Thursday, March 13, 2014

Irish Television Documentary on Maciel and Legion of Christ, and the Francis Effect: What Difference Is Francis Really Making?

John XXIII knew.

Paul VI knew.

John Paul II knew. 

Benedict XVI knew.

The story told in the recent RTÉ documentary about Marcial Maciel and the Legion of Christ won't be new to many of us who watch it. Even so, it's exceedingly painful to watch--even when one already knows the story of who Maciel was, what he did. 

And of how one pope after another from John XXIII forward covered for him, blessed him, assisted him in expanding the power and privilege of the money-generating machine of a religious community he founded, until Benedict XVI found it impossible to continue with this travesty as people everywhere became critically aware of the facts of Maciel's story. I watch the documentary, and hear its drumbeat of insistence--"John XXIII and John Paul II knew, they ignored pleas to stop Maciel's abuse of seminarians, and they'll be canonized in a few weeks"--and feel absolutely crushed.

By the end of the video, I'm where Marita La Palm tells us she has ended up after spending her entire childhood and young womanhood in the Legion of Christ's lay branch Regnum Christi: How is it possible to continue any connection to a church whose top leaders all knew and did nothing? Aren't they responsible, too?

And I'm where former Legion priest Jack Keough tells us he's ended up:

The hard part when you see it from the terms of your faith, it's not just a Maciel case. It's a whole church thing. There's a rottenness.

As the narrator of the documentary succinctly puts the point, 

Three popes, including John XXII and John Paul II, both  to be canonized next month, effectively enabled Maciel to build a cult-like congregation for over fifty years behind a façade of orthodoxy and holiness. While thousands of good men and women gave and continue to give their lives to this movement, some were abused, damaged, or deceived by a system of power and control that was allowed to continue under the guise of what appeared to be a work of God.

I happened to watch this Irish television documentary (which focuses, naturally, on the role the Legion played in Ireland, where Maciel calculated that, if he could obtain a foothold, he'd then have access to the lucrative Catholic market of the U.S., where Irish Catholic connections count for a great deal) yesterday on the anniversary of the day on which I entered the Catholic church in 1967. And so, as I watched the video on that anniversary, how could I not ask myself over again the question that Marita La Palm and Jack Keough and many others whose lives have been shattered by the rot at the heart of my church have no choice but to ask: 

How is it possible to maintain faith, connection, hope, when John XXII knew, Paul VI knew, John Paul II knew, Benedict XVI knew--and Maciel was allowed to continue, to continue fleecing naive wealthy donors like so many senseless sheep, molesting boys, fathering children by multiple women, raping some of those children, abusing drugs? And being treated for God's sake as a saint

And when two men in that list of complicit popes are soon to be made saints?

What does faith mean any longer, in such a world? What does being Catholic mean? 

My discovery of the rottenness at the heart of my church--the rottenness that Jack Keough rightly detects running through the whole church and not just the Legion of Christ--occurred independently of the abuse crisis, although when the abuse crisis broke open in 2002, I would immediately recognize a strong parallel between how I had been treated as a gay theologian by church pastoral leaders, and how I now saw survivors of childhood abuse by priests being treated.

My discovery of the rottenness at the heart of my church--the way in which pastoral leaders of a diocese and Benedictine monastery and leaders of a Catholic college can look a fellow Catholic in the face and lie boldly to him, treat him as nonhuman, deprive him of a salary, healthcare coverage, an entire career, with no compunction at all--came rushing back to me recently when I read at Andrew Sullivan's Dish site the testimony of an ethics teacher fired in 2006 by a Catholic school in the Southwest.

This reader of Sullivan's blog says that he finds Pope Francis's "musings about permitting gays and lesbians to have a life which includes personal love and shared commitment" a cause for sadness and not rejoicing, since they come too late to make a difference for him as a gay Catholic whose vocational life has been completely destroyed by church officials. In 2006, after he'd worked himself into the ground for six years providing excellent service to his Catholic school, he decided that he deserved a love life. 

He was single and gay. Since his school principal had "not only permitted, but endorsed, such teacher infractions of the morality clause . . . as marrying after having been divorced and pregnancy by means of in vitro fertilization," the teacher reasoned that the principal would be equally understanding when he placed a mild, G-rated advertisement on My Space for a boyfriend.

He turned out to be dead wrong. His infraction of the morality clause of his contract mattered in a very different way from the infraction of those who divorced and remarried or used in vitro fertilization. It was, after all, a homosexual and not a heterosexual infraction--so that, when he asked the headmaster of his school why he was being fired, he was not even done the courtesy of being given a reason for the firing: "You know why, you know why," was all the headmaster would say to him.

