The Story of My Dissent
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 08:36:47 AM EST
This is the story of how and why I spoke out during a recent church service. When I arrived at Saturday evening mass with my family, I had no idea of the drama that my priest was about to stage -- and my own unscripted role. While my outburst may have taken everyone, including me, by surprise, I was and I am faithfully dissenting from what my pastor, Father Michael Louis Gelfant, seems to want to do to my parish, my country and my faith.

His Saturday evening sermon of February 19, 2011 was an effort to introduce the forthcoming but already controversial, revised missal (a liturgical book containing all instructions and texts necessary for the celebration of Mass throughout the year.) Unfortunately, he sidestepped its much-discussed shortcomings and the heavy-handed way in which it is being imposed upon the English-speaking Church. That alone was disappointing, but he also used the pulpit to disparage Vatican II, American Catholics, and to wage culture war. And that is why I needed to speak out.

My parish, St. Finbar's in Bath Beach, Brooklyn had always been a beacon of tolerance and progressive Catholicism. There, we heard sermons about living good, reasonable lives, economic and social justice and the lessons of the likes of Dorothy Day.  Except for the occasional visiting priest, we were never subjected to Catholic Right culture war sermons.  Our late pastor Father James Mueller, a Vatican II, aggiornamento-minded priest once complained to me about the young, conservative priests who would rather rush to the front lines of the culture wars than to the duties of a parish priest such as counseling parishioners in trouble or visiting the sick and dying.  

After our new pastor's sermon on February 19, 2011, I was left to wonder if he is the kind of priest Father Mueller was concerned about. Father Gelfant used a reading of 1 Corinthians 3 as the point of departure for his sermon. The key phrase for him was "For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight."  He then proceeded to use these words to attack the legacy of Vatican II, the current (non-Latin) Mass, and American Catholicism in general.

But before we discuss the reading and the related sermon which helps to explain my dissent, I want to report that I have learned a little more about Father Gelfant that helped me understand why his sermon may have taken the tone it did.  During a visit to his Facebook page I learned that his "likes" include Fox News, the "Notre Dame Scandal" (the protest against the University's invitation to president Obama to speak at commencement)  and Tea Party Patriots.

The Tea Party Patriots! This group is about as far outside of any branch of Catholicism as can be. For example, this outfit featured as a speaker at its recent policy summit , the executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute Yaron Brook. Ayn Rand was, of course, a 20th century libertarian atheist philosopher, who railed against the Christian ethic of altruism, found religious faith incompatible with reason and disregarded prohibitions against monogamous marriage. Rand's views are influential within the Tea Party movement.

Unsurprisingly, Tea Party Patriots organization is doing the dirty work for the infamous Koch Brothers, Charles and David, who are best known today as the major funders of the Tea Party movement.

Let's briefly consider why a Catholic might raise an eyebrow about the Koch connection.  They have employed a plethora of falsehoods in opposing universal health care legislation.  Koch Industries was named one of the top ten air polluters in the United States by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst's Political Economy Research Institute. The Koch brothers are fiercely anti-union and want to pull the social safety net out from under our most vulnerable brother and sister Americans.

Beyond that, the brothers Koch underwrite such organizations as the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and the Ethics and Public Policy Center that seek to strip the Christian Social Gospel and Social Justice traditions out of both Catholicism and mainstream Protestant denominations.  These reactionary projects cut deeply against the grain of one hundred and twenty years of Catholic teaching that began with Rerum Novarum.

Perhaps he was unaware of these facts. Many people are.  Or perhaps he is nostalgic for more authoritarian times. Or both.  But of course, I didn't know about his surprising political tastes when I protested out loud during the service.

Father Gelfant took the time in his sermon to complain to us about how the altar and tabernacle were moved to the front  from the back in the old Latin Mass. In those days, the priest would say Mass with his back to the congregation and do so in a language Jesus most likely rarely used (being a Jew, He spoke with His fellow Jews in either Hebrew or Aramaic and with non-Jews in Koine Greek the lingua-franca of the Roman Empire). Father Gelfant then critiqued the these key changes of Vatican II in terms of St. Paul's teaching that "the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight."  That struck me as an odd approach.

