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Catholic Without a Church

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At a time when the world wasn't divided into liberals and conservatives, I was born into a devout Catholic family, went to a Catholic church and elementary school and then to a seminary, run by a community of friars -- monks in the world -- to study for the priesthood. I was devout, committed and satisfied. I enjoyed my life in a religious community and even now feel blessed to have had the experience for 13 years in my impressionable youth.

But one day I woke up. I had been reading the radical Teilhard de Chardin and examining the New Testament with fresh eyes under the expert guidance of John Dominic Crossan, now a renowned scholar, who happened to be a member of my community and my professor. It was the heady days of Vatican II, when all of culture seemed to be coming out of a mist and, unknown to me then, I was becoming a religious liberal.

I left the order, stopped going to church and left the God of my fathers and mothers. I tried to be a musician, but theology beckoned me. I got a Ph.D. in religion after studying Freud, Jung, Hillman, Zen, Taoism, the Hermetic tradition and Greek polytheism. Yet, amid all the changes I still felt that in my very cell of cells I was a Catholic. If predestination means anything, it assures that I will be a Catholic for life.

I still love the Catholic way, though I have no use for the pomp and authority. If they elected me pope, I'd model my style on the Dalai Lama. I'd ask the churches to separate from Rome and make their own local communities, ordain their own men and women priests, invite Jews, Buddhists and interesting atheists into their communities, restore and re-imagine monasticism and teach mysticism to the average person. I'd discourage moralism and guilt and emphasize the radical way of the Gospel, living the rule of love in an uncompromising manner. I'd emphasize honor to the saints and ritual and Gregorian chant and blessings in Latin. I'd try to achieve a contemporary Catholicism without the global church with its patriarchy and authoritarianism. I'd encourage people to follow the Jesus way joyfully and gracefully and not only tolerate but eagerly seek wisdom and insight from all other spiritual traditions. After all, the word "catholic" means universal.

I've seen this vision in action when I've visited some contemporary communities of Catholic women, formerly known as nuns, dedicated to living together and working for their local communities, not just Catholics. They have the small "c" catholic mentality and for it they are being investigated by Rome. In my catholicism no one would be investigated to test their orthodoxy. The whole idea would be to trust and encourage experiment and to look to special revered ones for guidance, not approval.

One day we might get back to the idea of a holy father or holy mother, a mome (momma), perhaps, rather than a pope (papa). This would be a holy person who teaches by example and by deep knowing rather than dogma. This holy mother or/and father would not be concerned about orthodoxy but about holiness and the spiritual welfare of the communities.

I'd like to see a new Catholic movement rather than a new kind of church. I'd want to keep the beautiful church buildings, but now owned and run by local communities that I think would thrive under the new paradigm. Today people everywhere are in search of a timely and inspiring spiritual home. Catholics also love their schools because, like their hospitals, they have a soul that is sustained by a vision of spiritual values, compassion and community.

Catholicism is a sub-category of Christianity, and I would expect Catholics forever to draw the best ideas and practices from their tradition, but in accord with the spirit of the times. I'd want to remember the values of St. Francis of Assisi and the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, the brilliant insights of Nicolas of Cusa and Teilhard de Chardin, and the visionary teachings of Hildegard of Bingen and Teresa of Avila. But most of all, I would hope that the essential vision of the Gospel would show the way to live a Catholic life in a secular society.

For me, the essentials of the Catholic life include the vision and values of the Gospels, the wisdom of the tradition, certain spiritual practices, the arts developed within the tradition, and a particular kind of monastic life. If pressed, I'd summarize it as Catholic wisdom and beauty. The heavy hand of authority has hurt rather than enhanced Catholic experience, and it's time to revision it.

My namesake Thomas More wrote his Utopia. Why can't I? We have to have a vision of the future, even if at first it's more inspiration than practicality. You can't make real progress if you only inch forward, afraid to ask the tough questions and challenge the foundations. I am Catholic deep in my heart, though I don't practice in the accepted ways. I know there are many like me, waiting for a community modeled on the community around Jesus, who, in my view, didn't intend to found a religion but to inspire a sane and beautiful way of life.