Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sundry disillusions

There has been a big stir recently among the Chicago progressive Catholic community (all six of us) regarding Father Michael Pfleger. Pfleger is (was?) the parish priest of St. Sabina's on the mid-South Side of Chicago. For 30 years he's pastored this parish and been at the forefront of progressive causes affecting our city's and our country's black community, especially gun control in our inner cities. Often he's butted heads with the Archdiocese for things like adopting children or being too outspoken on political issues. This time might be the big one though.

The problem essentially stems from issues of church hierarchy and rules. In the Chicago Archdiocese, no priest is supposed to serve more than six years as pastor of a parish. This can be extended for another six year term, and then I believe two years after that, but then time's up, and it's time for the priest to move on to another parish. I don't know the original motivation for this rule, but it seems a sensible one to me. Catholics are supposed to follow the teachings of the Church above all, not to be devoted to whoever happens to be their parish priest. On the other hand, I know from the parishes I've been a part of that one gets attached to the parish priest, and effectively the priest serves as the most practical daily manifestation of the Church in the lives of parishioners. While theologically this personal link or preference for a given priest shouldn't be the determining factor in one's religious life, it is understandable, probably preferable, that this is how it works on the ground. Parish priests are important.

Anyway, Pfleger has served for 30 years as pastor of St. Sabina's, and the Cardinal wants to move him from there. Again, it doesn't sound like that bad of an idea. From the little I know about Sabina's and Pfleger, sometimes it seems like he's got a bit of a personality cult going on. But Pfleger claims that Cardinal George mainly wants to get him out of his politically-active role in the parish, and stow him away at an all-boys high school nearby. Pfleger is not trained to run a high school, and he feels that it would be more appropriate for that all-black school to have a black principal for the first time in its history. Most importantly for me is that Pfleger says George and the Archdiocese have never consulted with him about training and preparing a successor as pastor at St. Sabina's. If this is true, then Pfleger has a real point that the Archdiocese seems not to be playing fair. It wouldn't then be a simple case of, "The rules say there's a 14-year limit, and Pfleger's way beyond that," as George claims, but indeed an attempt to railroad Pfleger, and perhaps the faith community that he has been an important part of building.

Things really came to a head after an interview a few weeks ago with Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West, in which Pfleger claimed that if the Church moves him from St. Sabina's, he'll leave the Church. Cardinal George responded with a letter arguing that if Pfleger really feels that way, then he's already left the Church, because part of his vows is respect for Church hierarchy and orders. I think this is fair. A Catholic priest's vows do indeed have a big focus on obedience, and if Pfleger wasn't ready to assume this, he shouldn't have become a priest, or shouldn't continue to be one. Pfleger is currently suspended from pastoring, and St. Sabina's parishioners are up in arms.

The whole thing makes me really sad. Pfleger is one of the main (only) voices in Chicago's Catholic Church speaking out and living the principles of the social Gospel. While other priests go through a typical rotation of bland homilies about things like how society is de-Christianizing Christmas or granting too many human rights to gays, Pfleger is a thorn in the side of a complacent, violent, immoral world. I believe this is what Christianity is supposed to be about--challenging the status quo, insisting on respect for and solidarity with our suffering neighbors, carrying on Christ's radical defiance of the selfish, the wealthy, the powerful, the oppressor. At the same time, if Pfleger leaves the Church, he will weaken and discredit his parish and the Archdiocese.

Another issue that came up in the Pfleger interview with West and Smiley is their general disillusionment with president Obama. Here are three of the foremost voices in black progressive politics and thinking, three former Obama supporters, and all of them are totally disappointed with him as a president. They feel he's sold out his principles. I have to agree for the most part, and it makes me really sad.

This brings me to another issue relating to Obama that just disgusts me. When the White House put up the long-form Hawaiian birth certificate online, I thought it was stupid. Why would the White House pander to or try to curry the favor of the halfwits and cynics who are clamoring about Obama's not being born in the US? These are people who are obviously not won over by reason or facts or anything real, and will not be won over now that the birth certificate is online. Presumably the so-called "birthers" have an axe to grind with Obama, because he's a Democrat, or because he is (was?) a progressive, or because he's an uppity Negro, or because he's got an Arabic name. They're not worth talking to or talking about, and it's an insult to the president and the Presidency that the official White House website is now dedicating itself to urban myth-busting (for that, there already exists an excellent site,

The worst part of the birth certificate "controversy" is that it confirms the worst suspicions of Smiley, West, and Pfleger: that Obama is now just one more part of a frivolous, immoral political circus. Our nation is currently being sold to bankers and corporations through Cabinet appointments and lobbyist influence, the fossil fuel basis of our economy is going to the shithouse, and the natural environment is going haywire as a result of centuries of abuse of the plant, but all that the news (and the President) sees fit to talk about are bogus political non-issues and a wedding in an empire that our ancestors shed blood to win our independence from? This is really sad, and it bodes ill for our nation and our world.

An example of this sad, cynical state of news is the following video, sent to me by a friend.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The video is from a pseudo-news show on a pseudo-news network, MSNBC. The host of the show has brought on a supposedly prominent voice in the birther movement, Orly Taitz. Why this foreign dentist with poor fashion sense and a seemingly invented accent (think Zohan mixed with Borat) should be on national TV spouting frivolous conspiracy theories is a mystery to me. Ostensibly the show's host wanted her to acknowledge the veracity of Obama's newly-released birth certificate, and as such the host would be serving the noble progressive cause of arguing with right-wing nutcases. But by having a nutcase on your show, by arguing with someone who says the Earth is flat, you're not advancing any progressive cause. You just demean yourself and your forum (though I don't know of anyone who actually thinks of MSNBC as a coherent, relevant progressive voice). Now this video and others like it circulate through the rounds of pseudonews and the blogosphere, and all of us, myself included, become part of the inane circus distracting the US from real issues.

I guess it's not so hard to understand then how Obama joined the circus too. To him and my fellow Americans, I say, "Onward and upward, daring young men on the flying trapeze!"

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