Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Unsolicited Theological Reflections about the UMC and IRD

Note that this is part of a double posting following one I just made. That posting summarizes my recent research on the IRD and the United Methodist Church.

Unsolicited Suggestions about the UMC and the IRD in Future

No one has asked me for these. I offer these unsolicited theological reflections as 1) someone with many autobiographical connections to Methodism (have I mentioned, in addition to all I’ve said previously, that my father graduated from a Methodist college?); 2) as a theologian; 3) as someone sympathetic and indebted to Wesleyanism; and 4) as someone who has had an insider’s chance to observe (and, in some cases, be deleteriously affected by) how business is done in United Methodist institutions.

In my view, contemporary Methodism has both weaknesses and strengths that have made it susceptible to IRD infiltration, and also capable—in theory, at least—of combating those influences, if it chooses to do so. Choosing to do so will require a willingness of Methodist leaders to welcome critical reflections on the part of those working within United Methodist institutions--including outsiders to Methodism--who have gained a feel for what is happening in the Methodist church at a concrete level, from their work in Methodist institutions.

The strengths/weaknesses on which I want to focus are as follows:

The Methodist tradition of seeking the “radical middle”;

Democratic polity, with the tradition of holy conferencing;

▪ A strong spirituality and tradition of practical social witness, coupled with a less-strong theological tradition, particularly in the area of ecclesiology.

Methodism is to be admired for its tradition of the radical middle. At best, this tradition discounts the wisdom and voice of no one. At best, it brings everyone to the table before decisions affecting the whole communion are made. Ideally, it fosters a discernment process in which all believers seek holy wisdom together, to guide church decision making as new challenges arrive at new points in history. Ideally, the tradition of the radical middle holds disparate groups together to allow the church to be authentically inclusive, authentically catholic—as church should be.

There are, however, some serious downsides to the tradition of the radical middle—as it is currently practiced by many Methodist institutions, at least. I saw and was adversely affected by those downsides in almost a decade of work in Methodist institutions of higher education.

When practiced in isolation from a theologically informed attempt to discern the path of holy wisdom within a Methodist institution, the tradition of the radical middle can easily become mere culture Christianity. When the radical middle is envisaged as some compromise between a bogus “truth” determined by right-wing operatives of the ilk of the IRD, and the Wesleyan tradition’s wisdom about social justice, it all too commonly turns into the path of least resistance—the path of cheap, rather than costly grace. The path of the radical middle can easily become plain conformity to culture.

I have made this argument in previous postings on this blog, citing my experiences in UMC institutions as well as other aspects of my life journey. I won’t try readers’ patience by belaboring those points again. What I would like to note here, though, is that, ironically, many of those now chiding the UMC to avoid becoming a church of culture rather than a countercultural church are, in their appeal to the radical middle, actually reflecting cultural norms.

Those norms make it easy to be a disciple of Jesus. They make us as followers of Christ comfortable. They do not require us to make hard decisions that set us at odds with our own cultural contexts—especially in the areas of gender and sexual orientation, or in the areas of fiscal stewardship and resistance to dirty money, insofar as our institutional purse strings are tied to holding the line on “traditional” teachings about gender and sexual orientation.

As I have said previously, my own thinking about these issues is highly influenced by my experience growing up in the American South during the Civil Rights struggle. This was a period in which I saw almost no white churches departing from the “radical middle” of Southern culture—and that consensus of the radical middle was racist. Instead of leading society at a time in which the church might have exercised prophetic countercultural leadership, the churches all too often merely mirrored social norms, citing scripture to justify their behavior.

I am therefore not conspicuously impressed by the professed repentance of these churches today for either their previous racism or misogyny. I cannot be impressed by this professed repentance when the leaders of these churches now behave towards LGBT members precisely the same way they did previously towards people of color and women.

Repentance means little when it costs nothing, now that cultural norms have made it easy to repent. Countercultural witness requires walking in costly grace in the here and now, within the cultural contexts in which we now live—and paying the price for such witness.

And when this repentance is attended by deceitful attempts on the part of these new defenders of people and color and women to promote token representatives of such groups--carefully tailored token representatives who do not rock the boat--I am even less impressed. This is a dishonest use of pretend-inclusivity and pretend-cultural sensitivity to combat the current outsider group, the LBGT children of God.

The Methodist emphasis on democratic polity and holy conferencing is admirable, an emphasis I would like very much to see adopted within my own Catholic tradition, with its tragically outmoded monarchical structures of leadership. At its best, gathering everyone around the table to discern the Spirit and make decisions together provides secular culture, in which bigger and better tables are always set for the rich and powerful, a powerful countercultural witness.

The tradition of democratic polity and holy conferencing can have a very strong downside, however—one of which I have had to become crucially aware in my work for United Methodist institutions. At its worst, rather than being a tool for holy consensus-building, democratic polity and holy conferencing can degenerate into a tool of control, in which those who have power over others abuse that power by suppressing alternative (and possibly prophetic) voices, and by playing one interest group against another with no consideration for competing claims of justice.

Some of the worst leadership I have ever witnessed in my entire life has been in UMC institutions. Those exercising this leadership were not merely terrible leaders. They were leaders who were well-schooled in UMC polity and the tradition of holy conferencing. And they were aided and abetted by Methodist bishops and Methodist ministers as they abused their leadership roles.

In the name of gathering everyone around the table and listening to every voice, some of these leaders practice outrageous, blatant triangulation. They abuse religious language and references to the Methodist way of doing business to pit one member of their team against another, claiming that only by setting one member against another can a true and truly comprehensive perspective be maintained.

I want to emphasize that this technique of triangulating managerialism within the United Methodist institutions in which I have worked is not an aberration of the UMC tradition of democratic polity and holy conferencing. Those practicing this blatant triangulation constantly reference the United Methodist tradition of democracy and holy conferencing, and their own training in that tradition (and in leadership) within the structures of the UMC.

In my experience working in United Methodist institutions, I have seen exceedingly ugly things done by leaders under the cover of this religious justification. I have seen leaders constantly dig for dirt on each person reporting to them, such that they could then use this negative data to try to keep team members in their place. When no dirt was to be found on some team members, I have seen leaders couple team members who were seriously trying to do their jobs with integrity to incompetent and unethical watchdog members of their teams. Those watchdogs, about whom the leader had damning information, were used to harass, report on, and try to rein in members seriously seeking to do their jobs with integrity.

I have seen leaders in United Methodist institutions, who claim that their goal in pitting one team member against another is to allow the full picture to be discerned, resort to top-down hierarchical models of leadership when their use of triangulation was challenged. In one institution, after proclaiming to her leadership team that her democratic style of leadership arose out of her experience working in the United Methodist Church, a leader immediately presented a flow chart of institutional authority depicting a triangle, with herself at the top. As she did so, she declared, “We are not a democracy.”

This experience has led me to conclude that leadership in the United Methodist Church actually often exercises top-down control techniques while talking the talk of democracy to cover over the lapses of democratic representation in leadership decisions. Effective leadership in any democratic institution requires who profess democratic ideals to hold these in creative tension with managerial goals.

