Symbol — the pope speaking to the bishops gathered in Philadelphia recently:
The crimes and sins of sexual abuse of minors cannot be kept secret any longer. I commit myself to the zealous watchfulness of the church to protect minors, and I promise that all those responsible will be held accountable.
Francis has made masterful use of symbolic gestures. By paying his own hotel bill, carrying his own luggage, making impromptu cold calls, and washing the feet of Muslim women, Francis has won the hearts of millions.
But has he defrocked, demoted, disciplined, or even denounced one bishop who hid predators or concealed crimes or endangered kids? Nope. Not one . . . .
In many ways, he’s followed the symbolism-over-substance approach of Cardinal Sean O’Malley.
(And so one has to conclude that the symbolism-over-substance strategy is a deliberate one, one that top Catholic hierarchical figures have devised in consultation with each other and probably with skilled image-management consultants as a winning political strategy at this point in history to keep substantive change at bay while manipulating images that appeal to those of us simple enough to buy the images in lieu of substance.)
In matters of child sexual abuse, Pope Francis has no constitution, no Congress, no Senate and no Supreme Court that could restrain him from changing canon law. He has no obligation even to consult anyone. He is the last of the absolute monarchs.
He can take out his pen at breakfast, and write on his napkin an instruction to abolish the pontifical secret in cases of child sexual abuse and to order mandatory reporting everywhere. He can instruct it to be translated into Latin and to have it published on the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. It then becomes canon law.
On Jan. 21, 2014, after the United Nations hearings, Thomas C. Fox, the publisher of this paper, wrote that Pope Francis "does not understand the full magnitude of the related sex abuse issues, or, if he does, is yet unwilling or incapable of responding to it."
One can only hope that Pope Francis means what he says in his address in Philadelphia, but up to the present time, there is a strange disconnect between what he says and what he, personally, has done. Cardinal Francis George wrote in an article in 2003 that if you want to change a damaging culture, you first have to change the laws which embody it. The buck for maintaining secrecy over the sexual abuse of children within the church truly stops with Pope Francis.
Symbolism-over-substance is really about enshrouding the center, the tight, hermetically sealed, tiny governing circle from which all institutional (as opposed to real) power in the Catholic church emanates. It's about keeping that center hidden from prying eyes and questions about transparency and accountability.
Above all, it's about keeping the clerical system as it now exists intact — though that system developed due to historical factors long since gone, and because it developed in time within the church and has not always been there, it can be changed. It is not essential to the foundations of the church, and the price that the whole church has been paying for keeping it intact as it now exists from Pope John Paul II forward is absolutely stunning.
It's about keeping the all-male, ostensibly celibate clerical club hermetically sealed against women, above all. It's about assuring that synods will remain him-nods.
Symbolism-over-substance works if you happen to be, say, one of the many Catholic journalists or scholars in Catholic academies enjoying unmerited heterosexual power and privilege. Then, you can natter on blithely about what marvelous things this pope is accomplishing by shfting symbols around.
No skin from your own back.
Symbolism-over-substance is fine and dandy if you're one of the pope's fellow Jesuits, called on constantly by the media, as a member of that elite club within a club, to parse papal gestures for the rest of the world. Then, you can praise to high heaven the subtle way the pope's rearranging of
deck chairs symbols is proclaiming some stunning new message to the world in a church that has always done its business in symbolic fashion.
No skin from your own back in this game.
You know whose interests symbolism-over-substance doesn't serve? Abuse survivors. Women. LGBT people. Lots of others.
Who find the skin on their backs very much engaged in games played over and on said backs. Who live in the real world where the disconnect between grand symbol and irrefrangible reality is acutely painful to bear. And to whom it's obvious that the church itself is a key player among those inflicting the pain, and that the church is actually ratcheting up the pain in the symbolic games designed to hide it and pretend that it has vanished in the church of kinder, gentler discrimination.
(I'm very grateful to Stephanie Krehbiel for pointing me to Dave O'Regan's article in her recent outstanding op-ed piece in The Mennonite.)