A Coda

I was home in Florida for Christmas with the entirety of my family.  On Christmas morning, I went to the 10 a.m. Mass with my parents at the the Catholic parish I had grown up in and was confirmed in, San Jose.  San Jose had been through a lot since I left home twenty years ago.  The guy who was the pastor during the end of my time there (and who, parenthetically but importantly, had been the assistant to the bishop prior to his arrival) had stayed on for years and slowly but surely ran the place into the ground.  This culminated in the pastor literally running off with the music director, with whom he had been apparently having an long-term affair.

My parents left San Jose several years before the final collapse, in favor of Holy Family, led at the time by Fr. Fay.  Fr. Fay had, and has, the reputation as the "turn around" guy in the diocese; the person who is sent to troubled parishes to fix them up and make them strong.  And he had done that in spades at Holy Family--built a school, grown enormously, put in place a laundry list of programs.  When I would come home and go to church with my folks, I was always impressed with Fr. Fay.  He seemed like exactly what you want in a priest--personable, approachable, practical, loving.  A bit too conservative politically for my tastes, true, but this is the Bible Belt and perhaps to be expected.

Anyway, when San Jose collapsed, it wasn't a tremendous surprise that the turn around guy was pulled out of Holy Family in favor of his next turn around project.  He was replaced at Holy Family with a classic example of the "little monster" priests that Pope Francis routinely complains about--young, arrogant, doctrinaire.  It didn't take long for my mom to get fed up, and with Fr. Fay now at our old parish, it made sense to just head back to San Jose.  Mom says that every week she sees a new face that used to be at Holy Family, so she was not alone in her calculation.

I don't know Fr. Fay at all--my only interaction with him was the handful of times I had been home and gone to church with my folks.  But I was shocked to see him on Christmas morning.  He had the look of a man who was exhausted to the bone, as if someone had hollowed out his insides and left only the shell behind.  He had the look of someone who was gutting it out because he had to, and was making it through only force of will and habit.  He had the look of a person who had been given one too many turn around projects, and this last one had broken him (notwithstanding the fact that, and maybe even because, the last one had been just as successful as the previous ones).  

The phrase that kept echoing through my mind during the service was "no good deed goes unpunished."  Here was a guy who was talented and capable, and that talent and capability was rung out of him until he was a twisted rag.  I felt deeply sorry for Fr. Fay, a good man who was in many ways exploited, used up, and spit out by the church.  The fact that he would likely tell you he welcomed it, that he saw it as the fulfillment of his vocation, does not make it any less true or less wrong.  He was used up to cover the dysfunction of his fellow priests, and the church as a whole, and because there were precious few priests who were capable in the way he was capable.


I've made a decision to stop writing about the Catholic Church, at least for a long while.  My life as a Christian is moving in a different direction, and I want to be forward-looking rather than backward-looking.  Nor do I want to be someone who feels the need to justify his decisions and course of action by flogging on the place from which I come.  I don't think it is healthy, for me or for anyone else.  It's time to put my hand to the plow and not look back, if I might paraphrase the Gospels.

But before I do that, I want to say my peace.

I think the Catholic Church is headed for very turbulent weather in the next generation or so.  For the last thirty years or so, many Catholics (especially of a more conservative orientation) have had a good bit of schadenfreude watching the difficulties the Mainline Protestant churches have experienced.  Well, that hurricane (which I think has mostly passed through the Mainline, at least here in the U.S.) is taking dead aim at the Catholic Church, and the outer edge is already making landfall.

When the storm does hit in full, it is going to be at least as bad as what the Mainline experienced, and if I had to bet money I would put it on being worse.  And the reason I think it very well might be worse boils down to two related issues: (1) the clergy class of the Catholic Church is deeply broken and dysfunctional (far moreso than the Mainline clergy were at a similar point in time, from my point of view); and (2) the centralization of power means that they will have to bear the brunt of the storm alone.   Folks like Fr. Fay are rare, but folks like Fr. Fay have covered a multitude of sins in the day-to-day life of the Catholic Church.  But there are very few Fr. Fays in the pipeline, not nearly enough to deal with the problems that exist now, let alone (as I expect) a significant upswing in difficulties and challenges. 

What kinds of challenges?  Well, one way or the other the status quo on sexuality is unsustainable.  You cannot have a church which says that men with a "deep seated homosexual orientation" cannot be priests when a majority of the existing clergy fit into that category (to the extent that category is even intelligible in the first place).  You cannot have a church that has spared no expense in spending its political and social capital defending a position on birth control that the overwhelming majority of the people in the pews (on whose behalf, in theory, this capital is being expended) think is daft and are actively and publicly ignoring.  You cannot in 2017 take the position that only men can exercise leadership roles and still be taken seriously by the broad middle of a Western population.  Something is going to have to give--either there will be a real concerted effort to get everyone on board with the official positions (necessarily alienating a majority of your existing membership and a significant slice of your clergy), or you are going to have to charge course (necessarily alienating a different, albeit I think smaller, slice of your membership and clergy corps).

All of this is on top of, but practically related to, the fact that the Catholic Church has a host of operational challenges.  Parish life is very weak in many places, and will be made weaker by bull-in-a-china-shop style parish consolidations.  The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging young people.  The quality of seminarians, even putting aside their political and theological orientations, is often questionable; that the quantity is insufficient is beyond dispute.  Social outreach messages and priorities are muddled, contested, and often put in opposition to positions on sexuality questions--as shown in no place more clearly than the incoherent response of the U.S. Catholic Bishops to Donald Trump in 2016.  And they no longer have the kind of reflexive Catholic identity, which would make leaving the Catholic Church unthinkable, to fall back on.