In the Methodist context, church leaders and leaders of Methodist institutions need to be intentional and clear about how the Wesleyan tradition of democracy and holy conferencing informs their leadership style, even when they are adopting a managerial approach. Otherwise, not only can they betray the Wesleyan tradition in their leadership styles, but they can also end up committing the even worse sin of abusing religious language to justify leadership techniques that are imperious, insensitive, and in some cases, downright cruel and unethical.

Ultimately, the goal of managerial triangulation is always to maintain the status quo, in which those currently in leadership remain in leadership. Triangulating leaders have a vested interest in setting those they lead against each other, insofar as they want to retain their power. When the valuable Methodist tradition of democratic polity and holy conferencing is allowed to degenerate into managerial triangulation, and when such triangulation is attended by abuse of religious language, the institution remains stuck. It cannot move forward.

It cannot do so because the triangulation being practiced by its leaders disempowers those within the institution most capable of moving it forward. It disempowers prophetic voices—particularly those who speak from the margins—while lending credence to voices that do not have the best interest of the religious tradition and its institutions at heart, who should lack legitimacy in an institution that practices careful discernment. The triangulating technique of managerial leadership promotes carefully selected and sanitized examples of the disempowered to power, when it can be certain that these token representatives of the disempowered will behave in a way that does not call the status quo into question.

When the status quo is shaped by unequal distribution of power—and it always is—the church belongs unambiguously on the side of those with less power. Democracy-as-triangulation can become a smokescreen for serving the powerful of the world, when it refuses to give serious consideration to questions how power is justly to be distributed. Democracy-as-triangulation can be a smokescreen that legitimates the abuse of power (and enslavement to dirty money) when it treats the voices of mendacious apologists for unjust power as if they are just as compelling and deserving of attention as the voices of those delineating hard-earned critical truth from the margins—truth an institution needs in order to be faithful to its mission and to have a viable future.

These observations bring me to my final point: at its best, the warm-hearted Methodist spirituality derived from Wesley issues in a powerful tradition of practical social witness. At its worst, however, Methodism lacks carefully developed theological tools agreed on by the entire church to analyze and discuss its ecclesiology and whether its institutions mirror that ecclesiology authentically. Methodism at its worst often prescinds from much-needed critical questions about how Methodist institutions practice fidelity to and faithfully enact the Wesleyan tradition.

At its worst, such questions are dismissed in an anti-intellectual way as distractions from the warm-hearted piety that Methodism should really be all about, or as a critical breach with the radical middle. Methodists are strong on promoting justice. They are weak at talking about what justice actually is.

Methodists are good at listening to the voices of everyone. What the Methodist tradition often lacks, however, is a theological wisdom tradition to undergird its discernment process, so that the voices of impostors, opportunists, and poseurs can quickly be detected and will not distract the holy assembly from its deliberations.

And this makes Methodism susceptible to groups like the IRD, who know how to exploit these theological lacunae in the Methodist tradition very adroitly . . . .

Unfortunately--and more's the pity--some of the key members of the IRD are members of my own religious communion, whom I oppose as vociferously within the Catholic context as I do when they seek to meddle in the internal affairs of the United Methodist Church. For that reason, too, I feel it is important that Catholics concerned that Methodism be permitted to live its tradition authentically speak out against members of our communion who are trying to thwart the practice of authentic Wesleyan discipleship.

The IRD and Its Connection to the UMC: Research Conclusions

So, I can’t yet relinquish the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD) and its attempt to control the United Methodist Church’s path in the 21st century. This subject fascinates me for all kinds of reasons—autobiographical, theological, scholarly.

And so, more ruminations and research . . . . In what follows, I want to offer two sets of reflections on the IRD and its attempted takeover of the future of United Methodism:

  1. Some conclusions about IRD and its connection to contemporary Methodism;
  2. And some totally unsolicited suggestions, from a theologian sympathetic to but outside the Wesleyan tradition, whose life experience has multiple connections to Methodism, about how the United Methodist Church might better withstand such attacks from political pressure groups in the future.

I’ll offer these in a diptych of postings, so that readers who have the patience to wade through either of them won’t be worn out or forced to read material that doesn’t capture their attention, in case they are interested in one rather than the other topic.

IRD and Its Connection to Contemporary Methodism

As I continue researching the IRD and its attempt to control the conversation within contemporary Methodism, I find that researchers repeatedly confirm a pattern I tracked (also citing research) in my two previous postings. The IRD employs techniques including the following to try to infiltrate worldwide Methodism and eliminate the social witness of the United Methodist Church:

Stealth and behind-the-scenes manipulation;

Attempts to co-opt the progressive social agenda of United Methodism, to represent itself as genuinely concerned about inclusivity and social justice (when it’s not), as a divide-and-conquer way of setting Methodist progressives against those resisting the Social Principles;

Disingenuous profession of support for token representatives of some marginalized groups, coupled with unethical use of money to consolidate the loyalty of those groups (e.g., Christians of the global South, people of color, women), while setting these groups against other marginalized groups (e.g., LGBT people) to produce a schism that the IRD seeds, at the same time that it predicts schism if the UMC becomes truly inclusive of LGBT people;

Illicit use of dirty money to play hard-ball political games within UMC institutions by bullying institutions that try to fulfill the Social Principles with threats of cutting off funding sources influenced by IRD and its donors;

Deliberate dissemination of lies and misinformation to seed and exploit discontent among groups who have or believe that they have marginal status within the UMC—in particular, dissemination of lies and misinformation in well-funded stealth campaigns targeting Methodists of the global South, to engender suspicion of and contempt for LGBT believers and their allies in the global North, as well as resistance to women’s leadership in the church;

▪ Through this well-funded disinformation campaign, an attempt to create a poisonous intra-ecclesial climate in which the truth is systemically distorted, such that plain truth is so consistently pitched against outright lies, that people both within and outside the church are led to believe that the truth is somewhere between the lie and the plain truth;

Adroit dissemination of media soundbites to ill-informed (and sometimes either lazy or corrupt) media sources to aid and abet the creation of a climate of systemic distortion of the truth within the church;

Attempts to poison the traditional Wesleyan method of democratic consensus in decision making and of holy conferencing via such systemic distortion of the truth, in which outright lies set a spurious boundary for conversation, so that the church is kept forever in a situation of stasis between a false alternative and a viable one—and so that the UMC cannot move forward with its mission and ministry in the 21st century.

The following are some useful sources I’ve just discovered, documenting the points above:

Andrew J. Weaver, et al., “IRD/Good News: How the Right Wing Targets United Methodist Women” (17 Nov. 2005), noted that the IRD has made adroit use of United Methodist church membership mailing lists sent to it over the years (often illicitly) by members of individual churches (see, citing D. Stanley and M. Tooley, 1999 “Letter to United Methodists,” UMAction).

In 2004, when Republican Party operatives used this technique in the presidential campaign, it was roundly criticized as unethical by 10 leading professors of ethics, including evangelicals such as the Rev. George G. Hunter III of Asbury Theological Seminary and Richard V. Pierard of Gordon College (citing A. Cooperman, “Pastors Issue Directive in Response to Reelection Tactic, Washington Post, 18 August 2004).

IRD claims, in fact, to have the largest mailing list in the UMC, with a declared goal of eventually obtaining a million church member addresses (citing M. Tooley, “UMAction Briefing,” Spring 2005).

