The Catholic Church betrays Christ’s call to love; “Its leadership works though domination, control, and punishment.” So wrote Fr. Bert Thelen, S.J., in a long letter explaining his decision to renounce the priesthood and return to the lay state of life.
His letter saddened me. It was Bert who received me into the Catholic Church in 2004. He did so with little fuss, much grace, and in accord with a Jesuit’s discernment about which protocols and procedures to follow—and which to ignore. But I was not surprised. Bert is a spokesman for the liberal Catholicism so closely associated with his now-former order.
Half-a-dozen years before he administered to me the grace of full communion he came to serve as the pastor of St. John’s, the church on the Creighton University campus, where I then taught. This Jesuit-run parish serves progressive Catholics alienated from the contemporary Church. It’s a place that fiddles with the liturgy to make it more “inclusive,” affirms gay couples, and takes a generally liberal line on social and political questions (with the exception of abortion).
Bert was a perfect fit. Kind, warm, and engaged, he was a typical Jesuit of his generation. Educated entirely within Milwaukee’s parochial system, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1958, a time of growth and confidence. Bert was ordained ten years later, a true “68er.” Like the Society of Jesus as a whole, he threw himself into the Great Reform, which didn’t seek any particular goals so much as pursue a general, utopian vision, a hoped-for fusion of the Spirit of Christ with Liberation, with New Being, with the Eternal Now.
Bert has been true to this vision and its grand dreams. “The Risen Christ” beckons him “to a more universal connection with the cosmos.” This is an urgent call: “It is time to join the Cosmic Christ in the Great Work of mending, repairing, nurturing, and protecting our evolving creation.”
There’s a political dimension as well. Bert must protest against “the social injustices and sinful exclusions perpetrated by a patriarchal church that refuses to consider ordination of women and marriage for same-sex couples.” He stands in solidarity with those disciplined and marginalized by the Church.
It’s easy to mock these sentiments and their excesses: hints of a politically correct Teilhard de Chardin. It’s even easier to skewer the self-deceptions about the latest moral fashions. In America today, it’s not remotely “marginal” to denounce Catholicism as patriarchal or to affirm same-sex marriage. On the contrary, the opposite is true, and only a man who sees the world almost entirely from inside the Church can think otherwise.
That’s precisely how Bert sees things. At Vatican II, the windows of the Church were thrown open, as John XXIII put it, and in its aftermath everything seemed possible. But for priests like Bert this promise was betrayed. The Church pulled back, this way of thinking reasons, because her leaders were too timid and hidebound—or too selfish and eager to preserve their privileges. As I came to see during my twenty years teaching at Creighton, this feeling of betrayal by the Church defines the “68er” generation of Jesuits and their allies.
I also came to see that this feeling of betrayal depends upon a deeper trust in the Church. Bert believes that the Church needs no boundaries, no rules, no hierarchies. Fundamental and powerful and real, she can distend and diffuse herself into “the One New World.”
Why fear change? The Church does not need to be defended, which for somebody come of age in 1950s Catholicism can seem reasonable. Recently another Jesuit and former colleague diagnosed my “conservatism” as a sign that I don’t understand what it means to be Catholic, by which he meant, I think, that I don’t trust the Church’s power to be all things to all people.
His claim typifies Jesuit hauteur, the posture of inclusion that explains away objections and dismisses those who disagree. It’s a form of spiritual self-deception that Bert never suffered from—one of many signs of his admirable integrity, however misguided his theology. But there’s an element of truth worth pondering in the diagnosis. To a certain degree I don’t trust the Church.
When I think back to my students at Creighton, I can see that their experience of the Church—and to a great extent mine—also involves worries about betrayal, though of a different kind. A profoundly hostile secular culture wars against our efforts to achieve even a modest loyalty to the apostolic tradition, and, sadly, in the war we see the Church as a sometimes-unreliable ally.
For example, although Creighton touted its Catholic mission, my pious students could not trust their theology professors—many thought attacking “Catholic fundamentalism” their calling. They couldn’t trust daily Mass on campus, because some Jesuits took great liberties. Campus ministry was only too likely to attack their beliefs as retrograde, intolerant, and ignorant. Ten years ago students had to fight for one evening a week devoted to Eucharistic adoration. The powers-that-be thought it encouraged the “wrong” sort of piety.
Bert’s integrity eventually overcame those concerns, and the students got their once-a-week evening of adoration. But his general stance made it difficult to minister to most Creighton students, especially those most loyal to the Church. It contributed to their feelings of betrayal and added to their worries that the Church would not reliably help them resist the blandishments of the world and the glamour of evil. The same can be said for liberal Catholicism as a whole. It cannot both minister to the world on the world’s terms—and minister to those of us who don’t want our lives defined on the world’s terms.
If Bert came into my office today I’d be happy to see him. He’s a warm, generous man, and he was the instrument of divine kindness that allowed me to enter into the Church—in spite of my spiritual impoverishment.
But I would be sad as well. He was there for me as a priest when I needed him. Through him, the Church reached for my outstretched hand as I struggled against drowning currents. Now he’s arguing that such a role, such an office, such a presumption of spiritual power on the part of the Church, is unnecessary, even wicked: patriarchal, hierarchical, dualistic. His reasons for leaving the priesthood involve a denial of the supernatural “otherness” of the Church, an “otherness” that those of us drowning in rising tide of secularism try to hang on to.
Bert describes his ministry as “an exploration into the God Who dwells mysteriously in all of our hearts.” Yes, but there’s a great deal in our hearts that drags us down—the puffed up, bloated ego. We need the God Who dwells above, the One who comes to us, not to confirm and affirm and consecrate us in our worldliness, but seeks to draw us up to Himself. We need the “otherness” of the Church.
R.R. Reno is editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.