Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bishop Dowling, the "cappa magna," and humility

The blog of America Magazine has re-posted a piece that appeared on the site of the Independent Catholic News. The piece is the text of an address “given by Kevin Dowling CSsR to a group of leading laity in Cape Town, South Africa on 1 June." [Note: the text has been removed from the site of the Independent Catholic News but has been posted on the website of the National Catholic Reporter, with the bishop's permission.]

Bishop Dowling’s address essentially takes a metaphorical scalpel to a trend that has developed over the last 30 years in which all Church authority has steadily become concentrated in the hands of the pope and the “Curial Departments and Cardinals.” Much of this authority, according to Dowling, rightfully belongs in the hands of the People of God at the level of the local churches and of the local episcopate, and of the Synod of Bishops. The letter and spirit of Vatican II, which reaffirmed this horizontal paradigm, has been replaced by

“the mystique which has in increasing measure surrounded the person of the Pope in the last 30 years, such that any hint of critique or questioning of his policies, of his way of thinking, his exercise of authority, etc. is equated with disloyalty. There is more than a perception, because of this mystique, that unquestioning obedience by the faithful to the Pope is required and is a sign of the ethos and fidelity of a true Catholic.”

For Dowling, a potent symbol of the “restorationism” that has been taking place these 30 years was the “cappa magna” worn by Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa, Oklahoma as he celebrated a Tridentine Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington in April. Dowling describes the garment as “the 20-yard-long brilliant red train behind a bishop or cardinal that has become one of the symbols of the revival of the Tridentine Mass.” The wearing of the cappa magna and the elaborate processional pageantry that preceded the Mass in Washington “bore the marks of a medieval royal court, not the humble servant leadership modeled by Jesus.”

Dowling laments the disappearance of

the great theological leaders and thinkers of the past…and the great prophetic bishops whose voice and witness was a clarion call to justice, human rights and a global community of equitable sharing….Again, who in today’s world “out there” even listens to, much less appreciates and allows themselves to be challenged by the leadership of the Church at the present time? The moral authority of the Church’s leadership today has never been weaker. It is, therefore, important in my view that Church leadership, instead of giving an impression of its power, privilege and prestige, should rather be experienced as a humble, searching ministry together with its people in order to discern the most appropriate or viable responses which can be made to complex ethical and moral questions—a leadership, therefore, which does not presume too have all the answers all the time….

The concentration of authority in the hands of the Pope and the Vatican Curia and “the policy of appointing ‘safe’, unquestionably orthodox and even very conservative bishops to fill vacant dioceses over the past 30 years” has made it very unlikely that the College of Bishops “will question anything that comes out of Rome, and certainly not publicly.” How courageous it is, then, for Bishop Dowling, a single voice in this deafening chorus of orthodoxy, to raise it in respectful and humble dissent and to point out, however indirectly, the hubris of those who would take it upon themselves to reject the spirit of Vatican II and scorn the legacy of Blessed John XXIII by usurping the authority of the local churches and thus the People of God.

And how clever the bishop is to use the words of Joseph Ratzinger himself to demonstrate how far we have strayed from Vatican II:

Over the pope as expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there stands one's own conscience which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even the official church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism.

(Joseph Ratzinger in: Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II ,Vol. V., pg. 134 (Ed) H. Vorgrimler, New York, Herder and Herder, 1967).

Among the many things about this article that impress me is its call for greater humility on the part of the leadership of the Church—“the humble servant leadership modeled by Jesus.” Church leaders would do well to return to the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus so that they might learn the true meaning of humility. Surely a man who regularly ate with sinners, with the impure, and with the marginalized; who, unlike “foxes and the birds of the air,” had “nowhere to lay his head;” and who allowed himself to be subjected to the most degrading punishment of his day, has by his very way of life and death something to teach the wearers of the “great cape.”

When will they attend?

Photo Credits

by jdbradley

Creaative Commons: Some rights reserved


  1. Certainly, I think the degree of centralization in the Papacy has been a problem for a long time coming. I just simply don't see why, of necessity, a magna capa or any liturgy with a royal feel need be opposed to the Church's teaching and voice on justice and social responsiblity.

    A magna capa should not be a weekly sight, but I completely reject this idea that permitting a Mass to look like a "royal court" contradicts the humility of Christ. This kind of statement has the sense of forgetting the incarnation, repudiating a great deal of our Catholic heritage, and holding Jesus up merely as a social prophet (which He was, but also quite more).

    The genuis of Catholicism has been its past ability to hold its contradictions together as paradoxes. We can see the royalty of Christ the King in the regal splendor of much of our arichtecture and pomp, for here its colors foreshadow, through visible things, the world to come in Him. By clothing the Liturgy in the garments of earthly kings, we give homage to Him who is alone the true king, and earthly things suddenly give shape to unseen heavenly realities.

    At the same time, and in tension with this, we exalt the image of Christ the King whose crown is a diadem of thorns and who rules from the throne of His Cross- the King who is Servant and lives His life so fully for others.

    Both of thse images interact with one another in a kind of dialectic, in fact, both suspend the other in its place, so the truth is sensed in retaining both of them, while arising above them in their particularity. Christ the Servant, the Crucified, is the real king of the world and is a sight of heavenly beauty.

    Human culture should always have beauty, otherwise every artist should otherwise feel his life a waste and go off doing something just and responsible, not giving expression to the world, but rather running a soup kitchen. But the human soul needs more than bread. We should always have a degree of pomp and circumstance and some "glitter" in life.

    In placing a crown of gold on the Head, or a cape on his back, we are acknowledging the true value of the wounds in his forehead and the lashings on His back- here is true royalty, let beauty ascend to Him.

