A Third Future?
The Future of the Institutional Church
The Church and Simple and Ecologically Sane Living
New Lay Christian Communities
Our story of Ivan Illich has made it clear that Christianity is rooted in the Incarnation as a supremely personal event which allows us to relate to God and to each other in a new and deeper manner. If we take this principle in hand and view the daily life of the church in the light of it, what do we see? Let’s start with the Mass as the supreme reenactment of the death and resurrection of Jesus which is meant to allow us to enter more deeply into those mysteries. When we go to church on Sunday, however, all too often what greets us is a very impersonal event, and yet so familiar has its impersonality become that we often insufficiently register the disparity between what we experience and what ought to be.
Sunday Mass can, in fact, be a very solitary and anonymous place where we are surrounded by strangers who are destined to remain strangers even when the handshake of peace is exchanged, for there are no mechanisms in place that would insure or even encourage people to actually get to know each other. The Mass is ended and people depart, sometimes depressed, but hardly conscious that their sadness comes from a failure of Mass to be a truly personal encounter.
The priest often suffers his own form of alienation and loneliness. He is locked into an ever more demanding round of ceremonies which do not necessarily bring him into genuine personal contact with the people he serves. He certainly has little time, energy or inclination after this round of mandatory activities to walk the streets of his parish, visiting the homes of parishioners and non-parishioners alike, trying to forge some kind of bond with them. On Sunday he stands in front of the congregation, often delivers routinized homilies that go on and on, and which are received by a passive people which has no way to indicate what it really thinks about them. The priest, himself, if often treated by the bishop in an impersonal manner, moved here and there at the bishop’s whim as if he does not have personal ties that have grown up in the community he has served, ties that almost inevitably develop, despite the impersonal nature of so many parish activities. Should the number of priests decline due to all sorts of complex reasons hidden under the label of a crisis in vocations there is no need for the bishop to trouble himself to try to determine what is actually causing this problem. All he has to do is to import priests from other parts of the world irregardless of whether they are needed more in their own country than here, or whether they can truly relate to the people they are called to serve in this country. What is important is that the slots for priestly ministers are filled. In this way the bishop acts like some sort of distant administrator moving his personnel around with not much thought to what they might think, still less to what the laity might think. If the priest might occasionally meet with his bishop, the laity rarely do. They have no channel by which they can indicate how they think the parish should be organized, or even how the money they contribute should be spent. The result of this kind of impersonality is that a priest who is fruitfully serving his community can be moved while a priest who is damaging his community by his own personal problems can remain in place year after year.
These everyday examples, familiar to everyone, clearly illustrate what Illich had in mind. The most personal event where Jesus gives His life for us and rises again that we may have new life has become buried under impersonal routines. The great encounter with Jesus has been reduced to the formalistic, “Do you go to church on Sunday?” often rather smugly asked as if it is the touchstone of being a good Catholic. This is a question that flows not from a concern about the faith, itself, but from a sacred institutionalism in which criminalized rules have overtaken the primacy of a personal encounter with Jesus. Instead of the institutional church asking “Do you go to church on Sunday?” it should question itself why so many people, especially young people, don’t want to go to Mass, and what can be done to remove the obstacles to their attendance. It is hypocritical for the church as an institution to threaten people for not going to Mass when it refuses to accept its own responsibility for deforming and impersonalizing the whole experience. The criminalization of the Eucharist is a serious sign of the depersonalization of the church. To insist on Mass attendance, without looking at what that attendance is like, is to hold the institution made sacred unaccountable. If I were to invite my family to Sunday dinner so they could be with their parents and brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and they didn’t want to come, my response should not be to threaten to disinherit them, but to ask why they don’t want to join me at the table.
The personal of the Gospels has been debased into the impersonal of the institution. But the institution, instead of addressing this problem calls itself holy and refuses to look at its own faults.
I would like to examine three of the many possible futures of the Catholic Church. Two of them emerged in the years during and after the Second Vatican Council. Let’s call them the future of the ultra-conservative attitude, and the future of the ultra-liberal attitude. Using the word ultra indicates that I am going to try to describe attitudes at the extreme ends of a spectrum of opinion in the church. The vast majority of the church, I feel, falls in the more moderate portion of that spectrum, but since both the ultra-conservative attitude and the ultra-liberal attitude are so visible and vocal they have an influence out of proportion to the number of adherence they have, and thus these attitudes are worth examining. By saying ultra conservative attitude and ultra liberal attitude, I am trying to make it clear that what is at stake in what follows is not this or that individual, but certain qualities that we ought to focus our attention on.
