Taking Exception: Robert Blair Kaiser

Robert Blair Kaiser is a fine, and accomplished provocateur and his commentary published here at NCR, “The Second Vatican Council has already made us free.” Is a fine example of this art form. I am provoked.

The issues about which Kaiser writes are important, which is why I am so disappointed that he encumbers them with statements that are false and/or pernicious.

By way of example, Kaiser writes, “It [Vatican II] has given us a new view of the church. It is our church, not the pope’s church, or the bishops’ church, or a priest’s church.” Of course, many images and metaphors were used in the documents of Vatican II, which Mr. Kaiser reported on at the time. The dominant motif that runs through all the documents, however, is the one Kaiser does not even mention: The Church is first and foremost Christ’s Church. I would add that the sense of antagonism, the adoption of us vs. them categories more appropriate to political or sociological analysis than to theology, that Kaiser’s sentence conveys is also at odds with the Council’s view of the Church, which never once said the Church was not hierarchical, but also tried to restore the theological idea that the Church consists of the pilgrim people of God. These two ideas – hierarchy and the people of God – may be experienced as a source of tension, but the clear call of the Council is to transcend the tension, not to exacerbate it.

Kaiser mistakenly says of the CDF’s doctrinal assessment of the LCWR that “Now Pope Benedict XVI has dissed them [the sisters] for doing that. Too much emphasis, he has said, on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and finding shelter for the homeless. Why don’t the sisters help the bishops speak out on core issues like birth control and abortion?....the pope can’t force them to speak nonsense.” Of course, the doctrinal assessment commended women religious for their social justice work, but also questioned why their concern for social justice did not include the cries of the unborn. I think there is a fine answer to the Vatican’s question. Sr. Simone Campbell, of NETWORK, has policy expertise in anti-poverty policy, and anti-poverty policies are inherently pro-life in themselves and also in their ability to lower the abortion rate. Not everyone can be an expert on all areas of policy, and there are many people with expertise on abortion policy who cannot do what Sr. Simone does in fighting poverty. That is a response. Calling the Vatican’s concern “nonsense” does not seem to me to be either persuasive or helpful.

Kaiser also suggests that “With the cogency of our arguments, we can further marginalize our bishops….” Again the antagonism provokes. Certainly, I can not think of any cogent argument that would justify a Catholic Christian in thinking the marginalization of our bishops was an appropriate goal or task. Again, Mr. Kaiser, who clearly considers himself an expert on Vatican II should point us to the line and verse in the decrees of the Council that justify such an ambition as marginalizing the hierarchy. He can’t because it is not there.

I do not begrudge Kaiser his role as a provocateur. Provocation is an important thing in public debate. But, really, should not this expert of Vatican II be able to ground his words in some evidence from the texts of that Council? Mr. Kaiser is entitled to call his opinions his own. He is not entitled to call Vatican II his own.


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