Two items I've read this morning strike me as a revealing synchronistic fit for one another. The first is Kristine Ward's editorial in today's edition of NSAC (National Survivor Advocates Coalition) News. Kristi is commenting on the recent meeting of Marie Collins, Peter Saunders, and other members of the pope's abuse advisory commission with Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the pope's "fixer." She notes that NSAC members "are appalled that they [the lay members of the abuse advisory commission] are the people who had to initiate the action to speak with the commission chair, Cardinal Sean O'Malley and through him seek to get the attention of Pope Francis."
The members of the abuse advisory commission wanted to discuss with Pope Francis, of course, his choice to make Juan Barros (and here, here, and here), who has been accused of helping shield a fellow priest abusing minors, bishop of Osorno, Chile. As Kristi's editorial notes, it's obvious that, despite widespread outrage at this appointment both in the diocese itself and in many quarters of the Catholic church, notably among survivors, "it borders on the near impossible that Bishop Barros' appointment will be rescinded."
This is true in part, she suggests, because the involvement of the influential and powerful Cardinal Angelo Sodano in the story of Barros's appointment cannot be discounted. As she points out, Cardinal O'Malley knows this perfectly well.
And so enter O'Malley "the fixer," through whom members of the papal abuse advisory commission have had to go to approach the pope himself: the NSAC News editorial sums O'Malley and his role vis-a-vis the abuse commission members' concerns in the following way:
He has finely honed the skill of the appearance of action and empathy.
If you enjoy theater, Cardinal O'Malley's performance that builds yet another protective tent for hierarchs while continuing to disguise him as a champion of reform is stellar.
Kristi explains what she means with these remarks suggesting that O'Malley has been disguised in a theatrical way as the champion of reform while he's actually helping to build a protective tent for hierarchs, by noting that the outcome of O'Malley's meeting with Pope Francis to relay to him the concerns of abuse survivors about Barros's appointment was the following: Vatican press spokesman Father Federico Lombardi then announced that a "precise and reliable legal text" will be assessed, detailing the duties and responsibilities of bishops and religious superiors vis-a-vis priests abusing minors— something that, as she notes, O'Malley had already discussed at a recent meeting of the pope's kitchen cabinet, the Council of Nine.
What does all of this talk about establishing a "precise and reliable legal text" for defining how bishops and superiors deal with priests abusing minors amount to, in NSAC's view? Here's the NSAC News editorial's assessment:
What Cardinal O'Malley has done is open a huge umbrella of protection for Bishop Barros.
Cardinal O'Malley, as he is expert at doing, has pushed the ephemeral, ever promised "accountability", once again into that beautiful future that is always described and tantalizingly almost within reach -- but never arrives.
In the wonderful future constructed by Cardinal O'Malley to protect his brother bishops while looking like he is taking up the cause of survivors, Barros will not have a failed at responsibility. His "failure" will have occurred before he was appointed as a bishop when he had no "responsibility" -- outside of a moral one but hey, he was only a priest not a bishop.
No "precise and reliable legal text" that may or may not come about in the future will touch him -- nor any of his colleague bishops who have aided and abetted the rape and sodomy of children by protecting the clerics and religious men and women who molested them.
And no one is promising that any such "reliable and legal text" will be adopted, only as the statement says that it will be "assessed." Cue the mack truck, please.
If Pope Francis wanted to hear the survivors he could have met with them in the Saint Martha guesthouse or any place in the Vatican. If he wanted to talk with the Chilean victims he could.
You see the point, don't you? Games are being played. They're conspicuously vicious ones, because they involve human lives. The human lives involved in these games happen to be the lives of human beings harmed in an egregious way as children by men (and women, in some cases) claiming to represent Christ.
These games involve a kind of theater in which what is touted is "the appearance of action and empathy" and not its substance. A signal to us from the outset of this chronicle that we're dealing with an ugly game that's about appearance and not substance is the way in which needless hurdles are set up to prevent members of a papal advisory committee from approaching in any direct or forthright way the person they're supposed, for Christ's sake, to be advising!
