Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Defense of Fr. Groeschel: "Enemies of the Church" and Authoritarian and Sexual Sickness among American Catholics

As a footnote to what Boltingmadonna says in the comment I've just posted: So why are some Catholics defending Fr. Benedict Groeschel, and, implicitly, his analysis of the root causes of the sexual abuse crisis among priests?  Even though he himself retracted the analysis after he discovered how strong the reaction to his remarks was . . . . 

In my view, here's why a certain solid proportion of American Catholics will defend clergy in general against charges of sexual abuse of minors, and will continue to attack those bringing such charges against priests:

1. Many American Catholics have convinced themselves that those bringing charges of sexual abuse of minors by priests and those calling for investigation of the cover-up of such abuse are "enemies of the church."  Loose talk about "enemies of the church" is something many of us had hoped the church would have lived beyond, after Vatican II came along.  Such talk used to be typical in American Catholicism, in a period of history in which American Catholics were an embattled cultural minority and mainstream American culture had strong anti-Catholic tendencies in some parts of the country.

But as a recent statement of Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter, to which I linked last week, indicates, talk about "enemies of the church" is very much alive and well in American Catholicism--even in a period of history in which both vice-presidential candidates are Catholics, in which the large majority of sitting Supreme Court justices are Catholic, in which Catholics are richly represented throughout the top management sectors of American corporations and in Congress!  Though the tired old rhetoric about "enemies of the church" is wildly misplaced in American Catholicism nowadays, it lingers on, as does the mentality that anyone calling for open, critical discussion of the interior life and governance of the Catholic church is doing so for destructive, anti-Catholic reasons.

2. The false rhetoric about "enemies of the church," which some American Catholics now use to attack survivors of childhood clerical sexual abuse, manifests a kind of sickness in the soul of American Catholicism around issues of power and authority.  The leaders of the Catholic church enforced their dictates for many centuries by employing tactics designed to instill fear and guilt deep in the souls of their flock.  That fear and guilt--and the authoritarian impulse they feed--are still richly represented in American Catholicism.

One of the side effects of this fear-and-guilt-based authoritarianism is the need to lash out, to attack, to imagine oneself surrounded by enemies.  The top leaders of the Catholic church have long cultivated that sense of a church embattled by enemy forces--by the forces of secularism and democracy in the 19th and 20th centuries, and now by feminism, gay liberation, and so on.  Pope John Paul II made this reactionary impulse the leitmotiv of his papacy, and Pope Benedict has followed in his predecessor's footsteps in this regard.  Abuse survivors and those who stand in solidarity with them are merely the latest wave of many demeaned Others to be identified by "faithful" Catholics as "enemies" out to destroy the Catholic church.

3. Going hand in hand with the sickness of authoritarianism, there is also a deep sexual sickness embedded in American Catholicism.  This is a fear-and-guilt-based sickness that even now, in 2012, years after a huge majority of American Catholics have long since used artificial contraceptives, causes many Catholics still to defend official Catholic teaching about contraception against perceived "enemies of the church" who argue that access to contraception should be par for the course in state-of-the-art health care.

American Catholics like to do a great deal of pretending--and outright lying--in the area of sexuality.  They enjoy talking about the sex-saturated mainstream culture, in which anything goes, while they themselves belie the church's magisterial teachings in their own practices.  Many married Catholics using contraceptives will freely attack gay and lesbian persons on the ground that homosexual practices flaunt the procreative norm of Catholic sexual teaching--even as they themselves are flaunting that very same norm by using contraceptives.  Fear and guilt, with their attendant denial and need to project imaginary enemies, have created tremendous incoherence and confusion among many American Catholics, when it comes to issues of sexuality.*

And so, to protect the authoritarian Catholic system that has driven such a wedge of guilt-induced pretense into their hearts--a system at which they adamantly refuse to look critically--a solid core of American Catholics absolve priests of responsibility for abusing minors by maintaining that poor Father has been seduced by wily pubescent or pre-pubescent teens.  I have heard this kind of rhetoric with my own ears in clerical circles.  I have heard this false explanation for the abuse crisis from enough priests to realize that it circulates as a powerful subterranean current all through Catholic clerical life in the United States.

Because this shoddy, misleading, lying explanation for the abuse crisis clearly circulates among many priests and bishops in the U.S., Fr. Groeschel was unprepared for the kind of pushback that his recent remarks elicited.  He lives in a culture, at both the clerical level and through his lay supporters in the church, in which what he said is a normative and taken-for-granted analysis of the abuse crisis.  He was   obviously surprised to have "what everyone knows" subjected to such fierce criticism, when he dared to vocalize what, after all, one priest and bishop after another says, with the strong support of many layfolks.

Two lessons I take from the recent story of Fr. Groeschel: the culture of reaction, in which loose talk about "enemies of the church" continues to be strongly represented in some sectors of American Catholicism and in which it now attaches itself to abuse survivors and their supporters.  The sectors of the church continuing the rhetoric about "enemies of the church" exhibit an authoritarian impulse rooted in fear and guilt and the ravenous need to control certain targeted others, which has become a kind of pathology among some American Catholics.  

This reactionary culture is also now enshrined at the very heart of the global Catholic church by the last two papacies, which have aided and abetted it.  The power that this sick fear-and-guilt-based authoritarian culture now has in Catholicism at a worldwide level is power deliberately provided to it by Popes John Paul II and Benedict.  

That's one side of the story.  But the other side is the fierce reaction that ensued after Fr. Groeschel dared to say "what everyone knows."  He was not, to say the least, given a free pass either by the media at large or by many Catholics.  Many of us who are Catholic are determined to push back, and to push back hard, when any authority figure in the church dares to try to push forward the irresponsible, toxic meme that poor Father is not responsible for the abuse crisis--but that seductive young people are the root cause of the crisis.

And I suspect we will keep on pushing back very hard, no matter how loudly those who now occupy the reactionary center of the Catholic church inform us that it's their church and that we have become "enemies of the church" due to our insistence that the cover-up stop and that the leaders of our church begin to act like responsible, morally credible adults in their exercise of pastoral leadership.

*It is not without pertinence to the Groeschel story to note that Groeschel is one of the founding members of the Catholic group Courage, which teaches gay Catholics to deny and repress their sexual orientation in order to be faithful to Catholic teaching calling for gay Catholics to lead lives of lifelong chastity without intimate relationships.  Guilt-based fear, denial, and pretense at its choicest, reinforcing the unmerited power of clerics to make lay Catholics miserable by manipulating guilt and fear designed to reinforce clerical authority. . . . 

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