Mass is a remembrance of the Last Supper.  Just as Jesus shared His last meal before crucifixion with His friends, Communion is also a meal with friends. Bringing the altar closer to the congregation was intended as recognition of that remembrance.  (I have seen many paintings of the Last Supper and I have yet to see one where Jesus had His back to the twelve.)  I couldn't help but wonder if Father Gelfant would invite his friends and family to a celebratory meal and turn his back on them.  In fairness, he has probably never thought of it that way, and may just be such a fan of the aesthetics of the Latin rite mass, that he has not fully considered the implications.  

But then he spoke of his biretta, the square black cap priests sometimes wear at the beginning and conclusion of the Mass.  Its use is optional since Vatican II, but I was left with the impression that he uses it as a statement that he is above us, not of us.

But it was when he began to tell us about and praise the new missal, with all its awkward literal translations (discussed below) that I became angry. He then announced that a Latin Mass was coming back -- to St. Finbar's, I presume.  But he didn't say for sure.

The Latin Mass is a trademark cause for the Catholic Right. It is emblematic of their desire to establish a dissent-free, top-down system of authority. And its reemergence should be the fire-bell in the night warning that the reasonable reforms of Vatican II are being rolled back. The new missal with its literal Latin translations appears to be a first step to restore the old Latin Mass.

That is when I said "no!" and "I dissent!"

His response to my outburst was that "American Catholics think they own the Church." (I checked with several people to make sure I had heard him correctly. I had.) His rebuke of the faithful who have raised concerns over the new missal was as shocking as it was unmistakable.

It is not my practice to interrupt a speaker in church or anywhere else.  But that is when and why I spoke up.  Father Gelfant's words portend a more angry, strident Church; one where Catholics like me are not wanted.  And it appears that my own parish priest is among those who want such a church. I hope I am wrong about that.

Father Gelfant's sneer not withstanding, American Catholics are not alone in their reservations. A large group of Irish priests, for example, wants a five-year moratorium on its implementation, calling it "archaic."    

Representatives from the priests' group said the proposed literal translations from Latin had produced texts that were "archaic, elitist and obscure and not in keeping with the natural rhythm, cadence and syntax of the English language."

What are the Irish clergy talking about?  Well, one example is that the prayer "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you" becomes "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof." As any student of translation knows, idiomatic expressions can be clumsy things.

They also stated:

"We are passionately concerned about the quality of our liturgical celebration and about the quality of the language that will be used in the way we worship Sunday after Sunday," he said. "If this goes ahead, instead of drawing people into the liturgy, it will in fact draw people out from the liturgy."

What's more, the Vatican's imposition of the awkward new translation has been so heavy-handed that Father Anthony Ruff, until recently chairman on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy which was responsible for the fresh translation of the missal, dropped his support for the project. In a letter to the Jesuit journal America Father Ruff wrote:

The forthcoming missal is but a part of a larger pattern of top-down impositions by a central authority that does not consider itself accountable to the larger church. When I think of how secretive the translation process was, how little consultation was done with priests or laity, how the Holy See allowed a small group to hijack the translation at the final stage, how unsatisfactory the final text is, how this text was imposed on national conferences of bishops in violation of their legitimate episcopal authority, how much deception and mischief have marked this process-and then when I think of Our Lord's teachings on service and love and unity... I weep.

Objections also come from Great Britain ("Whoever did this work seems to lack a sufficient understanding of our grammar.");  Australia and other parts of the English-speaking world.

That's why I found Father Gelfant's comment "American Catholics think they own the Church" at once so illuminating and outrageous.  In a single sentence it suggested a deep disdain for transparency and accountability in the Church. It even suggested disrespect for the faithful.

Father Gelfant was also indirectly raising other simmering issues between American Catholics and the hierarchy on everything from ordination of women to artificial birth control to stem cell research. Those of us who hold views that differ from the hierarchy don't think we should be stigmatized. To the contrary, to loyally question long unchallenged dogmas are part of the traditions of Aquinas, Peter Abelard and Jesus Himself.   As Pope John XXIII declared, the Church is on a journey to better understand the Gospels. What Good Pope John understood is that is that while God is immutable, our understanding of Him is not. To accept that notion is not heresy but humility.

But to me, the use of tradition as a tool of authoritarian control is not humility before God.  When Father Gelfant derided American Catholics, what I heard him saying between the lines was that he doesn't like it that we don't simply "pay, pray and obey."