The ultra-conservatives, that is, those who have a high dose of the ultra-conservative attitude, value faith above all things, and this is their great merit, but they confuse that faith with the structures through which they have first encountered it, and this is their great error. The conviction that is generated by their faith, which is often genuine, migrates outward and convinces them that their various theological, philosophical and socio-economic convictions are equally inspired. A hierarchical view of the world comes natural to them where they, themselves, are to be found on the upper reaches of the pyramid and therefore closer to God and destined to rule. Their faith is mixed with righteousness. The future they propose is one in which they are firmly in control. God speaks to them, they feel, in a special way. They are the elect. Just as they obey God and those higher on the pyramid than themselves – relatively few and carefully selected – they expect to be obeyed – by many and without hesitation. The future that the ultra-conservatives hold up is this conviction of election which the rest of the church ought to come to believe in. Faith is preserved, but as something deeply encapsulated in protective armor. The human institutions of the church have been sacralized, the Pope, bishops and priests enhaloed. The laity live in the reflected glory of the hierarchy.
The future the ultra-conservatives present is a church purged of dissident priests, religious and academics, and even the disobedient masses. The poor and the weak, and those without any special influence are to be relegated to a corner as long as they keep silent, and to be made the objects of a charity coming from on high, a charity even coming through the soiled hands of the unjust social structures that stole from them to begin with. This kind of church has no need to be bigger than the number of the elect who will march with their banners held high and fight battles as their leaders direct. In such a church all power remains at the top of the pyramid. How can the sinful masses really expect to question God’s chosen who gather in small murmuring groups to decide what is best, and who is worthy to join their august discussions? Tricked out in fancy robes and geegaws of Orders and honors, they proceed to celebrate the sacred rites which are particularly theirs, dispensing favors and alms as befitting the true nobility. This would be a gilded church in which benefactors could always be found to help finance new cathedrals, and high couture finery for their celebrants. Alms would be dispensed from the steps of these magnificent buildings to the poor, but the structures that made them poor and keep them poor would never be discussed. The liturgy would regain its former splendor. Latin and polyphony would rise from the ashes, miters and crosiers would be resplendently bejeweled. Clerics would draw further away from the masses, discrete veils descending, shielding them from too prying eyes, their notorious crimes of the past forgotten, and the clerical culture in which they were embedded never discussed. The shreds of power, once shared with the laity, would be withdrawn, the church once again securely identified with the hierarchy, the Creed would be chanted, but the sounds of it would only be faintly heard outside the cathedral walls. The vocation crisis would be assailed with prayers, and the importation of third world priests, and even resolved by a flood of movement priests. Genuine discussion of the serious problems that the church faces would be avoided, for that smacks of democracy and goes against the grain of a clergy endowed by God with special power. The laity would sit inertly in the pews, unaccustomed to question and unable to imagine, if they did, what they could actually do.
The hierarchy for this church would be like a glittering spectacle on a stage set too far away to hear what the actors are saying. The future of the ultra-conservatives is a future for them, and not for the whole church. It is a future in which they act out their religious fantasies and imagine that they can somehow compel God to take part in them. The ultra-conservatives defend the faith by building ramparts around it, and restrict access to it as if it were a precious treasure that could be plundered. They surround it with a priesthood that interprets it to the masses while limiting access to it lest it be profaned. They defend it by insisting on the sacredness of the old forms in which it had once been presented as if those forms were an essential part of it. Thus, they tend to be backward-looking rather than forward-looking, detail-oriented rather than excited by new possibilities. They confuse their defense of the faith with their own aggressive tendencies, and thus find ready excuses to lash out at those who disagree with them, labeling them as dissenters and heretics, and even deluding themselves that God has commanded them to crush the unbelievers.