An exceptionally useful resource site maintained by a United Methodist minister, Rev. Steven D. Martin, who is Executive Director of Vital Visions Incorporated, at, further documents the use of unethical stealth tactics by the IRD to take over local and international structures of the UMC.

Rev. Martin reports that his concerns about the activity of the IRD within local Conferences stems from an incident that occurred at an Annual Conference meeting of his own Conference, the Holston Conference, at which the IRD sought to elect slates of candidates sympathetic to it and its goals to control the Conference. On one occasion a Sunday School class within the Conference presented the Holston Conference with resolutions lifted verbatim from the IRD website—but with no acknowledgement of their source.

Martin also notes that the Coalition for United Methodist Accountability (CUMA), an organization comprised of the IRD, Good News, and the Confessing Movement, has joined to finance legal expenses for five individuals who are seeking to control the General Board on Church and Society’s (GBCS) use of the United Methodist Building Endowment Fund. This follows a vote at the 2004 General Conference that defeated a resolution “to cripple the financing and mission” of GBCS.

According to Martin, the five individuals filing suit have only a tenuous connection to the GBCS, and all were recruited and are being funded by Mark Tooley, Director of the IRD’s UMAction, and/or his law firm in Arlington, Virginia, Gammon and Grange—though several of the litigants have stated that they do not know how their legal action is being financed. One of the litigants, John Patton Meadows, has admitted in a deposition that he had received confidential legal documents belonging to the GBCS prior to or during the 2004 General Conference.

Martin concludes that the IRD functions as a strategy center, not as a renewal group; in Weaver’s view, the “IRD is a secular-funded right-wing political organization unaffiliated with any church.”

Martin’s site contains links to resolutions of two Annual Conferences about the IRD and its activities, both of which appear to have been brought to the 2008 General Conference. One of these resolutions was passed by the 2007 NY Annual Conference.

Based on its assessment of the activities of the IRD within the United Methodist Church, the NY Annual Conference concludes that the IRD agenda is “to effectively eliminate the UMC’s social witness,” and the IRD distorts and is not grounded in authentic Wesleyan theology and its vision of the church.

Based on its observation of the activities of IRD, the NY Annual Conference Resolution judges that IRD uses “hardball tactics” within the UMC to accomplish the following: using controversial issues, including homosexuality, as wedge issues; seeking to drive out persons they do not agree with, including calls for liberals to leave the church; misrepresenting their distorted, inflammatory, sensationalized, and sometimes deceptive commentaries as factual news accounts of issues and events in the Church in a way intended to mislead and manipulate their audience; and using a piece written by Mark Tooley to attack the 2006 session of the New York Annual Conference and characterize it as “more like a rally than a church convention.”

Condemning “the hardball, deceptive and divisive tactics of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and its UMAction Committee,” the NY Annual Conference resolution calls on “all United Methodists not to support the IRD and to reject the agenda it works to impose on the UMC and the tactics it uses to advance them.” The resolution also asks the “IRD to disband its UMAction committee and cease its efforts to impose its agenda on the UMC.”

In similar fashion, based on its dealings with and observation of the IRD, the Desert Southwest Annual Conference asks the 2008 General Assembly to accept a report prepared for its 2003 Annual Conference, which found that “the agendas of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and its subcommittee UM Action, were inconsistent with the mission, nature, and theology of the United Methodist Church.”

The Desert Southwest Conference also calls on the GBCS to create and distribute study materials on the IRD, its agenda and tactics, for the use of all United Methodist Annual Conferences, as well as the Council of Bishops, the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, the National Council of Churches of Christ, and the World Council of Churches.

The unholy financial alliances of IRD and its affiliates are well-researched by Andrew J. Weaver et al. in an article I cited in a comment on my blog yesterday--the 11 Aug. 2006 "Neocon Catholics Target Mainline Protestants" (see Weaver notes that the founders of IRD are “paid political operatives who work ceaselessly to discredit mainline Protestant leaders and their Christian communions” (my emphasis; citing S. Swecker, Hard Ball on Holy Ground, 2005; and Weaver et al., “The Radical Right Assault on Mainline Protestantism and the National Council of Churches of Christ,” Talk to Action, 2005).

Weaver notes that prominent Catholic leaders who have had key leadership roles within IRD—including Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, George Weigel, Mary Ellen Bork, and Mary Ann Glendon—“confer their prestige and considerable power to encourage right-wing donors to finance IRD" (my emphasis). In his assessment, these neoconservative political leaders are “key links to the patrons of IRD,” who include Richard Mellon Scaife, Howard Ahmanson, and the Bradley, Coors, Smith-Richardson, Randolph, and Olin Foundations (citing (Media Transparency, “The Money Behind Conservative Media: Funders,” 2006).

As Weaver points out, Michael Novak, who is a co-founder of IRD, has been “a well-paid activist at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) for more than two decades” (my emphasis). Other influential figures at AEI include Lynne Cheney and Newt Gingrich. According to Weaver, between 1985 and 2004, AEI received $42,342,101—largely from right-wing funders. In the same time frame, Novak received $1,527,397 from the Olin and Bradley foundations (citing Media Transparency, “The Money Behind the Media: American Enterprise Institute,” 2006).

According to Weaver, between 1985 and 2004, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where George Weigel is a key player, received $12, 535, 574—largely from the same people who fund IRD (citing Media Transparency, “The Money Behind the Media: Ethics and Public Policy Center,” 2006).

In Weaver’s judgment, “All of these benefactors have a common political aim, which is to neutralize and overturn the social justice tradition of mainline Protestant churches because they are in tension with unfettered capitalism” (citing National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, “Conservative Foundations Prevail in Shaping Public Policies,” 1997; Swecker, Hard Ball, 2005; and F. Clarkson, “The Battle for the Mainline Churches,”Public Eye Magazine, Spring 2006).

Dirty money, dirty goals, and dirty tactics: Weaver notes that the IRD has used its power, its influence with wealthy right-wing donors, and its media connections, to smear and disseminate rumors about (among others) Archbishop Desmond Tutu; Rev. Jim Wallis; Rabbi Michael Lerner; Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams; Bishop Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, etc.

Weaver’s “IRD/Good News: How the Right Wing Targets United Methodist Women” (cited above) documents the IRD’s dissemination of outright lies about gay people—a tactic that has earned the IRD “the endorsement and encouragement of a terrorist group, the American White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan(my emphasis; citing “KKK kkk Ku Klux Klan jew Jew kkk KKK Judaism,” Queers on Fire, 2005; F. Clark, “Krusaders for Krist’s Kingdom, Slacktivist Weblog, 2005; and C. Currie, “Ku Klux Klan Joins Republican Party, Aligned with Institute on Religion and Democracy in Protesting Church Conference,” 2005).

Weaver notes as well that the website of the IRD-affiliate Good News/RENEW links to the website of the Un-Official Confessing Movement (which invites disgruntled United Methodists to leave the church and take UMC property with them), on which materials making bogus claims linking Nazism to homosexuality appear. Specifically, the Confessing website cites the Pink Triangle, which falsely claims that the Nazi party was controlled by gays (though Nazism executed thousands of gay people).

