Have you heard the tale of the two frogs? One fell into a pot of boiling water and in a nanosecond jumped right out again. The other fell into a pot of lukewarm water and finding it quite comfortable, fell asleep and eventually boiled to death. Something similar seems to have happened to us Catholics in these years since Vatican II. It's how we've become strangers in our own house.
John XXIII's announcement of the Council received a cool reception from the Curial Cardinals who initially attempted to control the agenda. [The Curial Cardinals are the top bureaucrats who assist the pope in governing the church. They preside over the departments and offices that comprise the Curia.] However, when the world's bishops gathered in Rome, there was a polite rebellion. They rejected the Curia's proposals and developed their own priorities and working documents, focusing on issues that included liturgical renewal, religious freedom, collegiality, subsidiarity, acculteration, ecumenism, the demise of triumphalism, and the overarching vision of the church as the pilgrim people of God.
Following the pope's lead, they threw open the windows, allowing the Spirit to stir the mustiness of an overly centralized, control-obsessed institution. The Curial party lost vote after vote; but they did not surrender. After all, they would remain in Rome after everyone else returned home. The first sign of things to come was Humani Vitae: the Curialists convinced Paul VI not to allow the bishops to debate birth control, but to assemble a special commission instead. Then they convinced the pope to veto the commission's recommendation to ease the church's position. The water was starting to boil.
With the advent of John Paul II, the Curial campaign intensified. The new pope dazzled the world with his charisms, but internally he governed like a commissar. The periodic synods of bishops became showpieces rather than genuinely deliberative assemblies. National epicscopal groupings were emasculated, especially after the Americans received world-wide acclaim for their pastoral letter on nuclear arms. The Curia wanted exclusive control of the Magisterium. New bishops had to pass a litmus test on strict adherence to the party line, and so the erosion of collegiality and subsidiarity trickled down to diocesan and parish levels. The evolving liturgical reforms and translations : especially the move toward inclusive language : were snatched away from regional bishops and returned to Rome's control.
Step by step the key reforms of Vatican II were dismantled in the name of protecting the "authentic" decisions of the Council from radical distortions. With each pronouncement, each condemnation, each Episcopal appointment, the water boiled a bit more. Ordinary Catholics became more uneasy and the windows of the church were increasingly shuttered by rigidity, legalism, fear and control : the very reasons for convoking Vatican II.
Then came the crisis of clergy sexual abuse of minors. The Curial attitudes of denial, secrecy and obfuscation had permeated local chancery offices. The church's reputation had to be safeguarded. Scandal had to be avoided. As sacred persons, perpetrators were to be protected. Victims were inconvenient and embarrassing. Attorneys, journalists and law enforcement officers were to be kept on the other side of the separation of church and state. Rome looked the other way. Evidently these situations simply didn't fit into any of their familiar categories. Bishops were left to cope as best they could, but the pastoral instinct had been bred out of most of them. The scandal refused to go away. The public was appalled. Catholics were ashamed and angry. Law cases, settlements and expenditures mounted. Church officials were increasingly alienated from their people.
Moreover, rather than addressing the root causes of the abuse and mismanagement, the Vatican and the bishops launched a campaign of scapegoating. The list of villains included homosexual priests and seminarians, incompetent psychologists, liberal Catholic politicians, anti-clerical journalists, money-grubbing attorneys, insistent feminists and opportunistic church reform groups. Many Catholics were now boiling in more ways than one.
Today we find the priesthood declining in both quality and quantity. Homilies are often incomprehensible because of language barriers or inadequate preparation or inanity. The church's fabled teaching authority is in tatters and parishes are being shuttered. But there's still a lot of impressive real estate, and many Catholics still bring themselves to their parish churches each Sunday. There are some islands of creativity, but one also senses the odor of decay throughout the institution. Increasingly we feel like strangers in our own house. We comfort ourselves with stories of previous eras when the church seemed moribund and eventually rebounded.
However, the Curial party puts a very different spin on things. They see the diminishment of the church as a purification. Weeding out the riff-raff will produce a smaller but holier church to act as a protector of doctrinal truths. The prospect of familial conversations to find common ground between factions in a polarized church is distasteful to Catholic fundamentalists who feel they (alone) have the Truth and error has no rights. They have nothing to learn, everything to teach : and it should be in Latin. The windows have not only been closed, but nailed shut.
Many of us sigh and perhaps chuckle at the arrogance of these Catholic fundamentalists. We recall Jesus' parable about the field of wheat into which weeds have been sown. The anxious farm workers wanted to wade into the crops and tear out the weeds immediately, but the master restrained them. Wait, he said. Eventually, the One who knows the difference between the weeds and authentic wheat will handle that task. We try to comprehend and respect the wisdom of Jesus as we continue to deal with a messy world, our own messy lives, and a very messy church. Our house may be in disarray today, but it is still our house; and we are not strangers.