Posted by: Mark Nielsen | April 28, 2011

Fr. Pfleger’s Fireworks – Whose Church Is It, Anyway?

Can a priest rock the boat and still stay afloat?

Time to fess up: I’ve never been a “nice Catholic boy”, and my heroes have always been pirates and rebels.

Even in the Bible, I love the rebels — the tricksters, the loud, rude, lusty, failing, angry, loving, questioning guys and gals who wrestle with God in their attempts to follow God: Jacob, Moses, David, Isaiah, Peter, Paul… not a wallflower among them. I suspect the Apostle Jude Thaddeus was a bit of a wallflower, which is why the gospels barely mention him, even though he was Jesus’ cousin. [Though interestingly, Jude WAS eventually a missionary to the "barbarians" in Libya, so he must have gotten some courage of his own later in life... ]

So you’ll pardon me if I admit my bias here: I like Fr. Michael Pfleger. And I think Cardinal George of Chicago is wrong to suspend him, as the news today is telling us has occurred.

Unlike 98% of the other loudmouths in this debate, though, I’ve also met Pfleger. I’ve heard more than just the two-minute soundbites we get of him in the news.  An old friend of mine, Bob Hercules, even made a documentary film about Pfleger.

Don’t mistake me for a zealot, though. I don’t love Pfleger, and I won’t make excuses for him. He can be a clown as often as he is a prophetic voice. But I do like his style. I have watched the local Chicago news stories (and national ones, with the Hilary Clinton thing in ’08…) that he’s been involved in over the years –watched with a mixture of amusement and curiosity, but never disdain. I think he and his work are very important.

I will admit to some other biases as well:

  1.      I am white… just like most of the many passionate (or ignorant) pro/con commenters today at the Sun Times article about Pfleger’s suspension. Mark my words: whether angry or celebratory, over 90% of the people you will find spouting off about this story in print in the coming days will be white. So their expertise is therefore also biased and limited, like my own. I did however attend a slightly less-white church in very multicultural Evanston for over twenty years, partly because of the gift of diversity that existed there. And in case I need to confirm the obvious: it was a Protestant church (Mennonite, to be precise)…………………Also I have seen the roster and photos of the priests-in-training currently attending Catholic seminaries here in Chicago. The bad news: there is not a single African American among them. A few African nationals– imports from overseas– which is fine. But no African American men. In one of the largest Catholic diocese in the WORLD, this Archdiocese has consistently shown it is not all that friendly to black Roman Catholics. I’m not saying why. Just observing. But let’s not forget that Dr. King said he encountered more virulent racism in Chicago than he ever did down south… so have things gotten better since then, or not? Is racism gone, or just gone underground and gone legit?
  2.       I have worshipped Yahweh in a strange Catholic/Protestant/Other hybrid heart-space for almost 30 years now. I have great respect for both of the main Christian traditions, and yet have faced constant frustration with how each tends to get stuck in useless, ancient, narrow mindsets. I’ve wept at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi, touched the “shoes of the fisherman” on the St. Peter statue in Rome’s basilica, and yet I’ve sung the praises of Martin Luther and the reformers who followed in his footsteps. I’ve read thousands of years worth of material, and listened and attended conferences and conducted meetings and classes, with people on both sides of the aisle — maybe almost as much as any professional minister has (which I’m not — I’m a layman, a teacher by training and a media consultant/wanna-be filmmaker by vocation). Furthermore, I live in one of the most Jewish towns in the country. Oh, and one of my key spiritual teachers is a Jesus-loving Islamic Sufi poet from over 800 years ago (that would be Rumi). And I’m firmly in agreement with Brother Thomas Merton, that Christians could stand to learn a thing or two (or ten, or a thousand) from the Buddhist tradition.
  3.       As you’d expect, I am pretty liberal, both politically and theologically (and yes, there is a difference). I read the Bible that way. I vote that way. I raise my kid that way. But I recognize the rationale and good intentions of conservatives. For example, I am pretty much pro-life, though I think of the issue in a nuanced way, and refuse to vote strictly on the basis of that one issue. Nevertheless, conservatives –whether religious or not– are just trying to do what they believe is right, to organize a system according to traditions and principles that matter a whole lot to me, as well. I just interpret the scriptures and the Constitution and history and human sin and the U.S. federal budget in what I see as a more holistic way than most conservatives do.
  4.       I’m rich. By world standards, and most U.S. standards, I’m in that blessed (or cursed?) top 25%, probably top 10%. And in this, I am UNLIKE most of the embattled black working-class (or outright poor)  community members at St. Sabina’s, where Pfleger has been working (or “working the system”, if you’re not a Pfleger fan) for 30 years. Yet I’m trying not to let money, or fear of losing my money, control my life. I’m trying not to let my own self-interests get in the way of justice and salvation for somebody else, …or at least on my better days, I’m trying to do that. On my bad days, I spend $4.00 for a cup of non-fair trade Starbucks coffee– purchased at a large chain grocer who refuses to build a store in poor South Side neighborhoods– and I don’t think twice about it. So yeah, I’m rich.

I’m sure there are plenty more biases where those came from. But I still don’t think those biases should blur the facts. Unfortunately, the facts in this case are probably more hidden and/or spun than we’d like to admit… by both parties. So who knows what “the truth” is anymore? These two heavyweights have been punching for as long as I can remember, and neither shows any signs of giving up.

Finally, I will include below my own comment that I attached to the cacophony of voices underneath today’s Sun Times article. It may not score any points with those who have already made up their mind about such things. But like Father Mike, I’m gonna speak my peace anyway, in the interest of leaving the 99 “found” sheep to guide and help the one who is lost:

As anyone who has watched Fr. Pfleger’s career closely will tell you, this is not just an Archdiocese issue, and not just about George vs. Pfleger, but the next chapter in an ongoing national debate about who the Church belongs to: the leadership or the parishioners.

It’s not even just a Catholic issue, as Pfleger is among the leading lights in American Catholicism when it comes to ecumenical cooperation in order to bring about honest discussions on race and other urban ministry issues. Take, for example, the screening of Bob Hercules’ excellent Pfleger film “Radical Disciple” at last summer’s Congress on Urban Ministry. That conference was and is primarily a Protestant effort.

Yet even in the comments at the Congress’ blog entry above, we see that some Catholics, for reasons both good and bad, put the “tradition” (sacraments, authority structures, etc.) ahead of the current needs of God’s people, instead of considering both on equal footing. Pfleger is no saint… he can be very ego-driven, manipulative, and rash in his passion for ministry. But he would be the first to admit this, or what’s the Catholic concept of ‘confession’ all about, anyway.

But George is standing on strict (and theologically conservative) ground in this situation, when what is called for is transparency, adaptation, and mercy for the parishioners of St. Sabina (and the non-Catholics that Fr. Mike has been a strong witness to). IF the Archdiocese is going to do this, chances are good that some new Kanye West will rise up from within the ranks to say, as many people already suspect about the Church as a whole, “Cardinal George don’t care about black people!”

Mark Nielsen
Skokie, IL

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