Monday, April 17, 2006

A terrible beauty is born

Easter arrived uneventfully enough yesterday. It was business as usual at St. John the Baptist, the smug suburban megaparish that we attend. The parking lot was filled to capacity with regular parishioners and the various "E/C Catholics" (i.e., those who attend Mass on Easter and Christmas only), with boys festooned with clip-on ties and girls adorned with Easter bonnets and bright, frilly dresses. The service was filled pomp, circumstance, pieities and enough incense to rival what Janet Reno had pumped into the Branch Davidian compound.

The pastor at St. John the Baptist is an affable fellow named Fr. Bill Murtaugh. Fr. Bill fancies himself a wit and likes to skewer really safe targets, like the Religious Right. He will be leaving SJB shortly to take an associate pastor role at Pax Christi, an even larger smug suburban megaparish in far Eden Prairie. Fr. Bill has had a number of struggles in recent months, including time in a rehab center for an unstated problem that most everyone surmises to be related to drinking. I wish him well at his new assignment.

Catholics are at an interesting place right now, and Easter seems like a good time to think about it. Easter celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus, so it is often seen as a time of great joy and renewal. And a parish like SJB is certainly a place in need of renewal. SJB has a reputation for making showy displays of its moral goodness, such as housing homeless families in the church complex several times a year. But it's never been clear that these exhibitions have improved the lives of the people involved more than temporarily. There's a quiet but intense battle going on right now for what renewal in the Catholic context should look like. John Paul II had a very strong read on where the Church should go and in his view, Catholics need to look more toward understanding the role God plays in our lives, irrespective of politics. Benedict XVI appears to have the same view; not suprising, given his long-time role at the Vatican under JPII. The clergy who came of age with Fr. Bill generally were products of Vatican II, which greatly liberalized many Church teachings. While there's little dispute that some of the changes wrought by Vatican II, especially conducting mass in the vernacular, rather than Latin, have made faith more accessible to Catholics, many Catholic priests saw the call for greater involvement in the world as an invitation to participate in the political process. We saw an example of this only last week, as the local Archibishop, Harry Flynn, was a major contributor to the immigrant rights marches that took place in St. Paul.

I'm not convinced that this foray into politics has helped the Church, however. While there is no doubt that my faith requires me to be part of the world and to help ameliorate social ills, it's not clear to me that the way to do it is to subcontract the work out to governmental entities. This is especially problematic given the Church's clear teaching on matters such as abortion. The party of government in the U.S. is clearly the Democratic Party; paradoxically for Catholics, the Democratic Party is also the party of abortion. I think the better path is to be involved in our communities, but in ways that reflect our values. If providing a bed for a homeless person is the way to help, do it. If standing on the soup line at the Dorothy Day Center is the way, that works, too. But charity by check removes the personal touch from the action and often corrupts the purpose of what happens. And when governments use coercion to provide amelioration, they often make things worse. Nothing strips dignity from an individual more than being in the clutches of the State.

Can we renew our promises at Easter? Will SJB find a new pastor who is less concerned with ostentatious demonstrations of piety and more concerned with connecting her parishioners with the teachings of Christ? I sure hope so.


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