Such attitudes seem to be on the rise as many of Father Gelfant's fellow traditionalists are quite clear in their desire for a smaller, leaner Church, purged free of dissenters. One prominent Opus Dei priest, Rev. John McCloskey has gone so far as to  say  in his ideal future American Catholic Church:  "Dissent has disappeared from the theological vocabulary." The Church, he says, would be reduced from sixty million members to forty million. And he speaks approvingly of secession that would tear asunder these United States.  All this, in the name of advancing a reactionary brand of Catholicism.  

Young people have stayed away from the Church in droves since the Church issued Humanae Vitae, its 1968 restatement in opposition to artificial birth control. The Church has also gotten leaner due to the way the Church has dealt with the scandal of pedophile priests. I expect that an hour long Mass in a dead foreign language certainly can't hurt McCloskey's membership reduction program.

And so we come full circle to St. Paul's lesson about "the wisdom of this world."  In order to get the full meaning of his words, we need to go to verses 21-23 which read: "So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you, Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God."

It is the people together with the clergy that comprises the Church. It is not Latin nor birettas nor the priest who turns his back to the congregants that is the Church. It is certainly not a clergy that colludes with nefarious men who would deny workers their wages, pollute the environment and crusade against better access to health care for all people.  What is truly foolish in God's sight is elevating archaic rituals over the needs of His people.

And yet I am hardly surprised, especially when the diocese is being administered by a member of Opus Dei, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 08:49:48 AM EST
Even a dimwit nonbeliever like me can understand how unfair and hurtful this rightwing takeover of your parish must be to you.

To shun and disparage such a devout Catholic as retaliation against those who follow Christ's teachings is despicable. I hope you find enough allies in your community to productively push back against this authoritarian takeover.

by trog69 on Tue Mar 08, 2011 at 05:00:25 PM EST

Few people know that in our Baptist tradition we don't have to put up with a top down system.  We are locally controlled and tell the denomination where to get off if we please.  For instance: The  position that women are not too teach a class of men is laughed off in our setting.  Your story made me appreciate our own system.

by wilkyjr on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 09:12:32 AM EST
independent, but I do believe the Southern Baptist Convention thinks itself the "Baptist Vatican."

by mayfly on Fri Mar 11, 2011 at 04:06:53 PM EST

All of this reminds me of the things that American protestants were expressing fear about regarding Roman Catholics over the years... the "control by Rome", autocratic and arbitrary decisions, etc.   (When I read your blog entry, I was reminded of a political cartoon from many years ago portraying bishops as alligators, and the whole anti-Rome screed that was so common in American history.)

I'm just surprised that the dominionists/religious right aren't up in arms about the regressive changes you've reported, considering the history of religious bigotry from protestants which has been the norm in this country for so many years.  Since we aren't hearing a big stink from them, it suggests to me that they are seeking the very sort of top-down authoritarian structure that forces behavior and decisions on others.

I find the actions of the Bishops and Priests as has been related here to be anti-Christian, even as the stances of the religious right has denied the very things that Jesus taught.  I swear they're trying to cut all of His teachings out of the Bible, and turn God and Jesus from the source of Love and an inward source of strength (leading into changing one's self for the better) into a nightmarish perfectionist capricious demon who delights in the suffering of the innocent and rewards the guilty, and who openly supports an outward show of false piety.

Your final comment especially describes this conversion.  Jesus opposed (and opposes) people like the Koch brothers and if here, would be speaking out against them and the things they are pushing.  It's sad that the religious right has so totally missed the boat.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 10:25:32 AM EST

Your speaking out like that is the sort of thing needed in the churches.  Obedience is a tool of oppression, and that includes being silent as a sign of respect when someone says something totally wrong.

I admire what you did!!!

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 10:27:08 AM EST

...I am no champion. Instead, I just want my fellow Catholics -- many who hold similar positions -- to understand what actually may be going on.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 11:43:10 AM EST

Thank you for your kind comments. But I must disagree somewhat; obedience to just and fair law is not oppression. What is oppressive is the top-down, shut up and obey nature of this agenda.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 12:21:12 PM EST
My experiences have made me very distrustful of the legal system, because of all the times they've selectively enforced the laws against the poor and using them to repress people.  Law enforcement serves (at least in this area and many others) to enforce the status quo and to protect the interests of the rich and powerful, and any other "justice" that comes from them either is incidental or somehow furthers the interests of a rich person.

