Democracy: America’s Unopened Gift to the Church

We have a mission and a mandate, in independence and baptism, that will not allow slavery again in this nation, this time under the guise of religious tyranny. For we have been called to freedom by something even more awesome than the Declaration of Independence. We have been called to freedom by Christ. [emphasis added]

Anthony T. Padovano

That’s the closing paragraph of Chapter 2 in Anthony T. Padovano’s book, A Path to Freedom. The chapter’s title, The American Catholic Church: Assessing the Past, Discerning the Future, gives a sense of what it’s about. Padovano argues convincingly that we are in a unique moment in history where the ideals of American democracy can and must continue to push for reform within the Catholic Church.

Padovano is not naive. He notes:

The fact that Americans cannot bring democracy … to the Catholic Church at large is the single greatest failure of American Catholicism. The fact that American bishops repeat enthusiastically that the Church must not be a democracy is anti-American and anti-Christian. … Loyalty to Christ, after all, is not essentially connected with monarchy and ecclesial feudalism.

Democracy is without doubt the greatest gift that America has given to the world. Our system is not perfect, to be sure, but the ideals enshrined in our founding political documents envision a world very different from the world in which they were written. Those of us who’ve been both raised and long-educated in the the spirit and practice of Catholicism will agree that the values of democracy are not only consistent with but are natural sisters to the ideals of Catholicism’s world-view where charity, justice, and all God’s People live in freedom. Let me be clear: by Catholicism I mean the Catholicism of the broad universal Church with its rich tradition of intellectual rigor and pastoral sense of mission, and not the “Catholicism” that is increasingly characterized by anachronistic liturgical practice and a childish adherence to rules meant to form and guide and lead to freedom, not to squelch and imprison and lead to a slavery of the soul.

When and how will this gift of democracy be received by the institutional Church? Padovano notes some movement toward this over the past century, though that movement has been marked both by periods of great progress, as well as periods of retrenchment. It seem that this is where we are now, in a period where forces within the papacy, the episcopacy, the clergy and even among the laity are hearkening back to a fantasy vision of the Church they think once existed, but never really did. In noting a list of pressing pastoral issues that a small group of US bishops identified in 1995, this one seems to be the most overarching and is behind so much of what we see today: it’s the practice of Presenting the minority position of Vatican II as though it were the majority.

As American Catholics try to find a way forward during these challenging times, Padovano’s words are worth remembering … again, and again, and again.

We have come this far with broken hearts and bruised spirits, betrayed too often by shepherds who became predators and preyed on our trust. But no more. We ourselves were not always sinless. But the crimes of democracy are always less than those of tyranny. We are free of that now.


These are some of my thoughts; what are yours? Would love to read your comments and feedback.

5 Key Elements of a Truly Human Spirituality

Last weekend I had the great privilege of participating in a retreat sponsored by New Ways Ministry for Catholic gay clergy/religious who are no longer in active or “official” ministry.  As I mentioned earlier, the retreat was facilitated by theologian and writer Anthony Podovano. I was blessed to be part of a small group given a unique opportunity to listen to, learn from, and spend time with someone who has had such an important role in the life of the Catholic community for over five decades.

5 Key Elements of a Truly Human Spirituality — helping us answer the questions, what is religious experience (as distinguished from mere religion) and what is necessary for a valid spirituality? –  In order to answer these questions and to be accurately reflective of true spirituality, something must be present in every instance of humanity. We must also recognize that no person or class or group is ever truly “privileged,” although it might appear as such to those not part of the purported privileged group.  We need to avoid thinking that life or simply being human is ever “easier” for one person, one era of history, one group, etc. than any other person, era or group.  “Golden ages are called such by those who weren’t forced to live through them.”

1. Transcendental Imperative:  All people make enormous efforts to “get out of ourselves,” to get beyond themselves.  It is part of being human to constantly reach outside and beyond ourselves.  The greatest joys in life come from relationship with others, from friendship, marriage, connection with other human beings.  Aquinas said that without friendship, life is not worth living. To be friendless is to be truly bereft.  Believers simply say that God is the end of this process; but non-believers and atheists are also on this same journey, the journey on which we want/desire a companion on the way.

