Frank Douglas has uploaded an important article to his Voice from the Desert website. It's a well-documented multi-part study entitled "Spirituality and the Culture of Narcissism," by A.W. Richard Sipe, Marianne Benkert, and Thomas P. Doyle. This morning, I'd like to take note of part one of the essay, Richard Sipe's "The Clerical Sub-Culture." (I plan to comment on the rest of the parts of the essay down the road.)
Sipe, who is a former Benedictine priest and one of the world's leading authorities on the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic church, zeroes in on the narcissism that is, many observers of the Catholic abuse crisis argue, the root from which the abuse grows. As I noted back in December 2011, there's an increasing awareness throughout many sectors of popular culture that the Catholic clerical system fosters an unhealthy narcissism that results, in not a few cases, in sociopathic abuse of others. This awareness has become so commonplace that it is now a meme of journalistic (and even secular political) analysis of the abuse crisis, and this development poses a serious challenge to the leaders of the Catholic church, insofar as they want to keep the clerical system as it now stands alive and functioning.
The Catholic Church’s institutional veneer of holiness covers a clerical culture marked by excessive narcissism. This narcissism has had a pervasive influence on the toxic clerical spirituality that has enabled the sub-culture of abuse.
As Sipe notes, the narcissism found in many Catholic clerical circles isn't the kind of healthy self-regard human beings need in order to function effectively in the world. It's an "acquired situational narcissism" that has everything to do with the clerical system itself and is deeply unhealthy. It's inculcated in priests from the time of their seminary formation forward, as they begin to learn to think of themselves as a privileged, set-apart (set-above) caste who acquire a new (a higher) ontological status via ordination.
At its worst, this acquired situational narcissism, which prompts and enables many clerics to seek ecclesiastical preferment as their ultimate goal--rather than seeking to become effective pastoral leaders as the ultimate goal--pathologically blurs the distinction between the self and institution. As Sipe notes, this is a dangerous development, since the loss of self and the identification of self with an institution are always dangerous:
There is little psychic distinction between self and institution and thus one’s value is subsumed by identification with the power, prestige, and status of the church.
And so acquired situational narcissism can lead to institutional malignant narcissism, to the development of a clerical system in which sociopathy--the obliteration of self for the sake of the institution, the privileging of obedience above empathy, the conflation of self-interested ladder-climbing with holy behavior--flourishes:
Sociopaths—those without empathy and conscience—flourish in the institutional atmosphere of the Roman Catholic clerical system. Obedience, not charity or justice is the guiding principal within the clerical structure.
What to do about all of this, if we want the clerical abuse of minors (and, let's be honest, of anyone outside the clerical elite within the church as a whole) to stop? Sipe's conclusion:
Any spirituality of reform must free itself from the institutional bonds of fear, shame, and guilt that the narcissistically malignant institution instills with its process of control and the exercise of its power. Only willful blindness and pathological denial can allow one to overlook the reality that the symptom of clerical abuse reveals a Roman Catholic Church as dysfunctional and corrupt sexually and financially as during the time of the Protestant Reformation. Only a spirituality that confronts the institution in a fundamental way will meet the current need of Catholic Christians.
In an essay now running at National Catholic Reporter that might well have been written as a complement to Sipe's analysis, Eugene Kennedy, who is, like Sipe, a former priest who knows the clerical system from the inside (and who is, also like Sipe, a psychologist), sees hope in actions being taken by Pope Francis.
As Kennedy notes, Francis informed a gathering of apostolic nuncios in June that he expects them to start recommending men of pastoral acumen as they nominate bishops--not men who implicitly obey every word out of the papal mouth, the ultimate criterion of John Paul II and Benedict for bishops. But men who are--imagine this, the shock of such an expectation!--pastorally astute and pastorally sensitive . . . . This proposal is, Kennedy judges, tantamount to a revolution in how the clerical system is now currently doing business:
Francis is revolutionizing the process that had looked for men who were willing to start on a farm team diocese if it were in a town close to Mount Hierarchicus, whose peak they longed to scale.