Long ago I'd gotten to the point where I tensed up whenever I see a "cop" (I'll be nice), because of all of the injustice I've seen and all of the times I've been pulled for bogus reasons.   I am scared of the police because of their desire for 'obedience to authority' and abuses.

Present-day example of selective enforcement:

I've been reporting on the situation here with the Atheists of Florida and their attempts to get the governments in Polk County to respect separation of church and state.  A couple of days ago it was reported that their legal coordinator was arrested for "unauthorized practice of law".  Of course, the paper was all over her for being 'dishonest'.

She has a degree in law, and was on the Pennsylvania Bar and worked as a lawyer in that state.  She moved to Florida, and is not a member of the bar here.  She'd been using Esq. after her name, and that alone was considered "unauthorized practice of law".  According to the law, you are not permitted to even hint that you're a lawyer unless you're a member of the Bar.

My immediate response was outrage.  There were lawyers (not on the Florida Bar) in the churches that I used to attend, and to my knowledge they ALL signed their name Esq, and often also had official-looking letterheads and told people they were lawyers.   They'd moved down here to retire or had stopped being members of the Florida Bar for one reason or another.

Even though they'd retired or stopped officially practicing, they were still giving legal advice left and right - even pushed me to go to "Good Christian" lawyers they recommended when I faced problems with dishonest people in my business.  I lost tens of thousands of dollars because of all the bad legal advice I got from those "Good Christian" lawyers, and I am very offended that those jackasses with their bad advice are treated with respect, while the legal coordinator for the Atheists of Florida has been arrested (one friend said that they had 8 police cars present when they went to her house to arrest her).

If the laws are just and fair (and applied that way), and they don't cause undue hardship for innocent people, then obedience to them is OK (and in some cases, common sense).  However, the way they are applied...

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 12:48:52 PM EST

with R-Wing Catholics and others until they get their theocracy.  Then they'll be busy padlocking unapproved churches and gathering stones.

by mayfly on Fri Mar 11, 2011 at 04:13:05 PM EST

It would have been very easy for you to have remained silent and stopped attending church, or remained silent as a marginalized part of the congregation. But we have allowed the most conservative among us to define our faiths for too long. It has been easier to drift off into the "secularized" culture than to stand firm within our houses of worship and argue against the relentless incursion of those dedicated to the culture wars. How many have been drafted into this war or been shamed into enlisting when their hearts were never really in it? And how many are afraid of the consequences of desertion? What you did is tough, and what will be even tougher is facing the pressure that you will face in the coming months. But no matter what is said about or to you, remember that you are not an enemy of Catholicism or of decency and morality. You are their champion.

by christinewoodman on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 11:00:29 AM EST
But thank you for the compliment.

But with that said, I want more everyday Catholics to be "champions." Many don't even understand what is going on within the hierarchy. Normally I don't approve of Congressman Joe Wilson behavior, but this was too much for me to constrain myself. I just wish that I had been a bit more  astute.

Perhaps even Father Gelfant doesn't quite understand everything about the Catholic Right or even about Yaron Brooks. But one purpose of this piece was to make my fellow parishioners aware of what is going on.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 03:19:43 PM EST

When I clicked through to Gelfant's Facebook Page, I  noticed under "activities and interests" that he also lists such friends of the poor and working people as the Republican National Committee and rightist Republican politicians such as Newt Gingrich.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 11:46:13 AM EST

that your parish has escaped until now our new Tea Party priests. Have you thought about what you will do if you are asked to leave the parish which is a real possibility given the personality of this pastor? Anyway, kudos for a great post and for speaking out - a gutsy thing to do and something you'll never regret. You have seen the future of the Catholic Church in the U.S. and it is Fr. Gelfant, destined to be bishop I'm sure.

by Betty Clermont on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 02:58:11 PM EST
I don't know what I'll do if I'm asked to leave. I guess it depends who would be doing the asking.

