Flying in the Face of Tradition: Listening to the Lived Experience of the Faithful
by Louis deThomasis FSC
ACTA Publications, 2012
In a time when nearly every conversation about differing viewpoints that could lead to greater understanding and unity instead degenerates into polarizing acrimony, it is refreshing to run across a pithy little book that takes a different path. Brother Louis deThomasis is a Christian Brother whose background and experience - as a educator and president of St. Mary's University in Winona, Minnesota, and now as an investment manager for his international community - place him squarely within the boundaries of whatever establishment one might delineate, be it eccesial, academic or financial. He's hardly out on the fringes of anything, in other words, and his sensible, sober assessment of the current situation within the Catholic Church is hard to dismiss on those grounds, not that people won't try, of course!
Flying in the Face of Tradition, which was just published in the spring of 2012, is a 102-page example of the true definition of humility – meaning that it is written without hyperbole, exaggeration or distortion, but from within a clear-eyed foundation of personal experience and expertise. Brother Louis asks questions that cut right to the heart of the problems plaguing the institutional church today, and does so in a quiet, respectful manner that never strays from his aim of reconciliation and unity. He never belittles, attacks, or assumes evil intent, nor does he gloss over, excuse or sidestep into highflown abstraction. Instead, he proposes a set of questions designed “to appeal to common sense and the core values and beliefs within Catholicism” to arrive at “first, an understanding of the present reality of what is going on in the world today; and second, an analysis of how that present reality affects what is going on within the church today.”
His first question is: Is the institutional church dying? His simple answer to that is: Yes. But he views that as a hopeful thing, “the last opportunity for it to transform itself into something that once again is able to carry out its original purpose.” He defines the “institutional church” narrowly as the formal structural hierarchy within the Vatican,” along with the local churches that are within the purview of each Roman Catholic bishop. It is not to be conflated with the communion of the People of God with all the followers of Jesus before and after us, nor the kingdom of God. Those are the Church in the larger sense, the vibrant sense of mystical tradition, sacrament, herald and servant, the greater sense that we may forget in our focus on the “super-structure of the church, the one that makes the institutional rules and has made the institutional mistakes that have gotten us into our present situation.” He takes pains to make this distinction abundantly clear, because he says, “It is the institutional church that is dying, not the church that we Catholics belong to.”
He calls the institutional church to repentance and transformation bygiving a list of incidents that serve as examples of what precisely is wrong. It includes many examples of egregious denial and coverup of sexual crimes, financial misdeeds, and silencing of theologians, prophets and questions, to name only a few. Had this book been published just a month later, it might also have included the Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR; he does mention the Apostolic Visitation and the recent hospital case involving Sister Margaret McBride RSM and the Bishop of Phoenix. He names as sin a recent spirit of restorationism within the church structure that seeks to undo or squelch the spirit of Vatican II, and the hubris and fear that underlie the increasing attempts to control and marginalize those who favor transparency and dare to ask questions.
But he doesn't stop with the laundry list. He also proposes good, realistic solutions that are grounded in his own institutional experience and expertise. He sprinkles the text with encouragement to the faithful who struggle with the losses that any kind of change inevitably represents. And he finishes the book with a poignant little tale entitled “A Voice of Tradition” about the founder of his order, St. John Baptiste de LaSalle. De LaSalle had no end of difficulty and conflict with the institutional hierarchs and even with his own congregation as he sought to make education available to the poor and working-class people of his day. But in his prayerful persistence, he became, deThomasis writes, “an institutional church transformational agent.”
I read this book in one afternoon, and came away from it with a renewed sense of hope and possibility, even in the midst of these messy times. I highly recommend it to anyone – Catholic or not – who is looking for some sign of sanity in our flailing church. This book is one such sign.