[Part II is here.]
1. The Bishop.
He was a beloved itinerant shepherd who lived simply, residing in a single spartan room when he wasn’t visiting the flock. Known for his humility and down-to-earth speaking style, he was deeply beloved by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He emphasized ecumenism to an unprecedented degree, and believed that the Second Vatican Council was the watershed event in Catholic history. He encouraged modern biblical study, presenting historical-critical hypotheses from the pulpit, chided Catholics who “looked backward” to older ways, and urged the embrace of dynamic change.
His name was Kenneth Untener, and he was the bishop of Saginaw from 1980 until his death in 2004. The parishes in his domain were my first experience with progressive Catholicism, and they stirred and shaped my--there is no other word for it--hostility to the entire progressive religious project. Now, let me clarify one thing here: there is a distinction between religious progressivism and the political version. For my part, I think one can be a devout Catholic and support what are generally regarded as progressive political policies. The late, great Robert Casey, Sr. of Pennsylvania (but not his wayward, sail-trimming fraud of a son) embodied this possibility--and did so well. But, as with Catholics who align toward the right side of the spectrum, if you're doing your faith right, you will inevitably conflict with certain political shibboleths of your non-Catholic brothers in arms. Or at least you'd better. And it is clear that getting your hands dirty living and working with the poor, a la Catholic Worker, is wholly, utterly and unimpeachably Catholic.
These are to be distinguished from religious progressivism, which is diagnosed comprehensively here. It is always and everywhere bad news. Which is not to say that people who hold modernist views are to be treated like bad news--they shouldn't. But you have your work cut out, no question. The contemporary flavor of modernism is fond of emotivism and is less susceptible to, or even interested in, logical argument. And if they're in power, buckle up and heads to the storm.
Anyway, back to the narrative:
The servant-leader was determined to reshape the Faith in his own image, and to a horrible extent, he succeeded. An avatar of the Spirit of Vatican II, he used it to oppose the Letter, shutting down the diaconate program immediately upon being appointed. That way, he could appoint female parish administrators, which he did in truckload lots. Which he would--conveniently?--also need, given that he inspired very few men to follow in his priestly footsteps.
You could find an official liturgical offering which referred to God as “she” in Saginaw, but no extraordinary form Mass. For all the celebration of the Diocese’s genuine ethnic diversity, progressive imperatives had a way of steamrolling organic ethnic expressions of faith and shutting down the "dialogue" once they had their way. For modernists, dialogue is simply a weapon in the struggle--and once the end is reached, the ratchet sets for all eternity. Thank you, please move along. If you're curious, you can find more examples of tender Saginaw pastoral care in the comments. Tolerance for everything save Catholic orthodoxy is the end result. Note also that my experience was of four separate parishes scattered across fifty miles--no isolated St. Joan's loony bin skewing the sample here.
And the liturgies…God have mercy. Walking out of Mass growling is not good for me. I simply won’t do it again. Which is not to say the Diocese lacked good features: one of the finest priests I have ever met was a priest in my hometown—a genuine, faithful servant glad to help his flock at all hours, but not one to water down the harder stuff. If he had been the norm, the fruit of the Great Leap Forward…but he was not. There were and are people who admired Bishop Untener and his vision. For me, his vision is one that fills me with dread and anger, and, on a practical level, simply bleeds out even where it is embraced in full--e.g., without those nasty old celibates in Rome mucking things up.
More to the point, at least as embraced and lived in the West, it is a narrow vision that appeals only to the comfortably left-of-center folks with solid portfolios and nice neighborhoods. Far from charging up the laity and sending them into the world, it instead clericalized a select militia. Very select, alas, as it consists only of those layfolk able to attend the requisite workshops and obtain the necessary ministry certifications, giving them the secret handshake and passwords to enter the "real" church--parish administration, preaching from the pulpit and leading communion services. Far from going out to sanctify the world, the laity took chancery and parish office jobs instead.
