A return to civility is long overdue

Reprinted from The Providence Visitor (4/25/2005)
The posting of this article by Fr. Creedon does not, in any way, imply his agreement with any other postings on this website.

By Father Joseph D. Creedon

To write or not to write, that is the question. There is a debate going on in my head. The sensible side of my brain is telling the idealistic side of my brain not to write. The idealistic side of my brain is telling the sensible side to write. If you see this article in print, you will know which side prevailed.

In the recent past, I used to submit articles for publication. Then I stopped. I have heard many explanations for my absence from these pages. The most frequent was that I had been silenced. Believe me, nothing could be further from the truth. I stopped writing because I was tired of being personally attacked for my opinions. While I enjoy the banter that is part of sharing differing opinions, I do not enjoy being personally attacked for holding a differing opinion. I enjoy the healthy exchange that should take place when good, sincere people differ about what is the right or wrong way to be church.

In the not too distant past, opinions were opinions, theories were theories and dogma was dogma. Now, it seems, everything is treated as dogma and gravitas is the mood of the day. We have lost something in the contemporary church. We have lost the art of disagreeing in a civil way, and we have lost our sense of humor. I am old enough to have been part of the pre-Vatican II and the post-Vatican II church. I was ordained in 1968, just as the flood of enthusiasm of the Second Vatican Council was reaching its peak. It was a special time. There were good and sincere believers who thought the council was a mistake, and there were good and sincere believers who thought the council was the best thing since sliced bread. At that time, the dialogue, disagreements and debates were spirited, but they were almost always civil. Everyone, or almost everyone, realized that the discussions were between believers. We knew we were part of the same church. We may have been in different pews, but we were in the same church. There was room for divergent opinions, and that made for a healthier church.

One of my first pastors was ordained two years before my parents were married. He used to wonder why we couldn’t agree on more things. I tried, with moderate success, to point out to him that we were from very different generations. His church was different from my church, but it was, nevertheless, the same church. We just looked at the church from different vantage points – not a better vantage point nor a worse vantage point, just different ones. In the end, we agreed to disagree. He did not suspect me, nor did I suspect him of being a subversive. Our disagreements were always respectful and civil, and we never lost the ability to laugh at ourselves and, in some cases, at the issues. This is what we have lost.These pages have recently been filled with an ongoing spate over whose feet should be washed on Holy Thursday. Should it be just the feet of men or should it be men and women? From the letters to the editor, it is apparent that in some parishes, only men have their feet washed, while in other parishes, men and women have their feet washed. One group represents the past; the other represents the future. The real issue is this: How do we live in the present, which is obviously a period of transition? Our church has a rich history of living in transition. Early on, it was Jews or Gentiles; persecuted or free; Mary, the Mother of Jesus or Mother of God. That period was followed by Roman or Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant, infallible or not, Latin or vernacular and collegial or authoritarian, to name but a few of the transitional moments in the history of the church. Anyone with a modicum of historical understanding knows that some transitions were handled better than others, but that movement was always forward, never backward. The speed of change may have been glacial, but the direction was always forward. Our past should always guide the present and help form the future.It seems to me there must be more important issues than whose feet get washed on Holy Thursday. The first and most important issue is that the foot washing, no matter whose feet are being washed, is an example of service, service to the people. What matters is that the people feel that their leaders are willing to be servants. What matters is that the people in the pews experience leaders who treat them with dignity, respect and loving service. What does not matter is toenail polish or no toenail polish.

Our church is being threatened by a shortage of clergy and diminishing attendance at Mass. Our church is suffering from the ongoing backlash of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Young adult Catholics are living together without benefit of marriage, and many of those who are marrying are doing so without the benefit of church. Catholic schools are closing, and those that remain open are providing education mainly for the upper middle class and the affluent. Many Catholic women feel alienated from the church and some of them are hanging on by their fingernails waiting for the day when they can be full, equal members. Surely, there are many issues more important than whose feet get washed. These issues need to be discussed in a civil, respectful manner with attention on what is being said and not who is saying it.

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