These claims are characterized by Stephen Feinstein, Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, as akin to flat-earth science. Feinstein attributes these lies about the connection of Nazism to homosexuality to “a right-wing Christian cult” (citing S. Feinstein, “Letters from Readers,” Star Tribune, Minneapolis, 20 March 2003).

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Further Digging: The UMC and the IRD

After yesterday’s posting about the activities of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) re: the United Methodist Church, I’ve been digging. I’m trying to resist saying that I’ve been digging in the dirt, but that’s surely what it feels like, the more I inform myself about the IRD.

First, it’s important to note that the IRD is overtly political. It’s “Republican-party aligned” and was organized and funded by Republican operatives. According to United Church of Christ minister Mark Curry in an article entitled “Mark Tooley’s Election-Year Lies” (28 July 2006),

Tooley's IRD was set-up and is funded by voices in the Republican Party that hope to undermine the mainline Christian tradition of prophetically speaking out on issues of war, peace and economic justice. God is not a Republican or a Democrat, as Jim Wallis likes to say, but IRD confuses the Gospel message with the Republican Party platform on each and every issue—see

Mark Tooley is Director of the IRD’s UMAction committee. As his biography on the IRD website notes (see, prior to joining IRD, Tooley worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In addition to serving as Director of UMAction, Tooley serves as a board member of Good News, part of the cluster of well-organized right-wing pressure groups within the United Methodist Church involved in the distribution of cell-phones to African delegates at this year’s General Conference.

Tooley’s CIA ties, and his lack of theological training, are noted in a 16 May 2006 article entitled “Hardball Tactics, The Mainline and IRD” by Christian Century writer Jason Byassee ( The article is a review and discussion of Steven Swecker’s Hard Ball on Holy Ground: The Religious Right v. the Mainline for the Church’s Soul.

Byassee’s analysis of Mark Tooley’s overt political agenda and lack of theological background is incisive. He asks,

And precisely who is Mark Tooley to pass such judgment on the Methodist Council of Bishops? A former CIA operative with no formal theological training. Journalists often use Tooley's material when they report on church squabbles, since he offers a "conservative" soundbite to balance the bishops' "liberal" voice.

Byassee notes that since its founding by neo-conservative Republican political operatives, IRD “has been monitoring mainline churches for political statements that are out of step with the views of rank-and-file members.” It focuses primarily on the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Episcopal Church.

In its attempt to curb the use of scripture and traditional social teachings within these churches to critique contemporary American culture (and, in particular, conservative American political leaders), the IRD has previously “operated largely under the radar.” One of its most persistent tactics is the sending of unsolicited mailings to members of the three targeted religious groups, seeking to spread discontent with the direction the denominations have taken, insofar as it diverges from the Republican political agenda.

When the United Methodist bishops spoke out against the Iraq War, Tooley immediately sent faxes to the mainstream media, including Christian Century, attacking the bishops for meddling in political matters beyond their purview. As noted previously, the IRD has been very successful at seeding right-wing soundbites in the mainstream media. For some time now, these have dominated mainstream-media coverage of the activities of leading U.S. churches, and have allowed IRD operatives to suggest that their right-wing attack on the United Methodist, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian churches is an attempt to “balance” the “activism” of such churches.

According to Byassee, Swecker’s Hard Ball on Holy Ground exposes the thick connections between IRD, with its attempt to control the mainline churches in the U.S., and funders including Richard Mellon Scaife, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, and the John Birch Society. The Ahmansons have expressed support for a “Christian Reconstructionist” agenda that would impose Levitical law on America. In the view of Hard Ball on Holy Ground, “the bottom line [of such IRD funders] is support for neoconservative economic policy, by which they mean the shredding of governmental regulation of business and of any social safety net, as well as the elimination of almost all taxation.”

I take this to mean that the real concern of IRD and its funders is not the church’s theology, per se, or ethical questions like the place of gay and lesbian persons in church and society. The real bottom line is money. And that makes the callous, cynical, calculated use of the real lives of real gay human beings in the money- and power-oriented agenda of the IRD all the more cruel and unjustifiable. How can any Christians accept such dirty money, or buy into an agenda that in any way justifies the IRD as yet another among many competing voices that can claim authenticity in Christian debates?

Byassee concludes that, “[t]he IRD's tactics often seem based more on Tooley's CIA experience than on Christian behavior.” To illustrate the point, he cites a section of Swecker's book which notes that, at the retirement dinner of United Methodist Bishop Joseph Sprague, a favorite target of the IRD, Mark Tooley’s assistant John Lomperis showed up to tape record comments and snap pictures of all participants.

Mark Tooley’s CIA background, his use of CIA-style tactics in his position as Director of UMAction, and the deep pocket-funding that supports the covert activities of the IRD, are also noted in a 28 April press release of Reconciling Ministries about General Conference (see This press release notes that according to a 25 February 25 2004, investigative report by Matt Smith in the San Francisco Weekly, the IRD had spent up to $4 million by that year in financing conservative political groups within the three denominations it has targeted.

The reference to John Lomperis in Jason Byassee’s article is fascinating to me, since, in tracking the ties of the Florida UMC bishop with whom I have had dealings—Bishop Timothy Whitaker—to the IRD, I find that in November 2007, Bishop Whitaker gave an interview to Mr. Lomperis. The interview is on the IRD website at The IRD (along with a number of the affiliate right-wing groups in the United Methodist Church) have published and promoted Bishop Whitaker's work, including a letter he wrote critiquing Bishop Sprague for his political activities as a bishop.

It is interesting to note that, in the interview, Bishop Whitaker offers criticisms of the cultural captivity of progressive Christians very similar to those set forth in his essay on homosexuality and the church. In my open letter to Bishop Whitaker posted on this blog at, I note my concern with the Bishop Whitaker’s suggestion that, in defending the full inclusion of gay and lesbian human beings in the church and acknowledging the full humanity of these brothers and sisters in Christ, the church is capitulating to cultural norms.

In my view, precisely the opposite is the case. In seeking to defend LGBT believers against social oppression that is widespread—and can result in loss of jobs for no reason other than one’s sexual orientation, in housing and employment discrimination, in being turned away from a hospital where one’s partner is receiving treatment, or in manifold forms of violence—in seeking to defend LGBT human beings against such widespread social oppression, the church is speaking a countercultural word of hope and salvation to the culture at large.

Because I believe that the church pays a price—the price of costly grace—in standing with the oppressed, including LGBT persons, I am not convinced by Bishop Whitaker’s argument in his IRD interview with Mr. Lomperis. Bishop Whitaker states,

My main concern with a lot of the voices of progressive Christianity is the quality of the theological discourse that comes from them. They seem to presuppose that certain assumptions embedded in modern Western societies and cultures represent reality, and they don’t recognize how ethno-centric those assumptions can be. And then they think that the purpose of theology is to express in religious form the presuppositions of the culture. There doesn’t seem to be a seriousness of theological purpose in their discourse. And I think that that makes it difficult for others to take their thinking as seriously as they would like.

I’m sorry to say so, but something in this argument seems a bit disingenuous to me. Both here and in his essay on the church and homosexuality, Bishop Whitaker asks for serious theological dialogue about issues such as homosexuality.

