Wednesday, April 21, 2010

John McNeill on Theology of Fallibility and the LGBT Community: Total Absence of Love and Compassion in Hierarchy's Gay Scapegoating

I just spoke of Hans Küng’s vast learning and obvious love for the church, and of my own determination to keep listening to him for those reasons, even when I do not always agree with each theological conclusion he reaches.  As the crisis in the Catholic church continues to unfold, I’ve been blogging about our need to listen to the many significant theological voices silenced during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict—a silencing that emanated from the office headed by the current pope, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when Cardinal Ratzinger headed that office.

Our church is much the poorer for the silencing of one theologian after another called by the Spirit to minister to the people of God.  We are now ill-equipped to think through the challenges our tradition faces as it enters the new global cultural phase of postmodernity, because the ministry of these theologians has been suppressed by church authority.  As Stalin’s Russia discovered to its chagrin, when a regime disappears its intelligentsia—poets, artists, thinkers—an entire society suffers dreadfully from the removal of these critical, thoughtful, creative members from its midst.  From the removal of those best equipped to think through the crises any institution will inevitably face in the course of its development. . . .

Another of these premier theological voices I continue to urge readers to hear is that of John McNeill, the prophetic Jesuit theologian driven out of ministry a number of years ago because he refused to stop writing about gay issues and building pastoral bridges to the gay community.  Here, I’d like to recommend John’s latest posting at his Spiritual Transformation blog.  It’s on the theology of fallibility and how the LGBT community should react to the fallibility of the hierarchy. 

This is a topic that has been drawing my attention lately, as I read discussions on Catholic blogs of the different paths that American religious women and the American Catholic bishops took vis-à-vis health care reform.  Because the Leadership Conference of Religious Women endorsed the health care reform bill while the bishops refused to do so, some American Catholics who will not accept a non-Republican president are logging into Catholic blogs to accuse American religious women and their defenders of a lack of respect for the apostolic succession.

The bishops are the successors of the apostles appointed by Christ, the argument goes.  Not the nuns.

This argument strikes me as exceptionally dim-witted and ahistorical.  If those advancing it would think for only a brief moment about the many conspicuous times throughout the history of the church (e.g., the Arian crisis) in which bishops have taken the wrong path altogether, while the laity or other groups in the church have followed a path later vindicated by the teaching of the church, they’d realize they are pushing a very weak argument, indeed.

Many Catholics today consider Austrian layman Franz Jäggerstätter a saint because he refused to join the Nazi army and was executed for following his conscience.  While we remember and celebrate Jäggerstätter, we don’t remember his bishop—and rightly so—because his bishop took what turned out to be the wrong side in the moral assessment of the National Socialist movement.  When Jäggerstätter sought the counsel of several priests and his bishop, they told him he had a moral obligation to join the Nazi army, because good Catholics always obey their country’s commands, and because he would be executed and his wife and children left without his support.

Bishops do not always make the right choices in matters of prudential moral judgment at any given point in history.  Sometimes laypersons—and/or religious women—do so when bishops fail to do so.  The episcopal office is not an automatic guarantee of sanctity, wisdom, theological acumen, pastoral ability, or moral insight.  Not every word uttered by a bishop (or a pope, for that matter) is an infallible utterance behind which Christ stands stamping his approval on the apostolic utterance.

In fact, the ecclesiology that turns every decision or utterance of bishops and popes into quasi-infallible statements is idolatrous.  It treats human beings and human institutions with the respect and obedience due to God alone.  This theology is inadequately Catholic.

And these are points that John McNeill makes, as well, in his very important statement about the theology of fallibility and the LGBT community.  In particular, John notes the political (as opposed to gospel-inspired) use that the Catholic hierarchy continues to try to make of gay and lesbian persons and of our lives. 

As he notes, when the abuse crisis first began to break open with the revelations about the archdiocese of Boston in 2002, one of the very first tactical moves—one of the very first political as opposed to gospel-oriented moves—the church’s leaders made was to scapegoat gay priests for the crisis.  As John notes, this was a move designed to deflect attention from the responsibility that the church’s leaders themselves bear for the crisis and its cover-up.  It was overtly political.  And it was cruel.

John writes,

The hierarchy is aware that the child abuse crisis and its cover up by hierarchs has seriously undermined their authority and power. This purge [of gays from seminaries and the priesthood] is a political move by the sinful human church to try to repair the damage done to their power and prestige by scapegoating the gay members of the clergy. They are ignoring all the expert advice from professional psychologists and psychiatrists that gayness was not the cause of the child abuse crisis. By this move they are trying to avoid their responsibility for the crisis and the need to reform the Church.

John asks an extremely important and unavoidable question about this political move on the part of the Catholic hierarchy: that is, how can we possibly justify, from the standpoint of the gospels, a cynical tactical move by church leaders in which there is a total absence of love and compassion for those unjustly targeted by this political tactic?  John notes,

Notice the total absence of any sense of love and compassion for all the suffering this will cause gay Catholics in general and, especially, gay priests.

What John McNeill says here reminds me strongly of a statement that Irish moral theologian Vincent Twomey made in December, in response to the revelations about years of abuse of minors in the Irish church.  Re: the cover-up of abuse by the Irish Catholic hierarchy, Twomey writes,

The unprofessional, inadequate managerial structures of the Dublin archdiocese, it seems, were partly responsible for the cover-up and inaction – plus the tendency to blame others higher up. But the real cause – and it is frightening – is the lack of expected emotional response to reports about the abuse of children. Nowhere, as far as I can see, was there any expression of horror or outrage by those who were told. Horror and outrage are the natural passions of the good person which God gave us to ensure that we get up and do something in the face of injustice done to others.

The frightening lack of expected emotional response to reports about the abuse of children: that is what has Catholics of all theological and political stripes deeply ashamed and angry today.  Good people naturally respond to reports of the abuse of children with horror and outrage.

Don’t they?

And so what does the lack of those expected emotional responses to reports about the abuse of children—which is easy to demonstrate over and over in the record of cover-up in our church—say about our church leaders?

And what does their immediate willingness to deflect attention from their cover-up by targeting gay priests, never asking what suffering this scapegoating process will cause, say about them?

What does it say about us as church that we have let things come to this point?  Until these questions are answered adequately, the crisis in the Catholic church is not going to vanish, no matter how hard the spinmeisters work now to tell us it’s over and done with.