Is this the Church’s future or its past? That question ran through my mind repeatedly this weekend at the American Catholic Council conference I attended in Detroit. Featuring a number of prominent speakers for keynotes and breakouts, the event culminated three years of work for the organizers. Hundreds of listening sessions around the country had informed the agenda. A major focus was the affirmation by attendees of a document called the Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. The brochure for this “gathering of Vatican II Catholics” showed up in my mail one day back in late March and immediately attracted me with its progressive content and upbeat tone.
The speakers’ insights were indeed “tongues of fire” that inspired and challenged. Latina theologian Jeanette Rodriguez and black womanist theologian Diana Hayes reminded us to consider the diverse experiences of all God’s people, especially those who have suffered oppression. Author and scholar James Carroll reflected on the ongoing tension between experience and dogma in the formulation of teachings. Loretto Sister Jeannine Gramick, who has been censored by the Vatican for her ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics, discussed the process for forming one’s conscience and affirmed the importance of giving public witness on issues we feel deeply about. Creation theologian Matthew Fox suggested, rather provocatively, that we consider the hierarchy to be in schism based on their actions contrary to Vatican II documents, such as the handling of the new missal translation. And finally, in a rousing conclusion to the program, Joan Chittister explored how any event contains both good and bad aspects and exhorted us to create good in the face of bad.
My questioning of the event’s meaning – past or future? – originates with attendee demographics. Racially, it was nearly 100% white, and the average age was about 70. I counted on one hand the number of people who looked my age (47) or younger. Conservatives are fond of dismissing Vatican II proponents as aging hippies, and I don’t intend that sort of comment at all. Yet the lack of visible broad-based support does undermine the group’s call for a more inclusive church; it challenges my personal concerns in this area as well. Pentecost is the perfect context in which to ponder these matters. The Holy Spirit transformed the disciples’ fear into bold proclamation. That doesn’t change!
Photo by Eustaquio Santimano via Flickr under Creative Commons license