Once again, I have to ask Bishop Whitaker in response to this suggestion: How can serious theological dialogue about homosexuality occur in the United Methodist Church when openly gay believers are not invited to the table at General Conference?

How can serious theological dialogue about homosexuality occur in the United Methodist Church when openly gay employees, including theologians, do not have job security in United Methodist institutions?

How can serious theological dialogue about homosexuality occur in the United Methodist Church when openly gay employees can be fired without job evaluations, in United Methodist institutions that have no stated non-discrimination policies, in right-to-work states that permit at-will firing?

After reading Bishop Whitaker’s interview with Mark Tooley’s assistant John Lomperis, I can understand a bit better some of the issues at stake in my unjust firing at a United Methodist institution

When a group such as IRD is so well-funded by powerful wealthy donors who have access to political power as well, it takes courage and conviction for church institutions to stand up to power, to speak truth to power. There is a price to be paid when the church refuses to dance with the devil. That price is the path of costly grace. Where money is involved, where dirty money coalesces with behind-the-scenes power grabs, discipleship is costly.

But it is only when the church speaks out of the experience of costly discipleship that it will be heard. In his interview with John Lomperis, Bishop Whitaker addresses one of the pet themes of the IRD and other religious conservatives: the purported demise of mainstream Christian churches.

In the view of Lomperis et al., the churches are in decline because they have not held a countercultural position regarding “traditional values.” Lomperis, Tooley, and their allies including Bishop Whitaker, propose that returning the churches to “traditional” gospel stances on family life, marriage, and so forth will cause people to stream back to the mainline churches.

In my view, such theological and sociological analysis of the departure of many young people from the churches today is misplaced—it is flatly wrong. Young people today are leaving the churches because they do not see the churches standing courageously for human rights in the cultural contexts in which the churches find themselves, at this point in history.

The churches could do nothing more prophetic today, nothing more countercultural, than to invite everyone to their table. If the churches abolished the lesser table and provided unambiguous witness to the unity and welcome of all believers, including LGBT believers, around the one table of the Lord, they would speak a clear, unambiguous word to culture that would, in my view, do much to rehabilitate the churches among younger church members.

Why keep telling this story, harping on these themes? Thirst for retribution? Unrighteous rage?

I hope not, though those whom the churches treat with the conspicuous injustice often doled out to LGBT human beings will hunger and thirst for justice. It is human (and I would suggest, holy as well) to do so—and in doing so, to include in one’s quest for justice all those to whom one is linked in the experience of injustice.

No, I keep speaking out not because I want retribution, but because I have to do so. It is only in telling our stories that we re-claim our humanity, when that humanity is denied in acts of gross injustice. We have no choice to speak except from where we’ve been placed.

My experience at the United Methodist university

has become the starting point for my attempt to unravel the plot of a portion of my own life narrative, insofar as that narrative now intersects with Bishop 's

life, with the life of his church, with the life of the university

We are called as followers of the Christ to ponder our lives as stories of grace, to make sense of them in light of the gospel.

When we are subjected to injustice, particularly by institutions that profess to value justice, we try in every way possible to understand: to read, to research, to deliberate—to make sense of the gross injustice we have experienced. Many of us eventually arrive at the conclusion that our experiences of pain and dispossession at the hands of the church are actually gifts, opportunities to give witness—to the saving love of a God who despises no one, and who, in particular, embraces the least among us; and to the power of the gospel proclaimed by the church, when the church refuses to sell its soul to the wealthy and powerful, and when it looks at its cultural world not through their eyes but through the eyes of the dispossessed.

We keep on keeping on, from where the church has placed us. And we eventually discover that this place, and our stories, are full of grace, despite the church’s refusal to recognize this grace.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Dirty Money: The United Methodist Church and the IRD

Interesting news from the United Methodist General Conference in Ft. Worth. On Saturday, Soulforce held a rally outside the Convention Center to ask delegates gathered inside—at the big table—to pray and think about full inclusion of their LGBT brothers and sisters at their big table.

A report on this rally is found on the United Methodist News Service website for General Conference: Robin Russell, “Black Civil Rights Veterans Advocate Inclusion”

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Souled Out Again: The Coupling of Justice and Mercy

A few disparate thoughts today—a day on which I am returning home from my trip, and have little time to blog—from E.J. Dionne’s new book Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008).

I like Dionne’s constant coupling of mercy and justice. Dionne notes that our American political discourse today is impoverished, because it tends to dismiss the “hard” language of justice for the softer discourse of a kindler, gentler mercy that has no real substantive content. We talk rhetorically about being kindler and gentler—more merciful—but have no measures, no benchmarks, for what it means to be merciful, since we eschew considerations of justice as we natter on about our mercifulness.

In fact, as he notes, we have relegated questions of social and economic justice to some religious and political netherworld, where they have little impact on our deliberations about what it means to be good, civil, humane people. We have drawn a line between authentic “religious” input in the political sphere, confining it to areas of sexual ethics or the morality of family life, and conversations about economic justice, treating the latter as though they have no connection to the moral or religious realm. As Dionne notes,

But how does one define justice? That question is central to sorting out what government’s role in the marketplace should be. Here again, one of the most important debates among religious people has been buried beneath a mound of media reports about sexually charged questions that are presumed to appeal to a wider audience (p. 81).

In Dionne’s view, this avoidance of rhetoric about justice in our political discourse, and the confining of the religious contribution to sexual morality and family life, radically impoverishes our public discourse. The major religious traditions of the world have a great deal to say about justice as the enfleshing of mercy, about how justice affects family life:

The narrowing of our moral and religious vision is one of the great tragedies of American politics since the late 1970s. Our traditions, most certainly Christianity and Judaism, teach us that we should not lie, cheat, or steal, and that we are supposed to love our neighbor. Shouldn’t the question of how such moral rules apply to our economic and social policies be a matter of lively debate within our political system? It is simply absurd to say that religious voices can be heard on family life, but not on the economic underpinnings of the family; on personal responsibility, but not on the responsibility of great economic actors; on generosity of the spirit, but not on the economic works of mercy (p. 89).

Dionne uses strong language to characterize this deliberate narrowing of our national discourse about politics: he calls it sinful. This analysis implicitly challenges the churches themselves. It suggests that churches do not serve their adherents well when they talk about mercy without speaking of justice. It also implies that churches mislead the public when they cause us to imagine that one can be authentically religious without seeking justice in all areas of life. As Dionne puts it,

The narrowing of the focus of religious engagement in politics to abortion, gay marriage, end-of-life questions, and a handful of other cultural issues is—it’s a strong word, I know—a sin. It limits the reach of faith. It suggests to some who might otherwise contemplate belief that religion is primarily about right-wing politics and drives many people away. In the case of Christianity, it radically confines a tradition that through history has had much of importance to say about the just ordering of political, economic, and social life (p. 123).

I am thinking of all of this today, in light of my recent experiences at a United Methodist university in Florida, and as the UMC General Conference continues. Methodism is very attractive in its rhetoric of mercy. Methodist ministers speak freely and easily about their work as a ministry of mercy.