The faith which at its heart is a living and loving personal relationship with Jesus becomes flash-frozen in a certain moment of time, in a certain cultural expression, and anyone who would presume to change these forms is branded as one who would destroy the faith, itself. Thus, the loss of Latin or Gregorian chant or the details of preconciliar liturgical usages are lamented, not because one would actually work to renew the Latin language so the people could understand it, or teach Gregorian chant to the ordinary church-goers, but because it embodies a certain feeling, a certain connection to the faith, a feeling that remains bound up in those forms. In much the same way, the pronouncements of the popes of a certain era embodying a certain mentality are cherished and trumpeted while other pronouncements are conveniently forgotten.
Change is seen as the enemy of the timeless treasures of the faith, and those who approach the faith have all sorts of adventitious cultural burdens heaped upon them. This concretization of the faith in particular cultural forms takes on a myriad of shapes. The pope is treated like a mystical oracle whose every utterance ought to be preserved as if nothing of his own personality and limitations is present in them. His very garments are felt to be suffused with holiness, and therefore worthy to be cut up as relics. Even liturgical excesses like the pope’s riding litter, or sedia gestatoria, in this atmosphere can perdure for centuries. More pernicious than this kind of dress-up is the conviction that the church is the pope most of all, and then the bishops by the light of his reflected glory, and then the priests, now with that light having grown dimmer, then the religious, the light dimmer still, and finally the laity dwelling in quasi-obscurity except for those select lay people who are the self-appointed defenders of the faith, or benefactors to the clergy and are to be rewarded with fanciful titles of nobility.
In many ways the ultra-conservatives, at least in modern times since the turn of the 20th century, can be said to have given birth to their polar opposites, the ultra-liberals, or those imbued with a high degree of the ultra-liberal attitude. The ultra-conservatives, insistent on rigid and sacrilized forms, and especially their inclination to ally themselves with political figures noted for their authoritarian ways and self-aggrandizement, engender in those subjected to them a thirst for genuine social justice. These more liberal souls wake up to the fact that the behavior of their ecclesiastical superiors, far from being divinely sanctioned, is in ill accord with the concern for the poor demanded by the Gospels. Therefore attempts are made to bring these Gospel values to bear on the pressing problems of the world. These liberals – and here it should be clear we have not yet begun to speak of the ultra-liberals – begin to see that the Vatican diplomats and Cardinals, who all too comfortably glide along the polished marble corridors of power, can actually be an impediment to bringing true justice to the poor because they reinforce with their murmurings, and indeed, their very presence, the social structures used to keep the poor in their place. All in all this thirst for social justice must be marked up to the liberal’s credit. The ultra-conservative focus on how traditional forms contain and protect the faith has blinded them to how human these forms often are, and how they carry with them a shadow side. Once the liberals begin to wake up to the fact that much of what is being imposed on them in the name of faith are poorly gilded human realities, then they are to that degree liberated from the stasis of hierarchical thinking. They can look with new eyes at both the church and the world.
This process of liberation from the prison of old human form is not, of course, restricted to the world of social justice, but extends to Christian philosophy and theology, themselves. The dry-as-dust scholastic textbooks are now seen as the intellectual counterparts to the outmoded forms of dress and the antiquated liturgical ceremonies. Once this process of liberation from the blindness of ecclesiastical forms, however, has begun, it will develop a certain internal momentum, and it will be fueled by a tremendous surge of repressed emotion, for it is one thing to suffer for the sake of divine things, but quite another to discover you have been suffering at the hands of men who have wrongly cloaked themselves with sacred powers, indeed, to discover that you have suffered at the hands of a half brain-dead institution that is unconscious of and unable to register the pain it has caused you.
This process of liberation from accidental human forms inevitably reaches a critical threshold in which it begins to be applied to the mysteries of the faith, themselves. If these impulses towards reform are subject to the genuine rule of faith they can lead to new fruitful formulations of the faith which make it more readily understandable to people today. But if this process of reformulation is subverted by the resentment of past wrongs and, indeed, a whole stew of unconscious attitudes and emotions, uncritically embraced academic forms, and intellectual egoism, then it can be transformed into an attack on faith, itself, as a way to revenge oneself on those who have caused you harm and who go about proclaiming they do everything they do for the sake of the faith. It is here where some of the genuine liberal impulses are converted into ultra-liberal attitudes. These ultra-liberals take a necessary liberation from soul-stifling forms and turn it into a liberation from faith, itself. Convinced that the ultra-conservatives have enveloped the faith in human wrappings, they commence to unwrap it, and end up with a pile of discarded and crumpled papers, and proclaim that the vaunted gift box of faith was, in fact, found empty, and now ought to be filled with something else, something which the ultra-liberals will supply out of their own wisdom.
