Last evening I attended the public forum with Fr. Tom Reese at Canisius College. As a progressive writer for the National Catholic Reporter and professor at Georgetown University, I went with interest in his current appraisal of the Roman Catholic Church. A member of the Jesuit Order, I also expected some early opinions on the life of the newest Pope, Francis I. Fr. Reese has written numerous books on the Vatican and its governing policies.
Fr. Reese divided his presentation in two parts with summary comments about Pope Francis I. His first two parts described his pessimism for the future of the Church and the second his reasons for optimism.
Reasons for pessimism were:
– 1/3 of USA Roman Catholics have left the church.
– 4 times the number who join each year leave.
– ½ of those who leave become Protestants.
– 70% leave before age 23
– More laity are better educated today than priests.
– As educated laity rates rise, church attendance decreases.
– More Jesuits are alive past the age of 80 than before age 40.
– There is a disastrous split today between hierarchy and theologians.
Reasons for optimism were:
– Historically the church has always been in trouble, a “mess.”
– There is a major Biblical renewal emphasis today.
– Catholic Charities remains the largest non-government social agency.
Of most interest to me was the growing split between hierarchy control and the theologians. Historically Fr. Reese said “thinkers” always cause troubles for the hierarchies. Several of Aquinas’ books were destroyed by the then Pope. Today his theology is seen as quite conservative. Back in the 1960’s and 70’s, a lively debate existed between theologians and church administrators, perpetrated mainly by Pope John 23rd’s call for Vatican II. I remember being part of this lively debate and open thinking period as I attended two seminaries which engaged in “free-thinking”. It was a wonderful, growing part of my early career when major changes were being made.
I presently sense the bureaucratic identity with what Fr. Reese calls, “Controlling.” I still feel shock of being publically scolded for daring to suggest two years ago the stories of Jesus may have been part of ancient myths. In seminary, I remember questions raised often about the literalness of the Resurrection and the Miracle stories. Today, as Fr. Reese stated, the role of religious bureaucrats has returned again to making sure current dogmas are repeated and explained in traditional terms with dissenters disciplined by marginalization and dismissal. Fr. Reese believes such a role contributes toward many members leaving the church.
Most disappointing to me or what I felt missing in the presentation was Fr. Reese’s own reluctance to engage in current questions in theological shifting sands. He boasted that among all losses in the church, it still teaches the resurrection of Jesus from the dead! I wondered if he himself ever took note as a scholar of the past generation of deep questions toward the resurrection as being a literal event. He also continuously urged followers to become more Biblically literate, which I would support, but hopefully from scholarship which presses beyond fundamental literalism which contributes to the lost of millions of members.
Fr. Reese admitted briefly that the church has never been able to establish much of a presence among Eastern countries where Buddhism and Hinduism prevail. He also noted the Church has never established any significant presence in Muslim countries, countries which converted in past centuries with leadership among the most highly educated in the known world. I felt amazement he never responded to the reason for Buddhism, as the New York Times recently reported, experiencing a booming growth among today’s American religious. (June 16, 2012, “Buddhist Delight!) Just a “Google search” for Buddhist presence in Buffalo and Erie County ought to raise that question. He also did not seem to move beyond the idea of Catholic reform being mostly a change from 17th Century “courtly” government to a more modern expression. He never mentioned or challenged in any way the 4th Century shut down of the democratic, free thinking spirit of the earlier Christian expansion centuries. Hans Kung, a former licensed teacher of Catholic theology in the German University of Tubingen, has written recently of the need to return to a serious study of those Pre-Nicene centuries when armies did not accompany “church expansion.” (March 9, 2013, NYT, “A Vatican Spring Offensive”)
Fr. Reese described the new Pope as fairly theologically conservative but socially progressive with his outreach toward the poor. He feels Wall Street will not like this Pope, which is probably a good sign. But if theological debate is disallowed with serious ideas banned in favor of “social justice” alone, I feel the future will not bode well for established Churches. People in their basic souls seek spiritual peace and a sense of that which is beyond the physical. “Men and women cannot live by bread alone,” the Bible says, along with Jesus recorded as saying, “The poor you will always have among you.” Feed the poor, raise up the oppressed, but without a sense of the Eternal, the peace is short-lived as greed and grasping continuously return.
However, the evening was well spent at Canisius, despite the search for a parking space and returning to my car in drenching rain!