Friday, October 28, 2011

Rembert Weakland's Memoir A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Wrap-Up Comments

I hadn't planned to do this, but the good responses (and questions) of some readers to my two-part series on Rembert Weakland's A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church have spurred me to add some brief(ish) wrap-up commentary to my previous two postings.  (I will, by the way, be responding to readers' comments directly in a short while: as the week winds down, I find myself a bit tired, specifically because writing the two postings about Weakland's book engaged me at a significant emotional level and sapped my energy.  And because, to be honest, I tend to go through cycles in which it strikes me that not much I say on this blog is really worth reading, in the bigger scheme of things--and that I need to tend to my own spiritual wellsprings as I blog, so that I don't blog about nothing at all).

I do want to make two interrelated points as clearly as possible as a gloss on what I've already posted, and in light of comments and questions from readers.  Here they are:

1. One of the matters I don't discuss adequately in my postings about the Weakland story is this: I do definitely see a difference between the involvement of a celibate cleric with a consenting adult, and the molestation of a minor by a cleric.  My hope is that this distinction is embedded in my analysis of the dynamics of clerical power and privilege that, to my way of thinking, underlie the story of Weakland's rather sordid dealings with Paul Marcoux.  But just in case that embedded distinction is not as clear as it should be, I'd like to spell out some of my assumptions here.

It strikes me that there's an obvious moral distinction between what two consenting adults choose to do in the area of erotic intimacy, and what an adult does to a minor--who cannot consent, since he/she lacks autonomy, freedom, and the maturity to make the kind of informed decisions premised on consent that these relationships presuppose, if they're to be morally justified at all.  I do not fault Weakland specifically for his choice to be involved with Marcoux (as opposed to his choice to make secret payoffs to Marcoux to buy his silence).  I can well believe his book's persistent claim that being archbishop of Milwaukee, a clerical assignment for which he hadn't bargained when he became as monk, drained him, left him intensely lonely, cut him off from the support of his monastic community.

And this led to decisions that, as his book indicates, he later regretted.  And he made those decisions within a church-political context in which an unsympathetic, indeed, antagonistic pope (John Paul II), whom Weakland depicts (rightly, I suspect) as sometimes capricious, cruel, and high-handed, offered Weakland little to no support as a bishop--rather, the contrary.  And within a church-political context in which Weakland had become a lightning rod for Catholics of the political right due to his involvement in writing the pastoral letter Economic Justice for All--in which, Weakland reports, these Catholics were paying hit-men to dig for dirt about Weakland's personal life . . . .

I can well imagine that priests are often intensely lonely.  And I can understand something Weakland reports about the backdrop against which many priests who end up involved with adults of either sex make their decisions: as he notes, he was a young adolescent at the time he left home for St. Vincent's, and neither his seminary training nor his monastic formation gave him much sound education in the area of human sexuality or human sexual development.  

And so, when he began to recognize that he was a sexual person--when he began to grapple with that recognition as an adult well on in years, now holding high church office--he had little solid foundation on the basis of which to make good moral decisions.  And then he discovered that he was not merely a sexual person, but a homosexual one--representing a homophobic church at a high, official, institutional level.  

I can appreciate that many priests have found themselves in situations not unlike this in the past, and probably continue to find themselves in such situations.  And I can understand that their attempt to come to terms with being sexual persons, and their need for intimacy, may well lead them to seek out consensual relationships of erotic intimacy with other adults.

I will not judge these decisions--not in the ultimate sense of a moral arbiter who has the right to deem them good or bad, right or wrong, from the outside, as though I have a divine perspective.  After all, there are aspects of Steve's and my own story that parallel Weakland's, and which ought to give me strong pause not to pass judgment on him.

As I've shared on this blog, as with Weakland, Steve and I lived many years telling ourselves that we were not gay, that our relationship of erotic intimacy was simply a passing phase, that we'd eventually find the right woman and settle down.  And as with Weakland, we were undoubtedly reinforced in our game-playing by the Catholic religious environment in which we were living our life together, in which there was almost no open, honest talk at all about questions of sexual orientation, and little open, honest talk about human sexuality in general.  And in which it was altogether easy to play head-games with oneself, as one talked big supra-intellectual theological jibber-jabber, while never coming to terms with the personal and emotional foundations that ground any sane intellectual life.

Just as Weakland ended up doing, I feel quite certain that the years Steve and I spent pretending to ourselves and others caused us to inflict harm on some of the people connected to us.  And I deeply regret any harm I may have caused to anyone, because I did not see myself clearly enough--not soon enough to avoid harming others.

But then there's this, and this is the point I wanted to drive home in my analysis of Weakland's story: I do feel a strong ambivalence about the decision of many vowed celibate Catholic clerics to be involved with consenting adults.  And I do so for the following reason: in almost every such case about which I've ever had much close-hand knowledge, there's inevitably an element of exploitation involved in the relationship.  Precisely because the priest is always insulated by a clerical power and privilege that his sexual partner does not and cannot have, in the Catholic context.  