Yet in recent decades, as have other Christian churches, Methodists have often tended to accept the neo-conservative blackout of justice discourse in the public sphere. The silence of the United Methodist Church about the justice dimensions of its institutions’ treatment of gay and lesbian persons, for instance, strongly undermines the claim of the UMC to be merciful to gay and lesbian persons. One cannot practice mercy without being just. One cannot be just without practicing mercy.

This constant coupling of justice and mercy was clear to John Wesley, and is an insight of Wesleyan spirituality that Methodism needs to recover today, in order to be a prophetic voice within the public sphere. When justice is uncoupled from mercy, when churches cave in to the pressure of neo-conservatives to treat discourse about justice as if it not at the very center of moral discourse in all religious traditions, churches end up being churches captive to culture (which is to say, captive to wealth and power), not churches that offer a salvific word to culture.

In making these observations, my intent is not to single out or attack the United Methodist Church. It is to speak out of my experience working at two UMC institutions, and, in particular, out of an experience of conspicuous injustice (and lack of mercy) at the last of those two institutions.

I speak as an outsider to the Methodist tradition. At the same time, the scriptures and credal traditions that bind one Christian church to another point all of us to a shared goal of living justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. What happens in one Christian communion affects other communions. It is in the collective interest of all Christian institutions to craft a language in which justice and mercy meet in the public sphere.

It’s also in the interest of all Christian institutions to model the church’s own life and that of its institutions around a shared ethic of justice and mercy. The churches will be credible, when they speak the countercultural word of the gospel to culture, only to the extent that they themselves live counterculturally.

Nothing is more countercultural than living justice and loving mercy. By embodying that goal in its own life and exemplifying what justice coupled with mercy can mean for human communities, the church makes the reign of God present in a way that urges secular social institutions along the path of mercy and justice.

With regard to gay and lesbian human beings, the churches have a long, long way to go. We continue to be subject to ugly injustice within the churches themselves. To the extent that this is the case, the churches forfeit their right to profess to be embodiments of mercy. They also undermine their countercultural message of justice for society at large.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Remembering Larry: National Day of Silence

Today is the national day of silence to combat bullying of LGBT youth in American schools. This year’s event centers on remembrance of Lawrence King, a fifteen-year old gay youth murdered in February by a classmate in their Oxnard, CA, middle school (

In recognition of this day of silence, and in memory of Lawrence King, I would like to offer the following quotation from Mary Doria Russell’s book A Thread of Grace (NY: Ballantine, 2005):

The Holy One has made us His partners, the sages teach. He gives us wheat, we make bread. He gives us grapes, we make wine. He gives us the world. We make of it what we will—all of us together. When the preponderance of human beings choose to act with justice and generosity and kindness, then learning and love and decency prevail. When the preponderance of human beings choose power, greed, and indifference to suffering, the world is filled with war, poverty, and cruelty. Bombs do not drop from God’s hand. Triggers are not pulled by God’s finger. Each of us chooses, one by one, and God’s eye does not turn from those who suffer or those who inflict the suffering. Our choices are weighed. And, thus, the nations are judged (pp. 158-9).

“God’s eye does not turn from those who suffer or those who inflict the suffering”: this is an affirmation of Judaeo-Christian faith that I find almost impossible to believe. The world in which we live is so full of suffering, so much of it unmerited suffering inflicted on one human being by another human being, that it becomes a daring act of faith to believe that God sees, God hears, and God cares.

And yet we must believe this, if the world is to make any sense at all. And believing, we commit ourselves to making a difference, no matter how difficult the struggle against silence, ignorance, malice, the human propensity to dehumanize those who are Other.

Larry King, requiescat in pace. Your life has made and continues to make an incalculable difference.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Survivors of Clerical Abuse: The Path to Church Reform in the 21st Century

As with some of my previous postings, today's posting is an edited version of a contribution of mine on the blog cafe of the journal National Catholic Reporter at In that posting, I was responding to a comment of someone else partner that I interpreted as diminishing the significance of first-hand accounts of survivors of clerical sexual abuse.

Since I have been blogging about the recent visit of Pope Benedict to the U.S. and about the abuse crisis in the Catholic church, I think it's important to post my NCR reflections on this blog. I want to do so because I have become convinced, as has Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, that the future viability of the Catholic church depends on its willingness--on our willingness--to listen carefully to painful stories, to the testimony, of survivors of clerical abuse.

I agree wholeheartedly with Bishop Robinson when he notes, “If a better church one day emerges from this crisis, it is they alone who must take the credit for creating it” (see below for the full citation). I agree with him that the heart-wrenching testimony of survivors of clerical sexual abuse is a gift to the entire church, an opportunity for the church to reform itself and do things quite differently in the future.

As I have stated previously on this blog, in my view, the Catholic church stands in need of reform at present more than at any time in its history since the Reformation. What we have learned since 2002 about the widespread abuse of children by clergy, about the cover-up of this abuse from the very top of the church throughout the entire church, about the hidden pay-offs and furtive transfer of pedophile priests from place to place, and about the unwillingness of many bishops to exercise minimal pastoral responsibility by meeting with survivors of abuse, hearing their stories, and seeking healing for their wounds: all of this indicates a church in radical need of reform.

The reform needed is a reform in the very heart of the church, in how we do business. It is a reform that must address how power is allocated and used in the Catholic church (and in other churches as well, since the churches form an interdependent web, and apologists for the status quo in one Christian communion reinforce and ally with similar apologists in other communions). Survivors have a unique gift to bring us, in pointing to the depths of the church's need for reform, and the path to reform.

Here's an edited version of what I wrote on the NCR blog a day ago:

"M., I’ve been pondering what you wrote above in light of the re-opening of the question of the abuse crisis by Benedict on his visit to the U.S. I'm especially troubled by the following statement: 'Whatever wrongs one experienced [in my family as I was growing up], one was expected to ignore them and focus on achieving something positive.'

I could hear quite a few Catholics saying this to many of us who are now alienated from the church, due to dismal failures on the part of its pastors. I could (and have) heard Catholics saying something of this sort to survivors of clerical sexual abuse.

I honor your intent to find your own spiritual path, in which you claim self-worth by refusing to permit others to have power over you. I understand your claim that complaining of the harm others have done to you can be a way of giving those others power over you. I think it is important that you root your reflections in your family’s experience during World War II.

Nevertheless, something in your approach troubles me, if your approach is applied as a rule of thumb for how all others who have experienced injustice ought to behave. I’ve just finished reading Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s powerful new book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church (Dublin: Columba, 2007). It speaks clearly and compassionately to those who have experienced abuse by pastors and church authorities—-in particular, those who have experienced clerical sexual abuse.

Robinson notes that that he himself was abused as a boy—-though not by a priest or a family member; rather, a stranger molested him. So he speaks out of personal experience, to a certain extent.

I find what Robinson says illuminating. He notes that those who have experienced abuse by clerics and who speak out are often told immediately to forgive. Robinson notes a number of problems with this attempt to move survivors to a forgiveness that is precipitous (pp. 220-221). He notes that there is such a thing as a forgiveness given too early, which bandages and hides a wound that is not yet healed and will continue to fester (p. 222).

