Monday, February 8, 2016

Peter Saunders, Member of Vatican Abuse Commission, Silenced, and I Finish Reading Diarmaid MacCulloch's Silence: A Christian History: Making the Connections

Silences such as Christian involvement in child abuse, anti-Semitism, slave-owning, demand constant rupture. On such noise does the health of Christian society depend. 
~ Diarmaid MacCulloch, Silence: A Christian History (NY: Penguin, 2013), p. 216.

Some things appear not to change, don't they? Just as I had finished reading Diarmaid MacCulloch's Silence, news broke that abuse survivor and member of the Vatican commission on abuse Peter Saunders had been pushed off the commission — apparently, because he has been too outspoken. As Paddy Agnew reports for The Irish Times, Saunders has recently been vocally critical of Pope Francis for reneging on a promise to attend meetings of the commission and address commission members' questions about his handling of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church.

Last week, the film "Spotlight" was screened at the Vatican for the abuse commission. Pope Francis conspicuously did not attend the screening of the film, a "silence" widely reported by media outlets around the world. 

And because he refused to keep silent about Pope Francis's obvious (to all of us with eyes to see) unwillingness to confront the abuse crisis forthrightly and transparently, Peter Saunders has now been silenced. As Rosie Scammell and Stephanie Kirchgaessner report for The Guardian (first link above), following his sacking by members of the abuse commission, Peter Saunders told the media, 

A number of members of the commission expressed their concern that I don’t toe the line when it comes to keeping my mouth shut. I made clear I would never be part of something that was a public relations exercise. There was a feeling around the table expressed in a vote that the commission could not work with me as things stood at the moment and unless I changed.

And so, to return to my opening observation: some things appear not to change, don't they? The involvement of churches in historic sins like child abuse, anti-Semitism, or slavery demands "constant rupture," if anything is to change. It demands the noise of noisy truth-tellers who refuse to keep their mouths shut, though, as Diarmaid MacCulloch points out, such truth-tellers always pay a very high price in institutions impervious to change, including the Christian churches: as he writes,

The history of Christianity is full of things casually or deliberately forgotten, or left unsaid, in order to shape the future of a Church or Churches. Institutions religious or secular create their own silences, by exclusions and by shared assumptions, which change over time. Such silences are often at the expense of many of the people who could be thought of as actually constituting the Church; institutional needs outweigh individual needs. Some are conscious silences of shame and fear at the institution of the Church not living up to its own standards of truth and compassion; and there has often been a particular pain meted out to those who make the silences end. Life is rarely comfortable for the little boy who says that the emperor has no clothes (p. 191).

MacCulloch focuses on those three historic sins in which there is long involvement of the Christian churches — the sexual abuse of children (MacCulloch puts the spotlight on the Roman Catholic church here), anti-Semitism, and slavery — as case studies of how a few outspoken holy truth-tellers can, finally and always at great cost to themselves, make a difference, when the majority of their fellow Christians intend to preserve their silence. As he points out, in the case of slavery, it is only in less than three of twenty Christian centuries that the churches have been able to say that slavery is always evil in all circumstances, full stop (p. 214). The weight of Christian history and tradition are on the side of  slavery, which was practiced by Christians for over 1700 years of Christian history, taken for granted by Christians, even blessed by Christians, in part because, as MacCulloch also notes, slavery is taken for granted in the bible itself (p. 213).

It took courage for a few doughty Christians to stand against such a weight of history and tradition, and begin to speak out against slavery as an immoral practice, albeit a taken-for-granted one. Those who did dare to open their mouths were, in previous centuries, treated precisely as Peter Saunders is being treated today: they were ostracized and silenced. 

Their mouthiness was unwelcome. But as MacCulloch notes, 

It is a heartening feature of Christianity in the last 150 years that it has produced so many whistle-blowers who have drawn attention to the discreditable or misconceived features of the Christian past and present. A good deal of credit for that should go to historians, who have provided the tools for them to tell their stories and be heard (p. 225).

And so where are we today? Where are we right now, vis-a-vis these fraught questions of silence and complicity, of comfort for those who keep their lips tight shut and discomfort for those who open their mouths? This weekend, as I read discomfiting reports about what has happened to Peter Saunders, I saw, splashed all over news pages online, pictures of the corpse of Padre Pio being paraded in a glass coffin through the streets of Rome, in celebration of Pope Francis's year of mercy.

It would seem, then, that this is where we are right now: as people seeking to find and speak the truth about the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy are unmercifully silenced within the Catholic church, the focus of the church, at the highest levels of the institution, is on shlepping corpses around in glass coffins in big showcase Vatican spectacles, as if Vatican II never happened . . . 

And calling this mercy.

As I look at the photos of the coffin of Padre Pio and read about what is happening to Peter Saunders, I then scroll through more news sites and come to Melissa Eddy's recent article in the New York Times  reminding us of the news from Regensburg, where reports of abuse of boys in the cathedral choir spanning decades are now coming forth. As Eddy notes, those reports are discomfiting, because they remind us of the close ties of Pope Benedict XVI and his brother Georg Ratzinger, long the choirmaster of the Regensburger Domspatzen, to this archdiocese.

Pope Benedict, who chose the archbishop of Regensburg Gerhard Ludwig Müller to head the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Benedict himself had formerly headed, purging hundreds of outspoken truth-telling theologians from the Catholic church as head of the CDF . . . . The CDF, which oversees the handling of abuse cases in the Catholic church, and in which the Vatican abuse commission, which has just silenced Peter Saunders, is housed . . . .

As I read that dismal story, I then turn for (comic?) relief to the "liberal" Catholic publications in the U.S., and find there the same old tired voices of straight white men talking about how they just love, love, love that manliest of all sports, football, and I realize all over again: this is a club I have no interest in being a member of. Not a scintilla of awareness of how many people their macho heterosexism excludes, and not a scintilla of awareness of how much unmerited power and privilege they've been given by society at large and the Catholic church in particular as straight white men.

So where are we in the Catholic church at present? Maybe the corpses in the glass coffins will somehow bring reformation to this heterosexist boys' club that has done so much harm for so long to so many hapless people. Then again, maybe they won't. 

(My thanks again to Rachel Fitzgerald and Mark Shumway for encouraging me to read Diarmaid MacCulloch's work, including his book Silence.)

I find the graphic used at many sites online, without clear indication of its origins.

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