And I'll go a step further: I think that the unmerited power and privilege that the Catholic system accords to clerics simply because they're ordained--as if the act of ordination lifts them to an ontological status beyond that of non-ordained mere humans--is at the very heart of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church.  The entire training of Catholic priests instills in priests the assumption that they are entitled.  That they have rights others don't have.  That they deserve what others don't have.

And this leads, I would maintain, to toxic assumptions among some clerics about their entitlement to use other (non-ordained) human beings as objects.  As objects in clerical games.  As objects in games from whose negative effects the priest himself is shielded, as long as he has recourse to all the power and privilege accorded to him by his clerical status.  The clerical system as it is presently configured, in and of itself, causes many clerics to objectify the rest of the people of God.

And so I'm strongly inclined to encourage vowed celibate clerics who find that they cannot live their vows without seeking out the kinds of nurturing and sustaining relationships of intimacy that most adults want and need to make themselves and their lives whole: I'm strongly inclined to encourage these priests to consider leaving the priesthood behind.  There's too much possibility of harming others (and themselves) when they remain in the system and collude in its lies, secrets, and silence, while leading double lives.

And the rotten system at the basis of the abuse crisis--the rotten system of unmerited power and privilege attended by necessary lies, secrets, and silence--won't be changed, it won't budge an inch, until more and more people inside it begin telling the truth.

2. Second point, which presupposes what I've just said: when the superstructure of Catholic teaching, of magisterial teaching, is build on this rotten foundation, that superstructure is shaky.  It is not compelling.  It begins to fall apart.  

There is an inherent and an intrinsic relationship between the rottenness within the Catholic system of governance and its system of allocating power, and the ability of the church to teach the truth in any compelling way at all.  There are two primary theological reasons I make this statement.

In the first place, the Catholic church is, by its nature and claims, sacramental.  It is called to signify what it proclaims to the world.  It is called to signify what it proclaims to the world first and foremost.  It is called to be an effective sign within the world of what it proclaims, and what it teaches.

When there is a significant disconnect between what the church professes, teaches, proclaims, and how it lives--and there is such a significant disconnect, when the unmerited power and privilege the clerical system accords the ordained leads to noxious lies, secrets, and silence within the church--the church can no longer teach effectively.  Not until it deals with that disconnect.

Up to now, the Catholic church has continued to resist, at an institutional level, dealing with the kinds of foundational questions about unmerited clerical power and privilege and the lies, secrets, and silence woven into the system that keeps such privilege alive, that I am sketching here.  The institution's leaders and their centrist defenders continue to attack those who call for open discussion of these matters as if they are motivated by hatred of the church, and are enemies of the church.

This causes the centrist intellectual defenders of the system--those who claim to be most versed in Catholicity and Catholic truth--to collude in its lies, secrets, and silence.  Even this very week, just as I was publishing my comments on Maciel and what we now all know about John Paul II's protection of Maciel, a lively discussion broke out at one of major centrist Catholic blog sites in the U.S., in which leading American Catholic intellectuals are continuing to ask if there's any evidence that John Paul knew of Maciel's criminal activities, and that John Paul deliberately protected John Paul.  Even now, given all we've learned in the past several years that definitively lays that question to rest for many of us (and makes us certain beyond a doubt that John Paul II did know of Maciel's crimes and shielded his friend), the very best we have in American Catholicism, our intellectual leaders of the center, continue to want to argue about that matter!  And to give the institution and its leaders the benefit of the doubt.

How can we possibly get down the road towards healing the institution, and dealing with the pastoral needs of the huge numbers of Catholics who are currently disaffected from the church, if we continue colluding with church officials as they play these games?  How can we imagine that all of the airy claims we make about the truth of Catholic doctrine are in any sense at all compelling, when there are such obvious lies hidden right in the institutional center making those high claims about the truth of its teaching?

And then there's the question of the church's catholicity, which is a corollary of the question of the church's sacramentality: how can we honestly claim that we care very much at all about the many Catholics who have left and are continuing to leave the church--who are now pilgrims from and not pilgrims in the pilgrim church--when we continue to collude with the leaders of the church in ignoring or even attacking these brother and sister Catholics as threats to Catholic truth?  When they have every right in the world to ask that the church and its leaders tell the truth about matters like the abuse of minors, or the real-life sexual choices and behavior of priests?

We cannot credibly claim to be defenders of Catholic truth when we behave in ways that are grossly uncatholic and unpastoral.  And when we sell a brand called catholic that doesn't look or act like catholicity, but behaves like its precise opposite, more and more people will refuse to buy that brand--and should refuse to do so.

And there you have them: my wrap-up musings about the Weakland book.  From one of those Catholics who is now decidedly a pilgrim from the church and not in the church, whose words about these matters are highly unlikely to count in any circles of Catholic power anywhere in the world . . . .

The graphic is a bronze plaque of Weakland installed in the Milwaukee cathedral in 2002.  

For parts one and two of this series, see here and here.

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