Monday, December 31, 2018

Michael Sean Winters Asks, "Can the Church Round the Corner in 2019?": My Response

"Can the church round the corner in 2019?" Michael Sean Winters asks in an end-of-year reflection published today. I consider that question, and have to admit: I find my imagination faltering.

What, precisely, might it mean to say that the Catholic church has "rounded a corner"? What could we hope for, concretely, in 2019 that would represent the "rounding of a corner" by the Catholic church? I find it difficult to imagine any such occurrence not because my imagination of what the church might or should be is stunted — it's not — but because my hopes for any concrete steps by the leaders of the Catholic church to fulfill that imagination are so muted that they're practically non-existent.

I find it impossible, frankly, to imagine the leaders of the Catholic church doing anything but what they have been doing for years now: abusing power; deceiving the public and their own flocks about their abuse of power; covering up criminal activity on the part of priests and fellow hierarchs; finding someone — notably queer human beings and women — to scapegoat; throwing their weight behind the worst, most ethically compromised political leaders imaginable; spending millions to attack LGBTQ rights and women's rights; buying into and propagating vile anti-science in the fields of gender studies and human sexuality; squashing theological inquiry and reforms mandated by the second Vatican Council.

There's not much basis for real hope regarding that corner-turning process in 2019, is there? Not if we're honest….

From a spiritual vantage point, hope resides in the totally unexpected, which turns present arrangements upside down — and that kind of hopeful vision for the future, I have no trouble buying. But to the extent that hope resides in imagining that men who have long behaved in the ways I describe in the third paragaph above will suddenly, somehow, see the light in 2019: I find that kind of hope difficult to muster. I have no imagination of a better church to offer based on the face of the church that Catholic leaders have shown to us for years now, and on who those leaders are.*

The church can turn a corner only by suddenly firing an entire generation of leaders and choosing an entirely different set of leaders. And when that entire generation of leaders are the problem, then how are that firing process and leadership re-envisaging process possibly to take place?

My inability to imagine any concrete steps that church leaders might conceivably take to assist the church in turning a corner depends, I freely admit, on my own situation within the Catholic world and its conversations. That situation is different from Michael Sean Winters' situation, and from the situation of other lay leaders of American Catholicism in its journalistic sphere and academy. Unlike Michael Sean Winters, I have no powerful connections, and my voice counts for nothing. No one has contacted me to ask that I write an end-of-year reflection on what the Catholic church might do to turn corners in 2019, nor will anyone dream of doing that.

And there — right there — is a huge part of the problem of why the Catholic church can't turn a corner, isn't it? Especially in the U.S. Catholic church, which is the focus of Winters' end-of-year essay…. Not many of us have ever been invited inside the inner, governing, controlling, defining circles, welcomed, our opinions asked.

The U.S. Catholic church is not in the least a viable alternative to the rutheless capitalistic system that dominates American culture, a system in which there are winners (a few) and losers (a many), and the few winners don't bother themselves about the many losers because they have long accepted the lie that the system operates according to "natural" laws that reward the virtuous, good, and hard-working and punish the immoral and lazy. 

The same ethic of easy exclusion and rabid individualism that drives American culture drives American Catholicism, including its leaders and intellectual class, who have long shrugged their shoulders at the increasing numbers of us who are outside the doors looking in — easy exclusion and rabid individualism which assume that we have earned our places on the outside and don't deserve a hearing. Which assume that we have nothing of value to offer, since how would we have ended up outside if we did have something of value to offer…. Which assume that their lives and their Catholic community are not radically diminished because they have let us be shoved to the margins or have done the shoving themselves….

In such a church, how is it possible to give birth to a new, redemptive imagination of Catholicism? I'd propose that it's simply not possible. It's not possible to imagine what cannot be imagined when we have so radically stunted our imaginations that imagination of the new and different is not even part of our worldview, as we talk about the institution's "turning a corner."

Imagination is where it all begins, after all. It begins with Jesus' imagining a world turned upside down in which the last are first and the first are last, the poor are blessed and the rich sent empty away — a world in which all finally count. The world Jesus imagines is not a world in which heterosexual white men get the choice seats and everyone else waits until invited to the table — if that ever happens at all.

It's a world in which the non-white, the queer, the female are seated first. 

The world Jesus imagines is not the world that Donald Trump or Stephen Miller or Steve Bannon or Ann Coulter propose to us for our imagination. Nor is it the world that right-wing Catholics in solidarity with these people want us to imagine. Nor is it the world of liberal Catholics cozily content with the status quo. 

It's an upside-down world in which the single most life-giving, redemptive thing the Catholic church could do in 2019 to turn a corner would be to fire all of its current leaders and open the door to a new influx of leaders — who would come from the margins of church and society for a change.

As Jesus did. As Jesus does.

I can definitely imagine that upside-down church and world. What I cannot imagine, God help me, is the current leaders of the Catholic church taking even one tiny step in its direction, so that talk about "turning corners" in 2019 sounds to me like so much smoke and mirrors.

* Consider the testimony of Christine Pedotti, who recently told Catholic leaders the following:

Maintenant, Messieurs les responsables de l'Église catholique, l'heure est grave ; vous avez accusé la 'modernité', et aujourd'hui la postmodernité, d'être la cause de la perte d'influence du catholicisme. Vos prédécesseurs avaient blâmé le monde et son aspiration à la liberté, à l'émancipation, vilipendé la technique et le progrès matériel, soupçonné la science de vouloir remplacer Dieu. Mais aujourd'hui, c'est vous qui êtes la cause de la chute, vous ne pouvez vous en prendre qu'à vous-mêmes.  
Le catholicisme tel que nous le connaissons aujourd'hui est entièrement appuyé sur son clergé, prêtres et évêques. Et c'est leur fragilité qui menace sa survie. Le pape François pointe le 'cléricalisme'. Mais le cléricalisme, Messieurs, c'est vous ! Vous qui avez confisqué tous les rôles, père, mère, maîtres, savants. Vous savez tout, vous dirigez tout, vous décidez tout. Voyez le résultat ! Vous avez failli, dissimulé, menti, blessé, et pire que tout, vous ne vous en êtes pas rendu compte.

My quick down and dirty translation of the preceding passages:

So now, you gentlemen responsible for running the Catholic church, the situation confronting you is grave: you have accused "modernity," and today postmodernity, as the cause of the waning influence of Catholicism. Your predecessors had blamed the world and its aspirations to liberty and emancipation from servitude, vilifying material progress and the technique required to make progress, casting suspicion on science as wanting to replace God. But today, it's you who are the cause of the downfall of the church: you can blame no one except yourselves.  
Catholicism as we know it today is entirely hinged on the clerical system, on priests and bishops. And it's the fragility of that system that threatens the church's survival. Pope Francis points to "clericalism." But clericalism, Messieurs: YOU are clericalism! You know it all, you control everything, you call all the shots. Look at the results! You've bankrupted the institution, prevaricated, lied, hurt people, and worse than all, you have not faced your own responsibility for all of this. 

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