    My take, anyways.

  2. This is an excellent post. Bishop Dowling made many great points. It is sad to witness some of what is going on in the Vatican today. I think the Curia is a major part of the problem. We need to get back to the spirit of Vatican II.

    Peace - Mark

  3. JD:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    I have expressed elsewhere on this blog my thoughts on ritual in the Church, but essentially I agree—although perhaps for reasons different from yours—that liturgy, in all its elements, must be beautiful to lead us to what you have called “the encounter with the ineffable.” As a Catholic of nearly 60 years of age, I have been exposed to both the traditional rite as it was conducted in the pre-Vatican II Church and the novus ordo; I have seen both conducted badly in equal measure.

    I do believe, however, that the magna cappa is a bit excessive, especially in an age when the distance between king and commoner tends to be de-emphasized as societies become more democratic and pluralistic and rigid class systems fade into the past. Moreover, I do not think Christ saw himself as a king, so I do not feel compelled to worship him as such.

    I cannot speak for him of course, but I do not think that Bishop Dowling’s issue was necessarily with the wearing of the cappa magna per se. It was rather that given the restoration of the papacy over the past thirty years to the status of a monarchical court, the wearing of the cappa magna by the courtiers only serves to point out the great distance that has been created between the People of God and the self-appointed royalty of the Church.

  4. Thanks, Mark. I hope that Bishop Dowling's courageous address is just the beginning of a movement to re-affirm one of the main principles of Vatican II: that the Church is the People of God.

  5. Ross: I didn't see the papacy of Pope John Paul II to be a restoration to the status of a monarchical court. Pope John Paul II eschewed the tiara and the sedia. He went out among the people and evangelized. I found that in many ways, Pope John Paul II had a love of the common people and did not separate himself from them as some other Popes did. In my opinion, John Paul II was not one for a lot of fancy show. It is sad though that in the final years of his Papacy, John Paul II did suffer from considerable physical and mental decline. Pope Benedict XVI does seem to be a little more traditional in these matters.

  6. Sorry, that was me above, sometimes it doesn't record my name. Peace & Blessings - Mark

  7. Mark:

    Thank you for your comment on John Paul II. Here is just a very small part of what Hans Kung has to say about this pope and his pontificate in the book "The Catholic Church: A Short History." The book was wriotten while JPII was still alive.

    "Many people speak of a betrayal of the council, a betrayal which has alientated countless Catholics from the church all over the world. Instead of the words of the conciliar program there are again the slogans of a magisterium which is once more conservative and authoritarian. Instead of the aggiornamento in the spirit of the gospel there is now again the traditional integral 'Catholic teaching' (rigorous moral encyclicals, the traditionalist world catechism). Instead of the collegiality of the pope with the bishops there is again a tighter Roman centralism which in the nomination of bishops and appointments to theological chairs sets itself above the interests of the local churches. Instead of openness to the modern world there is increasingly accusation, complaint, and lamentation over alleged assimilation and an encouragement of traditional forms of piety, such as Marianism. Instead of dialogue there is again reinforced inquisition and a refusal of freedom of conscience and teaching in the church. Instead of ecumenism the emphasis is again on everything that is narrowly Roman Catholic."

    See "The Cathoilic Church: A Short History," pp. 190-196.

  8. I think Pope John Paul II's papacy was a major shift in that for the first time in over 400 years, we had a non-Italian Pope. It seems to me that some in the Church were not happy having a Polish Pope. I think some looked down on Pope John Paul II due to his nationality. The Pope also came from a working class background and was not from the upper class or nobility. Marianism is a strong part of Polish Catholicism this is true. From what I have seen Pope John Paul II was very popular with the common people and reached out to them in a way that no Pope before him had. His travels and his love for people was an inspiration to many.

    Peace - Mark

  9. Mark, I think we are going to have to agree to disagree about John Paul II.



  10. When he was Pope, I thought that John Paul II was a living saint. However, it saddens me that he never reached out to or met with victims of clerical abuse. He supported the priests and bishops but not the victims. The victims were treated like defile outcasts and this is a sad and painful thing. John Paul II met with the man who shot him but not those harmed by the Church. I am also upset that he backed Father Marciel, (a man who had 2 mistresses, illigimate childen, and who sexually abused seminarians). This man was protected by John Paul II. So I realize that he was not perfect. I suppose this is true of all human beings. Mark

  11. I think he is exagerating somewhat. A 20 yard long cappa would be 60 feet ! That's PRETTY long.

  12. There's no nuance here.

    If we renounce the very idea of exaltation, then it becomes impossible to exalt the lowly. That's the tension that needs to be maintained symbolically.

    Which do you think is really more of a problem, to provide an example: a humble man who dresses with pomp for tradition's sake, or men who are no less prideful or aggrandized for all their embrace of "humble" symbolism??

    I think of the turn towards more "humble" symbolism in recenty years as really just hiding behind the LACK of a crown or cappa. The adoption of humble symbols is no guarantee of humility or lack of aggrandizing power dynamics. Just look at the US President, whose "glory" is in the very fact of overthrowing Kings. Yet who, nowadays, is more of an oppressor, more aggrandized? The constitutional monarchs of the world (for all their pageantry)...or the US President? I think the answer (the latter) is clear.

    Servant leadership has to be real, but in this world it is eschatological ideal. Renouncing the symbols of grandeur does NOTHING if aggrandizement itself is not renounced. But, on the other hand, if aggrandizement itself is truly renounced by a man, renouncing the mere symbols adds nothing (and, in fact, takes away from a sort of pathos provided by the contrast).