2. Life is Mystery:  Life is always unpredictable, always more than we can handle, and not subject to calculation. While ignorance is something I don’t know, Mystery is something I can’t know! Mystery works on the notion that the more data I have, the more unknowing/mysterious it becomes. E.g. the more we know about the development of the human person from the moment of conception, the more mysterious human development becomes. The more we know (i.e. the more data we have) about the universe/cosmos, the more mysterious the universe/cosmos becomes.

3. Community / Belonging:  the connections we make to others are essential. The real crisis in the church today is not what itsays, but that some people don’t feel home there anymore.  Why would a gay person “go home” to the church? Why would a woman who has had an abortion, or a person who is divorced, etc. want to “go home” to the church? The real contemporary heresy of the church is more related to its exclusion of so many and less than with its dogma.

4. Hunger for the Sacred: The secular is that which we need, but to which we cannot make commitments without it destroying us. I need food, clothing, shelter, money; but if I commit to these, they will destroy me. [Black Friday and unbridled consumerism!] If I give myself to food, clothing, shelter, money, “stuff,” etc. then I am consumed by them. The sacred is that which we also need; but our commitment to the sacred does not destroy us, it ennobles us. Love – love is inexhaustible. [Bishops and all who oppose same-sex marriage, are you listening?] Forgiveness – one cannot forgive excessively. Wisdom. Hope. Joy.  The whole world is hungry for the sacred … and we only turn to the secular when we despair of the sacred.  cf. Philip Slater’s  Wealth Addiction. When we commit to the secular, we need greater and greater amounts to satisfy, and yet get less and less in return (and are never fully satisfied).

5. Correlation of Reverence and Revelation:  You can only truly see what you reverence, and also reverence what you truly see.  If I don’t reverence a flower … I never really see the flower.  People who reverence each other reveal themselves to each other.  If we don’t feel reverenced, we shut down and no longer reveal ourselves. Revelation without Reverence is Brutality (e.g. sexuality, nakedness, intimacy or rape).

  • “Intellectual” arguments for the existence of God do not move us.
  • A church that does not reverence us has nothing to tell us.
  • Obedience is not submission – it’s attentiveness (from the Latin  “to hear”).
  • The wonderful thing that Jesus did with the pariahs of society is give them back to themselves – woman “caught in adultery,” Zacchaeus, Mathew.  Note that in doing so, he absolutely did not condemn them.
  • The “industry of the church” will depress us.
  • Do we really think God would abandon us if we sought God in another way? (e.g. Thomas Merton’s fascination with Buddhism)

4 False (but Common) ways of Dealing with God & Spirituality

New Ways Ministry Retreat with Anthony Padovano
November 18-20, 2011
Bon Secours Spiritual Center, Marriottsville, MD

Padovano provides four false approaches that are often used in dealing with the questions of God and Spirituality.

  1. Dismissing God and Spirituality
  2. Idea that there is only One True Religion
  3. (Mere) Explicit Affirmation of God
  4. Morality

None of these are paths to true religious experience and true spirituality.

Why am I here?

New Ways Ministry Retreat with Anthony Padovano
November 18-20, 2011
Bon Secours Spiritual Center, Marriottsville, MD

Saturday, November 19, 2011
Why am I here? No, that’s not meant as some deep philosophical question about the meaning of life. It’s meant, rather, in the very concrete sense. Why am I here, in this actual physical place in which I find myself right now?

As I ask this question, I am on a retreat at Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Mariottsville, MD. It is 5:21 am. The retreat is for gay “former” priests/religious and the broad focus of the retreat is sexuality and spirituality. Sponsored by New Ways Ministry, the facilitator is Anthony Padovano, a man who has been so influential in the life of American Catholicism since Vatican II.

Why am I here? The ‘expected’ answer no doubt involves God in some way. To spend time with God….To get away from the busy-ness of life and spend time in prayer and reflection.

Why am I here? Some might see this as self-centered or even narcissistic, but the answer is really to spend time with myself.

Padovano talked last evening about Thomas Merton and one of his insights — so simple and yet so profound — is that the only thing that I can do in this life that absolutely no one else can do is be me. Merton said, “To be a saint is to be myself.”

There is no one who has ever lived, is living now, or who will ever live who can be who I am.