Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Christina Keneally on Bishop Robinson Before Australian Royal Commission: The Difference Silence Makes

As Christina Keneally has reported for The Guardian, in his testimony before the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson minced no words. He excoriated the silence of the powerful pope John Paul II, and said that Pope Francis has not provided "real leadership" regarding child sexual abuse in the Catholic church. 

Keneally's summary of Robinson's testimony:

When the Australian government becomes aware of the extent of child sexual abuse in institutions, it holds a royal commission with open hearings.   
When the leadership of the Catholic church becomes aware of the extent of child sexual abuse, it designs secretive processes to protect the institution and spins to its priests that there are worse sins than sexually abusing children, such as abortion or homicide.

Unfortunately, people like the influential Catholic journalist Michael Sean Winters, who writes for National Catholic Reporter and who loves to sort Catholics into rigid, neatly defined sets of left and right and sheep and goats, still don't get the problem. These influential spokespeople for the Catholic center, who want to exercise their influence by reading many fellow Catholics (especially those to the left of center) out of their definition of Catholicism and out of the conversation defining Catholic identity, keep offering us as bona fide Catholicism a strange mix of papal adulation (of papolatry, to be precise) and biblical-catechetical fundamentalism that turns biblical formulas, and the very words used in them, into sacred shibboleths whose meaning and cultural determination theologians are forbidden to investigate.

Michael never met a pope he didn't like, and so, over the course of the reigns of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, he has, by turns, praised each of these popes to the skies, and defended each of them against all criticism, even as their styles and agendas conflict with each other. All are right, and the duty of good Catholics is to listen and obey, not think, criticize, and seek to engage religious authority figures in dialogue.

They have to be right, because Catholicism is the religion centered around a pope and what he says. Though the very idea of the papacy is historically developed and historically conditioned, and throughout much of Catholic history, the definition of Catholic faith did not, in fact, revolve around the person of the pope and his words . . . .

Just as it has not revolved around the idea that biblical formulations — the precise words of the scriptures — are somehow set in stone in the way that biblical literalists imagine them to be, and theological investigation of the meaning and cultural determination of those words is taboo . . . . And as it has not revolved around the notion that theology should be forbidden to use any intellectual tool at its disposal, from philosophy in the patristic period and subsequent ages to the social sciences at our current moment of history, as it seeks to parse the meaning of bible and tradition and formulate that meaning in respectful interchange with contemporary culture . . . .

Michael Sean Winters's papolatrous, fundamentalist Catholicism, with all the preceding emphases, is on full display again in a recent essay he wrote for NCR savaging the Catholic left. That essay is so theologically weak and confused that it hardly deserves a response. From its unwarranted, astonishing attack on the use of the social sciences as a hermeneutical tool by theologians, to its biblical fundamentalism (The bible says "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," so what's all this with attempts to understand the meaning of that formula?), to its strange, quasi-mystical presupposition that the biological facticity of male and female translates into an imperative for male-female behavior, especially in the polity of the Catholic church where women are excluded from any governing power because they do not have penises and do have vaginas, to its insulting and unwarranted conclusion that the "Catholic Left" no longer wrestles with Catholic teaching (as formulated by one pope after another and by Michael Sean Winters), Winters simply does not get it.

He doesn't get the depth of people's alienation. He doesn't get why people are walking away in droves from his version of "authentic" Catholicism (the only kind he'll permit to have the title "Catholic" — because he says so). 

Michael Sean Winters appears oblivious to the fact that people are leaving the Catholic church in record numbers today not because they're rejecting its teaching, but because that teaching has been presented to them in such an eccentric, atraditional way that they have no option except to reject it as it's now formulated, if they want to be true to what they've been taught by the church itself to value as the core of its teaching. Especially when the kind of Catholic teaching that folks like Michael want to tag "authentic" arrives at our doorstep accompanied by total silence — from the very popes Michael wants us to imagine as the turning point of our Catholic faith — about the abuse of Catholic children by Catholic priests . . . .

And excluding all these Catholics from the conversation making Catholic identity, as Michael Sean Winters wants to do if they don't toe the papal line and the line of biblical-catechetical fundamentalism, does not solve this problem. It deepens it.

This approach to defining Catholic identity betrays — in the grossest way possible — the very thing it claims to be defending.

The photo of Kristina Keneally is by Brian Hammer, who has uploaded it to Wikimedia Commons for sharing.

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