Marjorie Kowalski Cole
Fairbanks Daily News Miner
Published Thursday, September 25, 2008
Every four years Americans change leaders or not. Since we aren’t animals but humans gifted with big, thinking brains that we use to imagine the future and analyze the past, we don’t want regime change to become a brawl. Instead we read, think, argue and choose. To categorically refuse participation in the process is a bad idea — when, in history, have abdication and self-censorship not been dangerous habits?
Henry Adams once wrote, “The habit of expression leads to the search for something to express.” You could also say that the habit of self-censorship leads to undeveloped ideas, immature responses and more self-censorship.
So we study the candidates although leadership remains hard to define. Faith groups publish election guides, with Christians weighing the social gospel against candidates’ records and promises.
We’ve all noticed that some great leaders cultivate humility and try to return strength of character back to where it truly belongs — to the people. Jesus of Nazareth did this as he tramped through Galilee talking to ordinary individuals wherever he met them. A woman at a well, a tax collector in a tree, a paralytic lowered through a hole in the roof, a crowd of 5,000 “not counting the women and children” gathered on a mountainside: He empowered them all. He loved those uncounted women and children.
But thousands of years later, the church founded in his name has become an earthly institution reeling from a crisis brought on by its own power and secrecy. Catholics make up the largest denomination in the country and ex-Catholics possibly the second largest. All these people are not of one mind about what it means to be Catholic.
The priesthood as we know it is shrinking, possibly disappearing. The weekend of Oct. 4-5, no Masses will be celebrated in Fairbanks churches as urban priests visit priestless villages. We face a crisis in leadership, with bishops accountable to Rome and various lay groups calling for either change or retrenchment.
One reason people leave is the appalling cover-up of sex abuse of children, including native American children sent away from their parents to boarding schools in the Lower 48 states and in Alaska. The way that Catholic bishops hid or downplayed these crimes for decades rather than “give scandal to the faithful” is not lost on us. But the habit of keeping our mouths shut is hard for Catholics to break. If all these crises aren’t enough to get us to speak frankly with one another, will we ever?
Some say that instead of a shortage of priests, we have a failure of vision on the part of the hierarchy, which refuses to recognize vocations of women and married people. Women are going ahead with ordinations anyway, and some have been excommunicated for it. Three unnamed bishops, in good standing with Rome, have even ordained women bishops but have asked that their own names not be revealed until their deaths.
Despite this crisis, it is difficult for Catholics to be frank with one another in an institutional setting. You rarely find Catholics talking about women’s ordination or optional celibacy over doughnuts after Mass, even though most Catholics in this country think such changes are a good idea. Why don’t we talk freely with one another about decision making? Do we feel it’s not our place?
Some conservative Catholics say that change should come from the top down, and it’s our role to submit. But canon law and Catholic teaching also mandate that the laity follow their conscience and speak up. Most of all, Catholics need to be free to talk with one another in an atmosphere free of suspicion, and to speak truth not only to power but to one another.
To further this dialogue, Call to Action Alaska has invited a speaker from Chicago to take part in talks on Oct. 1 and 2 in Fairbanks. Two Alaskans educated in theology and Nicole Sotelo from Chicago will address questions on leadership at Wood Center Ballroom, UAF, Wednesday Oct. 1, 7 p.m. The following evening, Thursday, Oct. 2, Sotelo will speak at the Noel Wien Library, 7 p.m., on Women in the Church. Sotelo is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and the author of “Women Healing from Abuse” (Paulist Press).
These talks, open to all, will continue the vigorous traditions of a church that does not read scripture literally but has always insisted on interpretation and has always been open to ongoing revelation.
Marjorie Kowalski Cole is a Fairbanks author and co-chair of Call to Action Alaska, the state chapter of the nationwide, 25,000-member Catholic group that has worked for peace and justice during the past three decades.