American Catholics are a “different breed” and should establish their own distinctive church that reflects the political traditions and culture of this nation, argues Phoenix Catholic journalist-author Robert Blair Kaiser.
“Our goal is to get a million American Catholics to take back our American church,” he said. “We are not trying to change Rome because I don’t think Rome will ever change. If it does, it is going to have to take a major catastrophe to get it to change.”
Kaiser is co-founder of www.takebackourchurch.org, whose theme is “Who presides over all must be chosen by all,” a quote attributed to Pope Leo the Great (440 to 461). He advocates for a Catholic church that is “autochthonous,” meaning homegrown or “formed in the place where it’s found.” It calls for a strong laity voice in the selection of church hierarchy, a church of laws that “make us all accountable to one another” and one grounded in scripture and the traditions of the early church.
Catholic canon law, Kaiser notes, has a time-honored system of regional and national synods for restructuring church government, and non-clergy can be included. He suggests a “charter for a people’s church” could include a bicameral parliamentary setup with a Senate of Bishops and a House of Commons.
After America’s founding, he said, the first U.S. bishop was chosen by a popular vote of America’s priests, and the same idea is being manifested in China, where the state-run Catholic Church has been designating bishops and saying it does not recognize Rome’s authority to do so.
Kaiser points to the “exercise of local control” that also has marked the Maronite Church, most concentrated in Lebanon, the Coptics in Egypt and Byzantine Catholics in Eastern Europe. “They have their own patriarchs, their own government, their own married and nonmarried clergy. They have their own monks and . . . they have their own language, liturgy and own music, and they are loyal to the pope. That is the key issue, they are loyal to the pope in faith issues,” Kaiser said.
There could be an American church that is fully Catholic, yet fully American, said Kaiser, who is a contributing editor of Newsweek magazine and served a a commentator for CBS, NBC and Fox during the April 2005 conclave at the Vatican.
“I didn’t make this up,” he insisted. “I have been mentored by some top theologians in Rome who would like to come out publicly on this, but they dare not. I dare because I don’t work for the church.”
Kaiser, who was a young reporter for Time magazine when he was dispatched in 1962 to Rome to cover Vatican Council II, travels widely promoting his new book, “A Church in Search of Itself: Benedict XVI and the Battle for the Future.” He believes the Vatican Council showed promise to bring bona fide modernity and reform to the world church 40 years ago, but efforts were crushed by the Curia.
“If they hadn’t been squelched and suppressed and kicked out of the priesthood, a lot of the men right after Vatican II would be the leaders today, but there was a purge of the best people,” said Kaiser, author of 10 other books, including “Clerical Error” and “The Politics of Sex and Religion.”
Kaiser predicts that when a future pope releases an encyclical on the priesthood, he will begin with the phrase “sicut semper,” or “as always,” saying that the Roman Catholic Church has had two kinds of priests — order priests who take lifelong vows of chastity and parish priests who marry.
Such change will come out of necessity but scarcely will be acknowledged as a change, suggests Kaiser, who spent 10 years with the Jesuits before leaving three years short of ordination. The growing numbers of priestless communities worldwide are causing lay Catholics to work around things as the early church started out.
In “A Church in Search of Itself,” Kaiser seeks to tell the story of the Catholic Church as it moves past the legacy of Pope John Paul II and what Pope Benedict likely will do.
“On another level, it’s a view of the church at large as reflected by profiles that I do of five cardinals from five different parts of the Catholic world, and it illustrates to the reader of the church that John Paul III is leaving behind.” One of the cardinals is Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, who Kaiser says is one of possibly 18 cardinals who envision a “people’s church.”
He focused other chapters on cardinals in England, Honduras, Nigeria and Indonesia.
Kaiser also offered these comments:
• On Pope Benedict: “He doesn’t surprise me a bit. He is very much in character on a personal level. He is not the showman that John Paul II was. He is innately shy and retiring. . . . He doesn’t seem to seek the headlines like John Paul II did.”
• On Pope John Paul II’s tenure: There had been “a personality cult” surrounding him. “That has been the problem for 25 or 26 years under John Paul II. He looked like the super bishop, and all the other bishops were errand boys to him.”
• The Eucharist: “We are in the middle of a Eucharistic famine. There are a lot of parishes that don’t even have priests, and they have to settle for an occasional communion service, which is not the Mass and it not the way things are intended. That is what make us Catholics — the Mass, and we are not getting it."