I suppose it would be one thing if it worked--if it pulled people in and sanctified the world, inspired vocations. It didn't. The Diocese has contracted by 32 percent since 1988. Can you lay all of that at the feet of the late Bishop? Times change, the economy greatly changes as manufacturing collapses and people move away--or at least their kids seek greener pastures (raises hand). I get that, so no, of course not--it's hardly all his fault. But apparently the New Thing didn't draw in new people, either. There's still a large pool of people to be evangelized, right? Plenty of poor and dislocated folks out in both urban and rural areas in desperate need of both assistance and the Gospel. If the disaffected Catholics were anywhere, they were flocking to your local evangelical churches, which typically has a hefty leaven of ex-Catholics.
Perhaps it's simply that the appeal of the trendier aspects of the historical-critical method and a transgender divinity have grown more selective.
In the main, though, if you want a poor church for the poor, a religion that makes middle class Western religious progressives comfortable is not going to work. Ultimately, when faced with a choice, the poor, the desperate, the lost and the lonely will shun religions of trendy ambiguity in favor of those with solid answers.
2. The Pope.
So when I hear the Pope praised for the same things the late ordinary of Saginaw was lauded for, I mentally crouch into a fighting stance. Am I saying the Bishop of Rome is just like the late Bishop of Saginaw? No, but there is much more overlap than I am comfortable with. Which is why my spiritual weather forecast is reading "cloudy with a chance of showers" right now.
Oh, Dale, come now. Where are you getting this from? Well, certain troubling statements by the Pope, alas. It's not just the imprecise off-the-cuffery.
When he's crystal clear there are sometimes problems.
Working my way up: there was the labeling of people who presented him with a rosary bouquet as "Pelagians." I wonder how those poor folks took it--besides in the shorts, that is. Oh, and sure, his one zinger thus far at progressive spirituality came in the same exchange. But it was offered as an equivalent, and it is a profoundly false one at that. I don't see how anyone could reasonably compare rosary counting to a spirituality that denies the Incarnation of Our Lord. Then there's the matter of which group is more likely to be, say, teaching at Catholic schools, offering retreats, etc.
He really, really dislikes anything that smacks of traditional Catholicism, with multiple jabs at restorationism, empty prayers, and the like. So many, in fact, that to deny the trend--or target--requires a marathon of special pleading. Especially in the near absence of swipes at newage goofballery, despite the fact he recognizes it exists. The imbalance is worrisome to me. Especially since it was the Rosary and Adoration that propped me up in my bleakest hours. Yes, I take the Pope at his word when he says he is devoted to the Rosary and Adoration, which is all to the good. I remembered that common ground as I jabbed at the cooling embers of faith, and it helped me think better of him. But I am compelled to point out that progressives don't have much use for either, with the more contemptible of their champions going so far as to outlaw the latter. I mean, really--look at Lynch's arbitrary and subjective diktat. I know--it's difficult to believe that the only sitting American bishop to pay a six figure same-sex harassment settlement to a former employee or multi-millions in no-bid diocesan contracts to his very close friend could be an unreliable guide to Tradition, but there you go.
Then there's the emphasis on dynamism and change. The criticism of doctrinal security, discipline, and censorship.
OK, you say. "And? How does that empower the bad guys to run roughshod?" First, there's the phenomenon of code-talking, mentioned before. There's a reason the left side of the aisle is going squee! And you really need to stop thinking they're all on peyote, folks.
Second, try this on for size: What if the Pope had said "Roger Cardinal Mahony has shown us the way!" "Rembert Weakland is a father to the whole Church!" "Kenneth Untener was a prophetic figure!"
If he'd said that, you would be smelling whatever beverage you'd just aspirated through your nostrils for a few hours. And then you'd wonder "What. The. Hell?"
Guess what? He said that about the late, great archprogressive and fellow Jesuit, Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini.
A prophetic figure, a father to the whole church.
Gah. Turn off the spin cycle. It can't be spun. Yes, I know Pope Benedict said very nice things about Martini when he died. That's what classy Christian people do. He didn't call him prophetic or a father to the whole church, though. And he probably wouldn't have been so nice if he'd known Martini's post-mortem stinkbomb was inbound.
