Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Is It Just Me, or Do Things Feel Really Depressed Right Now, Following the Day of the Four Popes?

Is it just me, or do things feel really depressed right now, following the big papal circus of the day of the four popes? I had thought that the big papal circus was designed to have precisely the opposite effect. As Susan Jacoby rightly notes

The dual canonization is an attempt to please the traditional Catholic base while luring back some among the millions of who have left the church in what was once Christendom’s western bastion. 

Jacoby had previously explained the point about "luring back some among the millions who have left the church in what was once Christendom's western bastion" by noting,

It is no accident that during John Paul’s conservative papacy — when the church refused to reconsider sexual prohibitions applying to the laity but covered up sexual abuse of children by priests — millions of practicing Catholics decamped in the United States and Western Europe. According to a Pew poll conducted in 2009, more than one out of five native-born Americans raised in the church no longer consider themselves Catholics.

And so as she notes that the dual canonization is being sold by media spin-doctors as an adroit way for Pope Francis to heal the divisions in the church and bring back many who have strayed, she observes:

It is difficult to imagine, though, that Catholics who no longer consider themselves Catholics are likely to return to a church that still condemns divorce, artificial birth control, in vitro fertilization, abortion for any reason and gay unions. Moreover, if the church continues to require priestly celibacy and refuses to consider the ordination of women (Francis has already reiterated his support for the latter policy), there will continue to be a severe priest shortage. 

Jacoby directly engages (and counters) the meme of centrists in the Catholic media and academy right now — that the dual canonizations will heal a badly divided (and deeply demoralized, if we're talking about the developed sectors of the world) church. She points out that what the canonizations are designed to do, instead, is to play to the minimally educated, docile masses of Catholics in the developing parts of the world, while implicitly writing off the disobedient and educated Catholics of the developed nations, who had taken Vatican II at its word when it told us to live our lives of faithful witness to the gospels within the modern world:

In this environment, how can the canonizations of two such different men heal the deep spiritual and intellectual divide within a church that, increasingly, must rely on the poor and poorly educated, in Africa and some parts of Asia, for new converts? 
One need not be an atheist to be stunned by the anachronism of attributing nature-defying miracles to prayers directed through saints. Educated men and women of most faiths, Catholicism included, now believe pretty much what Enlightenment deists did—that alleviating human suffering depends on the exercise of human reason, not on supernatural intervention deemed miraculous.

And so, if I'm right that not a few Catholics now seem to be strongly depressed about what has just taken place in Rome, surely that depression has a lot to do with the sense that we've witnessed an empty show that will only further the divisions within our church, not heal them. It is, in fact, designed to further the divisions in the church, since its loud and clear message to educated Catholics of the developed parts of the globe who reject magisterial teaching on matters like contraception and homosexuality is that they have no place in the Catholic communion, except insofar as they keep their mouths shut. 

They have no real place, that is to say. Even worse, the message that the canonization of John Paul II has given to survivors of childhood clerical sexual abuse and to those who care about survivors of such abuse, to women, and to gay Catholics is one of downright disdain: it's a redoubled message of not counting and not being included — one that can only harm the entire church insofar as those who remain in the church and think about these matters recognize that it's impossible to sustain the claim that a church is catholic when it writes off challenging constituencies within the whole body of Christ.

At National Catholic Reporter, Tony Magliano maintains that what ties John XXIII and John Paul II together (in addition to their having been popes, and ordained members of the church, and white European men) is that both were voices for the voiceless. I'd like to suggest that this claim is going to fall on deaf ears — and outraged ones — when we turn our attention to the voiceless community of abuse survivors in the church. Or to women. Or to gay folks. Or to the many theologians silenced by John Paul and his orthodoxy watchdog Cardinal Ratzinger.

This old disreputable Catholic game of claiming that the church's magisterium speaks on behalf of the poor and marginalized even as the leaders of the church trample on abuse survivors, women, and gay folks is an increasingly expensive game for the church to play, it seems to me. It's an expensive game to play in a world in which — at least, in the developed parts of the globe — more and more people have access to important information about the abuse crisis, about women's issues and women's rights, and about gay issues and gay rights. And in which more and more people see the response of the leaders of the church to these parts of the body of Christ as anything but holy . . . . 

One can claim that the canonizations that took place in Rome this past weekend will heal the church only if one writes off not merely abuse survivors and those who care about them, uppity women, and mouthy gays, but Catholics throughout the developed world, insofar as they inform themselves about these people and these issues and come to conclusions at variance from the positions promoted by the hierarchy. And insofar as they no longer buy into a medieval understanding of sainthood and the miraculous. And insofar as they question whether the clerical system as it's currently configured and the current configuration of the papacy have much at all to do with the gospels and the mind of Christ for the church.

That seems to me a very high price to pay for "unity" and "healing." 

(Thanks to Crystal Watson at Perspective for pointing readers of her blog to Susan Jacoby's essay.)

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