Another reminder of what makes the church the church from Hans Küng, Can We Save the Catholic Church? (London: William Collins, 2013):
The Church’s credibility depends on preaching the Christian message first of all to itself and only then to others. To do this, the Church must not only preach Jesus’ demands; it must also live them. Thus, the Church’s entire credibility depends on being faithful to Jesus Christ. None of today’s churches – the Roman Catholic Church included – is of itself automatically and in every way identical with the Church of Jesus Christ. An individual church is only identical with the Church of Christ to the extent that it keeps faith with Jesus Christ in word and deed (252-3).
As Küng points out elsewhere in this book, the Catholic church today is sick unto death — suffering from a crisis of credibility from which it may well not emerge — because its own behavior, specifically, the behavior of its pastoral leaders towards the rest of the people of God, belies the most fundamental proclamations the church makes about itself and about the good news of Jesus Christ:
It cannot be denied that hardly any major institution in Western democratic countries treats dissenters and critics within its own ranks so inhumanely. And none of them discriminates so strongly against women, for example, by prohibiting birth control, forbidding priests to marry, by prohibiting the ordination of women. No other institution polarizes society and politics on issues such as homosexuality, stem cell research, abortion, assisted suicide and the like. And while Rome no longer dares to proclaim formally infallible doctrines, it still envelops all of its doctrinal pronouncements with an aura of infallibility, as though the pope’s words were a direct expression of God’s will or Christ’s voice (47).
The church will be credible only insofar as it first preaches the good news of Jesus Christ to itself, and when it exemplifies that good news in its own life. But instead, many of the church's pastoral leaders today prefer to focus attention on culture-war saber rattling that divides and harms society, while paying no attention at all to the ways in which the church's own failure to live the gospel undermines its witness and its credibility as a teacher of moral values.
It's easier to divert attention from the rottenness, the sickness, inside the church by focusing outward on divisive political issues including women's rights, gay rights, abortion, stem-cell research, and assisted suicide. In this regard, Catholic pastoral leaders who employ such culture-war strategies while ignoring their pastoral charge to preach the gospel to the church itself (i.e., to themselves) and to live the gospel within the Christian community parallel what Paul Krugman calls "movement conservatives" in an op-ed piece in today's New York Times: the formula long employed by movement conservatives in the U.S. to attain their goals has been, Krugman notes, to win elections by by "stoking cultural and racial anxiety," and then using their victories "to push an elitist economic agenda" that has nothing at all to do with the culture-war issues that they've used to energize their base.
As Krugman notes, George W. Bush won elections by claiming to be "America’s defender against gay married terrorists," and he then immediately turned his attention to his real priority: privatizing Social Security.
Why do the U.S. Catholic bishops meet to recommit themselves to the divisive, unproductive, good news-thwarting culture war agenda of gay bashing, contraception mongering, and obsession about ending abortion? They do so because it's easy to do so, when such pressing issues as the sickness unto death of the Catholic church are right in front of everyone's eyes, but are so difficult to resolve — since the solution implicates the church's pastoral leaders, their ambitions, aspirations, their power and privilege and the abuse thereof.
It's simply so much easier to obsess about women, the gays, and abortion when people are leaving the church in droves precisely because of this ceaseless, counter-productive culture-war activity that, as we can all see, ultimately serves the interests of the 1% more than anyone else in the world. And when people are walking away as fast as they can because of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic pastoral leaders and the cover-up of that abuse . . . .
The U.S. Catholic bishops have become addicted to the agenda of the 1% in the past several decades, and it is simply easier for them to continue enjoying the narcotic rush of this addiction, with its lazy answers to complex pastoral challenges, than to face the real situation of the Catholic church in much of the world today. It's easier to invite to their meetings culture warriors like Helen Alvaré and W. Bradford Wilcox (and here) than to listen to the huge percentage of their flock who are sick unto death with the saber rattling about contraception, abortion, and gay marriage — and with the way this saber rattling disguises the bishops' complicity with the super-rich in diverting our attention from the serious problem of economic inequity in our society.
When the people of God (as distinguished from the hand-picked culture-war representatives the bishops prefer to choose to hear) do attempt to make their voices heard by the pastoral leaders of the church, these leaders respond as follows, Küng notes:
Demands raised by national and diocesan synods, voiced in petitions for a referendum in the Church with millions of signatures, and public and private petitions by numerous individuals calling for the abolition of compulsory celibacy, a re-evaluation of the role of women, toleration of intercommunion, and the practice of "brotherly and sisterly friendship among Churches" have all been simply ignored by the bishops. Correspondingly, the influence of the episcopate on public opinion is increasingly on the decline (224).
And for this kind of "pastoral" leadership, we have, he reminds us, the two popes preceding Pope Francis to thank — John Paul II and his orthodoxy watchdog Joseph Ratzinger, who succeeded John Paul as Pope Benedict XVI:
The "Wojtyla system" consisted of naming as bishops priests who were conspicuously loyal to Rome and often personally loyal to the pope himself, and especially those with "Marian" leanings. This was done with no regard for the wishes of the local clergy and without any consultation with, or involvement of, the faithful of a diocese. Appointments of truly outstanding personalities have been the exception rather than the rule. In numerous dioceses, highly qualified priests – often very good auxiliary bishops named under Paul VI – were passed over as being not sufficiently conformist. Right from the start, no one who had drawn attention to himself by holding a dissenting opinion had the slightest chance. Already toeing the Roman line before their consecration, and confirming their continuing conformity at their consecration by taking the solemn vow of obedience to the pope, the bishops feel that their first responsibility is to the pope, not to their congregation (223-4).
We have Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to thank quite specifically for the realignment of the U.S. Catholic bishops with the religious right and the 1%, who have perfected the strategy the religious right continues to use, in which it focuses obsessively on socially divisive (and church-dividing) culture-war issues while ignoring the most pressing moral issues of our time, including the growing gap between rich and poor and the destruction of the environment. We have the two popes preceding Francis to thank for the church's current sickness unto death, which the U.S bishops have done nothing at all to address at their meeting this week.
Rather, they've accelerated the dying process.