In more than 30 years serving in Catholic education, both on the secondary and university levels, I have seen the Catholic Church lose many generous and spiritual young people because the institutional leaders do not give them the "spiritual space" to question, to dialogue, to doubt, to challenge. In fact, some of these institutional leaders contend (often behind closed doors) that the church is better off without these querulous youth and instead shower their attention on young people who accept the church with docility and are supposedly "flocking" into the church. It is not the young people (and many of their parents) who are leaving the church that are the supposed "cafeteria Catholics." It is those who are picking and choosing from the teachings of Vatican II, which first convened exactly 50 years ago this October, as if it were not as "legitimate" a Council of the entire church as, say, Vatican I or even the Council of Trent.
When anyone reviews the litany of recent church scandals, missteps, mistakes and public relation blunders, must that person -- the faithful, the not-so-faithful or the unfaithful -- not stop a moment and ask, "Is the Holy Spirit really guiding the church today?"
My answer is: Of course! Probably never before in the history of the church has there been greater de facto evidence of the grace-filled presence of the Holy Spirit. Go to almost any Catholic parish that is following the spirit of Vatican II and you will experience what I am talking about. But (and this is a big but) surely the amateurish solutions proffered by the institutional church in response to the current crises of confidence in the church on everything from the cover-ups of sexual abuse to the refusal to even allow a discussion of the ordination of women could lead anyone with a modicum of common sense to question the presence of the Holy Spirit in Rome or in most chancery offices today.
Yet the Holy Spirit dwells, as always, in the hearts and minds of the faithful -- the lay people, the vowed religious, the priests and deacons, the prelates and popes. We Catholics know that when we all come together as church in a collegial and faith-filled spirit that God -- in the Person of the Holy Spirit -- is there in our midst. This is actually a key teaching of the church, part of its much misunderstood and often misused "magisterium."
Change is hard for an individual to accomplish and even more traumatic for an institution that has many individuals within its structures with vested interests in the status quo to protect. Yet the reason we have a theology of metanoia (change of heart) in the Catholic Church is that many of our church fathers and mothers and holy prophets knew it would take the Holy Spirit to transform us, not only as individuals but also as the institutional church. Transforming man-made, fallible structures and organizations is a meaningful task, but it takes the Holy Spirit to pour grace, zeal and wisdom into the hearts of individuals like you and me so that we will speak up -- yes, with insistent, faith-filled force but also with sensitive, caring and loving actions toward the institutional church itself.
What is so very strange and inconsistent is that the institutional church, which defends its role as protector of the faith and as conveyor of the truth, seems to be doing all that it can to negate the results of its own most recent ecumenical council, Vatican II.
Have they forgotten that Pope John XXIII -- as much the Vicar of Christ on Earth as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI -- convened bishops from all over the world half a century ago to join with the bishop of Rome to exercise its teaching authority with the assurance that such collegiality is imbued with the presence of the Holy Spirit? Or, as Catholic Bishop Kevin Dowling of South Africa recently said of Vatican II, "its vision, its principles and the direction it gave are to be followed and implemented by all, from the pope to the peasant farmer in the fields of Honduras."
Even the casual observer sees the growing tensions that arise between the various factions in the church today. One sees antagonistic camps of "liberals" vs. "conservatives," "orthodox" vs. "revisionists," and "the faithful" vs. "the heretics." Mean-spiritedness, hostility and acrimony flourish in a church that should be all about the peace and love that Jesus brought to our world. Certainly, all sides are to blame as we permit these differences to obfuscate the "Good News" of the faith.
Yet now, more than ever, those of us who believe in the vision of Vatican II cannot back down from speaking the truth as we see it. The institutional church needs to respond in a vitally new and more effective way to Vatican II that will allow the church to once more "teach as Jesus did."
De LaSalle Brother Louis DeThomasis is a former president of St. Mary's University of Minnesota and the author of 'Flying in the Face of Tradition: Listening to the Lived Experience of the Faithful,' published by ACTA Publications.
April 25, 2012