans in a Manhattan parish. Cardinal Francis Spellman (1889-1967) was impressed with Illich and so appointed him a rector to a university in Puerto Rico. Illich, at age 31, was made a monsignor—the youngest ever in the United States.
Today, the required reading list for a college class might include one or another book by Illich. The class will be in education, philosophy or social science. Hartch’s contribution is to put Illich squarely inside Catholicism and inside the priesthood. “He is best understood as a Catholic priest of conscious orthodoxy grappling with the crisis of Western modernity,” says Hartch. Thus, Illich’s later critiques of education, medicine and other institutions are but further examples of his prime example, the church.
The church loses its mission, said Illich, when it adopts a modern business model with its preoccupation with status, obsession with money, a fondness for measurable outcomes, a disposition to bureaucratic processes, an overuse of vacuous language and more. Illich devised an unusual way of reforming the church. He started, Hartch details, “an anti-missionary training center designed to discourage would-be missionaries” at the very moment that the Vatican and the U.S. bishops made a significant commitment to sending missionaries to Latin and South America.
Illich believed that the church’s mission effort had lost its original aspiration. Like many modern institutions, the unintended bad side effects outweighed the good intentions. Programs directed from North America to South America under the banner of development amounted to more colonialism, he said. Illich, to be clear, was not against the church and its essential missionary endeavors. Nor subsequently was he opposed to medicine, education, transportation and the like. He felt, however, that once a threshold of modern bureaucracy had taken hold, the church impedes faith, the schools hamper learning and hospitals discourage wellness.
Hundreds of missionaries attended Illich’s center in Cuernavaca because it offered the best language class, the best cultural analysis and on-and-off again the latest theological insights—all the while telling the missionaries, in effect “to go home.”

Illich, like all prophets, was contradictory. For example, here was a missionary of sorts who came from Europe to New York, then went to Puerto Rico and onto Mexico saying that imported religious education and devotions are types of disabling help. No surprise then that his anti-missionary effort had contradictory results. The number of Western European and North American missionaries to Latin America indeed dropped well below the goals set by bishops. At the same time, members of religious orders and other missionary types went back into their North American and European settings with a passion for opening the whole church to its global mission, particularly its solidarity with the poor.
As for Illich, his influence on many Catholic leaders was significant but his footing within Catholic structures was unfixed. He was for a time in regular conflict with one or another bishop and with the Vatican bureaucracy. “Many have assumed that [Illich] was forced out of the priesthood or even that he renounced Catholicism,” writes Hartch. Not true. Illich knew and believed “that priestly identity was permanent.” During 1967 to 1968 Illich gradually withdrew from active priesthood so that he would not be a source of embarrassment. His precise status defied the usual categories—not exactly a leave of absence, not at all a suspension.

Illich was a radical thinker; a person willing to experiment. He was churchman, always “trying to understand the nature of the church and its relationship to his age,” Hartch concludes.

Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

The Working Catholic: Heavenly Institutions

by Bill Droel

Once upon a time there was an elderly monk “who wove a basket one day; the next day he unwove it,” Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ (1904-1967) relates. “The basket itself did not matter; but the weaving and unweaving of it served as a means of spending an interval.” Only the soul was of value, the monk believed. For everything else, “what did it matter” whether a person wove baskets or constructed skyscrapers or composed symphonies?
This story, found in Murray’s classic We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Sheed & Ward, 1960), illustrates one tendency among Christians. To greater or lesser degree some Christians think that the earthly city is not their home and that everything we build will suddenly vanish. Heaven for them “is radically discontinuous with history, the arena of human effort and achievement,” Murray writes.

The other tendency, Murray details, is premised on the belief that “grace perfects nature,” that grace builds upon nature but does not destroy it. The dogma of Incarnation means that God’s kingdom begins on earth as it is in heaven. The earth is not “destined for an eternal dust-heap… Human effort remains real and really valuable.”
Of course, this world-affirming tendency can be taken too far. In the United States it is indeed taken too far. Some Christians, through a misinterpretation of Protestant theology, think that individual economic achievement is a sign of God’s favor. And even more mistakenly, many people who might call themselves Christian act as if grace is irrelevant; that material achievement is all that there is.