Robinson places his reflections in the context of an anthropology that sees human beings as meaning-makers. As he notes, human beings build up fragile systems of meaning composed 'of the many tiny fragments of their lived experience, the many loves, small and great, of their lives' (p. 217).

Abuse by a pastoral authority figure disrupts a human being’s sense of meaning (and thus her sense of self-worth, her very sense of personhood) at a deep level, because it reaches into the very heart of the meaning system out of which a person lives: 'Sexual abuse is a bulldozer gouging a road through this fragile ecosystem of love and meaning that a person has been painfully constructing' (p. 217).

Robinson notes that, because everyone in a church community is involved in a similar quest to create meaning systems, an abuser who speaks out and tells the story of his abuse can be resented and even targeted by other members of the Christian community. At worst, other church members tell the whistle-blower either overtly or in other more subtle ways to get lost, to disappear, to stop speaking out and raising a ruckus. When church authorities appear to echo the same message, it can seem to the survivor as if she is being expelled by the entire Christian community.

Paths to healing differ from individual to individual (pp. 219-220). Speaking from his pastoral experience, Robinson argues that no one should dictate how a particular person’s healing should occur, or tell a person not to feel pain and anger or to speak of these emotions.

Robinson notes that anger plays a positive role in the experience of the abused: 'To think of the abuse and not feel angry is simply not an option. When memory of sexual abuse comes to mind, the anger that is spontaneously felt is in fact positively good and contributes to a sense of meaning because it is part of the loving of oneself. The anger is a defensive reaction, an affirmation of oneself and one’s own dignity, an instinctive statement that what happened was wrong, that I (the victim) am worth more than that' (p. 221).

Finally, Robinson makes a brilliant point about survivors of abuse who muster the courage to speak out, knowing that they risk the probability of being vilified by the church community within which their abuse took place. Robinson notes, that in speaking out courageously at the risk of being vilified and further excluded, survivors offer the church a precious gift.

He states, 'There is another forgiveness that is essential. Communities must forgive, in the literal sense of ‘give themselves for’, victims who have disturbed their comfort and meaning-making by speaking out about their abuse. Within the Catholic Church I must accept that, if no victims had come forward, nothing would have changed. We must learn to be positively grateful to victims for disturbing us. If we feel that we have lost some meaning, it was a false meaning, and their revelation has opened the way to a fuller and more rewarding meaning' (p. 225).

Robinson says that listening to victims of clerical sexual abuse is the most profound spiritual gift he has received in the last 25 years. He concludes, 'If a better church one day emerges from this crisis, it is they alone who must take the credit for creating it' (p. 225).

This approach seems to me entirely consistent with Benedict's choice to meet with survivors of clerical sexual abuse. The healing needed in the abuse situation is not merely the healing of individual lives (though God knows that is needed, and no one should consider it a luxury).

It's also the healing of a whole institution. And that won't take place if we tell those who have experienced abuse to suck it up, stiffen their spines, and adopt good old American can-do stoicism. Nobody can better tell the church how to find healing than those who have been pushed to the margins by clerical abuse. Their voices are gifts to all of us. We need to acknowledge the very serious suffering of those who have been abused by pastoral authority figures, and who have had the abuse compounded by brothers and sisters in Christ who then blame them for beginning their healing process by speaking out."

If Benedict is serious about dealing transparently and with full accountability for the abuse crisis in the American Catholic church, he will urge the American bishops immediately to set up a nationwide truth-disclosing commission. That commission will invite to the table every survivor of clerical sexual abuse who can be found--as well as all Catholics who have experienced abuse of any sort from pastors.

After listening and dialogue, the commission would then begin deliberating about how to heal the wounds such a process would disclose. They are enormous. They will be healed only when new paradigms of power as service are incorporated into the clerical life of the church.

And, since I have noted above that all the churches form an interdependent web in which apologists for the status quo reinforce and ally with each other across denominational lines, I want to point to a parallel case to add further illustration to my point: if the United Methodist Church wants to be credible when it tells society at large that it stands for mercy in situations of social pain, the UMC will use its current General Conference to engage in church-wide listening to those who have experienced unwelcome or exclusion by Methodist ministers and Methodist institutions.

Such a church-wide listening process would find ways to link justice and mercy, such that the church's claim to stand for mercy would have credibility, because it is rooted in justice.

Do I expect the UMC to do this at its General Conference? No.

Do I expect Benedict to urge the American bishops to form a nationwide truth-telling commission? No, I don't.

Nonetheless, I continue to live in hope. Hagia Sophia is full of whimsical surprises, and occasionally the voices of those who keep on keeping on find their way to the ears and hearts of the power mongers at the center of institutional power.

Benedict's Visit: Unfinished Work

Still traveling, without easy access to the Internet. For those who read yesterday’s posting, please note that I uploaded a hastily written copy early in the day and proofed it later. The later copy corrects quite a few errors in the previous one.