If the future that the ultra-conservatives offer us is a cramped and constrained prison for the human spirit under the guise that that will somehow allow us to serve the divine better, the future of the ultra-liberals is equally unpalatable. Indeed, the ultra-liberals are in some ways worse off than the ultra-conservatives who, if they have not succumbed to a purely worldly spirit, or given themselves completely over to climbing the ecclesiastical ladder, can still be motivated by faith even though it be like an ember under the ashes, or even a genuine flame, but locked in an iron cage so its light and warmth barely reaches the world outside. The ultra-liberals, however, have painted themselves into a corner. If they are wrong about their nullification of faith, itself, they can hardly expect to build a future for faith on their mistakes. If they are right about the emptiness of faith and its futility, then they have no future, either, for how long can they preach their anti-gospel? And preach it they do. One would have thought, having “discovered” that the central beliefs of Christians were mistaken, these ultra-liberals, often whom are priests, religious and academics in Catholic schools – for here they have received a near-lethal dose of Christian hypocrisy at the hands of church leaders – would find another career, or simply go to the beach, but no. They insist on instructing us in the same superior way as when they were ecclesiastical functionaries. Indeed, some of them insist on remaining in their ecclesiastical positions. Such a strange and paradoxical affair can only be explained by the unconscious emotional driving forces mentioned before. They have liberated themselves from the faith, but will not rest until they have liberated the rest of the church, as well, and converted it to their new gospel, whether it be that of a nondual Christianity that proclaims our innate divinity, or the new cosmology, or some such thing. Their urge to evangelize remains intact, while the content of the Gospel has disappeared. The pain inflicted on them by the ecclesiastical establishment was often very real, and this new evangelization is really meant to address it, assuage it, and even help others to be free of it. But having slipped from a legitimate criticism of the human forms that once embodied the Gospel message to a negation of the Gospel, itself, this new evangelization will have a short shelf life, appealing most of all to those members of the church who have felt the weight of similar forms of oppression, and certainly there is an ample audience here. But it is a rather glaring error to confuse institutional oppression with a proof that Christianity is fundamentally mistaken. That would demand advancing arguments with an intellectual rigor that rarely shows itself. Rather, what the ultra-liberals preach is a more emotional message in which they can strike out at the institutional church, and this is the message that resonates with their audiences. But once these emotions are expressed, how long will it be before it becomes apparent to these audiences that counterfeits are being presented for the faith, itself?
Among the ultra-liberals this loss of belief is not something to be sorely regretted, but is held to be a virtue, a sign of intellectual maturity, and their Catholic past a rite of passage to a place in a more sophisticated academic world of those who no longer believe in childish myths. It would be unthinkable and embarrassing in this world of intellectual peers to hold to one’s former religious convictions, convictions that have now been demonstrated to be wrong, not by reason, but because such beliefs were advanced by a despicable crew of church functionaries. In short, the faith is mistaken because the ultra-conservatives had confused it with their very human agenda, and the feelings of aggrievement and resentment that such a confusion breeds suffuses and even gives birth to an intellectual conviction that it is patently wrong, and one hardly needs to go to the effort to advance arguments against it. A former faith, uncritical but perhaps genuine, has been transmuted by contact with an institutionalized Christianity corrosive to faith into disbelief.
A Third Future
Neither the future of the ultra-conservatives nor that of the ultra-liberals is appealing, nor do I think they make up more than a small minority in the church. Most people, whether clergy, religious or laity, hold to the faith and endure the institution, and they are ill-served both by the institution and its pretensions, and those who now preach an anti-Gospel. There is a third future beyond this polarization. In this third future the institutional church would be subjected to clear-headed rigorous criticism. It certainly needs it. It is a moribund institution trading on faith to keep its standing with people instead of using common sense to deal with the multitude of serious problems that it faces, or better, refuses to face. The leadership of this institution all too often considers itself the church as opposed to the great majority of laity, clergy and religious, but this kind of institutionalism is like a shell game in which the gold of the Gospel is transformed into the dross of human banality, and we are not supposed to notice the difference.
