During my graduate studies in Louvain, I had the good fortune of having Cristianne Brusselmanns as a professor. Many will recognize that name and recognize as well the pivotal role this woman played in restoring the adult rite of initiation (RCIA) in the West. Cristianne was an exceptional teacher, one-in-a-million, who radiated catholicity, graciousness, and depth. One of the things she would say again and again about the restored rite for adult initiation, was that it was not meant as the only way of entering the church. It was meant only as a way, an ideal way even, but never, never as the only way. God, she would always affirm, works outside of even good program. Sadly, we have fallen a long ways from both her catholicity and depth.

Today we are falling victim, I fear, to a new authoritarianism in the church, the tyranny of program. It may look different from the old authoritarianism, but it is not. Many of us remember only too well the days when all the power was concentrated in the hands of one man, the pastor, and where his ecclesiology, interpretation of church law, temperament, and whim pretty much decided everything. The oral tradition abounds with stories (both horrific and humorous) of the classical, old pastor or monsignor who ruled with an iron hand and by divine right.

But that kind of authoritarianism is now mostly the stuff of legends. Gone are the old pastor and monsignor of who could do this. There is a new church, though it seems that things haven’t changed much. People are still too much the victim of one narrow view of ecclesiology and church law. Sadly too temperament and whim still play a large a role in deciding who enters the church, how one enters the church, and who gets to receive the sacraments. The old patriarchy has largely been replaced by a new absolutism, the tyranny of good program. A narrow authoritarianism still rules, except now it is the authoritarianism of the parish staff, freshly-trained in theology and liturgy but is not nearly as deeply schooled in catholicity and compassion. The absolutism of the new parish staff has replaced the authoritarianism of the old monsignor.

It can of course be argued that the parish staff of today is  certainly operating out of a better ecclesiology and theology of liturgy and sacraments than did the authoritarian monsignor of old. Point granted. However: Is Christ being made more accessible? Is our ecclesiology healthier in its Catholicity, depth, and compassion? Are many of the poor still being excluded from church and sacrament because of our misuse of power? Is a false use of authority still blocking the full compassion of the gospel and giving God a bad name? Are there really less horror stories than before?

Certainly new horror stories abound: “I wasn’t allowed to join the church in this parish and diocese, except through one program, the RCIA.” “There will be no eulogy at a funeral in this parish or diocese (no matter how painful the anthropological and emotional circumstances in this particular instance) because the funeral liturgy is complete in and off itself!” “All parents must take the pre-baptism program, even if they themselves have helped instruct those who teach these programs!” “No hymn that isn’t approved by the parish team will be sung a wedding in this parish, irrespective of background (religious, aesthetic, ethnic, and emotional) of the couple who are actually getting married!” The list goes on and on.

A new legalism is replacing the old and it parallels perfectly the old in its lack of compassion, catholicity, depth, and nuance – not mention how, just like the old, it echoes the personality of the person or persons who are doing the adjudication.

We might all take a lesson in catholicity and good pastoral theology from the incident in the gospels where Jesus is confronted by a Canaanite woman, asking that he cure her daughter. Transliterated, this text, Matthew 15, 21-28 might read like this:

It was the night of the Easter vigil. Jesus had just helped to conduct an eight-month RCIA program and was helping set up things for the candidates who were to be baptized at the vigil liturgy, when I woman, who hadn’t taken the program, came up to him and said: “Jesus, leader of this RCIA program, I would like to be baptized tonight, with these others.” Jesus replied: “You never took the program! This is only for those who took it. It isn’t fair to them to baptize you!” But the woman addresses Jesus a second time: “Jesus, you who are the compassion of God for the world and not just for this parish and program, I’m as ready as all those who did take the program!” And Jesus, after interviewing her, right then and there, concludes: “Amen. Indeed you are more ready than any of the candidates scheduled for baptism tonight. Step into line and be baptized … even though you didn’t take the program!” There’s a lesson here.