I continue to think about Pope Benedict’s recent visit to the U.S. As my previous posting notes, his unexpected decision to meet with some survivors of clerical sexual abuse was a gesture in the right direction. Up to now, no pope had chosen to make such a gesture, and it has been lamentably all too common for bishops to refuse to meet with survivors, except when forced to do so in the courtroom.
It is impossible to see bishops as what they claim to be about—good shepherds walking in the footsteps of Jesus—when they will not walk among their flock. Jesus rubbed shoulders with the hurting, the humble, the unclean, with everyone. Bishops who expect to proclaim the gospel effectively must behave similarly. Locking themselves in pastoral palaces and refusing to meet with those in their flock who are hurting because of the abuse of ministers hardly embodies the gospel.
I give Benedict credit, therefore, for setting an example for bishops, by his symbolic gesture of meeting with and listening to these wounded members of the church, whose voices absolutely have to be heard and whose pain must be acknowledged and healed. As Bishop Geoffrey Robinson points out in his new book about sex and power in the Catholic church, it would have made a world of difference in how the abuse crisis had been handled, had any pope up to now have taken the simple, but powerful, step of meeting with survivors.
It also strikes me as worth noting that Benedict did not come among us wagging his finger at us for our shortcomings. Benedict’s irenicism will outrage members of the American church who had hoped that this pope would drive all except the faithful few from the church—from their church. On right-wing Catholic blogs, there already are cries of dismay that, at the papal Masses, noted pro-choice political figures were given communion.
For these brothers and sisters in Christ, the Eucharistic Christ must be protected from sacrilege. Their bizarre theology holds that God is grieved when sinners receive communion. Their pious task is to protect the defenseless Divine from affront at the communion rail of churches.
This theology appalls me. What kind of deity is worth worshiping, who is affronted when a sinner receives communion, a sacrament that the church has always defined as medicine for sinners? Who among us is not a sinner? Who has appointed any brother or sister in Christ to be a watchdog to separate the sheep from the goats at the communion rail?
If we are going to mount a campaign to drive sinners from the Eucharist, where will we stop? Will married couples practicing artificial contraception (that is, over 90% of married Catholics in western nations) be told they are unwelcome at the communion rail? What of the racists, the exploitative capitalists, the war-mongers, the homophobes? In seeking to drive away pro-choice politicians and gays, while remaining silent about these other sinners, what are we really saying?
This is all clearly political. This reprehensible attempt to use the Eucharist as a political weapon is all about politics. It is all about positioning the Catholic church as an ally of “the” pro-life party, the Republican party.
To a great extent, Benedict’s avoidance of the hot-button issues of those on the religious right has to be read as an attempt to offset the effects of the damaging alliance some Catholic groups and bishops in the U.S. have made with the Republican party for several decades now. This attempt to play overt politics and turn the American Catholic church into the Republican party at prayer reached its nadir in 2004, with a number of bishops announcing that they would not give communion to pro-choice (read: Democratic) political candidates.
This alliance has gotten American Catholics precisely nowhere. The promises of Republican political leaders to end abortion have always been faint and insincere. In many other respects, those we have elected because bishops told us to vote pro-life have betrayed pro-life Catholic teachings egregiously. How, precisely, does the lack of response to citizens of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina represent a pro-life position? Or the war in Iraq?
This is not to argue that the Democratic platform represents the Kingdom of God. It is to argue that no political platform deserves the kind of allegiance some bishops have urged American Catholics to give to the Republican platform in recent years. This is a form of idolatry.
And it is one of the primary reasons American Catholicism is bleeding members at an alarming rate. The recent Pew report shows one in three American Catholics having left the church. Despite news reports that take their soundbytes from right-wing think tanks, a large percentage of those walking away are the young. The future of the American Catholic church is shrugging its shoulders and distancing itself from a church that proclaims values it fails to embody in its playing politics and its treatment of survivors of clerical sexual abuse. The young who remain are of the pure-and-washed variety, card-carrying neocons who want to identify the church with a very particular political position. Benedict came to the U.S. clearly concerned to bring healing, not further division, and those on the right who expected him to drive deeper wedges of division around their “non-negotiable” issues are now dismayed.
Nonetheless, though I applaud Benedict’s symbolic gesture of meeting with survivors and his irenicism around the non-negotiable issues of right-wing Catholics, I believe that significant work remains to be done after his visit. Symbolic gestures and silence about hot-button issues are far from enough. These will hardly heal the self-inflicted wounds of the American Catholic church. And some of those wounds begin with Benedict himself, and demand his further response, if they are to be healed.
As Mark Kowalewski’s book on the Catholic church’s response to the AIDS crisis, All Things to All People, argues, the Catholic church is adroit at using image-management techniques to mute hard-line top-down teachings and thus seeking to retain the affiliation of those hoping for a more thorough-going pastoral response from the church. Kowalewski notes that during the AIDS crisis, the church adopted the triangulating techniques of the corporate management sector, to control discontent with its hard line about sexual orientation.
At the top, the church firmly resolutely held to its position that homosexual acts are always morally wrong, because they are incapable of fulfilling the procreative intent of human sexuality. Indeed, in recent years, under the influence of the current pope when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith, the top levels of the church made this teaching even more adamant by innovating the use of a tag never before used in Catholic teaching, to characterize gay human beings. The church began to speak of gay persons as “intrinsically disordered.”
As Kowalewski notes, even as top levels of church leadership held this unrelentingly anti-gay position throughout the years of the AIDS crisis, at the level of individual pastors and their parishes the hard stance was often softened through pastoral outreach that implicitly departed from the hard line of the magisterium. Kowalewski proposes that this distinction between the top-level hard line and the parish-level soft line is an intentional political strategy of the contemporary church: it allows the church to maintain its base of conservative members and allies, while reaching out to those alienated or hurt by that unyielding stance. It allows the church to try to be all things to all people, though one of the prices the church pays by behaving so equivocally is the loss of some of its most talented and dedicated members, who cannot live with the pastoral equivocation.
Kowalewski concludes that this corporate image-management triangulation technique is ineffective, in the final analysis, as a pastoral strategy. The strategy results in inconsistency regarding the Catholic approach to gay and lesbian persons. When the top-level pastors shake the crozier while parish priests try to conceal it, people are confused about just where the church really stands. For many Catholics, and, in particular gay Catholics, it has become clear that the church “really” stands on the side of homophobia, and not of healing.
Triangulation is ultimately all about stasis. It is about those on top maintaining their power—their top-down power over the rest of us.
And power is precisely the problem. Power is the elephant in the living room for Catholic sexual ethics, the one reality we have to address if we hope to have effective pastoral response to the many Catholics who are no longer persuaded by magisterial teaching. And yet it is also the reality we do not talk about.
The problem of sexual ethics in the Christian churches is first and foremost about power—who has it, how it is used, who defines whom through sexual teachings, who claims to articulate the “divine order” for everyone else, who claims to interpret the bible, the Christian tradition, and the transcultural and transhistorical consensus of Christian people for all other members of the church. In the Roman Catholic church, the impasse in sexual ethics has everything to do with the church's inability or unwillingness to admit that it can be wrong. Ever since Humanae vitae reaffirmed the traditional taboo against use of artificial contraception, though a majority of theological advisors urged Paul VI to abolish this taboo, the church has locked itself into a position of top-down power over a laity increasingly unwilling to have our experience of sexuality defined in a top-down way by celibate, all-male pastors.
In the final analysis, Benedict’s recent symbolic gesture and his silence about the non-negotiable issues of the American Catholic right won’t mean much at all unless some actual shifts take place in how the church does business. These shifts have to be in the arena of power, of pastoral power. The abuse crisis is first and foremost a crisis of abuse of power. It is a crisis of abuse of pastoral power.
It will be resolved only if and when this abuse of power discontinues. To discontinue the abuse of pastoral power will require that the leaders of the Catholic church—in the U.S., its bishops—relinquish unilateral, top-down power over others.
If Benedict’s visit and what he signaled by his meeting with survivors are to bear fruit in the American Catholic church, the following steps are urgently important:
  1. At its top levels, the Catholic church must adopt a dialogic approach to teaching, in which pronouncements that involve the lives of the faithful (and this comprises all magisterial pronouncements) begin with consultation of the faithful.
  2. In fidelity to the Catholic tradition at its best (in fidelity to what the adjective “catholic” means), those consulted in official teaching must be precisely everyone.
  3. The dialogic consultation process by which everyone is consulted must give a preferential voice to those who are most often shoved from the table—to the marginal, to those without a voice in social arrangements of power.
  4. Authentic catholic consultation would expand the definition of “everyone” to include those who are not part of the Catholic tradition in the dialogic consultation process by which church teaching is formulated.
  5. To accomplish the preceding, it is imperative that church pastors relinquish coercive power over the people of God, in emulation of the gospel, which sees power as service to all, and in particular to the least among us.
  6. We cannot arrive at this relinquishment without a deliberate critique of and abandonment of patriarchal models of power, with their misogynist assumptions.
  7. If the church is to be healed following the abuse crisis and is to negotiate the significant challenges of the postmodern era, it must rehabilitate the ancient image of itself as the people of God, following the lead of the second Vatican Council.
  8. An effective postmodern church will emphasize a sacramentality embodied in the life of the church first and foremost, as the wellspring from which all sacramental life in the church flows. This sacramentality will hold together justice and mercy in the life of the church itself, so that the church will speak its message of redemption to the world primarily by living that message in its internal life.
A big order? Indeed. The work has hardly begun.