In this future the institution would no longer be confused with the faith, but subject to it. The attention of the whole church would be focused on the Christian mysteries, themselves, without which there would be no Christianity, and despite the sympathy we ought to feel for the multitude of the victims of the institution we cannot let faith, itself, be held hostage to a reaction against the institution which becomes a reaction against faith, itself, and rejects it.
With a genuine conservatism – not the too strident conservatism of the ultra-conservatives – we have to hold to the faith, but in a church where the majority of believers grew up in the faith we cannot assume that the faith is understood in an adult way. We need to examine it and try to fathom what is essential to it, but do this not from the outside, as with some alien thing, but as a treasure of the heart that needs to be set free to shine in all its glory, for this treasure is not an inanimate object, but the living person of Jesus. Indeed, the mysteries of Christianity are not doctrines, but persons.
This third possible future does not have a name, but we could describe it as a loving exploration of the Christian mysteries that goes together with an openness to the true and the good, no matter where they are found, and a conscious effort to explore those mysteries in the lights of the best insights the world has to offer. What we need is a creative fidelity, something that takes a fidelity to the faith that is at the heart of a genuine conservatism, but instead of surrounding it with ramparts, allows and encourages faith to express itself in new ways as the result of new dialogues. This third future is not afraid of the world, nor does it rush to embrace it. It realizes that genuine insights are often wrapped in poor epistemological garments, and only a patient pain-staking effort can remove them from the matrix they are embedded in without damaging them, and allow them to dialogue with faith and illuminate it, and indeed, enrich themselves in the process.
This third future could be seen as a more difficult road than that of the ultra-liberals or the ultra-conservatives, for it demands a higher degree of discrimination and judgment. It tries to separate the wheat from the chaff instead of identifying them, as the ultra-conservatives do when it comes to the church, or rejecting both of them when it comes to the world. The ultra-liberals do quite the opposite, rejecting the wheat and chaff when it comes to the church, and embracing both when it comes to the world. This third future holds onto the faith and searches for the best context in which it can shine forth.
We can summarize the dynamics of the post-conciliar church like this:
On the ultra-conservative side the faith is present, but it has been extended and identified with the sacrilized institution that is treated like it, itself, shares the qualities of faith, and thus the human tends to be treated as divine, and as such can do tremendous damage because it is blind to its faults and hinders us from changing the institution for the better.
When the sacrilized institution is imposed on people they initially accept it under the guise of being the will of God, but when the moment of disillusionment comes, they see the human character of the institution and act to protect themselves from it and to try to reform it. Then we can see a genuine progressive movement that can achieve many positive results in the field of social justice and elsewhere. Sometimes, regrettably, this process of liberation from the institution becomes excessive. Then the result can be a rejection of faith and its replacement with something else.
Neither approach provides a viable way to the future. The first tends to trap us in the past, while the second, when carried to the point of an ultra-progressivism, frees us from the false institutionalism of the past at the price of faith, itself. What we need is to be firmly centered in the faith, and to put that faith in a new human context. This should be a consciously created context to avoid new projections of the sacred on the human, and its guiding principle should be the faith, itself, because its whole purpose is to let that faith shine forth more fully. There are many aspects that could come together to make up such a freely chosen context, for whatever is good and true, no matter where it is found, can be part of that context: science, democracy, art, economics, philosophy, the insights of other religious traditions, psychology, etc. But the operative phrase here is that these things must “serve the faith.” It is not at all easy to take psychology, for example, and use it to illuminate the Christian life of prayer, or the development of Christian doctrine. Such a process requires that we carefully examine the psychological instrument we intend to use, and free it from any adventitious formulations that are contrary to faith. Elsewhere I have explored the possibility of a deep Jungian-Christian dialogue, and a contemplative dialogue between Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity.
What I would like to do here is to begin to examine this new context of the faith in terms of what could be called simple and ecologically sane living. We have already seen how conceiving the human institution of the church as a sacred reality greatly hinders our ability to reform it. But there is also another similar force that can hinder it, as well, a kind of internalization of institutionalization in which we have become habituated to living in the midst of massive institutions, and this has eroded away our sense of being able to define ourselves outside of these institutions. We see education, for example, in terms of an elaborate and expensive school system stretching from cradle to grave. What we don’t see is that this mega-institution is our own creation, and is not intrinsically linked to the very personal act of insight and knowledge. We see health care as an ever more expensive and ever more difficult goal to achieve provided by an increasingly high-tech profession. At a certain point our view of health becomes institutionalized. It is what the health profession can do for us rather than the deep wells of health and healing that exist within us.