And so Kennedy thinks that Francis is aiming a blow at the very system of malignant pathological narcissism so incisively analyzed by Sipe and others:
Pope Francis has aimed a blow at what the whole hierarchical system is built on: a graded system with the higher clergy in the skyboxes, the devoted religious in festival seating, as they say of the crowds at rock concerts, and, on the bottom, the laity in standing room only. By looking for pastors who live closely with their people rather than clergy who feel they are entitled to live above them, Francis has loosened the weight-bearing beam of the hierarchical structure that made clericalism and all its charms and privileges possible.
As he concludes, this kind of reform gets us right where Vatican II intended to get us: to a theology of the church that values the contributions and talents--the belonging--of everyone. Implicit in Francis's recommendation to the apostolic nuncios is the theology of the church as the people of God that was the centerpiece of Vatican II's reform of the Catholic church.
And now I'd like to suggest that we look at one more recent NCR article as a complement to the analysis of Sipe and Kennedy. This is Sr. Joan Chittister's recent essay, "Hierarchy's Mary Is Vastly Different from Ours." Sr. Joan looks at the understanding of Mary communicated to American women religious by Archbishop Peter Sartain at the recent meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Sartain is the Vatican's watchdog for LCWR, which is now in "receivership" as Rome tries to figure out what to do with women that some powerful members of the Vatican's ruling elite have judged to be disobedient dissidents rather than faithful Catholic women religious.
As Sr. Joan notes, in the homily he preached on the feast of the Assumption to LCWR members, Archbishop Sartain focused on a Mary who is "'quiet,' 'docile,' submits herself over and has no 'desire or a need to figure things out ... or resolve them to her own personal satisfaction.'" The archbishop's Mary--his icon for women religious--is "a passive receptacle of what she understands to be the Word of God."
But as Sr. Joan points out, there's another way to read the gospel testimony about the formative role Mary played in the early Christian community, and this is how many Catholic religious women (and layfolks) now read the story of Mary--and so there's a serious disconnect between the silent, obedient, submissive Mary imposed from above by the hierarchy, and the Mary many of us down at the bottom rungs of the church hear speaking to us in the gospel texts. Speaking to us who are the base of the church on which the top rests . . . .
That Mary of the gospel narrative questions the announcement of the angel that she's to be the mother of the messiah. She's involved in a dialogue with the angel in which her active response--and not her passivity--is the point of the dialogue.
Then, having had her dialogue with the angel and having given her assent to the angel's message, Mary heads not to the high priests of the temple, to a rabbi, to her father, or to Joseph to discuss what has happened to her. She visits another woman, her cousin Elizabeth. And she follows Elizabeth's counsel as she journeys down the spiritual path on which she has set her feet by accepting the invitation of the angel.
The Mary we encounter in these stories is a woman who does not sit passively and silently by as she waits for orders to be handed to her by male authority figures. Her non-passive role in the formation of the first Christian community is underscored at the wedding feast at Cana, when she herself gives orders--to her son Jesus, no less--to provide wine for the guests. Her centrality--the centrality of her active role in forming the first community of faith--to the church from its formation forward is underscored after this at Pentecost when she and the other women among Jesus's followers are anointed by the Spirit to be disciples.
Sr. Joan concludes:
No, the Mary not mentioned in this homily on the Assumption [i.e., the one given by Archbishop Sartain to LCWR] was a woman not intimidated into the Incarnation, not beholden to male answers, not shy about giving directions about what should be done, not without a high sense of personal responsibility, and not one bit in doubt about her place in the hierarchy of the church.
Here, too, I find hope for the renewal of my church, in addition to the hope Eugene Kennedy finds in Francis's dismantling of a clerical system centered on narcissistic ambition and not pastoral acumen. The spirituality and theology of Catholic women who refuse to hand over their very selves, their authentic selves in which their spirituality and ministry are deeply rooted, to a system demanding blind obedience is a powerful corrective to the narcissism of a clerical system that rewards priests for identifying themselves with the church in such a way that they lose sight of their authentic selves. And of their compassion. And of the pastoral impulse that should be at the very heart of their choice to be priests.
Pope Francis spoke a mouthful when he said that we need a theology of women. I sincerely hope that he and others concerned about the serious corruption now built into our church via clericalism very soon find ears to hear what faithful religious women like Sr. Joan Chittister are saying to the church.