Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Crisis of the Conservative Catholic Bishops

We've talked a lot about the muscle flexing of the RC Bishops, from telling Patrick Kennedy "no Communion", to wanting to deny Ted Kennedy a funeral, to the escalation of the abortion wars into peripheral issues with the Stupak amendment, to the bankrolling of Question 1 in Maine and threatening to withdraw from social services in DC over the issue of gay marriage.

James Carroll considers the loss of the great social justice tradition of the Catholic church.
All of this defines a watershed moment. ....For the first time in its history, the American Catholic hierarchy is solidly right wing. There is not one liberal voice among its members. The bishops are at home with the heirs of a know-nothing fundamentalism that once, by every measure of theology and social policy, embodied the Church’s opposite. ....

The self-righteous glee with which they spout ethical absolutes, the fervor with which they threaten excommunication of dissidents, and the chest-thumping with which they mark their decisive influence on urgent legislation all suggest the degree of their relief to be out from under the cloud of contempt in which they were held because of their handling of the sex abuse-crisis. But that crisis, the sources of which have yet to be addressed, is not over.

Many Catholic lay people “of a certain age” are profoundly alienated from the bishops’ worldview and understanding of the Church, but, because of firm clerical control over the institution and the tendency of the secular media to define “the Church” in strictly clerical terms, there is little they can do to affect either. Catholic young people, meanwhile, are indifferent to what the bishops say and think (only 15 percent of college-age Catholics attend Mass regularly). Given the current tilt of Church power, such Catholics are, for now, unwilling hostages of the reactionary hierarchy.

What’s new is that, given the polarity of American politics, the whole nation is their hostage, too. It remains to be seen, though, if the bishops’ embrace of uncompromising extremism will do anything, over the long term, but leave them isolated with their new friends on the fringe, more discredited than ever.
Meanwhile, Ross Douthat argues that the conservative puritanism of American Catholics owes much to their Irish roots:
A Cullen-esque Catholicism was ide ally suited to the task of building a thriving immigrant church in a hostile Protestant society. The remarkable prestige, power and cultural cachet of mid-20th century American Catholicism almost certainly wouldn’t have been possible without the extraordinary exertions and self-sacrifice that the Irish Church inspired from priests and laity alike — and without its hierarchy’s ability to be power brokers and politicians as well as shepherds, and to bend the civil authorities, when necessary, to their will.

But you can see how it could all go bad — how a culture so intense clerical, so politically high-handed, and so embarrassed (beyond the requirements of Christian doctrine) by human sexuality could magnify the horror of priestly pedophilia, and expand the pool of victims, by producing bishops inclined to strong-arm the problem out of public sight instead of dealing with it as Christian leaders should.

And the Irish agree. Writing in the Irish Times, Maureen Gaffney reflects in the wake of the horrifying news that the hierarchy and the police colluded to protect abusers. What is the moral authority of the institution now, especially on issues of sex and sexuality?
Very few Catholics are looking to the church for moral guidelines in relation to any of these questions anymore. And why would they? ....Such pronouncements are so much at variance with the lived experience of most people as to undermine terminally the church’s credibility in the area of intimate relationships.....

But no amount of improved decision-making and transparency will enable senior clergy to respond effectively to the church’s crisis of sexuality.

To do that, they must confront the root cause of the problem – that the Catholic Church is a powerful homo-social institution, where men are submissive to a hierarchical authority and where women are incidental and dispensable. It’s the purest form of a male hierarchy, reflected in the striking fact that we all collectively refer it to as “the Hierarchy”.

It has all the characteristics of the worst kind of such an institution: rigid in social structure; preoccupied by power; ruthless in suppressing internal dissent; in thrall to status, titles, and insignia, with an accompanying culture of narcissism and entitlement; and at a great psychological distance from human intimacy and suffering.

Most strikingly, it is a culture which is fearful and disdainful of women. .....The hierarchy will continue to project its fear of women on to an obsessive effort to exert control over their wombs, their fertility and their unruly sexual desires. That is the psychology of exclusion.

It is to be hoped that the Catholic Church in Ireland will resolve this issue. Not just because many of us don’t want to lose the reassuring moral presence of the church, nor because we cannot easily do without the intelligent altruism of devoted religious, but because the great joy and hope of the Christian message was never more badly needed.
And, based on Douthat's thesis, this diagnosis should be equally applicable on this side of the Atlantic.

Can the Institution be redeemed? From my perspective they are perpetrating a series of horrors, and the Catholics *I* know are horrified in return. Is there a way, within the structure of the institution, to regain the tradition of social justice and progressivism from the cynical neo-cons and cons who appear to wear the purple and scarlet? Or perhaps true Catholicism, in the person of its people, will have to rise, Phoenix like, from the ashes of a corrupt institution. After all, Christ did not live in a palace with gold chalices, negotiating with governors and ministers. He was an itinerant carpenter with a rag-tag group of hippy followers who tended to the common people.