It is the same kind of internalized institutionalization that paralyzes us in regard to the reform of the church because it is difficult to see that the hope for genuine charity resides not in a globe-stretching institution, but in our own minds and hearts, here and now, wherever we find ourselves. What we need to do to create a new context for the church is to de-institutionalize our thinking not only in regard to the church, itself, but the rest of our lives, as well. Put another way, changing our thinking about the church allows us to change in regard to the other institutions that dominate our lives, and vice versa. What is critical is to achieve this kind of de-institutionalized thinking somewhere in our lives, and let that spark grow and effect other parts of our lives. This process of de-institutionalized thinking unfolds like this: the first and perhaps the most difficult step is that we cannot and should not be defined by any institution, no matter how big and powerful it is. Then we need to engage in radical thinking by looking at the very nature of the thing we would like to change by going back to its roots. In regard to the church we said it was Jesus and his message of the love of God and each other. If we can achieve a deep and simple vision of this, then we are in a position to say how well does the institutional church correspond to this vision? Does Sunday Mass, for example, really embody that vision? Does the church really reach out, as it should, to others, especially the poor and the unfortunate? And if we genuinely ask ourselves these kinds of questions, how could that same impulse disappear when we look at the rest of our lives? Are schools really serving our children, or the housing industry our need for a roof over our heads, or government the best interest of their citizens? A genuinely reformed church would be a dynamic community that would inevitably apply Jesus’ commandments of love wherever it found itself. And one of the closest areas to apply such a vision, and perhaps one of the most difficult because it is so close, is our own lifestyles. Is the modern consumer lifestyle really in accord with Gospel values, or do we need to apply our radical thinking to the basic building blocks of our lives, jobs, schools, houses, transportation, electrical power, etc.? Do we need to find a way to make time in our lives for prayer and study and reflection? Do we need to live in such a way that it becomes conceivable, however difficult to achieve, that the rest of the world can afford to live like us?
While it is true that a certain passivity infects the church due to its excessive institutional structures, this is a passivity that can be overcome. We see, for example, many examples of what could be called direct action where Christians, inspired by their faith, look at the world around them and roll up their sleeves and get to work. Fine examples can be found at Casa Juan Diego, a Catholic Worker House in Houston, which welcomes migrants from Mexico and Central America, and at the Franciscan Worker in Salinas, California, which has extensive ministry to the poor and homeless. Then there are the many initiatives found around the world where priests and religious often teamed with lay people, have simply gone ahead to meet the most pressing needs of the people around them. This kind of initiative and direct action is needed in all parts of the church.
Our focus here, however, is more on creating a simple and more sustainable context for the Christian community, and here good examples are much less abundant. But there is a deep, underlying connection between direct action for the poor and this kind of simple living. At a certain point it becomes almost inevitable that those engaged in direct action have to pause and reflect on the causes for the misery they are seeing in the individuals around them, and those causes are often structural, that is, whole institutions and social structures that have lost their sense of their original purpose. Ultimately direct action has to lead to new forms of living, not only for the poor, but for all of us.
The Catholic church has a rich heritage of simple living from Jesus, himself, who had nowhere to lay his head, to the sharing of the first Christian community, onto the desert fathers and mothers and St. Francis of Assisi. In modern times we have a sense of the need to return to the land found in Vincent McNabb, and Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker. Therefore a modern sense of simple and ecologically sane living which is so congruent to the Gospel message ought to be a vital component of the new context for the faith today.
But when we look around, we see that it is a message that is barely heard in the church today. The American Catholic church as a church of immigrants had to struggle against poverty and prejudice, but now large segments of it have become increasingly affluent with its members living lives indistinguishable from the rest of society as measured by income, housing, cars, and so forth. And Catholics are just as enmeshed in our major institutions.
But if a certain disengagement from institutionalized thinking is the most promising avenue to reform the church, it is also the best way to tackle the other intractable problems we face as a country. There is a certain irony, therefore, in that Catholics, and indeed much of the nation along with them, have worked hard to achieve an unprecedented affluence only to discover that they are faced with serious problems which are resistant to normal institutional thinking. If we take attempts at simple living as indications that we are de-institutionalizing our thinking, when we turn to the church we see that this kind of de-institutionalization is just beginning.