What is heaven like? The close friends of Jesus do not immediately recognize him in the post-resurrection appearances. That is because they are startled and because they have no prior experience through which to process resurrection. But something else is confusing. Jesus does not have his usual countenance. He is not identical to how he formerly was. This resurrection is decidedly not resuscitation. Yet, the New Testament insists on a bodily resurrection. Over and over, the early church fought against Gnostic heresies that said resurrection involves only the spirit, not the corruptible body.
Our own resurrection means a new body in Christ. There might be an initial moment of shock, but our resurrected body will be recognizable. That is, heaven is different from earthly life but is in continuity with it. Granted, the specifics about heaven are unknown. Those specifics do not need to be known. However, God has revealed something about creation, starting in Genesis, and has revealed something about redemption, including the Bethlehem event and Jesus’ carpentry job and many more earthly comings and goings. It is solid thinking then to conclude that our workaday efforts matter in God’s plan. The divine process is inextricable to our job, our care for family and home, our attention to the neighborhood and to our civic involvements.

I speculate that our institutions are heaven-bound. This is not heresy and in fact it is fully compatible with Catholic theology. I don’t expect to visit the motor vehicle department in heaven or to deal with the Internal Revenue Service. But in some sense the best aspirations contained in what we have created will be in heaven. Why would there be no sociability in heaven? No social peace or safety? No cooperation? No symphonies? No families? Our institutions here and now should, in my opinion, reflect as best as possible, the divine intention implanted in all of creation. Our institutions, though in need of daily reform, are heaven-infused and heaven-destined… in some sense.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter on faith and work.

The Working Catholic: A Nostalgic Society

by Bill Droel

After about 35 years of weekly gatherings, the members of my spiritual support group are now all retired. At our age we tend to recall the long gone car companies, the discontinued breweries and the great athletes of yesteryear. However, our group concludes that nostalgia is a temptation, that escapism is a distraction.
What applies to individuals is also true for our society. There is far and away too much energy given to inaccurate comparisons with a so-called golden age. There is unhealthy nostalgia overcoming social groups. It is a disease that short circuits correct analysis of situations and that often advocates counter-productive solutions. It proceeds like this: First, social nostalgia sees the current scene as one of decline. Then it imagines a golden age. Next, it picks out one factor associated with the golden age and campaigns for its restoration. The assumption is that one restored symbol from the past will usher back most of the fonder time.
For example, a faction within a parish decides that Christianity is losing out to secularism. It imagines a golden age. Then the faction picks out the Latin Mass as something that will restore calmness and stability. There is nothing wrong per se when a parish offers an occasional Latin Mass option or has a monthly Marian procession or any number of other old-time devotions. But none of these will inaugurate a golden age, which to be truthful never existed anyway. I was there; it was ok back then, but not golden.

Political leaders are harkening to a golden age, writes Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic (Basic Books, 2016). These leaders—explicitly or subtly—first sow seeds of discontent. They then evoke “recollections of a lost ideal,” of a time before today’s decline. For the Democrats the ideal time was about 1965; for Republicans it was 1981. These leaders then use small pieces of history to suggest a restoration of peace and prosperity. Though presented differently, the narrative comes from both left and right. “Once upon a time,” the story begins. Once upon a time there were plentiful manufacturing jobs, prosperity from mining and steel, domestic security because immigrants were quickly homogenized, international supremacy because our president talked tough, respect for law and order. Oh yes, once upon a time.
Look, says Levin, this so-called golden era “was not the paradise that some now suggest.” Far too much verbiage is given to recovering the strengths of the post-World War II era. Of course we can derive some pertinent ideas from the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the administration of Ronald Reagan. But why focus on “how we can recover the capital we have used up” when the real challenge is “how we can build economic, cultural and social capital in the 21st century”?

In one’s spiritual life it is best not to ruminate about what might have been. Make an act of contrition and then act on the possibilities that await. In our political life it is better to quit dreaming about industries that will never return, about a world that preceded September 11, 2001, about Lake Wobegone’s seemingly wholesome culture. It is better to give thanks for the achievements of today’s society and to creatively act for more improvements.

