Monday, June 9, 2008

Catholics and Quakers

Martin Kelly has an interesting post about Quakers and Roman Catholics who "get it" about their faiths bumping heads with people who don't, especially with those who have institutional power. I'll return to his central questions another day-- Why would someone who dislikes Catholic culture and wants to dismantle it's infrastructure become a priest and a career bureaucrat? For that matter why do so many people want to call themselves Quakers when they can't stand basic Quaker theology? and So what would a spiritual community for these outsider Friends [Friends who want to build a true faith community as opposed to maintaining the current bureacracy] look like? (Martin would see the last question, I think, as the central question and the first question as an aside.)

For today, I'll focus on what he writes about the closing of his wife's Roman Catholic parish church:

The current lightening-fast closure of sixty-some churches is the first step of an ambitious plan; manufactured priest shortages and soon-to-be overcrowded churches will be used to justify even more radical changes. In about twenty years time, the 125 churches that exist today will have been sold off. What's left of a half million faithful will be herded into a dozen or so mega-churches, with theology borrowed from generic liberalism, style from feel-good evangelicalism, and organization from consultant culture.

From my encounters as a religion reporter, I agree that the Roman Catholic trend is towards organizing the faithful into mega-churches. I think this a response to the priest shortage. (I'm not sure what Martin means by a manufactured shortage, as the numbers I've seen do show a steep decline in priests. Perhaps he means manufactured in the sense of the church's refusal to ordain women or married men? Or used in this context as an excuse to rush church closings?) However, whether or not the shortage is real, one way to avoid a shortage is not to have as many parishes and hence not to need as many priests. Needing fewer priests also allows the church to be more selective in choosing its priest candidates, which must weigh heavily on the collective mind of the Catholic hierarchy after the recent scandals.

Whatever the reason, the larger point is that people in a new, huge church are likely to lose the sense of connection and community a small, historic parish church can offer. And the lay people, many of whom will be women and married men, will be tapped to perform the duties priests in small parishes once could do themselves. How likely are these people to experience resentment over restrictions that "allow" them to do plenty of hard work but not share in power?

The deeper point (as opposed to the larger point!) involves the haste Martin speaks of. Why rush this important process? I've read that haste is of the devil. Any decision that's rushed through in a blur probably had some facets that wouldn't have stood up under closer scrutiny. The most obvious example is the rush to go to war in Iraq. The more slowly a decision is made (assuming we're not in a genuinely life-threatening or otherwise emergency situation), the more likely it is to be spiritually renewing. For example, taking the time to visit and revisit the question within Baltimore Yearly Meeting of whether or not to stay affiliated with FUM brings out previously unconsidered viewpoints, gives more and more people a voice in the process and is leading to a gentling of the earlier, more inflamed sentiments of some Quakers.

Of course, working against careful, spirit-based and inclusive decision-making is the culture we live in, which is hooked on speed. I struggle constantly to get slowed down to God's pace because God's rhythm is so different from the culture's frenzy. I more and more am convinced that a true point of spiritual discipline is to form us to resist the world's pace.

I can't help but contrast the bureaucratic "efficiency" of closing small churches and streamlining Catholics into megachurches, trampling on some people's feelings and sense of community, with Mother Teresa's insight that Christianity is all about small acts done lovingly.

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