Hopefully we are well beyond the stage where we can be expected to admire conspicuous consumption in the church. Instead it increasingly comes across as distasteful and immature excess. Take, for example, the behavior of William Murphy, the bishop of Rockville Center, who dispossessed six old sisters from the third floor of their convent so he could take over the 5,000 square foot area, spend $800,000 renovating it, including oriental rugs and a special wine cooler, in order to turn it into his own luxury quarters, complete with the “Cardinal’s suite” ready, no doubt, if some high dignitary of the church should come visiting. All this took place at the same time as the diocesan Catholic charity had to terminate its home-care project for indigent mentally ill people because of a short-fall in funding, equivalent to what Murphy was spending on his luxurious carpets and appointments. ( National Catholic Reporter, Oct., 25, 2002, p.3 ) Not only is this kind of over-consumption antithetical to Gospel values, but it shows how far the role of the bishop in the institutional church has become distorted when the bishop can behave with impunity in matters like this.
Murphy is not the only bishop in which we find this kind of egregious fiscal unaccountability. Adam Maida, the cardinal archbishop of Detroit, had a predilection of high finance done in secret. He invested $40 million in church funds in building a library and think tank complex in Washington, DC, to honor John Paul II, a project which became an underutilized white elephant. Then he decided, without consultation with his priests or people, to turn the former diocesan seminary into a luxury hotel with all the trimmings, including a 27-hole golf course with the first nine holes of the course named Matthew, the second nine, Mark, and the final nine, Luke. The hotel was financed by anonymous investors whom the archbishop steadfastly refused to name, while at the same time leaving the impression he had no accountability to the church community of Detroit since the money was coming from elsewhere. ( National Catholic Reporter, March, 9, 2007, p.15 ) Just the incongruity between this kind of luxury elitist thinking and the Gospels, and the predilection Christians should have for the poor and unfortunate should have been enough to derail such a project.
Clearly this kind of unaccountability flourishes in an institution that has grown away from the people it is meant to serve, and we find another noyorius example in the bishops’ reaction to the sexual abuse crisis. Even if we leave aside the most unfortunate aspect of the whole affair, which was the sheltering of abusers and the failure to reach out to the victims of abuse and their families, looking at the matter solely from a financial point of view, the bishops in the U.S. have paid out more than 2 billion dollars on lawsuits that some informed commentators believe would never have ended up in the courts if the victims had been treated in a fair and just manner to begin with. ( National Catholic Reporter, Nov., 23, 2007, p.7 )
In other parts of the church, however, we do, in fact, see a growing interest in ecology and sustainable living, but since we are so used to institutional thinking and acting, it is not a surprise that some of the attempts at simple living end up being what could be called green institutionalism. Take, for example, the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Michigan, who in a quest for green sustainability as a moral mandate for the future, renovated their 376,000 square foot Mother House which housed 240 sisters. This renovation included an elaborate system of geothermal wells, a constructed wetlands and grey water system, the recycling of many of the materials of the old building, and so forth. But the good sisters spent $56 million doing this, which means that each person living there incurred a debt of $233,000 and that is in regard to an already existing building. ( National Catholic Reporter, April, 23, 2004, p.12 )
If we imagine that this community, like many U.S. communities of sisters, suffers from a decline in vocations and a growing number of elderly sisters, then ecological sustainability has come at the price of economic insustainability. The headline under which an article about these sisters appeared read, “Blue Nuns” become “green” leaders, but could be easily extended to read: “The Blue Nuns become green leaders floating on a sea of red ink.” We are face-to-face with an institutional sustainability in which various green features are, indeed, incorporated in the building, but the institutional mentality remains intact. We can presume that the good sisters helped where they could, but professional contractors did the bulk of the work at professional prices, and the heart of simple and sustainable living in which we try to act directly and personally to meet our basic needs suffered in the process.
The field of green building, itself, outside of any connection with religious organizations, is littered with examples of the same kind of institutional or over-consumption patterns, for example, in the form of enormous solar systems that never require the occupant of the house to think making due with less energy, or giant homes built by green building contractors which supposedly showcase strawbale building and so forth.
