by John Samuel Tieman
Perhaps the greatest challenge for anyone religious is to consider The Answer, but hold off on The Rule.
Not long ago, I wrote an essay about growing up Catholic. It was generally sentimental. Among other things, I wrote about the comfort I took from the Church during an emotionally turbulent childhood. Comfort. Stability. When I think of the Church of my childhood, this stability is what I often remember.
A Jewish buddy wrote me about my essay. When he thinks about his family’s encounters with The Church, it is not comfort that comes to mind. His father fled the anti-Semitic Catholics of his city in Poland. For my friend, mention of The Church brings to mind a very different set of memories.
So consider this an addendum to my sentimentality.
As I said in the previous essay, I belong to an annoying Church. That’s how I experience The Church at its worst. Annoying. I’ve never been molested by a priest. I’ve never had my shtetl burned to the ground. I don’t get pregnant. I don’t cringe when I hear the word “crusade”. I have experienced anti-Catholicism – it was painful, but still well within the class of annoyance.
We Catholics are at our most small c catholic when we are in the minority. We are at our worst when we make The Rule.
There’s a three-fold trap to bad leadership. The first is when the leader can’t imagine the consequences of the new rule. The second is when the leader personally experiences no consequences from his or her new rule. The third is when that leader receives little or no accurate feedback concerning the new rule. There would be no pedophile scandal if Catholic bishops had children.
It would be easy at this point to simply say, “Well, we’re all human. We’re all flawed. It’s not the fault of the religion. It’s all the fault of the flawed humans. A flaw. A mistake.”
When I take my students to the Holocaust Museum here, in St. Louis, I make it clear that anti-Semitism is very Christian. A lot of young folks want to treat this as yesterday’s flaw. I’m just old enough to remember when, on Good Friday, we prayed for the conversion of “the faithless Jews”. It’s a painful memory, this memory of a prayer. But remember we must. It was not a personal flaw. It was liturgy. It was Church policy. Lest we forget, here’s what we prayed when I was a kid in the ’50s and early ’60s –
Let us pray also for the faithless Jews: that almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us pray. Let us kneel. [Pause for silent prayer.] Arise. Almighty and eternal God, who dost not exclude from thy mercy even Jewish faithlessness: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of thy Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.
That’s what we said. That’s exactly what we said. It was no mistake. The only flaw, the only mistake, is to forget that it was no mistake.
We Catholics also like to dismiss another painful memory. “Christ Killers”. Although apologists are correct in saying that Jewish deicide was not part of formal dogma per se, many Catholics, including members of the clergy, and not just a few bishops, preached that the Jewish people were collectively guilty for Jesus’ death. Vatican II repudiated that. That was a step in the right direction. But it didn’t change centuries of history. That damage was done.
If you sit where Adolf Hitler sat when he sang in his church choir, straight across from him was the statue of a much revered abbot. You can see that statue to this day. It is adorned with what was, long before Hitler’s youth, a common version of the cross of Christ. The swastika.
When someone feels they have The Answer, there is an overwhelming urge to take The Answer and make The Rule. How could The Rule be so wrong if The Answer is so right?
I love my Church. But we do need a new rule. My new rule is very small c catholic. It reads –
Just because you think you have The Answer
doesn’t mean you get to make The Rule.