This story is, mutatis mutandis, my story, too. It neatly parallels the story of what was done to my partner Steve and me when we found ourselves decisively expelled from employment in any Catholic university's theology departments in the early 1990s, after Belmont Abbey College ended our careers as Catholic theologians, while never providing any reason for this. At the same time that I was given an unexplained terminal contract--a contract for which the school president adamantly refused to provide any reason even after the college's grievance committee voted to support my request for a written statement of the reason for termination--two of the Catholic faculty members leading the charge for my termination were a divorced man and divorced woman who were romantically involved with each other. Something the whole campus knew . . . . 

When I asked one of the two how she could possibly support my firing with insinuations that I represented a threat to the Catholic values of the college while she herself was divorced and intimately involved with a divorced Catholic man, she replied that it was different in my case. From that time forward, neither Steve nor I have had any door open, ever again, to teach theology in a Catholic college or university. 

I will, God willing, turn 64 at the end of this month. Steve is a year younger than I am. The time for us to hold faculty positions anywhere is virtually over. Anything Pope Francis could possibly do to shift the institutional rottenness that this ugly, unjust, dehumanizing treatment of gay employees of Catholic institutions exhibits would matter little to us now, in practical terms.

And so I read the commentary about Pope Francis's first year in office as if I'm reading a story about a long time ago in a faraway place: it interests me tangentially. But as I read, I have to keep asking myself how any of this can possibly change anything in my own life, which has been broken, as have the lives of survivors of childhood clerical sexual abuse, or the lives of Marita La Palm and Jack Keough. 

I read Drew Christiansen's summary of Francis's first year in office, with its insistence that his papal reign thus far is marked by a strong decisiveness in governing, and I wonder how to fit that insistence together with Paul Vallely's observation that "[t]here is a carefully cultivated ambiguity about the man who is the 266th successor to St Peter."

How does one put together strong decisiveness in governing and a carefully cultivated ambiguity? When does the latter become something other than a kind of shell game, a game of image management, as it fails to exhibit the former--especially vis-a-vis those who are being actively harmed by fellow Catholics, including church leaders, as the pope stands aside in silence? Guarding his carefully cultivated ambiguity . . . . 

As Fr. Christiansen notes in the second part of his review of Francis's first year as pope, the Catholic church these days is full of crusaders for orthodoxy who, driven by their own compulsions, "are ever eager to impose their truth on others." The verb "impose," which means, in its etymological roots, "to push or press upon," bespeaks coercion.

There is, within the Catholic church at this point in history, a strong contingent of Catholics who are adamantly determined to push, to press, to coerce fellow Catholics--to force them to think and do as the orthodox contingent thinks or does. Or else. 

What difference does a pope of carefully guarded ambiguity make to the victims of those coercive crusaders for orthodoxy, as he stands by in silence? Carefully cultivating his ambiguity . . . .

Peter Manseau argues that Francis has the opportunity to help make a thousand Catholicisms bloom, by opening space within the church for all those who have been pushed down, pressed down, by the coercive crusaders for doctrinal purity--space to claim their voices and identities as Catholics, when this was not permitted to them under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. What difference does any of this make, however, for those of us--the teacher fired in 2006, Marita La Pan, Jack Keough, survivors of childhood clerical sexual abuse--whose lives have been shattered by the corrupt institution that Francis now heads?

What difference will the beautiful notion of a thousand Catholicisms blooming make to any of us, if the pope continues carefully to cultivate his ambiguity and does not directly and unambiguously engage the corruption? What difference will it make to us if he continues to stand by in silence--particularly, as the abuse crisis remains totally unresolved in the Catholic church? 

The Tablet has just reported that in a poll it has conducted asking Catholics to state what they think should be the focus of Francis's papacy now that his first anniversary has come and gone, 68% of respondents said that they want the pope to focus on "child protection, the censure of clergy who have abused or covered up abuse, and care for victims."

As E.J. Dionne notes, Francis's recent combative, insensitive remarks about how no one has done more to address the problem of child abuse than the Catholic church has done were "the most troubling misstep" of his first year as pope. They were a troubling misstep because, Dionne writes,  

[A] pope who has emphasized the urgency of seeing the world from the perspective of the vulnerable and the wounded should have been the first to hear how his words might sound to the victims of abuse.

Has Francis made a difference? Will he make a difference? As Patricia Miller maintains, while we're being told by some apologists that the church is being transformed by the Francis effect, the Catholic bishops of Arizona just put their weight unambiguously behind a bill in their state that directly targeted the gay citizens of the state, fomenting discrimination against them.

While Francis appears to have stood by in silence, guarding his carefully crafted ambiguity . . . .

(I'm very grateful to reader Brian Gallagher for pointing me to the RTÉ documentary. Please note that, if you're thinking of watching it, the RTÉ website says it will be available for watching for only 18 more days.)

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