The kind of sustainability we need is a hands-on one in which we contemplate and actually attempt to build our own home, generating our own electricity from the sun or wind, growing our own food, baking our own bread, etc. Happily we can find examples of this kind of simple living in the church, as well. Sister Paula Gonzales with the $5,000 proceeds of a second-hand sale began to turn an old chicken coop into a solar home and model of sustainable living. The total bill was $16,000. ( National Catholic Reporter, March, 20, 1992, p.21 )
The Jesuit Al Fritsch drew a clear line between talking about ecology and rolling up one’s sleeves, and getting our hands dirty. He founded Appalachia – Science in the Public Interest, and together with staff and volunteers, undertook a wide array of simple and sustainable projects, discovering by doing what worked and what didn’t. It is this kind of hands-on simple living that has the most promise for the future, and for providing a new context for the faith.
The impersonal nature of much of modern life, including life in the church, aspirations for a deeper interior life, and a sheer lack of time in our busy world all come together to make people dream of creating new Christian communities where these issues would be addressed. But it is a difficult journey from the dream to the reality, and it appears that few people find a way to come together to form some sort of new community. The obstacles are indeed formidable: the difficulty of finding like-minded people who are free for such a venture, the economics involved, especially if such a community is conceived in typical suburban fashion, mortgages and all, and practical questions about how such a community would be structured and would go about supporting itself. Yet it is worth entertaining such dreams because they tell us something important about how faith could find alternatives to its old institutional context.
While there are many possible forms of new Christian communities, I find an especial appeal in imagining such a community where a life closer to the earth would be one of its foundational principles. This kind of community would not automatically try to transfer our ubiquitous suburban way of living to community life, or imagine that it must imitate the traditional forms religious life took in the past. It would try, instead, to slip loose from the daunting grip of institutional thinking, and build a community that would have its foundations in direct contact with nature and living a simple and sustainable life. This would be a community that would actually undertake to analyze its basic needs and try to figure out how these needs could be met by the community members, themselves. It would be the community that would build the buildings it needs with its own hands, cultivate the land, work to provide water, fuel, and power, and to do all this without incurring the large debts that from the beginning would shape the way the community must live in order to service them. A community that succeeded in forming itself in this fashion would at the same time would create a deep common bond among its members, free itself from the omni-present burden of our society which imagines that almost everything must be continually purchased from others, and give the members the time, and space once this initial work is done to reflect on what kind of life they wish to lead.
How feasible is this? Can we really expect ordinary people to be able to act in this fashion? It is entirely within the ability of most people to acquire these kinds of skills. And where will the initial money come from for such ventures in terms of land, material and equipment? First of all, the amount of money is not as large as one would first imagine. What is at stake is not the creation of a suburban development using high-priced contractors, but finding a piece of undeveloped rural land which can be either purchased or secured by some sort of land trust or other arrangement. The kind of capable adult people who would come together for such a project would already have some economic resources, and the church at large has others if it could ever see the wisdom of aiding such a community. Religious orders, for example, often have underutilized land that could be leased to such a community, and the interaction between the old community and the new could be fruitful for both of them.
Certainly what we are talking about is a simple life that demands physical labor, but not as much as one might first imagine. But it is also a life that could yield a rich harvest of physical and economic freedom. Imagine a life with no pressing debts that demand constant work outside the community. Imagine the freedom to build the buildings we need, chop our wood, bake our bread, teach our children, care for one another, and have time for prayer and study. This is not a quixotic attempt to return to a vanished rural past, but rather, an experiment about how to go forward into the future and discover a simpler and more sustainable way of living that is better for the earth and for ourselves, and hopefully within reach in various forms for everyone on the planet.
What would make such a community a genuine Christian community? That would take a deep faith, one in which the personal message of Jesus to love God and to love each other would shine forth more fully. It would be a community that actually would have time to put prayer and reflection and mutual care first, and let emerge from this interior cultivation a variety of works and ministries. Such a community of faith would not be at odds, still less antagonistic, to the institutional church, nor would it have an air of superiority or elitism. Such airs would certainly not survive all the work that would be necessary to create it. At the same time, it would be a community whose first thought would not be to find canonical forms and permissions in order to juridically define itself, but simply to live the Christian life in a free association of lay people.