Friday, February 19, 2016

In the News: The Pope, the Donald, the Gospel, Walls and Bridges, Contraceptives — and, Though Overlooked in Media Reports, Bishops Who Transfer Pedophile Priests

Among the several remarks made by Pope Francis on his flight back from Mexico to Rome Wednesday night, the one remark that is getting little media coverage but may be most important of all is the following:

A bishop who moves a priest to another parish when a case of pedophilia is discovered is an irresponsible man, and the best thing he can do is to present his resignation.

For this citation, I'm relying on Barbie Latza Nadeau's report in Daily Beast, which links to a Wall Street Journal article by Francis X. Rocca that's behind a paywall. I don't subscribe to WSJ, needless to say.

When I google Pope Francis's statement as reported by Nadeau, I find — and this is interesting, isn't it? — that it's simply not being reported in any news accounts of what Pope Francis said to reporters as he flew back from Rome. If he did, indeed, make this statement, then it's an unambiguous statement by the pope himself that bishops who move priests who have abused minors to new locations are "irresponsible" and should resign.

But, of course, if that statement is to have teeth, then the Vatican needs to get cracking right away and do everything it can to assure that such bishops do resign. Which would make for a huge number of episcopal sees for the Vatican to fill down the road from the crop of resignations . . . .

Will Pope Francis now move, for instance, to have Bishop Juan Barros deposed from his position as bishop of Osorno, Chile? And what of Bishop Arulappan Amalraj of Ootacamund, India? For that matter, what of the two-thirds of U.S. Catholic bishops that the Dallas Morning News found in June 2002 had permitted priests accused of molesting minors to continue in ministry? A majority of those men are still living. Some of them — including one I know personally, to whom I wrote to express my dismay when I saw his name in that list, who wrote me back a hot letter telling me I was "disrespectful" to chide him — have now been raised from bishop to archbishop.

I do think that what Pope Francis is quoted to have said above is extremely important. I also think that people will quite naturally dismiss these words as empty when they are not backed by action on the part of the Vatican to make them more than words. In the view of many of us, from 2002 until today, such action has been egregiously wanting on the part of the top officials of the Catholic church.

I won't wade into the muck of the controversy regarding what Pope Francis said about Donald Trump. As Lawrence Downes notes today in New York Times, and as James Carroll points out for the New Yorker, the gospels, the teaching of Jesus, the weight of biblical testimony, are clearly on the side of Pope Francis in this tempest in a teapot. But as Laura Turner, Steve Benen, Hollis Phelps (and no doubt many others) are noting, Pope Francis's pointed statement about building bridges and not walls will only help the Donald with his fervent white evangelical fan base in places like South Carolina, a base never inclined to listen respectfully to anything a pope says unless it's an attack on queer folks or women wanting access to contraception or abortion.

And it's not merely white evangelicals: when we've reached a place in American political life in which someone like Donald Trump is thinkable, we've gotten there by the collusion of many different people, from U.S. Catholic bishops assisting the Republican party to inflame the racial animosities of working-class white Catholic voters, to mainstream media types pandering to the hard right, to "establishment" Republicans pretending that they stand aloof from the race-baiting and immigrant-bashing that has carried the party ever since Nixon. The Francis-Donald fracas will only help Trump in many quarters outside the white evangelical South — because of the kind of people we've chosen to become in the U.S., under the tutelage of many "leaders" religious and otherwise who should long since have known better.

Here's Peter Dreier at Alternet on what we've become — on the mirror Trump will hold up to the whole nation, if he's the GOP presidential candidate:

If he wins the GOP nomination, he would have a huge megaphone to give legitimacy to all the worst aspects of American culture and society, including racism, sexism, nativism, xenophobia, vulgar nastiness, indifference to policy nuances, and ignorance of basic economic and budget realities. His very presence as the GOP standard-bearer would poison the national political culture. He would provoke hatred -- perhaps even physical violence -- against Muslims, Mexican immigrants, and women.

There's also a lot of muck to wade through regarding the pope's comments about the use of contraception to avoid pregnancy in situations like the Zika outbreak in Latin America. What it's being reported he said (this is Joshua McElwee at National Catholic Reporter) is the following: having stated bluntly that abortion is not the lesser of two evils but is absolutely evil, he then stated, 

The great Paul VI in a difficult situation in Africa permitted sisters to use contraception for cases of rape.

