Speaking Truth To Power

My Kowalski grandparents came from the Poznan area in Western Poland, a region controlled throughout the entire 19th century by Prussia. Grandfather Jan Kowalski fulfilled his prescribed military service in the Prussian army, and then at age 25 in 1890 departed for America; Grandmother Antonina Kubis joined him two years later. Their sons would serve as American doughboys in World War I, fighting against the same Prussian army. One son, Francis, was killed; another son, John, was wounded.

The Prussian Approach The image of Prussians conveyed to us by my grandparents reflected a talented, principled and hard-working people. Above all, however, they were well disciplined, driven by an almost military regimen. Growing up, I recall in our home many Prussian influences. Father referred to potatoes as kartofle, a German word, rather than ziemniaki, the Polish term favored by mother (who came from Eastern Poland). When as children we became raucous, father would matter-of-factly state, as no doubt his parents had done to him, "Children should be seen and not heard." Nor did he refrain from threatening to remove his belt to enforce disciple. Yet on me he never wielded it. I realized that he loved us very much. It was just the Prussian thing.

Today despite my delight at some actions of Pope Benedict XVI, I must confess that I have long looked upon Joseph Ratzinger as the quintessential Prussian. In his youth he was obedient to Adolf Hitler, in his old age to Karol Wojtyla. He recognized each as a leader to whom one owed obedience and docility. That sense of personal discipline and subservience toward those in positions of authority seems to have endured with him lifelong.

One of the most difficult periods of the future Pope Benedict's life occurred when after many years of study, he secured his doctorate and began teaching at Tubingen University, only to face a student body that rebelled against him and against the administration. The audacity of students disobeying professors! He found that scene intolerable and fled. He returned to diocesan work where docility was rewarded, and before long his superiors appointed him bishop.

At around that time, a new pope, John Paul II, was determined to enforce orthodoxy and discipline in the church. From personal experience during World War II, Karol Wojtyla knew where to look for an enforcer. He realized that Prussian discipline would not only drive Ratzinger to instinctive conformity to the pope's agenda, but would also embolden him to enforce obedience on everyone else. Needed was a Grand Inquisitor, and Ratzinger filled that role to perfection.

On his watch, hundreds of theologians, priests, bishops and religious were disciplined to conform to Rome's teaching. To be sure, he did not physically abuse or murder anyone; but he did destroy them nonetheless by depriving them of livelihood, removing them from positions of authority, and labeling them personae non gratae in the world at large. Not without merit did his countrymen refer to him as "Der Panzerkardinal" and others as "God's Rottweiler."

Another Way Generals and rulers admire Prussian discipline. With its demand for total obedience, it enables them to impose their will on the masses. They will frequently surround themselves with people whose loyalty remains unquestioned and who can always be relied upon to do their bidding. Rare is the Abraham Lincoln who upon assuming power appointed to positions of influence talented men who had previously been his opponents. Only a great man can do that. Such action provided our nation with greater competence and better management, making it stronger.

When it comes to our personal behavior, Christ showed us the way. He taught that respect and docility toward legitimate authority are proper, but obedience to a Higher Power at times trumps everything else. It impels one, no matter what the odds, to speak truth to power. Whether a child before parent, a citizen before president, or the faithful before their pastor, each is compelled in conscience to speak out. It is the Voice of God echoing within us, a Voice one must not ignore.

In our day we have seen the sterling witness of Oscar Romero in Central America, Franz Jagerstetter in Nazi Austria, Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States. Their fidelity to the Living God inflamed them with a holy impatience, urging them boldly to speak truth to secular power. For this they made the ultimate sacrifice and are rightfully honored as martyrs, as saints. Such commitment to truth should inspire us not only before civil authorities...but also before church officials. Unfortunately, the penalty for opposition to religious leaders is even more draconian. Joan of Arc in France, Savonarola in Italy, John Hus in the Czech Republic each gave powerful witness before church tribunals, and each was burned alive at the stake! They too deserve to be martyred as martyrs, as saints.

The Task Today Whether as citizens before governing officials or as faithful before pastoral leaders, each of us is compelled to listen to the Living God who whispers to us in conscience, impelling us in the name of God to speak truth to power. The weak need not apply; only the bold and courageous can measure up.

In our country today, some seek to label opposition to our president and his Iraq war as unpatriotic, a betrayal of our troops and disloyalty to our nation. The opposite is true. Our conscience must not permit us to remain silent while government officials escalate an unprovoked war, torture and deny prisoners fundamental rights, and take from the poor and give to the rich while mortgaging our future. We must speak truth to power, which means opposing with all our being this unjust war and this largesse to the rich at the expense of the poor.

Quite similarly in our church, some are eager to label any deviation from official church statements as disrespect, disloyalty, disobedience to the pope. They seemingly favor a new Inquisition. They would readily impose excommunication, remove dissenters from the church and reject politicians at the Eucharistic Table. Not so fast! Our conscience must not allow us to remain silent while church officials mismanage church finances, cover up the sexual abuse of children, and reject politicians solely over the issue of abortion, while bypassing their abandonment of the poor and their advocacy of an immoral war. We must hold both government officials and church leaders accountable.

The great moral theologian Bernard Haring articulated the matter eloquently when he wrote: "What most influenced my thinking about moral theology was the mindless and criminal obedience of Christians to Hitler, a madman and a tyrant. This led me to the conviction that the character of a Christian must not be formed one-sidedly by a leitmotif of obedience but rather by a discerning responsibility, a capacity to respond courageously to new values and new needs, and a readiness to take the risk" (Free and Faithful in Christ, 1978).

Again, Jesus gave us the example. With his message of peace and love, he faced up to the entrenched religious and political leaders of his day. He spoke truth to power : both civil and religious. Those powers retaliated strongly against him and crucified him. We must be under no illusion; the same awaits us. "When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say, for the Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you are to say" (Luke 12:11-12). We can take comfort in the assurances given to the apostle Paul: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9).

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