By the way, I don’t remember any distinctive taste to Carling Black Label or to Falstaff nor do I remember ever riding in a Hudson or Packard. I did see Dick Allen play with the White Sox, after his years with the Phillies. I remember a great hitter who should be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter on faith and work.

Words Matter

Words Matter

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by Bill Droel

In 1984 Msgr. Jack Egan (1916-2001), who at that time was director of Human Relations and Ecumenism at the Archdiocese of Chicago, sent a memo about race relations to clergy and lay leaders involved with Chicago’s Northwest Neighborhood Federation and with Southwest Parish and Neighborhood Federation. Egan was reacting to A Declaration of Neighborhood Independence, issued by the two community organizations.

“The language contained in this Declaration is inappropriate, irresponsible and divisive,” Egan wrote. His memo objected to the Declaration’s “name-calling and vituperation” and more particularly to its “race-baiting” and its “tone of violence.”

A newly published book, Vanishing Eden: White Construction of Memory, Meaning and Identity in a Racially Changing City by Michael Maly and Heather Dalmage (Temple University Press), looks back at those days. The authors also report on interviews they conducted among those who were children in those neighborhoods at the time. Read more

Parishes Part II

Parishes, Part II

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by Bill Droel

It is a formula for decline to run a parish, indeed to run any enterprise, for the benefit of insiders rather than outsiders. People move away from a parish for normal reasons: a job relocation, downsizing or upscaling their residence, retirement or illness, and eventually death. Attracting new members always has to outpace the exodus. This no longer can happen by passively waiting for new arrivals to register with a parish. Growth parishes have to be comfortable with a variety of pastoral styles; they have to be proactive with programs that undergo regular evaluation; they have to systematically reach out to new residents and to others who spend time in or around the parish/neighborhood. Growth parishes have to sometimes tailor liturgies for, let’s say, an arriving ethnic group or for young adults. In a growth parish the regular visits to nursing homes and hospitals must be augmented by an effort—no matter how rudimentary—to meet health care workers. The disposition for growth means, for example, that the parish CEO (who may or may not be their pastor) and/or the school’s principal participate in the local chamber of commerce and have regular contact with nearby social service agencies and with administrators in the public schools or the community college and with local government entities. Likewise the leaders of a growth parish (its staff and its members) will schedule dialogue sessions with members from nearby churches (including Catholic parishes) and with those from any nearby synagogue or mosque.

Why don’t parishes adopt the option for growth? Read more

New-Style Parishes

New-Style Parishes

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by Bill Droel

The late 1800s and early 1900s were boom years for U.S. Catholicism. Immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Eastern Europe and elsewhere populated urban neighborhoods, building churches and schools. Using Chicago as an example, its Archbishop James Quigley (1854-1915) issued a 1910 decree for the construction of more churches so that no one would need to go more than one mile to worship. “A parish,” he wrote, “should be such a size that the pastor can personally know every man, woman, and child in it.”
In that very year, there was already a square-mile neighborhood in Quigley’s diocese with 11 parishes: four for Irish-Americans, two for German, two for Polish and three for other Eastern Europeans. Over 70% of this Bridgeport neighborhood was Roman Catholic in 1910. Several other Chicago neighborhoods easily surpassed Quigley’s goal of one per square mile.

With some changes in the lineup, Bridgeport maintained 11 parishes into the 1980s. In the 1990s the number was reduced to seven. Today, using the same boundaries, Bridgeport has six Catholic churches. The same downsizing happened in most East Coast and Great Lakes areas. Detroit, for example, lost 30 parishes in 1989. Read more

Realistic Voting

Realistic Voting

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by Bill Droel

The term intrinsic evil is appropriate in a philosophy or theology classroom where students are presumably acquainted with some Aristotelian distinctions. Used in a presidential campaign, the term asks too much of electoral politics. Our U.S. Catholic bishops employ the term intrinsic evil a dozen times in their 2016 election guide, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. The term’s use there is, in the opinion of “The Working Catholic,” one more example of moralizing; one more ingredient in the disenchantment and frustration of our citizenry.

