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The Great Cathedral Caper

When the Cardinal in Los Angeles decided to spend 50 million dollars on a new cathedral in an area where there are more homeless people than anywhere else in America, Jeff Dietrich and his friends decided to get in on the debate... by sitting atop the Cardinal's belltower!

By Jeff Dietrich
When the police finally came, they yelled up to us "Be sensible. Come down from there and talk to us." We all laughed. If we were sensible, we never would have scaled the walls of the old abandoned cathedral and climbed into an open window and scrambled up the rickety stairs of the dilapidated bell tower in the first place. If we were sensible, we wouldn't be sitting 200 feet above the ground on top of an earthquake damaged structure, hanging onto an enormous banner that reads, "We reclaim the church for the poor." Only devious criminals or obstreperous school boys do such things. Sensible people obey the law and mind their own business.

That is why throughout the Gospels Jesus refers to himself not as a sensible person but as a criminal who binds the strong man, or a thief in the night who strikes at the most unexpected hour. Jesus knew that to get the religious authorities to pay attention to the good news he had to be subversive.

Indeed subversion seemed the only way to get the church to pay attention to our own concerns. As the Cardinal moved relentlessly forward with his plans to tear down the old cathedral and build a new 50 million dollar one in the midst of the largest concentration of homeless people in the United States, without the slightest recognition of that problem, and as church officials repeatedly referred to the poor and homeless of that area in terms of "blight" and "eyesore," then it seemed important to break into the conversation with another perspective. And I have to admit that it was pretty exhilarating to be sitting atop the Cardinal's bell tower being filmed by every media helicopter in the city and proclaiming that not all Catholics wanted a new cathedral.

After our arrest at the cathedral, the Cardinal let it be known that he was willing to speak to us. Since we had already had an amicable but unproductive meeting with him, I had misgivings about this second encounter. It seemed more like a trip to the principal's office than a dialogue session.

Following a brief reiteration of our respective positions, the Cardinal, smiling all the while like a Republican presidential candidate on the campaign trail, launched into a tirade that left us wishing he had merely turned us over to the Grand Inquisitor's torture rack rather than verbally lacerating us into the equivalent of psychic hamburger.

"I've always had problems with the Catholic Worker," he said. "You need the poor." By which he meant that we were somehow co-dependent with the pathologies of the poor and that we needed them for our own diminished sense of self esteem. He went on to remind us that he worked with the largest population of poor in the citypoor familieswhile we worked with the smallest. But we tried to point out that it was just exactly this smaller population of 5,000 homeless poor who, like Lazarus, were virtually living on his very doorstep.
But to argue theology with a cardinal in his own office is like fighting Mohammed Ali with both your hands tied, you're just bound to lose because he has all the right moves ... But to argue theology with a cardinal in his own office is like fighting Mohammed Ali with both your hands tied, you're just bound to lose because he has all the right moves and pretty quickly he hit us with his best shot. "I don't even think that you are Catholic," he said, "Neither with a big 'C' nor a small 'c."' BOOM! He knocked us clean out of the ring, down the aisle, and pretty much out of the door of the Church itself.

It went down hill from there as we lobbed biblical quotes back and forth at each other. We tossed off one from the book of Kings in which God tells King David that he doesn't need a temple. And the Cardinal hurled back at us God's specific blueprint for the Temple from the Book of Ezekiel. Then he went on to say that we were negative, confrontational, and uncooperative. And we suggested that he give a further reading to the prophets and the confrontations of Jesus with the authorities.

While our dialogue actually seemed more like a monologue, I think it does offer some profound insights. Foremost among these is the recognition that other than the church, there are few organisations that would allow a rag-tag bunch of protesters like ourselves in the front door much less into their executive offices.

The second is that it seems like we are dealing with two pretty conflicting visions of what it is that constitutes church. On the one side there is the Cardinal's sophisticated, technocratic approach to power politics and social change, on the other side is our own personalist, direct-action (dare we say it?) Gospel-based orientation.

Our technocratic cardinal offers a perfect paradigm for the post-modern 21st century church. He is an autocrat who runs his church like an efficient CEO, with all of his parishes tied into a tight computer network, and were it not for a formal protest by the Catholic Worker and others, he would have his own helicopter as well. He is feared and courted by politicians of both left and right. He knows how to manage public relations to his advantage and articulates the social agenda of the church in a forthright manner. And while he takes laudable public stands on the death penalty, social welfare cutbacks, immigration, and raising the minimum wage, as well as the more expected anti-abortion position, it is often done in a self serving and image-conscious manner. But he is, unfortunately, about the best that we can expect to get in the church as it is presently constituted.

- Jesus said blessed are the poor
- And the poor you will always have with you

- But the Spirit blows where it will...
- We must have structures
- Sell all you own and give it to the poor
- We must be as innocent as doves but as wise as serpents

I know how to settle this.
Highest card takes all!
The Cardinal needs people who are brash, foolhardy, and fearless enough to ... sneak the Word of God back into his church and thumb their noses at his authority like obstreperous school boys In the end, though, he presents an image of church leader as shrewd, calculating, and affectless - a kind of modern-day Richelieu. He is disliked by many of his priests who seek a more pastoral, collegial approach to management. And while he is indeed concerned about the poor, it is always at the structural level and never at the personal level.

But as appalling as it is for me to say this, we need Cardinal Mahony and his cold, heartless, technocratic church, and though I don't think it would ever occur to him, he needs us as well.

These two conflicting visions of Church have been warring with each other ever since Peter and Paul went at it over the issue of circumcision. The Cardinal needs people who are brash, foolhardy, and fearless enough to climb up ladders and hang out of bell towers, and break into buildings like a thief in the night in an effort to sneak the Word of God back into his church and thumb their noses at his authority like obstreperous school boys. On the other hand we must never forget that this cold, heartless, technocratic church in all of her corruption and defilement is the distributor of sacraments and the primordial proclaimer of the Gospels, without whom we would never have heard the Word of God in the first place. The Holy Spirit wants both of these visions to continue in perpetual loving, faithful, and symbiotic conflict with each other until the end of time and the coming of the Celestial Templemade not by the hands of manout of which will flow the onrushing waters of healing and mercy and justice. Amen.
  Jeff Dietrich is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.

Our thanks to the Catholic Agitator for the article. It is published 8 times a year by the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, 632 N. Brittania St., Los Angeles, CA 90033. USA

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