And he added (again contrasting contraceptive use with abortion),

Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, like in that which I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.

Conservative Catholics are already very busy at Catholic blog sites seeking to spin what the pope said as liberal media spin in which the pope is being misreported: he didn't say what they're saying he said; he wasn't addressing the Zika epidemic, etc. And as usual, centrist Catholics who enjoy heterosexual power and privilege and have never had to fear ostracism or being fired because of their use of contraceptives are busy assisting the Catholic right with the spin, as they maintain that what the pope said is no big deal and is not unprecedented (see, for instance, this thread of responses to Paul Moses on the pope and Trump at Commonweal today), or as they maintain that what Pope Francis said is entirely traditional (John Allen to NPR, Charles Camosy for Religion News Service).

My take on all of this: of course Catholic commentators who have long enjoyed heterosexual (and male) power and privilege are not going to see what Pope Francis said about contraceptive use in the context of the Zika epidemic as any big deal. As I've noted, these folks have not had to worry at all about being excluded from Catholic communion and losing their jobs because they either use contraceptives in their own heterosexual marital lives or think the use of contraceptives by other heterosexually married people is not a big moral deal.

And of course they're going to be inclined to downplay what the pope said about the legitimiacy of contraceptive use in some situations to avoid a greater evil, when they know that any discussion of the possibility that genital sexual activity might be legitimate for reasons other than procreation will then open the door to questions about why it's permissible for heterosexual married couples to use contraceptives and therefore thwart the procreative intent of sexual acts, when it's not permitted for gay people — ever, in any relationships included marital ones — to engage in sexual activity. Ever. For any purpose at all.

I find Jon Green, a non-Catholic (he's Jewish) gay commentator, much more convincing on the significance of Pope Francis's remark in response to questions about whether it might be legitimate for people to use contraception to avoid pregnancy in face of the Zika crisis: he writes

Pope Francis's comments about Trump have almost completely drowned out the actually important thing he said today. While we’re all rubbernecking at the rhetorical boxing match taking place between Donald Trump and the Vicar of Christ on Earth, the leader of the Catholic faith made a huge admission: that artificial contraception is acceptable for Catholics to use in the context of the Zika outbreak in Latin America. . . . 
That's a huge deal — and a reversal from a Vatican announcement last week insisting that contraception was not an acceptable precaution to take against contracting the virus. By confirming that outright celibacy isn't the only option for the millions of Catholic women who live in the countries most affected by the Zika outbreak, Pope Francis has conceded that some things really are worse than condoms. It's a major and unusual step for a Pope to take, but it's a welcome one. 
Now, about that whole HIV epidemic

It's an open secret that a majority of heterosexually married Catholics in the developed sector of the world use contraceptives. It's an open secret that a majority of Catholics reject magisterial teaching about contraception. The pope knows this, bishops know this, priests know this — and they do not intend to fight against lay Catholic disdain for this magisterial teaching, because they know that such a battle would be a losing battle.

Though, to their great shame, the U.S. Catholic bishops and their centrist cheerleaders in the Catholic media in the U.S. have been perfectly willing to play the let's-pretend game about contraception in order to attack the Obama administration . . . . 

I read Pope Francis's comment as a tacit recognition that heterosexual Catholics use contraceptives and approve of their use — and therefore why on earth would church leaders take the position that contraceptives might not be used to prevent pregnancy in an epidemic in which women who bear a child have a strong chance of bearing a seriously malformed child? And I read the shoulder-shrugging of many heterosexual Catholics about what the pope has just said as a further tacit admission that (pace the USCCB and its centrist Catholic media cheerleaders) the battle against contraceptive use is over and done with and shouldn't be fought again.

But what I don't hear in either tacit admission is the next logical — the next decent and fair and just  — step in the argument: this is that, if contraceptive use is permissible for a huge majority of heterosexual married Catholics because marital sexuality is about something in addition to bearing children, then the condemnation of homosexual relationships on the ground that homosexual sexual activity cannot be procreative is unconvincing and unjust, and needs to be reconsidered.

(Please see the important response of abuse survivor Megan Peterson to Pope Francis's statement that bishops who place priests who have abused minors back in ministry are irresponsible and should resign.)

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