Monday, May 22, 2006

Greeley on Poland: Does affluence trump traditionalism?

In Fr. Andrew Greeley's column last Friday, he described the state of the Church in Poland, and remarked on that country's newly found affluence. He touches on a certain hunch I've always had...

In certain European countries where the most traditionalist brand of Catholicism had held sway, there has been a strong, anti-clerical popular reaction against the Church and in favor of consumerism once political freedoms were granted and economic prosperity started to take hold after decades of stagnation and privation. It happened in Spain in the 1980s, Ireland in the 1990s, and now Poland in the 2000s.

The Tridentine-style Church was built to withstand Protestantism. It was somewhat suited to withstand Modernism and Communism. Can it withstand affluence? As always, Greeley remains an optimist...

I've heard it said that the late pope was heartbroken that his native land had sunk so quickly into the swamp of American consumerism. But once the restraints of socialism were swept away, people began to seek the good life for themselves and their children. Americans are in fact the most generous people in the world (in terms of hours volunteering and contributions). It takes time to learn restraint after the first burst of freedom. If religious leaders would stop condemning and instead offer a spirituality for abundance, they would be taken more seriously.

Poles are 10 percent of the Catholics in Europe and perhaps half of the regular churchgoers. But like everyone else in the Church after the blundered implementation of the Vatican Council, they are Catholics on their own terms. This independence will be hard for the clergy and the hierarchy to accept, but they'd better get used to it. There is little in the history of this country to lead one to expect that its bishops and priests will suddenly become open, transparent, pragmatic. They will lose their formidable power just as the Irish clerisy did when it hung on to power too long. The Poles, like the Irish, will remain Catholic. And like the Irish, the Catholic leadership in this country will lose most of its credibility.


Darius said...

Yes, "abundance" - including concerns for social justice - and not "condemnation" I think is what gives the church credibility to Catholics who don't unreflectively go along with whatever the Vatican's positions happen to be; which I think is the majority of Catholics.

I reread the New Testament recently. In the past, I'd always focused on what I perceive as its wisdom. This time I was impressed by the fact that the religious far right, in every denomination, has solid grounds in the text for their condemnation of everybody who doesn't agree with them.

John, in particular, is often very explict, portraying Jesus as literally telling people who don't accept him that they're going to hell.

I was raised Catholic myself, but at this point don't find myself fully identifying with any of the available categories...

Jeff said...

Hi Darius,

A cut diamond looks different depending upon the angle at which you look at it, but it is still the same diamond. The four gospels are like that. They all give us a different view of Jesus.

Almost all scholars agree that the Gospel of John was the last one written, probably between the years 90 and 110 AD. It is markedly different from the three Synoptic Gospels. John has what they call a "High Christology".

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is a man of action, always in a hurry, with crowds pressing in on him all the time. He seems almost overwhelmed. It was probably written for the Christian community in Rome, and there are inklings of trouble aand foreboding ahead. It was supposedly written around 60 AD (before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem). Jesus is a man of power: Healing, curing, and driving out demons. His emotional human side is very much on display.

Matthew was written around 70 AD for Jews in Syria who had become Christians. Here Jesus is the Messiah, the great teacher, the New Moses, the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.

Luke was written in polished Greek around the 70s or 80s. Here Jesus is the New Adam, who has come to save Jew and Gentile alike.

In John, Jesus seems otherworldly. He is never flustered, like in Mark. He's always in control. The Gospel of John has several dialogues in it where Jesus is challenged, and takes control of the dialogue and turns it around on his interrogator.

The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed about 68 or 70 AD or so. This was a huge trauma for the fledgling Church and for the traditional Palestinian Jews as well. Huge catastrophe. Neither group knew quite what to make of it or what to do next without Temple worship.

Around the time that John was written, both groups were grappling with what it meant to be a Jew, and what it meant to say that Jesus was the Messiah. The Rabbis, who were heirs to the Pharisees, who had taken a "wait and see" attitude to the Jesus movement before the Temple was destroyed, now began to openly reject it. Where was this Messiah? Where was the Kingdom of God that his followers were always talking about? Why hadn't the world been transformed? The competition bewteen the two groups became very intense, and most Palestinian Jews (though not necessarily most diaspora Jews living throughout the Roman Empire) sided with the Rabbis. The Christians were losing the debate in Judea, and they turned more to the diaspora and to Gentiles. There was bitterness over this.

Therefore, I think a lot of what you are reading in John and talking about is polemic, specific to that time and place and circumstance, and I think it is OK to read it as polemic. On the other hand, what Jesus said in reference to social justice is timeless and universal, and a constant through all the gospels as a description of the Kingdom of God. If I though that Jesus, an observant Jew, really considered his own people as the "children of the devil", I don't think I would be able to continue as a Christian. Luckily, I've got Matthew as a counter-weight.