On a certain level, I think Pope Francis sees the storm coming.  The problem with Pope Francis, and the corresponding meme of "don't worry, Papa Francis will fix everything," is in my mind three fold.  First, he is paralyzed by his experience as a Jesuit provincial.  His take-away from that experience was that he was too high-handed and unilateral in dealing with his fellow Jesuits, and he is determined not to make the same mistake again--he said so in his America magazine interview.  And, if the Catholic clergy as a whole in 2016 was as strong, self-confident, talented, and clear-minded as the Argentine Jesuits in 1976, then he would be right.  But the clergy corps is none of those things.  So much of what Pope Francis's reform efforts boil down to is him haranguing senior clergy into sucking less.  That's not good enough when the center is collapsing and many folks are running around desperately to protect his little piece of turf.  I think things are actually worse than Pope Francis thinks they are, and so his medicine is not strong enough for the task.

Second, and I think this is related, Pope Francis is old-school in all the wrong ways.  He is almost as retro on gender issues as the most dyed-in-the-wool conservative, and so he can't envision the kinds of changes that would really move the needle for Westerners that are jumping ship.  But, more importantly, he sees his job first and foremost in terms of the institution of the Catholic Church.  The "softly, softly" approach to reform is necessary to keep all of the institutional actors on board the boat, but it neglects the fact that a larger number of non-institutional persons are falling off the side.  Pope Francis doesn't really see this, because the calculus is still framed primarily in terms of the institution, not the people.  As, again, he said in that interview, despite his (I believe heart-felt) talk of valuing the smell of the sheep and going to the peripheries, he is still too much a "son of the Church" to see the ways that the Church is its own worst enemy.

Finally, and we need to be honest here, the strongest and most self-confident elements of the Catholic Church right now are all on the right hand side of the ledger.  The progressive side was hopelessly defanged and compromised by the JPII/Benedict era.  The center, represented in many ways by folks like Fr. Fay, is collapsing.  All that is left, and all that might be left, is the EWTNs and Opus Dei's and Dwight Longeneckers of the world.  Those groups are certainly not without their profound dysfunctionality and problems (not to mention their, in my view, in many cases abhorrent viewpoints), but they have an energy and vitality that other parts of the Church don't have in a large-scale way.  If and when the winds really start to blow, those groups have the strongest foundations, and that is a bad sign for those who think serious change is necessary.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Pope Francis is the Gorbachev of the Catholic Church--aware enough to see the problem, but not decisive enough, or not willing to step outside the basic paradigm enough, to really fix the problem.  He might be successful in ripping off the band-aids that have been covering over problems, but I am not certain he can heal the underlying wounds.  And, we can never forget, he is 80 years old.  At some point, he is going to die, and unless he is able to utterly remake the clergy in his image, I think things are going to quickly snap back to the JPII/Benedict formula.

What is tragic about all of this is that there is an enormous well of talented, dedicated people in the Catholic Church who could be tapped to help fix these problems.  But all of that talent lacks the one thing that truly matters in the Catholic Church--ordination.  If you are not ordained, then ultimately you cannot do anything in the Catholic Church unless or until someone who is ordained allows you to do that thing.  That means that all of this lay talent can never be employed to fix the problems in the clergy class, because the clergy class acts as a gatekeeper on any lay action.  And if the core problem is found in the clergy class, then all of this lay talent is wasted.

That's why I am deeply skeptical and sanguine about all of Pope Francis's talk about decentralization.  If the core problem is the clergy class as a whole, then moving power from a dysfunctional Vatican bureaucracy to an equally dysfunctional body like the U.S. Bishops' Conference doesn't move the ball forward at all.  The only decentralization that will help is a decentralization that facilitates real lay participation and decision-making to remove the single point of failure that is the clergy class.  Frankly, giving the parishoners at places like San Jose or Holy Family some vehicle to get rid of these toxic clergy who are destroying their common life is infinitely more impactful on the life of the Church than which bureaucratic body gets to write documents that no one really reads anyway.  And there is absolutely no indication that anything like that is being contemplated.

I say none of this with malice or glee.  I wish, with every fiber of my being, that I believed that fair weather were ahead for the Catholic Church, and that the Francis Revolution would being halycon days to come.  But I don't believe that, in large measure because I think that the Catholic clergy corps is teetering on the brink of implosion, and that is going to bring much of the Catholic Church down with it.  And I surely don't say that with any malice or glee--some of these people are my friends.  Indeed, part of me feels guilty that I am looking to jump ship to avoid the hurricane at the moment the hurricane has passed through the Mainline--it feels almost opportunistic.  But, I've got to call it as I see it, and that's how I see it.

The thing that seeing Fr. Fay brought into focus is that the problems of the Catholic clergy corps are bigger than the sexuality stuff, though that in many ways is the point of origin.  Right now, the Catholic Church is being run by a power plant that has about 40 years of deferred maintenance behind it, and it is starting to break down, as machines with massive maintenance back-logs tend to do.  And it is going to be stressed by the storm that is on its way.  I fear that it is going to lose power, and maybe for a long time.  And that breaks my heart.            


I hope you still plan to blog about Christianity, even if you don't blog about Catholicism. I'd miss your writing. I know you have/had a blog about video games, but I haven't played a video game since Mario Cart 64.

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