Free to Worship Without Fear

Rev. Jim Ryan, PhD  — jimryan6885@gmail.com

Co-pastor of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community

Wauwatosa, Wisconsin 53213

In a recent discussion about preaching a question arose as to what people will or won’t hear preached in the RC Church.  The particular topic escapes me now, but the idea of this reminded me that, from the pulpit, the topic of birth control is usually never preached.  Why is that?  I think it may be because people have made their own decisions about family planning – to the tune of 90+% of what is generically (certainly not dogmatically) referred to as Roman Catholic couples.  And their clergy know it.

It brings to mind the old joke about the woman standing in St. Peter’s Square as Pope Paul VI declares the promulgation (means it’s really official) of “Humanae Vitae.”  This is the encyclical letter that identified the practice of “artificial” birth control as a grave sin.  The woman, a Roman citizen and lifelong Catholic, in her best Italian accented English shouts to the Pope, “You no play-a the game;  You no make-a the rules!”  Obviously she was referring to the out of sync version of reality wherein celibate clerics believe they have the right to opine on such intimacies.

My point is that dogma and doctrine have given way to the integrity of one’s own life decisions and the development of one’s own relationships.  Institutional Church pronouncements may reflect considered opinion and well-ordered thought but when it comes to being true to oneself and one’s relationships such pronouncements are by no means final or determinative.

Yes, history and experience have become the filters for living a spiritual existence that seeks the deep meaning and expression of faith in God.

At the beginning of this millennium Roger Haight, Jesuit systematic theologian published, “Jesus, Symbol of God.”  Among the many thoughtful and groundbreaking achievements of this work that establishes a contemporary view on Jesus who is the Revealer of the Divine and the One whose Way is Love, Haight raises the point that we live these days with a consciousness that values historical context and the experience of loving and living relationships.  He refers to it as postmodern consciousness which embraces Christ from the below of daily life and its challenges while respecting from a distance the Christ from the on-high ecclesiastical dictates and institutional pronouncements.

Several years ago I was reading the newspaper of, let’s call it, an upper Midwest USA diocese.  The Bishop’s message in that edition was all about castigating those who practice “artificial” birth control and pronouncing to his flock his episcopal judgment that they are all sinners.  Do you suppose anybody changed their ways based on what he had to say?  I mean, who listens to such tripe?  My guess is they put the newspaper on the recycle pile and went to communion the following Sunday.

Life and relationships, history and experience, are the filters of the postmodern consciousness.  Now, back to Fr. Haight.  For speaking this truth he was silenced by the Vatican.  This maintains the all too predictable practice of the RC Church of avoiding at all cost a conversation that challenges its traditional doctrines and ecclesiastical practices.  Haight reflected on this authoritarian, hierarchical act of denial in his Notes on “The Logic of Christology from Below.”  Written at the beginning of the second decade of this millennium, he writes, “Although Catholic theological discussion was reawakened by Vatican II at the present time discussion that begins with history and experience seems to be threatened with authoritarian stricture.  (The authoritarian model) lacks the debate that is necessary to prove its viability.”

So, Roger joined the noble ranks of those also silenced before and after him – Teillhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, Charles Curran, Elizabeth Johnson, and the list goes on.

That was, roughly, 2011.  Some may say, “Well, that was then, but Pope Francis is now – a leader of openness and generosity of spirit.”  That may be, but then explain to me why some communities who choose to celebrate their sacramental heritage with a presider who happens to be a woman priest, why they do so in what the Roman Catholic Woman Priest organization calls a “catacomb” setting.  So fearful of being excluded (excommunicated) and even losing livelihood if the priest is otherwise active, even employed, in a local Catholic Parish – the moniker catacomb is given to this practice, as though people need to hide in caves away from the leering eyes of those who are more than happy to report such nefarious actions to the Bishop.

Do you recall the Benedictus?  It is the prayer of praise Zechariah prayed after he named his son John (later to become known to us as John the Baptist).  Zechariah was suddenly able to speak after having been struck mute during Elizabeth’s pregnancy.  In his prayer he celebrated the relationship with God in which the covenant promise was recalled that the people will be “free to worship You without fear” (Luke 1:75).  Before the institutional church got established the people celebrated the freedom of divine promise to worship without fear.  Pity, that bishops can’t recall the New Covenant of Love let alone the Old Covenant of Promise.

We, the community of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles, are people who live and worship in freedom.  Our story, our history, informs us with that freedom of the children of God (Romans 8:21) to which Jesus, the Revealer of the Divine, calls us.  Our community experience values smallness over bigness, connection over distance, empowered relationships over obedient flock.  Our postmodern consciousness fully engaged with our life’s stories and loving relationships (aka history and experience) makes it more and more apparent that Christ is guiding the institutional church to follow the very vocal lead of the people who are, as Roger Haight describes, historical, social, plural, and cosmic.

The Benedictus of Zechariah

Blessed are you, Yahweh, God of Israel.

You have come to your people and set them free.

You have raised up for us a mighty Savior,

born of the house of your servant David.

Through your holy prophets, you promised of old

to save us from our enemies,

from the hands of all who hate us,

to show mercy to our forebears,

and to remember your holy covenant.

This was the oath you swore to our parents Abraham and Sarah,

to set us free from the hands of our enemies,

free to worship you without fear,

holy and righteous before you all the days of our life.

And you, John, shall be called Prophet of the Most High,

for you will go before Messiah to prepare the way,

to give God’s people knowledge of salvation

by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

 

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