Thanks for coming by.


Paula said...

Jeff, Poland is in Europe. In addition to affluence, they get more and more the menthality of Western-Europe.
I live in Germany since almost 6 years...and I can tell you that western europeans are quite self-centered and the moral relativism is predominant. The spiritual/ religious life is at best superficial and so are the human relationships.
Take this into consideration also.:-).

Darius,you mention the sayings of Jesus concerning the Hell..Here is my take: people who do not accept what Jesus represents: love, non-violence, compassion etc. have all the chances to make their life a Hell even while they are still alive. I think that Christ was merely warning the people on being careful what they choose for their life.
I read some patristics these days...the Church Fathers are very clear: God does not cast people into Hell, it is our choices that have the potential to cast us in Hell, or not. Christ only came to show people a way out of Hell.
The religious right forgets that Christ also said: do not judge your brother.:-).

friar minor said...

We Americans say we are trying to export democracy to the world, but what we are really doing is converting others to our consumerist culture and the neo-liberal capitalism that supports it.

Any form of materialism, whether it be the crass materialism of consumerism or the ethereal consumerism of contemporary cafeteria "spirituality" is a danger to real religion.

Jeff said...

Hey Friar!

Paula & Friar,

You bring up good points, but I had a question about Western Europeans, because my experience with them goes against the conventual wisdom a little bit. In my view, they are not so much secular and relativistic as they are anti-clerical. To me, that is a crucial distinction. I think that after centuries of warfare, Western Europeans are exhausted by absolutisms, whether thay are religious or political. They feel like they've tried everything, and they were worn out by the fighting. They just wanted to live the good life for a while, and I cut them a little bit of slack for that.

I think the Church heirarchy misreads the Western European public a bit, but they know them better than I do. I could be wrong. It happens a lot.

Paula said...

Jeff, I just point what I see.The causes are of course complex. It is not about just enjoying the good life as you is about focusing only on the hedonistic part of life and on what they call personal "freedom" and living only for oneself. Even the faimily ties are quite superficial in many cases.

Paula said...

One more thing: anti-clericalism is also the result of do-it-yourself spirituality of the post-modern era.
"Who is the Church to come and tell us what is good and bad??? No institution should be between man and God. Religious experience is so personal..." (I quote someone whom I know).

Liam said...

My esperience is a bit different -- ten years in Spain and a little over a year in Italy. I don't know what anti-clericalism is like in Germany, but it has real historic roots in the south. In Spain, in particular, it has much to do with a long history of the Church hierarchy supporting, actively and repressively, the reactionary and powerful parts of society. This was true for sometime, but now especially the Church has lost a great deal of prestige because of its support for the Franco dictatorship.

Since the church Hierarchy has discredited itself, it's not surprising that people away from religion and toward consumer society. I would not say that family ties are superficial (I was married to a Spanish woman -- believe me please, family ties are very important in Spain).

What Paula refers to as a "post-modern" approach exists, but I don't see it as strongly as I do in the US. I think it's partly a result of general disillusionment with the Church hierarchy and partly a result of the import of the US consumerism that the friar was talking about. Americans often mistake consumer options for individuality and freedom, and since the US produces (I believe I read somewhere) 80% of the information in the world, it's not surprising to see it rub off on other parts of the world.

Still, Spaniards and Italians are culturally thoroughly Catholic. Most of them still get baptized, married, and buried in the Church and alternatives that do well in other parts of the world (evangelical Protestantism, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc.) barely make a dent there.

I think the hierarchies of European Churches as well as the Vatican have to recognize the errors they have made, especially in regard to their arrogance. Pope Benedict is right to be concerned about the change in piety in Western Europe, but the methods he has chosen to do something about it -- lecturing and interfering in legislation -- will only backfire.

Darius and Jeff, thanks for the commentary on the Gospels -- I think Jeff, that it is true that we have to understand the historical context to find what is true and eternal in those texts.

Jeff said...


Admittedly, you are closer to it than I am, so I will defer to your judgement on it. When I read for example, that in Germany they are expecting to “import” 40,000 additional “sex-workers” for the World Cup in addition to the 400,000 legal prostitutes that are already resident there, I think you obviously have a point that I can’t even begin to argue with. By the way, where are you from originally?

My experience is very much in line with Liam’s. One of my very closest friends is an American who married a Spanish woman and now lives in Madrid. My views are shaped by what I know from their experiences and the circle of people around them. I would agree with Liam that most Spaniards would tell you that they believe in Christ and have faith in Christ, still consider themselves Catholicc, but at the same time they hold anti-clerical attitudes. As an example, I’ll use the case of the canonization of the Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva. He came from Spain. What I’ve heard from a Spanish perspective is, “This man was very well known here… You can say that he was a good man, even in some respects a holy man. He did some very good things, but we are also very well aware that he was a flawed man as well. He was no saint. Holy Father, please listen to us. Don’t hurt people’s faiths by not listening and going ahead and declaring that he was a saint. We know that he was not.” Of course, Rome went ahead with a process that was somewhat unusual in that dissenting voices; those of the traditional “devils advocate” and other groups, were not really listened to or consulted and Escriva was canonized. I’m not saying this to be anti-Opus, but no one who is outside of Opus Dei really takes Escriva seriously as a saint. This is the type of thing that causes the clerical class in Europe to lose credibility.