Fran said...

What a post! Thank you for your voice - I may not always be in agreement with you but I am always aware of the depth and passion of your commitment. It means so much in a world with so little of that.

I have said very little - nothing really, about Patrick Kennedy. I am not going all "conservo-troid" on everyone and I *loathe* the use of communion as a gate keeper.

That said, I do not side with him - or Bishop Tobin either. Tobin did actually start this conversation 3 years ago and it only became public recently. That is regrettable on all sides. It is the perogative of bishops to address members of their flock, particularly public ones and I really can't object to that. That there have been 3 years of discussion - that is between them.

Bishops like Archbishop Raymond Burke (formerly of St. Louis and now of Rome) make a spectacle of the private when they call out politicians. That said, politicians who reveal what their bishop is discussing with them are not much better in my eyes.

There - I've said it, say what you must to me friends at Friends of Jake.

I move on... and this does not get anyone off the hook if they are using services with the same power as they use communion.

Let's remember that I am active in the church and while Carroll fairly bemoans some loss, he completely ignores the work that carries on all over the place.

The reality is that most Catholic social services carry on quietly and quite busily. If you are doing Kingdom work you typically don't have the time to fight it in public or to talk about what you are doing.

I see social service at many levels in my own diocese as well as others that do go on.

There has been a decrease in many places but to say the ship is sunk is just not accurate.

(Boy, I'm really asking for it here.)

I guess my point is that this is not the end of the world and it is always most painful right before birth. (or so I am told) Does this make sense? God help me if I sound defensive, which while I am trying to *not* sound, I know I must.

I am EXTREMELY horrified at the Irish situation and I was literally sick to my stomach.

Is the Church over? Maybe as we know it, but is the Church over? No not at all. I am not so horrified with the Church I am in and around every day, both in real life and in the blogosphere. Very. Real. Church. And more good than bad, more love than power. That is just my experience.

It may be dying in order to be reborn. That is not Pollyanna, because the dying is very effed up and ugly and kills many with it, but what comes... well I don't know.

Whatever it is, I don't think it can come before all the effed up parts.

And if what comes is far less clerical and hierarchal then maybe we will know that the Kingdom finally has come. I am very serious about that.

Please don't hate me people, I love you all too much to be able to bear that on top of the other stuff.

And anyone who knows me knows by now that I tend to occupy the murky middle - things are rarely all good or all bad, all effed up or all great, all fixed or all broken.

It is the trajectory between the two that is most of our lives and I continue to explore that place with all its ugly but yet beautiful ambiguities. That people get hurt - that is what I don't want to see... Yet I am not entirely sure how that ever stops. Someone is always going to be hurt.

OK - I hate to end on that but time is short and I must go!

IT said...

Fran, that's why I am at pains to separate the Church-as-people from the hierarchy which I consider corrupted. Lots of good people doing lots of good work. Hence my analogy of the phoenix, which you echo yourself in the sense that something may need to die to be reborn...

In any case, dear Fran, you know you are ALWAYS welcome here saying whatever you will!


Fran said...

Thank you so much IT. This community, these conversations - they mean the world to me.

I just came back from mass - our homily topic was how can we focus on what unites us versus what divides us. My pastor never preaches politics and he includes everyone. I had a great time before mass, interacting with my favorite gay couple there and their young son.

I just put up a new post with no text but a video and I replied to your comment on my other post. I am on my big marriage equality rant again. Come on over when you can, if you wish!

JCF said...

Fran, sweetie, it'll be COLD day in Hell...

...check that, I'm a universalist. ;-/

It'll be an unparadisical day in Heaven before YOU aren't welcome here!

That said: don't wanna rub it in, but don't you wish YOU could have a bishop-who-just-happens-to-be-a-partnered-lesbian, huh? ;-D


NancyP said...

Fran, the Catholic Church is being driven off the cliff by the hierarchy. If the bishops keep playing chicken with city administrations over following employment law for employees with secular duties, and threaten to shut down Catholic Charities projects over the issue of paying a little extra in benefits for the occasional gay person bold enough to try to claim health insurance for a spouse, the bishops will be seen as petty, and more interested in playing politics than in doing corporal acts of mercy for the poor. Bishops have lost the ability to speak and be taken seriously concerning a wide range of issues. At this moment, the bishops act like two-trick ponies when in public: abortion and gays, gays and abortion.

At some point, the laity will take control of the charitable organizations affiliated with the Church. Does Catholic Charities really need the bishop's imprimatur? (Yes, if they want to use the diocesan newsletter to do fundraising, or use the "Catholic Charities" name without threat of lawsuit. Otherwise, no.) At some point, the laity may decide to use its collective time, talents, and money in ecumenical organizations or specialized projects with non-religious organizations (Habitat for Humanity house-building, and the like).