Fouling the message with the method

By  Barb Boraks, Catholic Register Special
  • December 21, 2007

{mosimage}Journeys to the Heart of  Catholicism, by Ted Schmidt (Seraphim Editions, softcover, 200 pages, $19.95).

I am the mother of teenagers and, according to my kids, doing a pretty lousy job. So bad, in fact, that I turned to the experts and bought some parenting books. One in particular gave me some very practical advice that I am trying (unsuccessfully) to follow: If shouting doesn’t work, shouting louder really won’t either. There were certain times while reading Journeys to the Heart of Catholicsm I felt like saying to Teddy Schmidt — “Stop shouting.”

Schmidt is a retired Toronto high school teacher and was a columnist/editor of the defunct Catholic New Times.

Important ideas are there in Schmidt’s book, and every so often you see them shining in their full glory. But then they disappear, clouded by a sentence or a paragraph that just seems to be out of place and distracting, even contradictory.

The core message of this book is very simple: It is not sufficient to proclaim our faith and belief in the humanistic and humbling lessons taught to us by the life of Christ. We need to live it. In other words, talking the talk really doesn’t cut it and the past 20 years or so have seen too many examples of leadership — faith and lay — talking the (God) talk without walking the (God) walk.

{sa 0973548797}Constructive dialogue between laity and leadership has been lost. The moral authority which can only come from acknowledging and healing those who have been hurt, including the environment, has been replaced by the need to create authority based on resolute control of dogma. Schmidt calls this kingdom versus communion politics. Thus, according to Schmidt, healthy and constructive dialogue between an increasingly educated and concerned Catholic laity and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church on issues such as celibacy, ordaining women, proclaiming the social gospel and even church appointments (at both the clerical and administrative levels) has been lost. This has led to the alienation of the most important people in any faith or culture — the foot soldiers.

When  Schmidt stays this course his book succeeds. He brings to the table examples of the moral deterioration which can arise when ideological belief in one’s own superiority (be that a person, a country or an institution) supersedes the core faith values of humility and moral responsibility.

His examples focus on recent American administrations and their questionable role in Iraq, Central and South America. He raises the question of whether Israel — as a state, faith and people — can survive without acknowledging its role in the destruction of Palestinian hopes and homeland. In both cases, he sees a leadership that has forgotten its own history and taken its collective eye off the reason for their very existence — human dignity and faith in a loving God — and replaced it with communion politics: survival and control at all costs.

This same need for dogmatic control has exemplified the recent administrative leadership of the Catholic Church.

What is common to all of these leadership styles is a failure to understand that great and real strength comes from believing constructive criticism needs to be encouraged, not stifled. Real, moral leadership can never be founded on fear of losing control.

The book’s greatest strength and service lies in Schmidt telling us stories of individuals who have managed to keep their eye on the core values of their faith and live a life reflecting this — they talked the talk and walked the walk. Schmidt challenges us to build on the inroads made by faithful people and organizations (the Canadian Religious Conference, Rabbis for Human Rights) to create respectful and, hopefully, prolific dialogues and action on issues that speak to the very core of our existence, our God-given humanity.

Reading Journeys to the Heart of Catholicism is like searching for something that’s not quite where it’s supposed to be. The reason for my frustration is that paragraphs and statements which spoke eloquently about the concepts of the importance of integrity and respectful dialogue were too often followed by statements which can only be categorized as polemic and overstated.

Writing about “the myth of war,” Schmidt notes how Michael Moore “gets it.” He writes:  “He sees how victimized the poor are in the wealthiest culture ever known to humanity (America). Because post-secondary education, a virtual right in Europe, is so expensive in the world’s wealthiest country, the military provides; the only price may be your life. You will take the place of a Dick Cheney or George W. Bush.”

Now, even though it feels just wrong that billions of dollars a week are spent in Iraq while Americans are held hostage by an outdated, profit-oriented medical system, somehow using Moore as the authority figure seems to diminish the book. Schmidt should check out the Canadian-made documentary about how Moore makes movies — Manufacturing Dissent.

Robert Anderson, the director of the Dialogue Institute at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, said: “Though easy to say, ‘establish dialogue’ is not easy to achieve, particularly where interests legitimately differ. And how many people are actually prepared for the difficulties of dialogue?”

The record is clear. Schmidt’s life is a testament to walking the talk. The message is clear and compelling. But is the tone really necessary?

(Boraks is the executive director of Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto.)

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