Politics is a “messy, limited [and] muddled activity,” writes Bernard Crick (1929-2008) in Defense of Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1962). Yet it is the most beautiful way of balancing public interests, lifestyle choices, conflicting rights, interwoven responsibilities and changing times. Politics (with its laws or policies) is always imperfect because politics is an exercise in this-worldly approximate justice. Its results at sunset must be renewed through the exercise of public virtues tomorrow morning. Read more

Full of Grace

Full of Grace

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by Bill Droel

The phrase Godless world is popular with some presidential candidates. In recent months it has also occasionally appeared in Catholic publications and catalogs. Catholics are mistaken to use the phrase or others like it.

Catholics believe in the Incarnation and the Redemption. God, through God’s creation and through Christ’s death and resurrection, is already in our holy world. Encounter with God for a Catholic is thus normally mediated through the world. Catholics experience grace (God’s love) through family, neighbors, co-workers and others. Catholics meet God in the sacraments; the little sacraments of daily life and the liturgical sacraments.

Most Catholics most of the time do not claim a so-called direct or individual relationship with God. The relationship is mediated. God’s love and God’s truth come by way of the world; by way of discovery in the classroom or the lab, inside the ups and downs of home life, through art, music or literature, through conversations and action on the job, through stories about one’s grandparents, and through the worldly accomplishments and setbacks of predecessors in the faith. Read more

Gratitude Deficiency

Gratitude Deficiency

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Bill Droel

The coins on our counter and in our pockets carry the slogan “Out of Many, One.” But that is not a common theme in our society nowadays. Instead, writes Jeremy Engels in The Politics of Resentment (Penn State Press, 2015), the operative slogan is “Out of One, Two.”

Democracy plays out differently in various times and places. It means, however, that the populace can routinely hold the powerful in check. Democracy is an alternative to authoritarianism, oligarchy, dictatorship, totalitarianism or aristocracy. James Madison (1758-1831) and other founders of our country wanted a democracy in which citizens had power, but not in free-wheeling anarchistic style. Madison promoted the wide interplay of factions. Each faction would advance its agenda. Each group had to play on a large political field and thus could not succeed without the backing of other groups that shared some part of the original agenda. In forming a coalition the group had to temper its agenda.

In our society, Engels details, Madison’s factions (e pluribus unum) are reduced to two (e unibus duo). It is us against those whom we resent. The silent majority resents the loudmouthed pleaders. Those with hard-working family values resent immigrants who supposedly take away jobs. Those who in theory exhibit a Christian lifestyle resent Muslims who supposedly want to take over.

Meanwhile, the powerful elites become more powerful because the mechanisms for democratic accountability are neglected. The grievances of the populace are “channeled at the wrong targets,” says Engels. Resentful rhetoric, as heard on some radio shows and at campaign rallies, is counter-productive. The audience might momentarily feel charged-up; ready to counter their cultural opposites. As Engels convincingly shows, however, the resentment “does not hasten justice.” It actually perpetuates suffering because it locks the aggrieved group into victim status. Instead of honing the political skills that lead to change, resentful groups wallow in blaming, name-calling and pointless behavior.

The rhetoric of resentment contains lots of violent metaphors that eventually have an effect on conduct. Engels clearly states that no direct line exists between, for example, a candidate or radio host who plays to resentment and, for example, a crazed shooter in a school building. Violent language does though create a culture of fear, a culture with weak restraints.

One of Engel’s five chapters is largely given to Sarah Palin, who recently endorsed Donald Trump for president. She obviously does not favor acts of violence. But a close reading of her talks reveals violent terms aplenty. She paints herself and her followers as victims. To Palin, “the other” is not a legitimate political opponent, but a hated evil enemy.

In recent years some people (lay people, some parish staff, a few bishops) have brought the nastiness of the culture wars (a metaphor) inside the church. They don’t let faith enlighten public life; they use the resentments of public life to define our faith. They may think our times require a holy crusade (metaphorically). Their posture, however, certainly achieves the opposite of what they desire. In fact, their ideological notion of religion is dangerous. Their backwards approach is similar to that of radical Muslims who use an ideology to interpret God’s revelation.

The opposite of resentment is gratitude; both an individual attitude of gratitude and a public politics of thanksgiving. To be continued…

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free print newsletter on faith and work.