The other things are what Liam has already described. In Spain, the clerics were notoriously known for siding always with the “latifundists” (large landowners) over the peasantry. It was the major reason for the formation of the fiercely anti-clerical Spanish Republic in 1931, which in turn led to the Spanish Civil War. We still see echoes of this “latifundia” culture today in Latin America. In France, they were known for siding with the nobility. The Church fought a war against the anti-clerical French Revolution for a long period of time after it was over, fighting liberal democracy tooth-and-nail every step of the way, even into the 20th century. In France, the popular worker-priest movement was shut down by Rome, so as a result France was sliding into atheism well before Vatican II, which is why Henri de Lubac and other periti of Vatican II felt compelled to address the problem of “The Drama of Atheistic Humanism”, and what could be done about it. They were willing to be self-critical. In the last couple of decades, however, the Church seems to have pulled back from this engagement and has retreated a bit back into a siege mentality.

Paula said...

Jeff, i know the situation here and in the Central and North Europe. Spain and Italy are very different of course.

I am from Romania (East-Europe). Half Greek (after my dad) the other half Romanian with some Hungarian traces (after my mom).
The Hungarian traces are quite strong: my facial features are a bit asiatic (the ancestors of hungarians came from Asia).:-).

I think that I am a bit too harsh in my evaluation of West Europe, but this is how i see now the things. And I met way too many people here who say that the career or/and the car are the most important things in life.:-).

Steve Bogner said...

I think affluence changes the way people relate to God and the church. When you are scraping by, from day to day, the Gospel sounds different than when you have money to spare.

It's one of the reasons Liberation Theology, for example, makes more sense to the poor in Latin America than it does to those of us in the suburbs of the US.

I think one challenge not often brought up in these situations (Poland, Ireland ,etc) is how the church may also have to adapt to the changing nature of the society it works in.

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

You make a good point.

"Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy!
Our life, our sweetness, and our hope!
To thee do we cry, poor banished
children of Eve, to thee do we send
up our sighs, mourning and weeping
in this valley of tears.
Turn, then, most gracious advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us; and
after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb Jesus;
O clement, O loving, O sweet virgin Mary.
Pray for us, O holy Mother of God
That we may be made worthy of the
promises of Christ."

You are very right in saying that Church needs to know how to adapt. Take that beautiful, holy prayer of the Rosary above, for example How many people does it resonate with in the first world today? Despite whatever pyschological wounds and baggage they carry, are there many today who would consider themselves to be mourning and weeping in a valley of tears?

Joe said...

We are what we eat. Its true in that the food we eat each day (lifestyle, culture, beliefs, biased and unbiased media, stance justification, etc ) shapes our perpective on everything from patriotism to religion. Put another way, its difficult to have the Vision to climb out of the box we live in to see (and accept) the experiences and views in the boxes just around us or in the ones far away from us. In fact, it takes a Visionary to do so, in spite of the fact that information at a global level is more available than ever.

The Spanish post-Franco knee-jerk reaction to the institutional church was predictable. Mass attendance and "practicing Catholicism" is about as low as it can go, yet the real stuff of Faith remains strong just below the surface of the collective Spanish skin.

Living the hard experience of 40 years of dictatorship and forced fed institutional Catholicism is quite a learning experience to have in your knapsack. The Spanish Civil war and the dictatorship that followed is recent enough for people here to have 1st and 2nd hand experiences "fresh" in their minds. Learning experiences can be painful (even unjust). But they always provide us a perspective that we did not have before that experience. In that sense even the painful experience has an extremely positive side in that it provides Wisdom and heightened perspective.

Growing up as an American Catholic (in my box) it was pretty easy to write off the European attitude as cynicism. After 17 years of living abroad its been interesting to discover that Wisdom is not so scarce (or cynical) as I might have believed.

I always had my own particular view on the "practice" of the Catholic Faith. I've always asked myself what Christ might have thought of the church born of His name, (which is another rant for another time...) My time in Europe has accentuated that perspective. Its so much about humanity through the perspective of the figure of Christ than about Divinity through the doctrine of an institution called the catholic church.

I honestly don't feel its self justification for where I find myself today. I feel blessed to "find myself" in tune with the journey toward Christ with many of the folks around me here on the old continent.

un abrazo fuerte