Below is a link to a talk I gave last Sunday at Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis. It was the final talk in what turned out to be a 3-part series on ecclesial and American culture and the need for cultural transformation for both Church and society. I followed the path of Vatican II by first examining ad intra the life of faith and our encounter with Christ and next moved ad extra to the Church’s interaction with society and particular dimensions of a wounded American culture. The final talk explored the cultural corollaries of ecclesial and American culture and noted both the similarities that led to cultural breakdown as well as similar dimensions of roadmaps to restoration.
My main thesis is that unhealed wounded hearts and disorder in one’s soul, especially among leaders, results in cultural breakdown and the inhibition of the collective good that leaders are called to serve. This often results in a populist backlash. When the lack of service for the common good persists, it is sometimes a disjunctive event – to borrow Ross Douthat’s phrase – such as the twin crises of clergy abuse and coverup or a pandemic that may rouse those in the collective to wake up and demand better from their leaders and, if applicable, themselves.
Before you delve into the talk, I would like to offer a few more points by a way of clarification and distinction that may be helpful. First, as always, I do not pretend to have all the answers, but offer the fruit of study and prayer from a recent sabbatical this past winter. Second, it is evident that so much cultural breakdown results from a misuse of power and authority that often flows from woundedness, insecurities, the privation of virtue or, correspondingly, as Aristotle would say, the lack of a healthy soul. These regrettable conditions often manifest in leadership exercised for self interest and ego and results in the failure to put the true good to be served at the center.
As one friend of mine said clearly when I interviewed him on sabbatical – it’s all about power. The 20th century German theologian Romano Guardini would agree and in his prophetic work The End of the Modern World describes true power as humble service – the perfect prototype of which is the cross of Christ. Third, when I talk about some bishops as men of the institution, I should have more clearly contrasted these bishops with men of Christ or spiritual men as St. Cyril of Alexandria would describe them. Fourth, and relatedly, I missed the important cultural corollary between secularism, alive and well in American culture, and spiritual worldliness which Pope Francis has decried as a particular malady that afflicts some ministers in the Church and the life of the Church. Penultimately, the potential for restorative justice and restorative practices to help heal the wounds perpetrated by an unhealthy ecclesial and American culture cannot be overstated. That said, getting at the roots of cultural pathologies is critical so that harm and injustice are not allowed to persist.
Lastly, I am reminded of a story that the late Archbishop Flynn told me. Flynn was not a perfect man and did not claim to be, but he was gracious and a man of faith who consistently exercised ecclesial authority in authentic and humble service. The story goes that when he and the bishops of Minnesota journeyed to Rome for their Ad Limina visit in the latter days of the John Paul II pontificate, one curial official stood out for his humility and graciousness and for exercising his power as authentic service – Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Flynn told me that when John Paul II died, he hoped and prayed that the electors would choose Ratzinger because of his humble and gracious manner. Similarly, many of the bishops of the United States remarked, prior to COVID shutting things down, how gracious and open Pope Francis was during the dialogue sessions he hosted with the U.S. bishops during their recent Ad Limina visits. Neither Benedict XVI nor Francis would claim perfection in their ministry as Peter and notwithstanding whatever weaknesses each may demonstrate from time to time, it is clear that these are men who have encountered Christ deeply, live in freedom, and from the foundation of a well ordered soul, use ecclesial power for service and the good of the Church.