Soooo...if Martini is a prophetic father figure, this prompts questions. Does Pope Francis think the Church is 200 years behind the times? If so, in what way? Are our Masses really "pompous"? (Perhaps so, there...) What kind of "radical" transformation do we need? What nettlesome questions of sexuality do we need to discuss?
Hard to say, obviously. [For what it's worth, I think the late cardinal had a point about cases of abandonment.] But I'm not the one who regards the late Cardinal Archbishop of Milan as a prophet-father and am offering him as such to the whole Church.
But be assured the progressives have noted the praise of Cardinal Martini, who was also a brother in arms with the late Cardinal Bernardin, too.
3. Escaping The Papal Personality Cult.
Oh, that's right. It's meaningless. The left is composed entirely--to the last one of them--of brain-damaged idiots who lack even fundamental reading comprehension. Thick as a Brick wall (of Tamlands)?
How do I know this? Because the Pope's Conservative Cheering Section insists that it must be so. And they've deployed the circular Catholic firing squad to address those who argue differently. Sorry, no. I disagree with the left vehemently, but I don't for a moment believe they are hallucinatory idiots.
This brings me to my final, and most painful, observation: conservative Catholicism in America is a papal personality cult. Full stop.
I know this, because I was a member in good standing, too. And that was the root cause of my crisis, when I took a clear look at it with the timely assistance of the Holy Spirit. My faith was too-papalcentric, to coin an adjective. So when the Pope began to sound weird and set off alarm bells, I couldn't process it. Seeing all my brothers and sisters in arms eating it all up made it worse. Crisis bad.
OK, not quite that bad.
What broke it? Prayer, a timely suggestion from my Anglican brother by another mother, and a smarmy bit of chutzpa from progressive religious educational theorist Thomas Groome in the recent NBC story on the subject of conservative discontent.
"I think it will be a real test for conservative Catholics," he said. "They have always pointed the finger, quoting the pope for the last 35 years. Suddenly, will they stop quoting the pope. It'll be a good test of whether or not they're really Catholics."
OK. The man most responsible for mis-educating American Catholics into a frothy Episcopalianism over the past thirty years and a gent who happily told the Popes to stuff it on women's ordination starts getting huffily ultramontane? My initial reaction was "f--k you." That's a quote. Yes, I need to work on my language. But I'd still argue it's the right reflex, although I'd change the wording. A man who has been arguing against Catholicism itself now tells me I have to salute and regurgitate confused and confusing language from papal interviews like they were the Sunday Gospel? I'll pass, Tommy me boy-o.
No, I decline to make an oblation on the altar of the Pope's informal malapropisms (or, if you prefer, malapapalisms). Nor do I care for the proffered spiritual fatherhood of a man (Martini) whose vision is not remotely mine. My problem with this Pope's words is that they are sometimes confusing and out of step with Catholicism. Groome's problems with previous popes was that they were all too clear and consonant with it. False equivalence.
And the horse you rode in on is out there waiting for you, too, TG. Don't let the door hit you where the Good Lord split you.
The final piece of the puzzle was Deal Hudson's execution of the wounded whose confusion was outlined in a recent Washington Post article.
His response? Sit down and shut up--he's a Jesuit theologian and embodiment of the New Evangelization, and you're not. Quod erat demonstrandum.
That's not an argument--it is a declaration of personal righteousness, of one's superior understanding in the face of benightedness. I also bleakly enjoyed the dismissal of previous papal evangelism in the "embodiment" reference. In defense of the Pope, that's hugely unfair, and it puts impossible expectations on the shoulders of a 77 year old Argentinian Jesuit, folks.
And yet, this response was celebrated. Yikes. Because it is a pitch-perfect example of how a personality cult responds to deviationism. Again, yikes. The bottom line is this: troubling statements don't cease to be troubling simply because the one uttering them is the Pope. If Pope Francis is angling toward a less-hierarchical, more horizontal Church (and that's what he says he wants), then this is even more true.
But I agree with Dr. Hudson on one point: I, too, no longer want to be called a conservative Catholic.
To the extent I want a label, it will be explored in the final installment. Which will be shorter than this one.
After all, it could hardly be longer.