But I will tell you one thing Betty: I am not yet ready to cede the future of the Church to people who think like Father Gelfant now thinks. Who knows; perhaps in time he'll come over to our our side of the Lord.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 03:34:50 PM EST

I applaud your courage and integrity. If you are not now familiar with it, you might want to locate a copy of "Defecting in Place: Women Claiming Responsibility for Their Own Spiritual Lives." The primary author is Miriam Therese Winter. I just checked, and it is available on both new and used. These are stories of women, many of them vowed women religious, who have chosen to remain in some way within the Roman Catholic Church while claiming their own moral agency.

by MLouise on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 03:32:42 PM EST
I want Catholics to first understand what is going on behind the scenes and if they don't like what is going on, I want them to take a stand and fight for their Church.
Walking away is exactly what the other side wants.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Mar 08, 2011 at 11:29:22 AM EST

I really pray Frank that your choice becomes more and more prevalent, that more and more Catholics speak out. This kind of thing is in fact Steeple jacking by what amounts to economic fascists in clerical clothing. I would be very surprised if Fr. Gelfant was unaware of the connection of the Koch brothers with the Tea Party Movement. I think you are being too generous in your assessment of Gelfant. There are some parts of 'official' Catholicism in the US which are getting totally out of bounds. It's past time more of us spoke out. Thanks for doing so.

by colkoch on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 04:45:28 PM EST

If we know what is going on behind the scenes, we can at the least be supportive of the Roman Catholics trapped in those situations.

The dominionists are trying to drive us all away from our churches (except possibly in the case of the UU church, and that could be because we're considered to be absolute heretics).  I think they're even going further than driving people from their churches - either you conform to their standard of pseudo-holiness, or you conform to their stereotype for the Other, which includes their trying to drive non-dominionist people away from Christ.  By doing that, they can claim that the Others are "enemies of God" and thus eventually justify violence.  

I think that what is going on in your church and what other denominations have experienced is connected, and it all boils down to forcing people to become used to submitting (without question) to authority.  Either you accept that, or you are out.

The idea of having authority from God is especially damaging because it precludes even thinking about rebelling against authority.  

In the light of this, your speaking out is especially telling and important.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 07:47:25 PM EST

a huge headache. The ins and outs of Catholic theology and rules and regulations is enough to make one crazy. You are dealing with an institution that is so thoroughly entrenched in its history of corruption, and so protected by the world despite its behavior, that it is immune to the kind of changes that American Catholics seem to want.  Why not just break away from the Vatican system and start and American Catholic church? Of course, you would have to also separate yourselves from the American Catholic Bishops Conference because they haven't a clue about the meaning of separation of church and state.

by monarchmom on Tue Mar 08, 2011 at 09:53:24 AM EST
The Catholic Church cannot be ceded over to a group of reactionaries. Remember; this is an institution that has world-wide reach.

But beyond that, there are good people within the Church. And there is quite some good in Father Gelfant (he is on the record as speaking out against Bill Donohue on the pedophile issue, correctly describing him as "professional controversialist"). Maybe he is a young priest that has been bombarded by only one side of the story.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Mar 08, 2011 at 11:14:34 AM EST

is that there are many sides to the story. None of us fit neatly into the little boxes that others sometimes would like to place us.  That is one reason why your willingness to say that there may be things that Gelfant did not know about or had not considered was important. I think the same could be said about all of us.

What's more, people change their minds about all kinds of things all the time.   As you point out, unlike Donohue, Gelfant is not a "professional controversialist."  As a parish priest, whatever his views, he may not want to generate controversies that divide the congregation against itself. Or make members loathe the hierarchy.  On the other hand, if he is like McCloskey, maybe he does.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Mar 08, 2011 at 12:24:49 PM EST

I might have to speak out as well, if the occasion warrants it. The new priests we get pound about abortion, but say nothing about rampant sexual abuse. I haven't said anything in an effort to keep the peace, but I am not impressed with the new missal.

by khughes1963 on Tue Mar 08, 2011 at 10:30:30 AM EST

I started working in the pro-Choice movement.  Then I began to meet the most wonderful people.

by mayfly on Fri Mar 11, 2011 at 04:27:01 PM EST

The author's dissent during a church service at St. Finbar's in Brooklyn sheds light on the ongoing tensions within the Catholic Church.  diamond rings The sermon by Father Gelfant, critical of Vatican II and promoting the return of the Latin Mass, reveals ideological divides. The author's vocal objection reflects concerns about the Church's direction and a desire for transparency and inclusivity in Catholicism. These issues underscore broader debates within the Catholic community.

by isabelladom on Tue Sep 12, 2023 at 03:12:32 PM EST

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