Their way to the pope is through Cardinal O'Malley the fixer. Who uses the committee members' meeting with him to speak of more stringent governing procedures for a bishop who should, in the view of the members of the advisory board, never have been made a bishop in the first place. Because of his record regarding abuse of minors by priests.
In this theatrical world where all is not quite as it seems, where appearance counts more than reality, where smoke and mirrors deflect our vision from what's really happening, even an announcement that the powers that be intend to exercise more stringent vigilance over bishops and religious superiors becomes yet another umbrella shielding said bishops and superiors from scrutiny by the people of God, from accountability to the people of God.
The voices of the abuse survivors on the papal advisory commission do not count. The voices of Chilean Catholics who did not want Juan Barros appointed bishop do not count. No lay voices count.
What counts in the final analysis and will always count unless this strange theatrical system of closed doors, intermediaries, and announcements that say the opposite of what they really mean is pulled down to the ground and built anew from the bottom up, is the appearance of action and empathy. Not the reality of action and empathy.
As I noted when I began this discussion of NSAC News's commentary on the response of Cardinal O'Malley and Pope Francis to the concerns of members of the papal abuse advisory commission about the appointment of Juan Barros as bishop, I find it revealing to read this commentary side by side with another piece of commentary I've read this morning. This is Timothy Kincaid's commentary at Box Turtle Bulletin on the ad that more than 100 prominent Catholics placed in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday calling for the removal of Salvatore Cordileone as archbishop of San Francisco.
Kincaid notes (as does David Badash for The New Civil Rights Movement) that key to the concerns of those asking for Cordileone's removal is his relentless, ugly attack on the gay community, which many San Francisco Catholics perceive, strange though it may seem, as anti-gospel and a betrayal of sound, faithful pastoral leadership. Kincaid ends his statement this way:
It will be interesting to see if Pope Francis responds to the concerns. While Cordileone is consistent with the style of former Pope Benedict the Malevolent, the new Holy Father tends towards a more compassionate message, designed for inclusion and humility. This may be the decision which defines his image as truly reformative, or illustrates the Church to be irreparably hidebound and corrupt.
And here's my observation about that conclusion: if I had to place a bet on the Vatican response to this ad, I'd place my bet on "hidebound and corrupt." As the story of Juan Barros richly illustrates, the men in power in the Catholic church do not back down. They do not listen to the people of God, and they do not intend to listen to the people of God.
Because any gesture that gives even the appearance of listening and responding in a proactive way is a gesture that, in their view, undermines what is essential to the governing system of the Catholic church: their absolute power over the people of God . . . .
In the Cordileone story, I'd place my bet on "hidebound and corrupt," but not on "irreparably." What happened with the witch-hunt of American nuns shows that, though the leaders of the church are determined never to give the appearance of backing down, they do, in fact, sometimes back down. When enough heat is placed on them . . . .
As with that hideous image of the headless nude bound woman that the Vatican chose to illustrate its conference about women this past February, in the case of the attack on American nuns, there was such a hue and cry, such widespread outrage, that the men managing the Catholic theater have eventually had to step back, albeit in a theatrical way that continues to pretend that they never change their minds and cannot possibly do so, since the well-being of the church depends on their (pretend) fidelity to how things have always been.
And so, of course, I don't in the least agree with Michael Sean Winters's judgment in National Catholic Reporter that the San Francisco ad is a "mistake." But, then, I've made no secret of the fact that I seldom agree with the powerful centrists in the Catholic media and academy who never fail to find it possible to bend over backwards to defend indefensible figures and ideas of the hard political and religious right, even as they crack their whips in the direction of their fellow Catholics to the left of the "center," trying to keep them in line and, failing that, to read them out of the church altogether.
These centrists, who had great power during the Reagan-John Paul II period of history, are fast becoming relics as the tide of history moves around them and their self-serving game of pretend objectivity, as they define what is and shall remain the center, and who is and shall be outside the conversation that makes the center. History does have a way of doing that, you know, that tide-moving-around-obsolete-obstacles thing.